About two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a coworker, and although it seemed totally insignificant at the time, I’ve been thinking about it a lot ever since. During the day. At night. At meals, during car rides and every time I glance at the tiny, little smiling picture of me and a little boy standing beside each other — the lock screen picture on my phone . Hang tight with me on this one, because it gets a little wordy.
I was pulling a transaction in from the drive-thru window one afternoon at the credit union where I work, and my coworker, Shae, was droning on in the background about an upcoming test she was dreading.
“I just get so scared,” she whined, staring down hard at her Spanish book, full of wordy definitions, independent exercises, verbs and conjugations. She was hunched over in her chair, wearing a bright red blouse that accentuated the lovely reddish tones from her latest salon visit.
“Scared, huh?” I smiled to myself and walked over to my desk, beginning to process the transaction.
Shae went on about how difficult she anticipated the exam would be and how, no matter how much she studied, she still didn’t feel like she had prepared enough.
I was listening to her and walking back down to the drive-thru window, shoving the envelope full of money and the the slick little piece of receipt paper into the drawer, when she asked me a relevant and rather simple question:
“What do you do when you’re afraid of something?”
“I think about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” I said quickly. “And jars of pickles.”
I smiled at the member before they drove away, wishing them a nice day, and turned around to look at Shae, who was laughing.
“No, really.. what do you SERIOUSLY think of when you’re afraid?”
It only took me a half-second to seriously answer her question.
“Honestly, I think about Bobby.” I looked away, subconsciously. “Anytime I’m scared, I think about Bobby, and I’m not afraid anymore.”
She smiled sweetly and the conversation ended as a member walked up to her desk, laying down his transaction ticket.
But while the conversation had ended there, I couldn’t stop dwelling on it.
I’ve been doing it for a while now, I guess – especially now that he’s gone – but up until the moment that I spoke it outwardly to Shae, I hadn’t realized how true it was. My brother does make me brave. Just the thought of him makes me feel fearless; I can be in the dark alley, walking all alone, or sitting in the doctor’s office, on the patient’s bed, or crouched down in my closet, howling winds and sheet-like rain pouring down on the house.. and I’m not afraid.
And what I’ve asked myself is, why? Why does the memory of my dead, older brother make me so.. courageous? Why do I use him as a sort of shield against scary images, thoughts and situations?
The answer I have been given is this:
The answer, is twofold.
Bobby suffered more in his 24 years than I most likely ever will in my entire life. He submitted, quietly and without complaint, to surgeries, transplants, constant pricking and prying.. not even a hint of fear in his eyes. Not even the trace of a cry on his lips. And his simple, brave, honest, compassionate soul made an impression on me that I feel daily. I feel it as easily as if he had carved it on a piece of skin that I brush against daily, as easily as if he had tattooed it on a part of my face that I check in the mirror every day. Daily, daily, daily I think of my brother, and then I imagine the kind of girl he pictured me to be; I plead with myself to be the kind of sister that would make him proud today.
The second reason (why my brother makes me fearless) was far more hidden from me.
Beyond wanting to imitate my brother’s strengths, I want to live the life that he wasn’t (and isn’t..) able to. He was the one chosen to bear all of the sickness and infirmities, the child chosen to suffer the limitations and disadvantages that inhibit living a normal life, and I was left, with my goofy looks and average intelligence, to scrape by in the world — and maybe, to achieve something worthwhile.
The fact that he took the fall – my beloved older brother, there to protect me and always looking out for me – and gave me the ability and the chance to assume whatever identity, take up whatever hobbies, and give myself to any pursuits and causes that I wanted to — these facts urge me to take chances, to live happily, to love every hour of life and to call it an adventure, as I know he would, were he here.
But then, a few nights ago, I realized something that was, perhaps, even more true.
As brave as Bobby makes me feel, the thought of him also terrifies me.
I was lying in bed; it was early in the morning, still terribly dark outside, and Chris had already left for work. It was just Bruster and I in the house and I couldn’t fall back asleep. Amongst thoughts of work, school, TV shows and what I would be planning for Chris and I’s dinner the next evening, the image of Bobby, laughing and smiling, came playing across my mind. Its effect was immediate.
I felt cold all over; my heart constricted, and my chest tightened; it was hard to breathe. I could feel the thudding in my chest and the sense of panic covering me like a cold, wet and heavy blanket.
I pushed him out of my mind right away; slowly, calm returned. I don’t know how, but I learned last year that I was able to erect this sort of barrier in my mind, where when I decide not to think of Bobby, nothing inside me questions the decision. It’s like my authority is final. Not even traces of him are allowed to surface.. it’s like he simply isn’t.
I am certain that I love Bobby more now than I ever have before. I never realized how important he was to me. It’s like having a pizza in the freezer on two different occasions.
Occasion one, it’s just some random day of the week and I’m sort of hungry. I’m glad the pizza’s there, but it isn’t a huge priority in my life.
Occasion two, I’ve been on a three day fruit fast and I’M STARVING TO DEATH. I open the freezer door and find that my one and only frozen pizza is gone; someone else has eaten it, or else it has magically disappeared. In scenario two, you see, the pizza is obviously much more important to me. Vital, even.
The discrepancy in the way that I valued the pizza at two different times, was need. I didn’t realize how much I needed my brother when he was here. I recognize it now that he’s gone; his absence is felt much more strongly than his presence ever was. Knowing that there’s a “no passing” zone – that no matter how hard I try and no matter how much I will for it to be so, I cannot contact him – leaves me feeling nothing short of panic-stricken. So, ultimately, I refuse to remember my brother. It’s the only way I’ve found of coping. The happy memories I’m supposed to be having of us growing up together just aren’t happy yet; they are only the sad, spiked, jagged and devastating pieces to a odd, twisted, hard-to-construct puzzle.
So, you see, the whole point of this post is to communicate the one, simple, general idea that I’ve been mulling over for weeks: the precursor to fear, is love. We only fear, because we love. I only fear death because I love life (further along, I fear knives and guns because they pose threats to my life). I only fear losing my job because I love having a bed, a dog and three meals a day..
and I only become horribly afraid when I think of my brother because I love him so completely, and he’s completely, totally, irretrievably gone.