Together, we cry.

Last year, at around 5:50 a.m., I heard a crash upstairs. When I awoke, I simply said, “No.”

I tried to run, but my muscles were not racing as fast as my mind– my mind was already holding my brother, how dearly I wanted to hold my brother. I made it upstairs to find my mom crouched over Zach who had fallen on the bathroom floor.

This morning, a year later, at around 5:50 a.m., I dreamt Zach and I were in an empty movie theater. The seats were dark red, and the theater was fogged in shadow with only a single beam of light piercing over our heads.  The screen showed the end to a very sad film, a movie about a boy who was about to die. The movie angles were close-ups of winces, white sheets, and curly hair. The film filled the theater with silence and last movements grabbing for just a little more of everything. This layer of screen kept us – we could only watch.

With the stillness of the boy’s body, Zach laid his head on my shoulder. I rested my cheek on his head. And together, we cried.

On this first anniversary of Zach’s death, I believe he is watching his movie, this movie recalling his death, right along with us.

He remembers the echoey phone tree relaying the message of his death, the thousands of half empty water bottles, the picked-at veggie trays, the dewey and cold tulips, and the very sunny day. He hears the year-old  “I will always love you,” “I’ll miss you,” “I wish I could have done this for you” swishing in bitter tears and quiet breaths.

And while he knows more now than ever, while he sees the picture as complete and whole— as we lost him, he lost us.

As I dry my eyes with warm sunlight and blowing fans, as I feel the salt ache on my face, for some reason I feel comfort.

Because this morning, he laid on my shoulder. Together, we cried.

We may have lost Zach inasmuch as he is out of sight, yet he is so near, filling spaces with a presence that spreads far beyond memory and mourning. Why else would I have cried out to the empty passenger seat  “Zach, I just want you back here”? Why else would I have said, “I miss you” to the air whipping past my car window?

To the Second String

Last week, my husband had his 23rd birthday. Being the first birthday I’ve ever been able to spend with him in person, and 23 being Collin’s lucky number, we were looking forward to being together and trying his luck at the casino. Unfortunately, his lucky number deceived us because Collin was sent home late from work and we were rear-ended before we could even get to the casino. His birthday was spent parked in the right lane of an intersection with firefighters, cops, a trail of angry traffic, and crying 16-year-old girls. Luckily, all of us remained fairly uninjured. Image

As I reflected on the history of our relationship, I realized this is pretty much how it always goes for Collin.

His military leave days were spent getting to know my brother before he died, rushing home for Zach’s wake (an over 20 hour drive), standing by me at the funeral after getting only 3 hours of sleep, and talking to strange white-haired relatives he’d never met before. While military leave is traditionally considered a break from chaos, Collin was diving right back into it.  And, he never complained about it. All the while, he had to deal with me, a girl who has probably thrown gallons of tears at him without much of a ‘thank you.’ After many tear-sopped t-shirts, hours spent talk-crying til 2 a.m. on weekdays, and frantic phone calls, here it is: my big-huge-giant-way-too-late thank you to Collin, for not just being a shoulder to cry on, but an entire person who in some cases quite literally carried me through Zach’s death. 

A lot of times, the second string (those who take care of the family of the one who is terminally ill. Collin was almost a first stringer, but we weren’t married yet and our relationship was long-distance, so I think he felt like a second string), doesn’t get enough credit, and I want to give credit where credit is due.

A couple weeks after Zach’s death, Collin and I were sitting in the car, and for about the billionth time I was talking about how empty I felt without Zach. I was telling him how lucky he was that all of his family members were alive, as if he needed some lecture to know it. He sat there, in the driver’s seat, patiently listening, when he quietly said, “You know, this hasn’t been very easy for me either.” I could tell he’d wanted to say this for a while. My gut reaction was anger and I thought, “What do you mean it’s hard for you?! You don’t even know what it’s like to lose someone! Nothing bad ever happens to you!” Then I realized how utterly arrogant, selfish and prideful I was being, as if my pain outweighed his. Here was a man who was thrown into the middle of my dramatic saga, who had to watch this happen from thousands of miles away while serving our country, who did all he could do to maintain my sanity, and I was essentially accusing him of having a perfectly painless and easy life. 

As a first stringer, it’s way too easy to take people like Collin for granted, to compare suffering and pain, and to feel justified in using them until they run dry because their lives seem “better.” The reality is, cancer is hell for them too. Even worse, they don’t get the luxury of saying goodbye, or of having consistent conversation and access to the dying person. Society takes their loss less seriously though the grief is certainly there. They are constantly dancing around boundaries, trying to figure out what to say without coming off poorly, and feeling awkward a lot of the time. Collin had to give Zach his groomsmen gift early without addressing that Zach was dying, had to act like his trips home weren’t desperate attempts to try to get to know my brother before he died, and had to pretend like he wasn’t stressed about our wedding which was right in line with Zach’s illness. He had to put on so many performances, and he felt an immense pressure to fix what was un-fixable. He bore it with grace and a smile. For that, I owe him a lot.  

So thank you, to all you second-stringers out there. We need you. Even if we don’t acknowledge it often, our gratitude for you is great. You carry us through the dark, not knowing where you are going, but you do it anyway. You lend us the strength we don’t have. And for that, our lives remain pieced together in more beautiful ways than perhaps they were before. 

This isn’t a Disney Ending

The best part about being married to Collin is talking late into the night. Staring up into the black abyss, our voices bouncing back and forth off the ceiling, sometimes at each other, sometimes quietly to ourselves.

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Collin is a great listener, and he has a way with packaging my complex mazes of emotions (sorry, Collin) into simple statements, so he’s excited about his big debut blog title, “This isn’t a Disney Ending.” 

I went home this weekend to join my family at the Midwest Regional Emmy’s because Zach was nominated for best musical composition. Zach won, his entire ‘Clouds’ music video was played, I cried in public, (just like I hate doing),  and I was so proud of Zach…but I was so sad.

I should count my blessings, right? I mean for God’s sake he won an Emmy! That’s more than any of us could do in a lifetime.

But, Zach didn’t do it in a lifetime. And I often wonder if he had to die to make an impact.

Was that impact worth his life? There is no simple answer.

Right now, I wish my brother was back. I wish that when the whole family took Daisy the wiener dog for a walk that Zach was with us, letting her leash go, running after her. I wish that when my brother Sam and I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on Thursday night talking about the paranormal, that Zach would’ve slept in the living room with me like Sam did, because we were too scared to sleep alone. That’s how it used to be. That’s how it should be.

In my mind, he shouldn’t be replaced by replicas: great big canvases on the walls, old signed basketballs. He shouldn’t be crumpled history notes or moldy Wendy’s shakes in the freezer, a dark doorway leading to an empty teenage boy’s room, or an Emmy. He should be there, filling the space, so he could speak for himself, and not let those replicas whisper weakly in his place. Then, he could stand in this picture next to Amy, grinning his gappy smile, accepting this Emmy himself, like he deserved. 

One of the most painful and cherished memories I have of Zach happened a month or so before he died.

 At this point, his lungs were heavy with tumors. I had moved out of the house because I couldn’t handle the stress, and I was home for the weekend, as usual. I felt distracted, and distanced from Zach, and I wanted a relationship with him which I saw tunneling away. Somehow, I thought being away for a bit would make it easier for him to die, so he wouldn’t have to watch me completely crumble and lose my mind.

When I walked in the front door, I heard a faint crying choked with gasping. I ran downstairs,  worried he was suffocating. The tumors made it a burden for him to breathe, so when he exerted himself, it was nearly impossible for him to catch his breath. He wrapped himself in his bed comforter on the basement couch. He was flushed, sobbing, wiping his runny nose on the blanket. I rushed to the couch and sat beside him, hugging him, accidentally hitting his hip which was essentially eaten by a meaty sore tumor, and he winced. He stared at his hands in his lap, and told me he wanted to give up, that he wanted to die. And, through my own tears, I told him no.

I quickly realized “no” wasn’t right. He couldn’t stop dying.

So I collected myself. I said that I didn’t want him to die, but if he had to, to remember that his suffering was just like collecting gold coins in the videogame Mario. Dying was like leveling up.

It was so stupid, but I desperately wanted to make him laugh. I wanted to reduce the cancer into a silly metaphor that couldn’t scare or intimidate him, to make his suffering understandable to me, though there was no way that was possible. He mustered up enough energy through the gasps to smile, probably more for my well-being than anything else.

Later on that night I thought, who was I to tell him he couldn’t die? Who was I to tell him “no, stay here”? Or even, “come back, this isn’t fair”? What do I know?

The reality is, all I know is what I feel. All I see is what is in front of my face. “Life-vision” so to speak, isn’t 20/20. It’s basically blind. I have a subtle idea of what impact my brother made, and I have a vague understanding of where he is now. 

But just because I have a feeble mind, in a tiny skull, that can only calculate my brother’s death and impact as being “maybe worth it” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t hope. His life has rippled on into the world, a soft lyrical song that hasn’t yet stopped with the ending statement: dead, and there’s a reason for it. I know he’s reaching people in ways that no living person could. 

Ultimately, I have hope that Zach made it to a place where he has never been more alive, and I’m going to pray that one day I can really see it.

 

But tonight, I simply miss Zach.

To College Students

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College is thought of fondly. Crisp crunchy oak leaves in a lush courtyard surrounded by beautiful brick buildings with hints of Greco-Roman architecture, bookstores with stacks of dusty books and roaming cats, coffee shops with free-thinking baristas wearing stained aprons. That’s why I was confused when I found myself huddled on my dorm loft bawling my eyes out under my covers as secretly as I could, sneaking off to the cafeteria for ice cream cones in the middle of the night, and totally and utterly hating college. Most likely, it was because I was grappling with Zach’s newly diagnosed cancer, and everyone else was worried about homework assignments, future careers, clubs, scheduling, time management, etc. Not to mention I barely knew these people. How was I supposed to pour out my feelings about my brother’s potential death to people who didn’t even know my last name? I was alone with the news, and the news sat in my stomach like a lump of raw meat churning around. That’s why I am compelled to write a little piece for new college students. I have a feeling there are at least a few of you out there who don’t get why you don’t totally love the college thing, and I’m here to tell you it’s more common than you think. With that, here are a few pieces of advice:

1. If you don’t want to go out and party, don’t. You really aren’t missing out on much. Yes, you might miss a night where Suzy Q. barfs in a bush, or you won’t be a part of a frat get together cramped in the musty basement with a bunch of sour sweaty college kids swimming in strobe lights, but I am here to tell you, the parties don’t change. Explore the new town/city you’re in. Go to a play, find the local movie theater, go to a concert, do Pinterest projects, heck, play checkers. Find someone to go with you. Chances are, there is someone who feels exactly like you do and would jump at the chance to get out of the party scene. It might seem like everyone is going out, but the partiers tend to make themselves known, and the non-partiers are tucked away. If you are feeling down or introverted, you aren’t a loser if you stay in and cozy up to a good movie. You’ll find that as the year goes on, people settle down and start to stay in more.

2. It’s ok to have a small group of friends. During freshman year, you will see lots and lots of giant groups of people clad in clubbing clothes strutting down the street…in the middle of winter…when it’s -20 below. If that’s not your thing and you’ve found the two friends you get along with the most, keep them close and wear a coat.

3. Everyone feels insecure. Seriously. No one has figured their lives out yet, even if they are really good at acting like they have. In fact, most graduated adults still haven’t figured out their lives. So when you find yourself spiraling into a quarter life crisis, remember that you have control over a small percentage of your life, and that life will take you in good, unexpected places. Yes, your choices do have an impact on your life later, but they won’t totally make or break you. So you didn’t make the dance team? Good, your time was meant for something better, greater, and more exciting. As my mom says, failures are little specks on your very long line of life.

4. Go home if you wantI had an orientation leader my freshman year who told me that going home was lame, that it stays the same, and it’s boring. I think that’s precisely why you should go home once in a while if you can. Boring and sameness are sometimes exactly what you need to regroup, and study for that exam without distraction. 

5. If you are spiritual and religious, find a church. I had the good fortune of having a very particular father who made sure he printed out all the Google Maps ever to the nearest church, and I am so thankful for that. For me, going to church was a weekly constant where I could just sit for an hour and spit out all my worries, concerns, and stresses. I went back and forth with God during college, but church was always a place where I could just be without noise, and it helped put my life in perspective.

6. You can eat by yourself in the cafeteria. If you are hungry and want to eat alone, or no one else is available to go with you, bring homework and eat. There are no quotas for how many people you need to have sitting by you at the lunch table.

7. Take things slow, but go to that club meeting. Join things you care about, but don’t stress about it right away. You’ve just been given a strenuous, unfamiliar schedule. You won’t be judged if it takes you a couple months to feel ready to jump into a club. Clubs and activities will be there for four years. That said, make sure you go to that meeting eventually. You’ll find some really good friends, a way to stimulate your mind outside of school, and more than likely, you’ll get a sense of purpose and belonging.

8. It’s ok to keep your high school friends.  They know you, they care about you, they’ve experienced life similarly to you, and they know your struggles. It might appear like everyone is “starting over” and completely shedding their old skins, and that works for some people. But if you’re overwhelmed and want some of your old life back, call your friend up and ask if they want to visit your college. It’s nice to swap experiences.

9. Call your parents. They are very, very wise. They’ve been there, done that. They know you better than anyone, and they are the ultimate life compasses. Trust me.

And finally…

10. College isn’t it. Don’t feel like you have to map out your whole entire life in four years. College isn’t an input/output machine because life isn’t an input/output machine either. Have goals, but recognize that there are so many different ways to get where you want to be, and sometimes “where you want to be” will change. A career is only a small part of who you are.

Staying Still

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First, let me apologize for the lack of posts lately. Collin and I recently moved to Illinois, and I absolutely love it so far. We moved our stuff from Virginia to storage in Illinois, visited family in Minnesota, and now we finally have everything settled at home base. Life is crazy, but it’s really, really good. To the right is a picture of my newly organized apartment, complete with touches of Collin which include framed old comic books and a batman shower curtain. I also conceded his dog poker painting, but I am forcing him to put it in the nook which we are calling “Butter’s Room.”

Anyway, I feel much better than my last post, and I’ve gathered a pretty obvious yet difficult lesson from my experiences this summer now that things have settled down.

Today is all about staying still.

Death, graduating college, marriage, and moving. This summer defined the unknown, a big gaping turbulent hole of nothingness, and boy did I fail at dealing with it with any shred of sanity. According to Collin, I am a micro-manager, and according to my mother, I think too far ahead into the future and I worry about things I simply can’t control.

What did it mean to be jobless, have the new terrifying title of “wife,” be the sister to only two siblings instead of three, and no longer be a Minnesotan but a…Illinoisan? I had at least one mental breakdown a week trying to gather the pieces and move on with a normal life like everyone else. Patty Mae has this awesome new full-time job, Billy Joe is travelling and going to grad school, and me? I am sitting in an apartment alone sifting through jobs in my pajamas.  After much sulking and feeling bad for myself I figured out that life isn’t normal, and I am not a failure as a human being because my life is going a different way.

Last Sunday at our new church, the priest gave a pretty epic sermon which I think goes against a large sum of what our culture stands for, and I love it. His point: it doesn’t matter who you know, it matters who you are. Cliche? Maybe. But as I’ve searched for work, evaluated my self-worth (which decreased as I applied to places), and networked, this piece of knowledge gave me some air.

As the priest kept speaking, I thought about Zach and how he lived. Zach had a cloud of impending doom over him, but he stayed still. He didn’t freak out about his cancer, he didn’t cower or run from it. He put his energy into his interests and relationships, moved beyond the pressures of the “next stage in life,” and that helped him live. I like to imagine him playing his acoustic guitar in a massive thunderstorm. From my observation, he lived better, created more, when he didn’t worry about comparing his life to others. He worked with the crashing drumming beats of it all and made it his rhythm. He never complained that the rhythm was off, that it was too booming or scary.

Timelines didn’t exist for Zach. College, graduation, job, marriage, kids, those things didn’t happen. His life was shortened but it was still a saturated sponge, and it was mostly spent making music on his favorite couch, attacking our wiener dog, pestering our little sister Grace, and blasting his extremely obnoxious dubstep in his car. Seemingly unspectacular things. The moments that were available to him stood still around him like painted pictures where he entered them and simply participated. He didn’t try to paint futures he couldn’t see.

I wanted him to pretend like he could control the future. I helped him apply to the U of M-Twin Cities when we knew he was too sick to go to college, and I’m pretty sure he did that for me, because all I could see were timelines, next steps, stages, keeping him alive through the usual social structures. He knew better. He knew that in order to be, he didn’t have to do what everyone else did.

Thinking back on his funeral, it was a bright May day. Everything was in Zach’s character. Hundreds of people stood close to one another, Clouds was played. It was his last show, a full house. As we lowered him into the ground, his legacy was rising, his music was spreading. But we all stood still unaware. We soaked in his self, his being, for the last time.

The irony of Zach is that his greatest achievements didn’t happen during his life, they happened after he was already dead. He never got to see them, and consequently what he “did” didn’t matter, but his having “been” did.

I am captivated by my brother because of his simplicity, his good-natured humble character, his constant and unwavering happiness, and his ability to mold suffering into meaning. His life achievements, titles, awards: they really didn’t mean much to him.

When his YouTube Clouds video reached 100,000 views, he said, “cool” and continued strumming on his guitar.

That’s how I want to live. Let the awards, achievements, and work titles come if they may, but don’t make them central. Make the center of life a good book, a walk in the park, a conversation with a friend, or a really good juicy burger. Let the center be moments, and let them stay still.

Missed Trips

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Rumor has it that there are stages of grief, but I like to think it’s an accordion of grief, with constant ins and outs, goods and bads, a slew of feelings changing with every breath, altered with different tones.

Lately, losing Zach has caught up with me. Probably because this year, we both missed our big annual family cabin trip. I keep imagining how empty it must feel without him: how the dingy couch we all used to pile onto probably has too much space, how going to the rusted bridge and stargazing isn’t accompanied by his toothy grins, constant poking, and poop jokes, how the racing game at the arcade is repeating the preview screen over and over because he isn’t there to play it.

What I’ve noticed about grief is that I don’t consistently feel his absence. Rather, it hits me over and over, like it just happened, like every morning he dies again and I am hearing the news for the first time. Today, I sat in my car and while thinking about the cabin trip I remembered, “Oh my God, Zach is gone.” The same pains I felt the morning of his death came rushing back. Images, sounds, smells, the air in my chest sucking on, and choking out my heart and lungs.

Moving across the country is either the best or the worst thing I could have done right after he died. Talking on the phone with my mom the other day, I told her, “I really miss home because I miss being around his things, his room, his stuff….” But I quickly realized that was a lie. Being around his environment makes his absence more evident to me. Moving away let me inadvertently trick my daily subconscious into feeling like he isn’t dead, like he’s still in Minnesota atop his mountain of Gatorade bottles and gummy wrappers watching the food channel. I don’t consciously think that he’s still alive, but being away makes me feel like all my family members are the same proximity away from me, dead or not. My subconscious doesn’t register his absence during the day, and maybe I could process and get over his death quicker if I was home staring at Zach’s empty bed. Who knows.

I am very aware of Zach’s death at night, on the other hand.

Last I checked I am the only family member who has bad nightmares about Zach. Mostly, I dream about ways that I could have saved him (putting metal tubes in his lungs is my brain’s latest solution), or seeing his body in a box before he’s buried. Sometimes I wake up hoping I will see him standing right by me, sometimes I think I see him, and then I realize it’s Collin’s uniform hanging on the door.

I’ve heard that people who have just lost loved ones occasionally have visions of their loved one after he or she dies.

I find myself wishing Zach would visit more than ever, even if he’s just my brain flicking around deluded images.

Like I said, grief is an accordion of feelings. Despite my feelings of darkness lately,  I always have a tinge of hope. Maybe delusions can be real, maybe Zach is in fact closest when he is farthest away.

How We Remembered Him

Wake. Funeral. Wedding. It was the most intensely sad, and incredibly happy I had ever been and all within ten days. Here are some photos of ways Collin and I made sure Zach was a part of our wedding. We had been planning on having him be an usher with my other brother, Sam, for a year and a half. A mere week before our wedding, we had to call in and tell them to cancel Zach’s tux order.  Even though he wasn’t there in person, I felt his presence. It was a perfect day with very fluffy clouds. Click on the photos for captions! All photos by PeggySue Laila Photography.

This Hug

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Photo credit: SoulPancake

From my observation, Zach dealt with his cancer gracefully. My mom took care of my brother with poise and love. Grace was quiet about the illness and went on playing sports and hanging out with friends, Sam was silent on the subject unless I opened up conversation, and my dad was stoic. I was angry. Very angry.

Most of you have seen Zach’s “My Last Days” documentary, but you probably don’t remember this image of Zach hugging me. This is the single most important picture of my entire life.

This moment features the little blip in time when I made the big decision to stop the anger.

When the SoulPancake film crew stayed with us for a week, we had cameras hanging on the walls, surrounding our kitchen, and peering in our living room windows. I, being a self-proclaimed introvert, couldn’t handle the constant attention. I didn’t understand why someone would want to exploit my brother and his illness, nor could I forgive my parents for letting it happen. What I saw when the filmmakers came to our home was a group of people who wanted to make a twisted reality show, who didn’t understand the situation and didn’t really want to. I had never misinterpreted a situation as wrongly as I did this one.

Yet, the angst I felt was insurmountable, the kind that tightens your chest to the point where it takes all your willpower not to scream. I spent most of my time that week avoiding my house by hiding at the university library or cowering in my room Skyping Collin. My poor brother Sam had to listen to my constant jabbering about how much I hated the whole matter. How we should have been focusing on healing our family, not the world.

But here, this hug. This is what made me let it all go: the anger, the self-pitying, and my misconceptions about the filmmakers. If you watch the three seconds of this clip, you’ll see me rolling my eyes. I was annoyed, I felt like Zach was trying to create some sort of fakey scene to show how “loving” our family was. But here’s the kicker: this hug was the most genuine hug he had ever given me. I could tell he knew I was having a hard time with the documentary, the cameras, the cancer. He knew, quite simply, that I just needed a great, big, brotherly hug.

At this moment, here in this picture, I had a pretty intense revelation: that this wasn’t about me, this wasn’t even about our family, it was about my brother’s message, and darn it he deserved to tell it to the world. I wasn’t even sure exactly what the message was at the time, none of us were sure. But I discovered that despite death, there is love. That even if your life is totally derailed there are moments, like this hug, that bring you back. You just have to look for them. And when you find those moments, they change you and your perceptions. 

Cancer causes a lot of things. For me, it amplified my personal flaws and made me deal with them head on. Whenever I see this clip, I get a little embarrassed because I think, “If only they knew what I was thinking before this…” In all honesty,  I am still dealing with a little anger, a bit of selfishness, and a tad of resentment because of Zach’s death, but I’ve figured out a lot. And if I had to reduce what Zach did for me in one moment, summed up in one photo, this would be it. He helped me let go.