I can't make myself start this letter in a formal manner.
Maybe it is because I could never imagine a time where we would
have used words as simple as “Dear -----“ to address anything.
I thought of just using your name and a comma and that seemed
much more familiar. Perhaps even too familiar. I let my mind run
that thought trail to the end and found myself pretending I was
writing you in jail again and that your absence was due to the bars
that divided us instead.
Those Sunday visits through bulletproof glass, the multiple court
hearings and cigarettes in the court yard, the handcuffs and the
tears-your tears, how scared you were of jail and the way you chewed
your nails all the way down your fingertips until they bled; these images
still sometimes haunt me at night.
you stared when you were scared. I always wished I could show fear
and admit weakness and shed tears, the way that you could. I am open,
honest and raw today, because I hated myself for never being those
things when you were still here.
I sing on stage today, because I was terrified of never being good enough
to be on one with you. Some things I can never replace, heal or erase,
but I can recreate and I have, and I will. I think you would enjoy my company
these days, brother. And how I hate that you are not able to.
I search your name on YouTube and more and more people are covering your
songs. The fact that you were never able to see the ripple that you sent through
all of us when you left, is the irony of death I suppose. Such a finality to such a
powerful person and yet such an infinite energy that flows from the words that
you left behind.
I don't think I will ever forgive the circumstance that took you
from me, and that circumstance was not the one you breathed your last breath in.
Way back farther than that violent fire that stole your voice; before jail and rehabs
across the states, all the way back to when you were in the next room and I was
still a stranger to you.
Growing up is always difficult. Most everyone has a story to tell and most aren't pretty.
Some are so daunting that the only way to share them, is to those who can read our
unspoken stories in our eyes. You were that person that both carried such a story and
also read the eyes of those who mutually suffered. Though our own traumas prevented
us from ever bridging the gap to speak about them to each other, I could look across a
room at you and not only know that you knew, but also that you understood
I remember listening to you learn to play the guitar to Chet Atkins LP’s that we checked
out at the library. The way that tiny little guitar of dad’s bore his teeth marks on top of
the body always amused you. I guess it amused us all. Dad pulled that old thing out the
other day and played it for a few minutes. The teeth marks were what I recognized
immediately after 23 years of having not seen it. Your hard hat is still lying in his hallway
floor where you left it almost seven years ago. Sometimes I wonder if he will ever move it,
or if that will be something that I will end up doing whenever he has left us as well.
The last time I saw you, you were angry. Not necessarily with me particularly, but pieces
of the agitation were tossed in my direction. Your eyes stayed squinted that entire day and
your brows never softened once. I am sorry that you were conned into a family moving day
to help me unload a Budget Rental Truck, when I was so sick. I also am sorry that you felt
obligated to be at a family dinner; that always overwhelmed you. If I knew that I would
never see you again I don't know exactly how I would have spent that evening with you,
but it certainly wouldn't have ended with me looking at our brother and saying that I didn't
know if I had ever been so relieved to see you leave before. We wouldn't have laughed
about that and said that hopefully you went somewhere and calmed the hell down. I bet
I would have even helped you figure out the radio in my car that you were riding home in.
I will never forget the way the tail lights of that car looked as you and dad pulled out of
mom’s driveway on Winter Solstice in 2010. You were here with us for seven full days
after that, but I didn't see your face again until it was vacant and beneath a singed beard
Your love is who told me you were gone. You would have wanted it to be that way. As
much as it unnerved you to think that we may ever possibly flirt with one another, you
knew that we would always take care of each other and no matter how many years passed
by without you, we would die for one another. Perhaps we could even keep each other from
losing it completely when we said goodbye to you. I let mom and dad and our brother know
that we had lost you.
To this day, I don't know which one was the hardest to do. I can still recall every second
of each exchange. You cannot ever be prepared to make those phone calls. Ever.
Your daughter looks like a carbon copy of me at her age. I wish that I could tell you that
I knew what her favorite color was, or that we have the best weekends when she visits.
I would love to tell you what her favorite song is, or about trips that I have taken her on.
I do not have those things to tell you. The times that I have been around her however,
I stand in awe of your expressions and eyes pouring out of her. It isn't something that I
thought I would ever see again when you left.
Our daughters are close and love each other. If nothing else ever grows from the entire
situation, that in itself would make you happy. It makes me happy. I know that you were
terrified of being a parent and I also understand why. Those same reasons were vomited
into an alleyway the day I realized that I was becoming one. You were going to stay with
me on the weekends that you had your daughter. I actually looked forward to that added
stressor because I knew that in the end that little girl would be my whole world.
My daughter was four and a half when yours was born. I imagined those ridiculous family
get togethers that you despised, and smiled at the thought of our children running around
the way you and I used to pretend that we would someday. She will be seven in October
and my daughter is eleven now. She will be here tonight. At my house. For the first time
in her life, she will wake up in her aunt’s home and have no idea how many times she was
supposed to have already done that. Her eyes are captivating like yours were but she
doesn't know that.
The drugs that stole your spirited core and left a riddled, broken boy, also allowed
you to process the stories in your head. I know why you needed synthetics to feel and
also not to feel, when needed as well. I understand why you couldn't be close to me and
why we have very few stories that are shared. I haven't forgotten any of yours either.
I hated when you would meet my eyes after that board was used across your back.
Though we all knew the rules, we also all knew that each person involved felt a very
different form of pain in each occurrence. I thought you were the strongest person in
the world and I wanted to be just like you. Even after you were kicked out at seventeen
years old and I had no idea where you were, I still felt you. Your words and voice played
over and over in my head and goddamn if they still don't.
Sitting in the bars at thirteen years old, I heard you scream your pain through the saddest
lyrics I had ever heard in my life. I felt every single line and wanted everyone to hear your
songs so they would know how I felt too. You always said it best. My friends adored you too.
We all played your music and tried to make it to each of your shows.
I remember holding you in my arms while you broke down and grieved your own
life in the most innocent and infantile manner I had ever seen from a 28 year old.
I remember watching you spit and shake and grind your teeth and body after too
much cocaine when you were 27. I recall driving to Johnson City to Blankenship
Pharmacy at 3am, to look for the phone booth you had called me from an hour earlier.
All I knew was that you didn't have shoes on, you were drunk and had tried to leap
off a counter onto the butcher knife, that you still had in your hands when you called me
crying. I remember taking you home with to detox, several times. Frisbee. Waffle
House adventures. You teaching me how to drink gas station beer. Bare feet.
Songs written on a twin bed in the projects. All the times I helped you with your dates
and/or their children. Those times that you would get tears in your eyes and tell me
what a good person that I was and what a good sister I was and how you didn't understand
how I always kept everything together.
I wanted to tell you that I didn't. I wanted to tell you that I was just as fucked up as
you, but I never did. You didn't know how many nights I fell asleep drunk, alone.
You never knew how many times I gave up. You also never knew that I forgave you,
and I didn't know you even remembered until after you were gone and your friend told
me about your guilt. I don't know why we never sat down and talked and now I would
go through every bit of again just to be able to backtrack enough for you to know that
it was ok and you were ok.
Your house that day was beyond wretched. Enough snow on the ground to make
a muddy mess out of every where all your friends and fans had traipsed. Family
wasn't there that day, not the blood related ones. They stood across the street and
watched your people grieve and scream, as the smoke still drifted off the roof. I didn't
get to the house until after dark. The condemned sign on the door and black soot on
everything was sickening. They let us go in and get what was left of your stuff and I
can still close my eyes and smell that horrible poison that killed you. Most of the structure
of the house was saved and I know you would be happy to know that your favorite place
that you ever lived has finally been restored and another beautiful person now resides there.
I couldn't tell you how many times I have sat on the porch of that house over the last
six and a half years and pictured every second of your last morning. Were you scared
when you realized that she wasn't on the couch? Did you try to call out for her or for help?
Was Lucy able to at least hear you and were you two able to feel each other and know you
were not dying alone? Did you even know that Lucy didn't make it either? Both of
your beautiful faces hang in frames at Machiavelli’s now. Brian’s as well, we lost him
last year and somehow the universe gave me the ironic duty to not only be the one to
find him dead in his home, but to also be the one to make another one of those phone calls.
Telling my sister that she had lost the second love of her life was surreal and tragic in a
way that no one should understand. But, I do.
Death- the big scary monster that we hear about our entire lives and yet have no way
to ever begin to fathom what it really is. No way for us to even dread such a thing
that we can't describe or depict in any manner until it crawls up from the floor and
grabs us by the throat.
I buried my grandma, my father- figure and my baby cousin all before I turned eighteen
years old. None of which prepared me to what I would feel that morning in Cleveland,
You were at a Jill Andrews show at a house party the night before the fire.
I was staying the first night in my new apartment that you'd helped me move into
seven days prior. I was very ill, attempting to dissolve an unhealthy relationship and
stumbling through the remnants of a pretty deep depression that had attempted to
smother me yet again.
I recall seeing you update your status on Facebook to “Amazingness” and smiling,
knowing that you were listening to Jill and how jealous I was. I remember picking up
my phone to text you and something distracting me. To the best of my knowledge,
we never talked that night. I silenced my phone before bed because I was hoping to
sleep in that morning.
I didn't though, I woke several times and even heard my phone vibrating at some point.
When I saw that I had three missed calls and two texts from Mitz, my tongue fell to
the back of my throat. I didn't listen to the voicemail until I had made it all the way past
my four year old at her desk, my friend and her sixteen year old in the living room, and
out the front door. I wanted to be somewhere alone and was pretty certain that I needed
to be sitting down when I heard that message.
Her voice was quaking and stretched as she said, “It's your sister, and I need you to
call me back. I am having a hard time swallowing the news that I have just heard.”
Her texts basically stated the same. My thoughts spun out of control. Overdose.
Suicide. Car accident. Arrested. All the scenarios were shot through my thoughts
like epinephrine to my heart as it sped up. Sweat begin to wet my forehead as I called
her back. She didn't say hello, she just asked me if I was sitting down and when I
confirmed she said that there was a fire at Greystone. She said there were two casualties
and one was a female and one was the middle aged male resident of the upstairs apartment.
32 can't be middle aged, right? She gave me the phone number and name of a detective
to contact. I numbly called and introduced myself by name. They immediately passed
me off to the officer on the case. They knew who I was. He told me that they needed
someone to come in and make a positive ID on the body. You immediately became a
body. A victim. A case number. I asked again if they knew it was you. They told me
that they had someone they wanted me to talk to and put Jess on the phone. She was
too hysterical to tell me much, but her terror and panic told me enough. The detective
again told me that they had the male resident of the upstairs apartment at 804 Cumberland,
and needed a next of kin to come down.
I hung up and called your love back. I couldn't call our parents yet. I just couldn't.
After confirming her worst fear, I again hung up and sat on those stairs outside my
apartment, holding the heaviest truth I had ever felt, like the biggest secret I hoped
I would never know. My neighbors passed me in the breezeway and spoke. I wanted to
scream at them, “don't you dare fucking act like life is still happening, don't pretend
that everything I ever knew to be, isn't gone. do not act like my brother isn't dead.”
I instead told them good morning and tried to figure out if my intestines were truly
tying themselves in knots as I sat there. Dead. My oldest brother was dead. It was
not quite ten AMand I had to call someone and tell them. I couldn't sit there knowing
you were gone alone, any more. I called dad.
I had to stop writing this and take a break. I still cannot remember our parents during
this day without turning inside out. I called dad. He answered in the middle of his
morning routine and muttered something about the phone ringing off the wall.
I asked if he had listened to any of the messages left yet and he told me that he was
still trying to get ready for the day and get out the door. I told him to sit down and that
I had to tell him awful news. I told him exactly what had been told to me, like I was
reading a script and he replied in much the same way. As he was hanging up to head
out to identify your body, I heard the detective knocking on that old trailer door.
I thank the universe daily that I made that call when I did and that our father at least
heard that you were gone, from me.
I called our brother incessantly, but as you know, if he's asleep, it's impossible to
wake him. Remember when we used to say that we hoped he was never in a fire
because he wouldn't wake to the fire alarm? Yeah, we don't say that anymore. It
was two in the afternoon before I was able to get ahold of him. In the meantime,
I decided to drive to mom’s to tell her. The friend that was driving me made the
call to give them a heads up and I ended up having to tell her on the phone as well.
When I did get there, I heard her. Her grief that day is forever engrained into my brain.
When our brother called me back, he asked what was going on because he too had
so many missed calls and messages and figured he should call me first. I was not as
diplomatic with him. My voice shook. I vomited. He was unable to speak and decided
to hang up, process and talk to me after the shock wore off enough to breathe. I do not
know why I was asked to be the one to tell each of our family members the devastation,
but I also am grateful that they didn't hear about it any other way.
We saw you before they cremated your body. Dad and the brother didn't want to,
but I couldn't let mom go in there alone. I will never forget staring at your face and
waiting for it to flinch. Almost as angry that I even expected it to, as I was that it
never would again.
They had your hair combed back and you would have been terribly
bothered by how much it displayed your receding hairline. I cut curls from the back
of your head and was almost sure you would sit up any second and ask me what the
hell I was doing. Mom wanted to touch your skin and pulled the sheet back from your
chest. I don't think she thought about the autopsy they had performed, but I will never
forget that horrifying image. I vomited in the parking lot that day and knew that a part
of my soul was gone and I would never, ever get it back.
It took them a few days to complete the cremation and prepare your ashes. We picked
them up in a little, gray container that our mother carried in her lap all the way to
the river from the funeral home. The most defining moment in my existence was the
moment that I took a shot glass full of your remains, and poured them into your favorite
I walked away that day, half dead and half unwilling to ever be anything more.
After losing you, I moved out of that haunted apartment and went back home. I couldn't
stop taking the pills to drown my agony, and my agony was too painful to be around a
five year old, so I self medicated. I moved to the Midwest for five years and straightened
myself out. I worked my way up from minimum wage to a salary case manager position
for the county out there. I helped so many juveniles and healed myself a whole lot during.
It was the best thing that I ever did for myself or my child, and it is still hard for me to
wrap my head around the entire segment of my life, occurring without your existence.
I moved back home last year and have created a little world to take root in. I finally
finished my Associate of Science degree and have a pretty stable existence. I think about
you every day. Especially now that I live in your old hometown. All the old buildings and
street corners that you lived in or on, catch my eye.
I think of all the gigs at Buc’s Pizza, DownHome, The Otter, Apex, and Numan’s
and it shreds my guts. You shouldn't have died in that house, brother. I will never
be able to express that enough. I needed you to stay here and get to know me and
get over our cursed childhood together.
You were supposed to be here to see your eleven year old niece get up in front
of over 500 people and sing a solo a capella, and absolutely wear it out with
that music in our bones. You are supposed to be here tonight, when your daughter
gets to my house, and you are supposed to help me finish this six pack and kiss me
on the forehead and call me “baby” one more time.
I will never get over losing you, but I have pledged my life to surviving no matter what
it looks like. I won't let your words die and I will never let your daughter not know them
either. I will hold her extra tight for you tonight, and I hope that when she looks at me
with those eyes of wonder, that I can but for a second, see you looking back.