On his thirtieth birthday, some time in mid-afternoon, my brother stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The coroner said he died instantly. My brother made sure of that. No more half-hearted cries for help. No more drug overdoses. No more jumping out of a Mexican police car speeding through the countryside en route to the nearest jail. This time he meant business and orchestrated his death with more precision and care than he’d managed anything else in his abbreviated life.
My mother found his body. She called the coroner and had what was left of my brother removed. (“It would have killed your father to see him like that.”) She found the name of a cleaning crew who did this kind of thing and had the mess all tidied up before my father arrived home. No more blood splatters on the wall, no bullet hole, no cigarette butts in the ashtray next to the bed. Just an empty, sterile room with little trace of the troubled man — my brother — who had killed himself earlier that day.
My feelings bounced like a ping pong ball on Red Bull. I should have saved him. I did the best I could. But that wasn’t enough. My life was beset by my own problems—a marriage gone sour, the responsibilities of single parenting, the search for myself. I didn’t have the time or the strength to focus on my brother. Besides, he’d stopped listening to me. Whatever respect he’d had for my opinions had morphed into a self-righteous, know-it-all, unmovable attitude that allowed no room for his older sister’s or anyone else’s suggestions.
And now he’d gone and killed himself, leaving me and the rest of our family to drown in a sea of raging emotions. If only I could talk to him. I’d let him know what a selfish bastard he was for leaving without so much as a warning. I’d chastise him for not getting his shit together. I’d ask him why in his last days he succeeded in overcoming his inertia and fooled everyone while carefully organizing his final shot. The muscles in my neck wrapped tight around in a strangle hold more forceful than any pro wrestler could manage. My brother had me tied up in knots, knots that no masseuse or therapist or time could untangle and soothe.
Everyone understandably recognized my parents’ grief. No one could possibly understand what my two younger siblings and I felt. We were “secondary mourners” whose pain was for the most part overlooked with most of the focus, squarely on my parents. Looking back, I get that. At the time, I felt marginalized, alone, and angry. Only a handful of well meaning people attempted to make me feel better by patting me on the back with a “Keep an upper lip” or “Things will get better. They always do.” Bullshit. My life would never be the same. How could it? My brother had been the benchmark against which I evaluated myself and my position in the hierarchy of our family. I had been his loving, comforting, protective caretaker—his older sister/mommy. When my mother had her hands full with my youngest brother and baby sister, I was there to pick up the slack. I basked in the power, influence, and adoration the surrogate mother mantle provided. The way I saw it, my brother and I were in sync like a perfectly tuned guitar. We weren’t twins. We didn’t finish each other’s sentences. But we liked the same people, shared similar interests, and were sometimes willing to break the rules.
It’s funny that after all the years, there is one memory that, more than any other, gives me some comfort.
We were standing in the narrow hallway carpeted in a burnt orange shag that connected my parents’ bedroom with the other four. The hallway, no wider than five feet, made it almost impossible for two people to pass each other without one having to turn sideways and slink by. The “children’s” wall phone with a long cord that, when stretched, barely reached my bedroom, was silent for the first time that evening.
My brother stood there, his t-shirt off, his jeans worm out after a day of school and a hard fought game of pickup football. His pale, almost hairless chest had filled out, developed. His back was covered with pimples.
I loved popping pimples and, because I had few of my own, I asked my brother if he’d let me pop a few of his.
Without hesitation, he turned around. I put my thumb on one of the biggest pustules and my pointer finger on the other side and squeezed. Puss oozed, and I was complete. Just for a moment. There were more pimples to pop, and I went about my obsession with joy.
Without my knowing, everything would ooze again, only this time with blood and guts.
Talking about death is rarely easy. Talking about a suicide is even more uncomfortable. What do you say beyond “I’m so sorry”? It’s apparently impolite and incorrect to ask the questions on everyone’s mind: How did he do it? Was he mentally ill? Did he have a drug problem? What else could have been done to prevent this? Everyone wants a reason — an explanation. It helps us begin to process such an unfathomable act, to make some sense out of the incomprehensible. What no one understood, including me, is that there’s never just one reason why someone kills himself. Sure, there may be an event that pushes a person over the edge, but, in truth, there are multiple factors. And it takes years of delving into a person’s past before making at best an educated guess as to what went wrong. That’s all it is, an educated guess.
God, the questions are endless.