The acts of kindness began simultaneously to the tragedy. Think about that for a moment. Something terrible happened to me and my family and instantly there were people who mobilized to support us. Instantly. I started this post thinking I would write about that but this may turn into something different. You’ll have to bear with me.
My brother, Bart called me somewhere around 8:30 or 9pm on Wednesday night June 14th. I was just sitting down to watch This is Us on television. I had been binge watching the family drama. I haven’t been able to turn it on since. Judd had just walked in from going grocery shopping. He was telling me how expensive the shopping trip had been; marveling at the amount of salmon he had purchased. My son, Nelson had gone to bed easily and I was feeling relaxed and happy. I had texted my friend Kim to confirm that I would be at the gym at 6 the next morning and would in fact pick her up for the class. Everything was feeling good. I was taking it all for granted.
That’s the beauty of life before tragedy. You can take it for granted. But tragedy is a haymaker punch that lands square when your head is turned, laughing in a bar. Bart’s call was the sucker punch. I almost hung up when I answered and he didn’t start speaking right away. I thought he had dialed me accidentally. I had even remarked to Judd “Hey, I think Bart butt dialed me!” and laughed. But then Bart was on the line but with a weird sing song voice saying “Something has happened. There is a large police presence at 408.” I’m standing and moving and saying “I’m coming” before I have really processed what he is saying. The need to GET THERE was so strong. I just began to move. I had my keys and my purse and was standing in the kitchen when he sort of lilted “There is a deceased body in the back yard.” My knees buckled. I know I wailed. Before that night I didn’t realize those things were actually involuntary. And then I was in the car telling Judd to stay; I didn’t need him to drive me. Stay with our son.
I drove the thirty minutes in the rain to my brother’s house. I called a couple of people on the way. One was my workout buddy. I won’t be there tomorrow. I think my brother is dead. One was my work friend. Something has happened. I think my brother killed himself. I won’t be there tomorrow. One was my friend Chris. I don’t actually remember what I said to him. Probably I said he killed himself Chris. My fears have come true. And then I called Bart again. Are you alone? No, there are lots of police here. Where is Kerry? Is Kerry there? No, she isn’t. I left her a message. I’m coming Bart. I’m coming.
By the time I arrived the street was crowded with cars. Police cars. All running as if they were preparing to leave at any second. I’m met by a police officer who asks why I am there. Why am I there? Because my world just ended. But out loud I say I am here because that is my brother’s house. He shows me where to park. I can’t figure out how to put my car in reverse. I’m sure he wonders how I got myself there. I am wondering too. He is at my car door as I get out explaining he is the police chaplain. I think his name was Mike? I ask him Did someone hurt my brother? He says he doesn’t think so. He sounds sad. Did he hurt himself? We are investigating now ma’am. So yes. He did. But how?? We aren’t gun owners! None of us. Our mother wouldn’t even let us own water guns for God’s sake. He says nothing. He tells me that he advises me not to go into the backyard. Don’t look he says. I am suggesting you not look. And the suggestion, while kind and probably prudent also opens the door of my imagination. How horrible is it back there that you think I will not be able to recover from the sight? I numbly walk down the street to be in front of the house. It is dark. It is misting and everywhere is wet from rain. There are two officers standing in front of the front door which is wide open. There are lights on in the living room. I sense there are police inside the house too. Periodically the flash from the police camera is visible both inside the house and from behind the house too. The front yard is big. The front door feels a million miles away from where we stand on the street. And it’s so quiet. No one is saying anything. I find Bart. He is pacing and distraught. He wants to be in that backyard badly. He has a real need to see, to validate, to ensure that we are really facing the death of our brother. How do we know it’s him? HOW indeed. I tell him we shouldn’t go look even when they allow us to go. We should not. We won’t be able to unsee it. That was something else the chaplain had said. You won’t be able to unsee it. At some point I ask Bart to not go look- for me. Do it for me, I say. And to that he agrees. And I cry so hard because this is a decision he doesn’t want to make and he is doing it for me. (Reference acts of kindness mentioned above. This was the first of so many.)
As the rain melts my clothes in to a damp weight on my body and the quiet becomes too much I begin to notice how many people are standing on the street. There are Nelson’s neighbors but there are also lots of people I don’t recognize. I learn later they were friends from my brother’s job. Someone told me the Director of the library stood there quietly in front of the house for a very long time. There were friends of Bart there. Suddenly, Judd was there. Chris had hung up with me and gone to my house. He was sitting in my living room while my son slept so that Judd could be there to hold me up. And then Kerry was there with her friend Ella and together they both held me up. I saw people not adequately dressed; barefoot just there. Not leaving. Holding us up with invisible hands. The fragility of proxemics.
At some point there are murmurings that there was a note left. Someone has seen it. Someone who is not a police officer; because the police officers won’t confirm anything. The investigation is on going ma’am. We hear that the note was addressed to all of the family; including our mother. We are told it says “I am sorry”. Beyond that we are not told. We can not be allowed to see it or read it. In a moment of pure pitiful grief I begged the young officer who was our point person to just read it to me. Please. Just read it to me. He does not.
I call my father. I call my sister. I deliver unthinkable news. I will never forget the sound my father made.
We were out there for hours waiting for someone to come to do something I am not even sure what. Confirm the death? It is not the medical examiner but it is someone affiliated? I never really understood. And he’s delayed and we remain standing in the rain on the street. And all the quiet friends stay. Finally we are led up the sidewalk to talk to the coroner or whoever it is we have been waiting on. And I am confused and rattled because I recognize the man. I had just met him at a few months before at a bar in Petersburg. Bart had introduced us because who doesn’t Bart know? He was a retired police detective or something from Prince George? Dinwiddie? I know you! I say before I can stop myself. Yes he says. I say I met you at Thanksgiving. Yes, he confirms. And then I don’t know why but I hug him. He confirms that Nelson is dead. He tells us that he hung himself in the high tower in the backyard. He says to Bart, You know he was sick for a long time. Bart says well I don’t know about a long time. Mr. King says again, a long time. He tells us that now the waiting is for the funeral home. Have we picked one? I think there is only one in Colonial Heights and I feel confused at the idea of choice.
Finally they arrive. A man too young for the job and a woman even younger. He hands me a card and asks if we have any thoughts about a service or the handling of the remains. No. No, we don’t. Please call us in a few years. We’ll have all the answers by then. We are moved back to the street. Bart again agrees not to go to the backyard. I lean against him. I thank him profusely. It takes a long time to do whatever business is involved in the removing of a person from their place of death. It felt unbearable. I was starting to rant against the police. I told them they had to see that I was a human being and I was trying with all my heart to not disintegrate and they had to tell me something. They had to have humanity. I could see the younger officers struggling for what to do but staying on script and sticking to protocol in the end. By the end of the night one of the officers asked if there was anything else we needed and I told him I was tired of being mad at him so I had nothing more to ask or request. No more. I couldn’t bear to have him tell me he couldn’t tell me one more thing. He just nodded his head.
And then my brother’s body was brought down the long front yard to the waiting hearse. It was wrapped in black and strapped to a gurney. By now it was very late and very dark and the yard was uneven terrain and I could feel the anxiety of the funeral directors as they tried to navigate the situation. And then I had tunnel vision. And I was staring at this shape on this gurney and trying to reconcile that it was Nelson. His body shape seemed too short somehow and yet too long at the same time. I kept whispering wait. Wait. They waited. They both stepped back from him. Did Bart come over? I don’t know. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I had such an overwhelming sadness. It hasn’t left. I put my head down to where his chest was. I rested there and whispered to him. I struggled with the enormity of the situation. I am sorry and I forgive you. I am sorry and I forgive you. I am sorry and I forgive you. I will miss you the rest of my life.
How long did I stand like that? Bent over with my head on my brother’s still chest? I think it was probably minutes. It was terribly quiet. Finally I became aware that everyone was standing around us; silently. The police, our friends, the funeral people, the neighbors. They were waiting for me to step away and let him go. And then I was aware that once I did step back they would all go back to the business of their lives. This was potentially going to be just a thing that happened on their shift or the reason they called in late for work the next day or the gossip they would be mongering out over a beer at some point. And to me suddenly that was a big part of the tragedy. They didn’t understand the void that had been created in the universe. They didn’t recognize the magnitude of the loss of this one life; this very special life. The idea that for even just one person standing there that night that they could be thinking ‘it was just some guy who killed himself’ was more than I could stand. I didn’t care how many times they had been to scenes like this. This one was different. This was Nelson. I had to make sure they knew that. And so I made them all wait and I straightened up but I kept my hand on his body so they couldn’t go about the business of taking him from me. And I said to the dark sky “this man is precious to me.” I have never said anything so true in all my life. This man is precious to me. He is not a statistic. He is not an anecdote. He is precious to me. I named my 8 year old son after this man. I told everyone there that they needed to go home and say I love you to the people who matter. They needed to take nothing for granted.
So this isn’t about kindness after all. I will write about that. Soon. But, clearly what I needed at this moment was to recount the enormity of that moment. That moment where I had to step back and let my brother be taken in the back of a hearse. I thought of that moment as the thing that started the clocks moving again, the beginning of people rejoining their lives already in progress. The waiting was over and while the waiting was hard this was even more unbearable. It meant that the transition was done. The loss of Nelson official. The grieving was begun.