This Wednesday will be the twenty-first anniversary of the day my brother was hit by a car and killed: his twenty-first deathday.
This weekend, his ghost could buy beer across the border from my hometown, in Maine—this spring, maybe graduate from the University of Heaven-or-whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Luke’s ghost has been around three times as long as he was ever corporeal, and this thought sits awkwardly in my brain, like, how could you have been so young, how could time pass, how could this, how.
He and I are very close, you know. We don’t play with Lego together, like I did with Luke, the child. But he’s been a friendly, near-constant presence these last two decades. Over time, the image of his small body splayed next to the road, a pool of waxy blood by his ear, has lost the power to horrify me—which is, maybe, its own kind of horrifying, how our traumas become a part of us, fixed like skin-on-bones, normal as a heartbeat. But we hang out together, he and I, and mostly I don’t cry anymore, which is nice. The words I-had-a-brother-but-he-died pour out of me quickly, self-consciously casual, and, before their faces have time to fall, I change the subject, as if to say: it’s okay, it’s okay, it was a long time ago, I’m okay.
But then I’m sitting on a hard chair in a doctor’s office, box of tissues conspicuously placed on the table beside me, and I’m there because my heart keeps beating, too fast, too hard, I lose my breath, and it’s not normal, it’s not okay.
What’s so funny and strange about my reminiscing, as I mutilate tissue after tissue, is how little I even remember Luke, the child. I do remember the Lego. I don’t remember the way he doted on me, and I can’t hear his voice saying, “Rae, come play with me,” which my mother tells me he did all the time. I remember the time he threw a snowball at the toddler who lived next door, and I remember him reading in bed with me and my mom, struggling over the word clock, and I remember that I corrected him, his baby sister, that I felt so embarrassed for him. I remember that he could run fast, so fast, and I remember that morning, on the way to school, how he let go of my mother’s hand, and he ran ahead. Fast, so, so fast.
Suddenly, his jacket was on the side of the road, and, in my poor muddled brain, he’d run so fast across the street that his jacket had flown off behind him, incredible! I ran ahead to pick it up.
I remember his death so much more clearly than his life.
I remember wandering down the hall of my house that day, blank, confused. My sister curled up in bed with Luke’s stuffed lion, my dad sitting on the floor in the hallway, head in hands. My mother in the blue chair, broken. I climbed into her lap. She clung to me, and I held her together.
We sat there for years.
The hardest part is the what-if. I can’t help myself. Twenty-one years later, and I can’t stop asking that inescapable, desperately unfair question. What if you were still here, Luke? The hardest part is how goddamn real that imaginary world feels sometimes, the world in which he crossed the road, how concrete and graspable it seems to me, as I gasp for breath, sobbing, chest aching. Of course I know what it looks like. Of course I know, for an absolute fact, that it is much, much better than this world. I’m happier. My family is whole. I’m not so scared all the time.
My own son has a different name there, though I’m not sure what it is. As it stands, in this lesser world, his name is Luke. Last summer, Luke fell in the grass, hit his head on a rock. Blood everywhere.
I’m terrified. I’m always terrified.
But he’s scared, too. Scared in ways his uncle never was. His fear is so familiar to me, it feels almost like my own; I wonder if it is my own, then I plead silently for his forgiveness. My repentance is to bite my lip when the fear clamours to escape. Slow down. Look out. Be careful, kiddo. Every day, I try, and I try, and I fail. Please forgive me, Luke.
Curled up on my lap in the blue chair, he feels so much like mine, and yet he is his own—just as I am my own, and not my mother’s. Still so little, I want to kiss away the badness, hide under the blankets and make-believe the world will never hurt him, that it has never hurt him. He was such a colicky baby. God, he could cry. The nights we’ve spent crying together, Luke and I, holding onto each other, wishing the world could maybe be a little nicer.
This world has failed him from the start, never quite what it ought to be. Same as me.
Sitting in the hard chair in the sterile doctor’s office, I feel that I am coming undone. The disease is in my brain, my chest, it’s inside my heart, and every beat of it pushes the poison through my veins. The cells of anxiety grow and divide until I am made of fear.
How could it be otherwise? Once you know, you never forget how breakable everything is. For twenty-one years, the simple fact that I build my life on the edge of a knife has been lodged in my chest, and if I breathe too hard, the knife starts to turn, and I know that I’m done for.
Which of us is broken? Is it me or the world? Crippling fear often feels like the only sane response to being alive.
But still, my heart keeps beating (too fast, too hard), and still, Luke’s tiny hand is warm in mine. I squeeze it tight, and then—
I let it go. He runs ahead.