This is an excerpt from Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Sibling Grief, which is available

Chapter 1: Secret Keepers

On a sub-zero winter night when I was sixteen years old, I snuck out of my bedroom window, climbed onto the garage roof, hung from the gutter, and jumped onto the picnic table piled high with snow. I scrambled over snowbanks to meet my girlfriend who waited for me, headlights turned off at the end of my street. I slid into the passenger side, blew warm breaths into numb hands, and said, “I hope we don’t get caught,” as we zipped away like two delinquents to a party forty-five minutes away.

Several hours later, with Budweiser on my breath, I climbed back onto the garage roof and tucked fingers under the base of my bedroom window to shimmy it open. It was frozen shut. “I’m so screwed,” was the only thought that came to mind at 1:00 a.m. Was the kiss from the cute boy I had a crush on for months worth it? It would depend on how badly the night would end. My teeth chattered as I exhaled white puffs of breath into the frigid air. I had no choice. My two older brothers’ bedroom was on the other side of the house, and I had no way to get to their window, so I crawled over to my younger brothers’ bedroom window and rapped loud enough to awaken one of them. I prayed it would be my twelve-year-old brother Rocky and not my seven-year-old brother Kevin.

I imagined Rocky and Kevin staring at a silhouette outside their window and running into my parents’ room, wailing about a boogeyman. As I inhaled another cold, teeth-chattering breath, I rapped again. “It’s me,” I said. “Susan.” Rocky jumped out of bed, backed away from the window, and rubbed tired eyes. I waved and whispered again, “It’s me. Your sister.”

Rocky placed a hand on his chest, opened the window, and stepped back as I climbed through it.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I hugged him. “I’m sorry. My window was stuck.” Even then, so young and lithe, he was beautiful with his dark tousled hair, deep dimples, and eyes the color of caramel. I slipped my pinky into his and said, “It’s our secret, right?”

He nodded. “I won’t tell.”

On that night, we became each other’s secret keepers. He kept mine, and I kept his.


Six years later, on an August Saturday afternoon, Rocky blew through my parents’ front door. His skin was tanned, slick with coconut oil. He was eighteen and preparing to begin his freshman year at Lyndon State College in Vermont. I was twenty-two, still living at home, and engaged to my future husband. I commuted to the University of Southern Maine, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

“Nice day at the beach?” I asked.

“Awesome,” he said. “Hey, come to my room when you’re done. I have to show you something.”

My brother had a perpetual twinkle in his eyes like he was up to something or would be soon. I hustled up the stairs and knocked on Rocky’s door.

“Sis?” he asked.

“Yeah, let me in.”

He opened the door and said, “Swear you won’t tell Mom and Dad.”

I grabbed his pinky. “Swear.”

He hiked up the left side of his bathing suit shorts. Pegasus was etched into his bronze skin, wings stretched out wide, legs galloping through the sky. “What do you think?” he asked.

I stared at the beautiful winged creature on his muscled thigh, thinking how fitting he chose Pegasus. While many of us are comforted by curling inside a bubble of security where we have stable, steady jobs, in stable, steady neighborhoods with stable, steady friends, that bubble was too thin, too small, too confining for Rocky.

Whenever I stood in his presence, I always felt a tinge of envy. He made the daredevil, badass in me feel small and weak. As I matured, I played my life safer, but as Rocky aged, he nurtured a free, fearless soul, and sprinted through his life. Rocky was the wild one—the authentic, real-deal risk-taker. At nine months old, already tired of the slow pace of a crawl, he took his first step, ready and alert to begin his walk, then his run, and then his flight through his miraculous life. He was the natural athlete who at two years old, waddled around, kicking a soccer ball with his baby feet. In high school, as he ran across the field with agility and grace, the ball seemed an extension of his foot. He was the captain of his soccer and basketball teams. Rocky’s magnetism drew people to his side with both admiration and fierce jealousy. He was “that guy.” Girls flocked to him, guys wanted to be him. And Rocky didn’t want any of it, tired of trying to live up to everyone’s expectations of him. “One day,” he said, “I want to go where nobody knows my name.”

With a boundless spirit that stretched from one side of the world to the other, the universe was not too vast, frightening, or risky—it was his playground. Rocky embodied Pegasus’ spirit–the mythical immortal winged stallion, capable of everything.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “But you’re so dead when Mom sees that.”

“She won’t,” he said. “Not unless you tell her.”

Rocky entrusted me with his secret, and it would stay with me until he had the courage to show my parents his tattoo a year later.


Through his freshman year in college, Rocky let his thick black hair grow below his shoulders. Home on summer break, after a shower, hair soaked, he said, “Hey, I need you to twirl my hair like this.” He took a chunk of hair and twirled it into a tight tube.

“Why?” I asked.

“It will help make the dreadlocks.”

“Dreadlocks,” I said. “Are you kidding? Don’t dread that beautiful hair.”

“Yes,” he said. “I want them. Come on, Sis, help me.”

Rocky was a bona fide Deadhead and had the marching bears, one of the Grateful Dead’s most be- loved and iconic symbols, inked into the tender skin below his waistband. He and his college friends followed the psychedelic rock band around from city to city, believing in the members’ message of peace, love, freedom, and mind expansion. Rocky was a devoted fan and with a head full of dreadlocks and tie-dyed T-shirts, he’d blend in with the cult-like community in Deadhead-land.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll help you.”

I sat on my parents’ bed, and Rocky sat on the car- pet between my legs in front of their full-length mirror. He watched as I twirled and twirled, and I listened as he talked about college, his classes, and his blond-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend, Kristen.

“She’s beautiful, Sis. Oh my God and she’s soooo sweet.”

I smiled. “So are you in love?”

Our eyes locked in the mirror. He laughed. “I think so. She wants to teach little kids. I can’t wait for you to meet her. You’re going to love her.”

I finished twirling the last chunk of hair and sadness welled inside of me. I didn’t want our little pocket of time to end. “I love you,” I said.

Rocky turned around, wrapped his arms around me, and kissed the top of my head. “I love you too, Sis.” Two months later, in the fall, I was able to make a soccer game at Lyndon State, and I sat on the sidelines with Kristen. My brother was right; she was beautiful, kind, and smart. She leaned over and said, “I’m going to marry him one day.” I fell silent as we both watched him soar across the field with Pegasus’ wings peeking below his shorts, his dreadlocks flying behind him.


Though I grew to love Rocky’s dreadlocks, my mother hated them. She begged him countless times to cut them off, but he felt they had become an extension of himself and a symbol of his free-spirited approach to life. When he finished up his junior year and returned home for the summer, I was newly married, living in an apartment in Portland, Maine, and working the 4:00 p.m. to midnight shift at L.L. Bean.

On a Friday morning in July, he called me. “You have to come over,” he said. “I need you.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing. I just need a favor. Can you come over right now?”

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susan casey

Susan E. Casey, MSW, MFA, is an author, a licensed mental health clinician, a certified bereavement group facilitator, and a certified life coach. Throughout the past 25 years, Susan has worked in hospice, in-patient, and home-based settings with teens and adults, and taught numerous courses to executive leaders and clinicians. Currently, Susan works for a measurement-based care organization, providing clinical coaching to therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists countrywide to improve mental health outcomes for youth and adults. Susan’s blog on her website,, chronicles her grieving process following the death of her younger brother. Her fiction has won numerous awards, including first place in the PEN/Nob Hill Literary Contest and Green Writer’s National Literary Contest. Rock On: Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Grief is her first work of nonfiction published on February 14, 2020 by Library Tales Publishing. Both Susan’s professional and creative work have been guided by her deep belief that every individual has purpose and inherent strengths and deserves the opportunity to reach their own unique potential. Susan lives in Maine with her husband Steve and golden retriever Indy.

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