hat which does not kill you makes you stronger—who ever said that? How is that possible? Clearly it's not a reference to physical damage. Rarely do near fatal injuries ever result in making a person any physically stronger. So how is it that emotional damage that is so great that it crushes your very soul can eventually make you a stronger, better person? It seems at best illogical and at worst, incredibly self centered- that one should view a horrible event, an event that comes close to killing you, in a way that that will ultimately be of benefit to you. In my experience, people that have undergone excruciatingly difficult emotional challenges have come out of them variously scared, angry, bitter and ultimately scarred in ways even they don't comprehend.
Today, on the one year anniversary of my brother Jeff's suicide, I find myself reflecting on the meaning of that expression. A year after that devastating event, I really don't feel myself getting any stronger, yet I know, on an emotional level, that what happened very nearly killed me. The guilt and anger of feeling as though I could have, would have, should have done something, combined with the dreaded awareness that others you love could leave you just as quickly, was enough to make me want to shut down for good.
Jeff killed himself on a Wednesday. The Monday before that, Jeff and I went on a road trip to Stella, Ontario. We spent the day laughing, taking pictures, singing along to his eclectic assortment of CD's (the BeeGees will always send me to tears now). I made Jeff pull over so I could pick some wildflowers by the side of the road. As I walked towards the thicket, a little snake slithered between my feet and made me scream. We laughed our heads off as we drove around Milhaven Maximum Security Prison, the one from the Tragically Hip song, trying to sneak a peek at some of the prisoners in the yard. We stopped at a garage sale and I bought a necklace for 50 cents. Jeff wouldn't give me the two quarters I needed for my prize purchase, not because he was cheap, but because he hoarded his quarters and loonies in a big bucket at home. I didn't remark on the fact that Jeff didn't buy any of the Puzz 3-D's that he loved, even though he needed them for his collection. I also didn't notice that when we took a walk through a little cemetery, looking at the old headstones, that he seemed oddly quiet. Or that when he turned down the restricted access road at the jail, guard towers to the left and right of us, he joked about being shot. It didn't seem that unusual that he wanted to use up all 24 exposures of his film on this one day road trip, though he didn't want me to take any pictures taken of him. (In spite of his wishes, I'm glad I snapped one of him as he was driving. He's wearing a great big grin). I also didn't notice the rope he had in his trunk.
He never overtly suggested that he wanted to kill himself, even though he had tried twice before in his life. He seemed in quite good spirits that day, probably because he was already in 'the zone'. He had made his decision and I guess he was at peace with it. But for the period immediately following his death, I felt incredibly guilty that I hadn't seen the signs and intervened in some way. The day was replete with our usual sibling banter-- peppered with impatient snipes and my familiar entreaty to my brother: "Jeff, don't!" as in "Jeff don't do that" "Jeff stop staring" "Jeff, don't be weird!" I couldn't let go of my need to be seen as "normal" (Jeff wasn't), long enough to see that something was wrong. I was always a little self-conscious around my brother, maybe in order to compensate for his apparent lack of self-consciousness. When I was younger, I was embarrassed of him, which as I got older, was simply replaced with being embarrassed for him. Jeff was difficult to deal with at times, a real enigma that few could understand. A car hit him when he was two and the resulting brain damage was permanent and wide reaching. His behaviour was at times peculiar, but mostly just "different". Like for some reason that I never understood, Jeff hated to brush his teeth, to the point where the gunk on his teeth could really gross a person out. Everyone loved him, but few outside of our immediate family could relate to him, and as a result he had few close friends and even fewer love interests. His was a lonely life, and it was painful for me to watch as he tried over and over, desperately at times, to be accepted into a world that seemed just too harsh and unforgiving. Despite his limitations, no one that has ever met him would doubt his kind heart and the honesty of his intentions. He greeted everyone he met with a smile. One of the first people to arrive at Jeff's visitation was the security guard at the building where my brother worked. Though hundreds of people walked past this man every day, Jeff was one of the few who stopped to talk. The concierge at the apartment where my brother lived reminded my mother that forty days had passed since Jeff passed away. My brother greeted the homeless people in his area by name, sometimes bringing them coffees, lunches, and on one occasion that I know of, inviting a homeless woman to play pool with him. He loved this world so much and wanted so badly to succeed in it, to have what most of us take for granted- a good job, a healthy body and most importantly, someone to love. I think it was the disjuncture between his desires and his abilities that truly killed him. But knowing that I could not provide my brother with those things that he so desperately wanted and deserved did nothing to alleviate the weight of my guilt; that on that last day, I acted like I usually acted towards him- loving, but with a subtext of impatience, insensitivity and shame that I'm sure Jeff could sense.
Words cannot sufficiently describe the feelings I had on that Wednesday night, last summer, when I got the call. It was like I had been in a head on collision and yet my body was perfectly intact. My feet miraculously kept walking, one in front of the other and the world kept going on around me. When the receptionist at the hospital asked if she could help me, my mouth was able to form the words "I'm here to identify a body". I was able to eat, drink, and socialize at the visitation. It was beautiful out, the day of the funeral, and I enjoyed the soloist's rendition of "The Rose". I didn't even have much trouble sleeping that night. And yet, a part of me felt dead. Dead and gone and never to return. So how is it now that I am supposed to be stronger for all of this?
That which does not kill you makes you harder. Now that I could buy. For the months after Jeff's death, it seemed as though one bad thing followed another. Lost jobs led to lost money, led lost tempers, led to lost hope. It seemed my friends were nowhere to be found. I made a game out of measuring my losses against their victories. One of my friends buys a house, my rent cheque bounces; another gets married, I am ready to leave the man I love. I was bitter. The tears went away and I was left with this incredible emptiness. It seemed to me as if everything in my life was being destroyed. The winter of 1999 was the darkest I'd ever faced. I was certain that someone up there hated me. I latched on to the Serenity Prayer—"God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference", but I misunderstood it's true meaning. I focussed on the first line and believed that I should accept this new existence- essentially, that if my life was to be one big thunderstorm of misery, then I should just resign myself to my fate. In other words, that prayer became a way for me to justify my right to continue to feel sorry for myself, and by default, make the people closest to me feel guilty for not having done enough for me.
It was around the same time as I was busy shaking my fist at the Gods that I started noticing a few ordinary occurrences were bringing some levity to my doleful existence. The sun came out. The snow melted. The flowers and trees in my favorite park began to bloom. I became aware of these things, whereas before I doubt I would have noticed anything above my shoe-line. I saw that time was passing and that my pain was subsiding. At some point I realized that what I really needed to do was focus on the second line of the prayer instead of the first. I needed to find the courage to change the things that I could. In this case that meant my reactions to the events that confronted me. I didn't listen to the therapist that told me to go on Prozac. Instead, I started to spend more time with children, and read some good books. I started to have a better understanding and appreciation for the human condition, with all its attendant weaknesses. I realized that I had all the things that my brother sought- a good job, a healthy body and most importantly, I woke up every morning with someone whom I loved more than anything else in the world, someone who was struggling along with me and yet his love never wavered, never faltered, even when I was packing my bags to leave. I looked back on the past year and remembered all the times he was ready with a Kleenex, the thousands of hugs I took for granted, the special fleece he wore because it would absorb the most tears, the cups of tea that magically appeared at the most opportune moments, his despondency rather than resentment when I made him feel as though he couldn't to do enough for me. These things made me love him more.
Now I've learned that it's easy to say "I struggled" but it is infinitely harder to live it in the present tense. It's easy to say, "time heals" but excruciatingly difficult to wait out your sentence of grief.
Am I a stronger, better person because my brother died? No, unequivocally I am not. Did I learn something having lived through this ordeal? Yes. That difficult time had a ripple effect on every other relationship in my life, but most importantly my relationship with my self. I examined and dissected everything in my life, looking for understanding. In the process, some things fell away. Those that didn't will endure. From destruction comes regrowth. In that sense, I suppose that which didn't kill me did make me stronger.