I’m a survivor. It took nearly all of the 36 years I’ve walked this Earth to say that and mean it. Over that time, I have learned and continue to learn to be responsible for what I can control and to release what I cannot.
As I child, I experienced things that would make many break. I grew up in a world of chaos and poverty. It’s the kind of stuff that makes people ask me how I’ve made it to the place I currently exist.
I grew up as the oldest of four. The shortest spread is six years and the longest spread is twelve. Sandwiched between them was my baby brother Michael. Affectionately dubbed “bubba” by his older brother. I remember running through the Arkansas woods with them, climbing trees, building forts and swimming in cow-stained streams. These are memories I cherish and I never knew how much they would come to mean to me when we were making them.
Grief. Sometimes, we get to prepare for it. Sometimes it follows a long illness that gives us time to accept the inevitable, even when we know it won’t be easy and we can never truly prepare for the loss. Sometimes, though, it punches us in the face with the power of a prize fighter gunning for a knock out.
In November, 2014, at 2:00 a.m., I awoke to my cell phone ringing over and over until I climbed out of bed and saw my mother’s name on the screen. When I answered, her voice was so raw, filled with terror and pain that only comes when a child is lost, and I will never forget her words, “It’s Michael. There was an accident. He’s dead,” she wailed. I argued in disbelief and questioned her source. It was a family friend. The mother of three of my brother’s children. It happened just down the road from where she lived. She knew, but we didn’t.
It couldn’t be true. It must be wrong. She didn’t have confirmation. I tried to calm her, to tell her we didn’t know anything for sure. I walked into the kitchen, as far as I could get from my own children’s bedrooms. I will always remember the conversation. I will always remember my sister saying, “he’s here,” and I will always remember hearing the sound of the police officer at my mother’s door, saying, “Ma’am, I regret to inform you…” And I will always remember how I sank into the cold tile of my own kitchen floor and felt my heart bleed from my chest. The sounds I made were indistinguishable. I had no will. No power to move. My face lay upon the tile, my legs folded beneath me, and I hurt everywhere. In every atom, every cell of my body.
Just hours before, I was telling my husband about the conversation I had with Michael less than 36 hours before his death. I was so proud of him. I was going to help him build a presence for his business. He was a construction worker and was licensed. I had missed so many opportunities to be there for him, but I was going to be there for him now. He was trying so hard to be a better person. He was in outpatient rehab and working to beat a meth addiction that had plagued him off and on for years. He was committed but it was hard and he wondered if he wasn’t replacing meth with alcohol. He poured his heart out to me in that last conversation. He told me of his struggles, of his pains, and of his plans to keep pushing on. I told him to be careful not to get a DUI. He didn’t need that. I should have told him to be careful not to kill himself. Hindsight is always 20/20, right?
The next day, I was the first to arrive at the funeral home. My mother had spent her night with Michael lying on a cold slab in the hospital until they had to take him from her. As I began to walk into the room where he lay and I glimpsed the stillness of his form, the paleness of his face; as I recognized life no longer existed within him, my knees buckled. I felt bile rise up in my throat, and my legs gave way. My husband caught me before I fell to the floor. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t walk. I had never been brought to my knees by anything. I had never hurt so damn much.
I have always been able to find the path. I have always been able to create a light when none seems to exist. But in this, I couldn’t. I spent the months that followed in a haze of grief. I never knew what it meant to truly miss someone until he was gone. I spent hours upon hours trying to find ways to make it better. Searching for alternatives to truth. Searching for ways to make the true become untrue. I was consumed with inner conflict and a war within my mind and I couldn’t break free from it. I couldn’t move forward. I was stuck. It was such a foreign feeling for me and the fact that I couldn’t get out of it angered me. I played and replayed my final conversations with him. I had just seen him at my nephew’s birthday party the week before. I played and replayed his last voice message. I clung to his words, “Love ya.” I lost myself in overwhelming, heart-wrenching grief and regret. I thought of every single time I should’ve been there when I wasn’t. Every single time I had an opportunity and didn’t take it. I focused on everything I didn’t do right and nothing I did do right.
I tried to remind myself of his words the last time we spoke. I apologized for not always being there for him. “What are you talking about, Katie? You’ve always been there for me.” But I couldn’t escape my mind pressing down on me all the times I wasn’t. And I listened to Adele’s song “Make You Feel My Love” over and over again because I would do anything for him to know how much I love him and that I would go to the ends of the Earth for him. Sometimes I would scream at the top of my lungs as I was driving down the road. Sometimes I had urges to throw everything within sight. Sometimes, I would just cry with these deep, gut-wrenching sobs that can only come from the very darkest part of your soul.
Out of darkness, comes light. Or something like that. I just didn’t realize I wasn’t the one controlling the light this time. Through the darkest periods, I didn’t recognize I was changing. Everything I think and feel and perceive changed. Somewhere along the way, my heart opened. I became more compassionate, more empathetic, and more in tune with who I am, what I believe, and who I want to be. I feel so much more now than I ever have. As the months ticked by, there came a point where I developed this strong drive to save the world. It was insistent. Of course, I can’t save the world, but I suppose that’s all in how you define it. Maybe I can save my own world. Maybe I can build bridges where none existed. Maybe I can make impacts in my circle, in my environment, in my children. Maybe I can spread kindness and love and light throughout my own corner of this world. Maybe I can be something great that he would be proud of. Maybe he can look upon me from wherever he is and feel my heart and know that I want to do for others as I was never able to do for him.
Maybe he can feel my love.
I am not a religious person, but I am very spiritual, and I know he’s out there. I see him sometimes in my dreams. Most recently, we talked on the phone. I remember his voice saying, “Hey, Katie, what 'cha doin'?” I was lost and needed help. I was walking aimlessly down the sidewalk, a brick wall on my right side. I don’t remember any other part of the conversation outside of his last words before he hung up. “Here’s all I know,” he says, “Faith is real.” And then he was gone. I’ve pondered that dream over and over, and it seems whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, whenever I can’t find my way, whenever I’m hoping for an outcome, his words comes back to me strong and clear. Faith is real.
It’s been nearly one year and three months since he left us. I still think of him every single day. Every. Single. Day. But those thoughts rarely come with tears and screaming at the injustice of it all. I have conversations with him in my mind. I try to think of the things I did do for him and with him. I sift through the memories of the times we spent together. I miss him. And sometimes, still, grief gives me a good sucker punch right to the gut and I spill over with pain. I literally feel the breath leave my body and for a few seconds, I struggle to pull in oxygen. People say time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that. Time lessens the rawness of the pain, but it’s always there and as long as I am on this Earth, I will ache for him