“It’s okay. I’m doing okay, don’t worry about me.”
We sat at the coffee table on the floor of grandpa’s house, a place that has ceased to be a family home for about a decade now. Aspects of friends and family flickered about in fragments and noise, filling up every other corner of the house. He arrived in disguise to meet me, so that no one would notice. Looking into his face, trying to resist the distortions that dreaming brings, I wanted to cry.
We held hands. They felt like our mother’s. “I love you, baby brother.”
He nodded. “I love you too.”
He gave my hand a squeezed and gently let go, disappearing.
In the dream, I remember thinking, Will I ever be okay? as this aspect of my brother left and I rode the rest of the choppy dream through until dawn woke me with an aching heart.
Grandpa used to appear in my dreams in a similar way. A few weeks after his funeral, he started appearing, maybe twice a year or so, just to sit close by and watch over me. Always in that house, too, the home he made and died in. Always, in these dreams, no one else could see him. Sometimes he talked to family members, though they couldn’t seem to acknowledge him. I have a lot of nightmares about that house and about family members, but when he showed up, they stopped being scary. Always, with these dreams, I’d wake up with a kind of heartache that bloomed into a warmth spreading out to the far reaches of my fingers and toes. I never knew what to make of these dreams, but I try to commit them to memory.
I thought my dreams of my grandfather had stopped six years ago. He appeared again recently. It was a night I was trying to keep myself alive from the effects of a triggered seizure and series of panic attacks that had me utterly lost in the dark. I was so sure I wasn’t going to survive that night and my traumatic experiences with local hospitals and doctors meant that calling on that kind of help wasn’t an option, even then. Especially then.
I barely slept. Whenever I did, my dreams spiraled me back into panic. I could taste blood from all the screams that were rushing out of my body and into the night. In one of these short bursts of sleep, grandpa appeared. We were in that house again and I was on the floor, incapacitated while everyone else rushed about. Grandpa sat close by, so I could see him clearly. He made sure no one stepped on me. I wanted to reach out to him but I couldn’t move. When I finally did, I woke up and cried until morning, broken and absolutely shattered. Alive.
“Look at us,” my mom said as we sat on the floor sifting through old family photos for pictures of my brother, her son. “We know how to love each other better now.” I told her I would rather this didn’t happen for us to learn that. I’d rather have been angry for the rest of my life if it meant my brother was still alive.
I have a different kind of anger now – of not remembering the last time I saw him, of waiting and waiting and waiting until never to reach out and have the conversation I needed to have with him, of being alive now that he isn’t, of being the child that survived – I had many near-death experiences, it doesn’t make sense to me that I’m alive. I can’t imagine going on knowing he isn’t in this world.
We were like the sun and the moon. When one was present, the other was at the other side of the sky. He had the kind of light that was always shining while I was more keen to shine depending on moments and seasons. He was scared of the dark and closed doors – for years, he slept with the lights on and wouldn’t close the bathroom door when he needed to use it at night. Because of my night terrors and the hurt I went through, I learned how to own the dark and kept some doors shut for good. He welcomed new people into his life easily; I was more solitary. It made complete sense to me for him to be my brother, for who he was to me and our sister. The three of us siblings – regardless of what we went through – were always a unit of our own making. We still think we’re going to bump into him, or hear of him.
I don’t know how to live without him but I know that the only way for me to truly honor his memory and the connection we share as siblings is to do exactly that. Live.
My body is still recovering from that night. There are moments I can’t move and even breathing is hard. I have trouble replying messages or remembering the simplest of things – I’m not fully or even halfway functional. My strongest urges fluctuate from wanting to go as far away as possible from this country and everything that has happened here, to reverting myself back into a child, to giving up and drowning in isolation.
The morning I realized I had lived through yet another massive breakdown, I reached out to my mom and did something I never thought I could ever do – I asked her for help. I’m back at my place now, with the cats and R, still unsure of how to be but armed lightly with new suggestions for coping mechanisms, making sure I’m alive enough to do the basiscs day in day out – eat, shower, dress myself, read. In the aftermath of trauma and heartbreak, these things come first.
Grief is as varied and personal as the patterns on our fingertips, the very individual rhythms of internal organs chugging along with each breath. I don’t know what mourning should look like – none of us do and that is how it should be. One of the first things I did was get a haircut and started making art about my childhood memories with my brother. My hair is short now, light and blissfully strange on my head. My hands, though, feel so foreign sometimes that I can’t draw to save my life – and I have been drawing to save my life since I was a child.
What this taught me is that my usual coping mechanisms aren’t neessarily going to work. Something crucial in my life has been reset but the rest of the world can’t see that, so it feels like I’m left behind in an unknown place. Another terra incognita to either discover or disappear in.
In a lot of ways, I am like a child again. Like how he appeared in my life and became my first friend, how we had to navigate that newness and the other newness of our sister’s arrival later on, my sister and I now have to navigate this newness of having known, loved, and lost him.
“I miss you,” I said when I saw his face in my dream.