The phone rang while I was shaving. It was quarter of seven in the morning, but a phone call wasn't uncommon at that hour. I would frequently get early calls from the office to let me know if there were problems waiting for me when I arrived. However, after the long Memorial Day weekend I really didn't want to start the week with issues. RC got the phone. She said it was for me. "Is it Tracy?" I asked as I walked to the phone. "It doesn't sound like her," RC answered, sotto voce.
"Hello?" I said putting the phone to my ear.
"Lex?" asked the voice at the other end.
"You don't know me, Lex. I work with your mom. My name is Rick," she said.
"Hi, Rick," I said.
"Kind of a weird thing to ask, I know, but do you know how to get a hold of your mom?"
"Uh, I think she's still in Washington. She took a long weekend there with a friend," I answered.
"Yeah, we can't reach her."
"I have a phone number she gave me. Let me get it." I flipped through the pad next to the phone and recited the number to her.
"That's the one we have, but no one is answering," she said.
"I'm sorry, that's all I have. They probably took the phone off the hook."
She was quiet for a while.
"Are you still there?" I asked, finally.
"Lex, I know we've never met, but I have some bad news." she said quietly.
"Oh," I said, a little confused, "What happened?"
"There's been an accident," she said.
Oh God, I thought, one of my grandparents has fallen and broken a hip. Great.
"I feel weird telling you. I've never met you," she said, obviously nervous.
"Well, you know, just tell me, I guess," I said, a little befuddled.
Her voice broke. "Your brother was in an accident yesterday."
"Lee?" I asked.
"He... he was killed."
"What?" I said quietly.
"Lee was killed."
"What?" I said, a little louder.
"An accident, yesterday, Lee was killed."
"What?" I yelled.
"On his motorcycle, yesterday, in Denver. I'm so sorry."
"What!" I screamed.
RC stood next to me and asked me what was I talking about. I said the words: "Lee is dead."
RC screamed, "Oh God!" and collapsed against the wall before sliding to the floor, her head in her hands. I turned back to the phone. Rick was just saying how sorry she was. I don't really remember listening to her much after that. I just remember mumbling, what, over and over again; a gut-wrenching mantra.
There was for me the sense of walking on a seabed in an old diving suit, the clunky lead boots tied me to the muck below as my body's buoyancy fought to push me to the surface. It felt like I had forgotten the helmet and I could not breath.
That phone call came 18 years ago today, May 29th, 1990. It was a stone thrown in a pond, changing everything, the ripples of which continue even now. Of course, it wasn't the phone call that did the changing; it was the previous day's death the phone call reported that did the destruction. Although Lee died on that Memorial Day, it's always felt to me like he died the day after, during that early morning phone call. It was as if all those whats I kept repeating were my desperate attempts to save him: a verbal defibrillator that failed.
By September of that year I would be running through most of Europe on a three month odyssey to escape that which I could not fix, could not manage away. It was a failed solution, the first of many, from alcohol to hermitage; none of which could make the pain stop (I even made a bitter and angry list, pages and pages long, of everyone that I thought a more just universe should have killed before him - in hindsight, a rather funny roll call).
For so many years after his death I saw the loss of my brother, my dearest, closest friend, as something I must get over - must move beyond - as if it were separate and distinct from myself, some obstacle thrown up in my path to be pushed aside or navigated around. That proved impossible, not just because my grief was so devasting, but because it would not be left behind. Only when I realized that it would always be with me did I see my way forward. The tragedy would be a sledge I hauled behind me for the rest of my days in exhaustion, or even an anchor that eternally tethered me to a horrible moment; or I could pick the grief up, pare it down, and stow it in a pack, to be carried forever as part of my baggage. I choose the latter; better to bear it on my back than drag it through the dirt.
Over time its added weight has strengthened me and expanded my endurance. The weight also means I move more deliberately and, on some days, more painfully, but I move. As I grow older I find, like backpacking through the mountains, I must rest more frequently as I tire more quickly. On the worst of days it can make me gasp for air, but that, at least, is breathing.
My son's middle name is my brother's first. My Boy looks very much like his uncle and his best qualities - his sweetness, his empathy, his laugh - remind me of his namesake. I see my sibling every day in my child. That makes the load both heavier and lighter. That is my life, after.
So, today, it is with me, as it is every day, and like that heavy backpack in the mountains I must shift it as needed to ease its burden, to maintain my balance, but I can not leave it behind. It is part of who I am and who I will always be.
And, on this day, I miss him, a lot.