My mom runs a website for suicide awareness and prevention, in memory of my brother Keith. I admire her for this. My mom believes that Keith’s spirit is communicated through butterflies, dragonflies and jet trail X’s in the sky. I love this about my mom.
My mom has asked me to write something for her website many times. She used to ask me once a year to write something, every year around the time of Keith’s death. Finally she gave up and stopped asking, and I don’t blame her!
The last time I wrote about Keith was shortly after his death, over 10 years ago. I’ve started writing about Keith many times since then, for my mom, but I never made it past a few sentences.
…Mother’s Day 2006, seven year’s after Keith’s death, I am trying to write something about Keith again, for my mom.
…actually, now it’s July.
…actually, now it’s January of the following year.
…actually, now it’s December 2009, three years later, and I’m finally editing this thing.
…now it’s March 28, 2010.
It’s not that I don’t like writing. I write all the time. I guess I’m just conflicted about writing about Keith. Not only are these thoughts very private to me, but writing about Keith brings the pain of losing him to the surface of my brain, a pain that usually resides at a deeper level of my consciousness. I guess I’m not the kind of person who goes around looking for pain, and who does? We all try to avoid pain the best we can. That’s how we keep on living.
Anyway, back to Keith. I think about Keith at least once a day, sometimes more. It might sound better to say that I think about Keith a hundred times a day, but honestly I think about Keith less than I used to. It’s not that I’ve forgotten about him, not at all. It’s just that he’s become more internal.
When Keith died, I went through his apartment with my parents. I wanted to do this because I thought it would help my parents and because I thought it would help me say goodbye. I hadn’t even seen his new apartment before.
I tried to find clues about his suicide but I found none. Instead I found a bottle of Wild Turkey in his kitchen. In any other situation I would have taken the bottle home to finish it myself, but in this case my dad poured it down the sink. We also found a pack of Marlboro Reds in a drawer. My parents didn’t know Keith smoked, but I did. We’d smoke together whenever I visited, and I felt a secret sibling pleasure in this.
Now it seems like I’m doing product placement for my brother’s death. Wild Turkey and Marlboro Reds. Yes, Keith was a romantic, in the cowboy sense of the word. Too bad he didn’t get to be a cowboy. If he was a cowboy, he might still be alive.
Keith left a short note when he died, “I love you mom and dad.” I felt left out. I told this as a joke to my friend, minutes after I found out Keith died, “He didn’t even mention me in his note!” Keith talked to me for a long time the day before he died, but he didn’t include me in his note. I was laughing, I was crying, I felt slighted.
I realize it is absurd to feel slighted considering the circumstances. I was being self-centered, in the face of someone’s tragedy. But who’s tragedy was it – my brother’s…my parents’? This was something I needed to flesh out in years to come, especially in relation to the pain of my parents’ loss. They say the loss of a child is the most terrible thing ever, and I can believe it. But since I felt pretty terrible myself, I argued this to myself: my pain was just as great.
Regardless of what pain is greater – it doesn’t matter anyway – the pain of losing a sibling is definitely different. For me it became a serious problem with conceptualizing my future. I always looked to Keith for guidance and advice. How was I supposed to take Keith’s death? How was his dying supposed to help me live?
But I know Keith wasn’t thinking about me when he died. He was trying to relieve what had become an unbearable pain.
Anyway, that’s enough about Keith’s death, now I will write about his life. I will remember Keith in his courage and complexity – how I knew him and how I loved him. That’s what a memory should be.
To start, like most older brothers, Keith liked to tease me, and I loved him anyway. Keith had a very sarcastic sense of humor. He could be wicked but he was kind, and if you met him, you would have liked him. He was funny, open and engaging and he had many friends.
Keith was complex, ambitious, independent, intelligent, friendly, funny, and adventurous. Keith liked to hike where he could fish. He made his own fly-fishing lures: beautiful tiny feathery things.
Keith also liked to read. He kept a list of all the books he read with little circles beside the titles. He left the circle half-filled if he only half finished the book. He read a lot of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. Both cowboys in their way.
Like a cowboy, Keith was very private. He rarely talked about his feelings.
Here are three childhood memories I have with Keith:
1) Keith takes me to walk out along the cliffs by the lake. The waves are high and nearly reach our feet. I’m afraid I might slip and fall in. Keith is not afraid and coaxes me along.
I don’t fall in.
2) Walking into the lake beside him, we play a game that Keith made up. We jump up and down further and further out into the water, until we were way over our heads, and the waves hit against our faces as we jump up for air.
The person who wins is the person who goes out the furthest without giving up and turning back.
Keith always wins. Keith is taller than me.
3) Keith and I are looking for loose change under the bleachers of the high school football stadium. It’s always cool and dark under there. Sometimes we find tiny frogs. Keith finds them hiding under paper bags and leaves, and he carries them over to me, cupped between his hands.
I talked to Keith the day before he died. He talked to me like he never talked to me before. After I hung up the phone, I turned to my boyfriend at the time and said “That was the best conversation I’ve ever had with Keith!”
Keith finally made himself vulnerable to me and I always wanted that. But I didn’t want him to get vulnerable, and then die.
After our conversation was over, I wanted to call Keith back, to tell him I was sending him a book he should read. But I stopped myself from calling because I thought it might make Keith feel self-conscious about revealing his problems to me.
I had lent that book, The Rain King, to my dad. I called my dad and he mailed the book to Keith the very next day, but of course Keith would never get that book.
I always wonder if I had called Keith back that night if I would have stopped him from dying. Probably not. And who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have liked that book anyway.
The next morning I heard birds, extremely loud birds, when I walked down the street in Chicago where I lived. I’d never even heard those birds before. Keith’s death made me finally hear those birds.
Keith died because he couldn’t find a way to to live through his depression and frustration with his current life, and get out to the other side, into the next version of his life.
Keith wasn’t living the life he wanted to be living, and he needed a way out, but he couldn’t see a solution. He was too depressed to even think of the possibility of a future let alone the possibility of change. And unfortunately, he owned a gun. All I know about Keith’s death is that he shouldn’t have died. I wish someone could have helped him find a way out. I wish Keith could have reached out to someone who was close to him, someone who could help him find a way out.
I sometimes wonder what was Keith thinking in his final minutes, and I hope it was fish, fish and birds, and maybe someone he loved.
Of course I miss Keith and I wish he was still here. I wish my brother was here with a voice that would answer when I called him on the phone. I wish he was living somewhere, in actual flesh and blood, someplace I could take a trip to visit. We could drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes and talk about our lives, the crazy things we’ve done and who we’ve grown up to be.
Yes, I’m sad that Keith’s gone. But even though he’s no longer here with me in flesh in blood, he’s still a strong presence in my life. I’ll always try to live a life that has some meaning according to what I believe, even if that doesn’t make practical sense in this world. By living this way, I think I can honor Keith’s memory, because he’s become part of who I am.
For my Mom, my Dad and my sister
March 28, 2010