Shifting Memories

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go” ~ Jamie Anderson

The way I talk about my brother’s death has changed over the months and years. When people ask if his death was sudden I used to say yes. Then somewhere along the way, I said, well, others probably saw it coming but it was a surprise to me. Later I added an explanation, “I was too close to see it coming. I didn’t want to accept the possibility, so it was sudden to me.”

Then this morning, facebook showed me a reminder that 2 years ago on this date, 2 weeks before my brother died, we were looking into PCAs to help during the day and my brother was eating more than he had been. We were planning for his strength to increase.

I didn’t make up my surprise. I don’t need to justify the timing of events. It was sudden.

There was a big shift in a short period of time from– okay- this is the next step to get some strength to- oh shit- there is nothing else to do.

I read that post this morning and then I got out of bed. I walked to my closet, held onto the door for support, and I wept.

Sometimes a memory brings all the weight of the loss right to the surface. And there’s nowhere for the love to go but through my eyes.


8 days of celebration

Last month was my brother’s birthday. My mom tells birthday stories of me and Justin when we were little. She says I used to give Justin gifts on my birthday so he would feel included in opening presents. As he got older he coined the phrase (stolen from Hanukkah), “Missika” to represent my birthday week because to him the celebration went on and on, like an eight day festival of lights, he’d say.

This year as his birthday neared, I knew I wanted to do something to honor Justin, and an 8 day celebration of life seemed the most obvious. It was fun to think of some of the things he really enjoyed and finding ways to incorporate them into “Gussika.”

Justin was  a big coffee lover. He worked in lots of coffee shops over the years. He preferred his own coffee with several shots of espresso. He told Andy that three or four shots was typical for him, six if it was going to be a long day.  I knew coffee had to be part of his birthday week somehow.

Justin also loved giving things away to people. When he was in Indiana having his last treatment, he was able to give a hungry man his barely touched dinner. He talked about how much it meant to him to still be able to give to someone when he was relying on others himself. The idea to gift someone’s cup of coffee came pretty quickly in a way to honor two things Justin loved: coffee and treating others. I talked to him about it in the car on the way to the coffee shop and I think he would have loved this, conspiring for good.

I also wanted to watch a movie he liked. This was tricky to narrow down the options because there were so many. As a teen he’d watch anything with Jim Carey or Mike Myers. Before that,there were classics like Princess Bride, Monty Python and Spaceballs. I finally settled on Spaceballs having not seen it for at least a decade or two. I laughed at the best lines and imagined Justin quoting the movie with me. It was a bad habit we had from watching the same movies over and over again. Though for him, he only had to watch it once to be able to recite the entire thing. His memory was ridiculous.

Justin loved so many different foods this was a hard one to pick too. Andy and I agreed we definitely wanted to have bacon cheeseburgers on his birthday. From there though, the options were many: bacon, waffles with chocolate chips, eggs benedict with homemade hollandaise, cheesey hashbrowns, beef stroganoff, cheesecake, brownies, etc. I finally landed on double stuff oreos dipped in milk. I had them twice that week.

Music was another thing Justin loved. For a while he was obsessed with the song, “Shoulders” by for King and Country.  He would tell me to blast it to get the full effect. He also liked, “Soul on Fire” by Third Day and it was played by one of his best friends at his celebration of life service while his two year old daughter danced in the front row. Another song was played there that I had never heard before but have come to love. It’s “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. I can’t hear any of these without thinking of Justin. When I turned the radio on during his birthday week, each of these songs was playing for three mornings in a row. I smiled each time.

Justin also loved being outdoors, doing some sort of extreme sport like ice biking in the winter or wake boarding in the summer. Motorcycles, four wheelers, jet skiing, basically anything with a motor, he was interested in it. I have a lack of athleticism but was planning to go snow tubing with our nephews, Andy and his sister. The weather changed that day and our plans were cancelled. So I just stood outside looking at the stars for a bit. Not what I had originally planned, but it was nice and peaceful and I thought of my brother.

On his actual birthday, my sister-in-law emailed a bunch of family and some of his best friends and with just a few hours notice, twenty-one people showed up to celebrate the day Justin was born. My heart swelled a bit looking around the huge table. Even in his absence his presence was felt because each person was there because they loved Justin. He brought all of us together that night. I looked around at the plates and almost everyone had a cheeseburger of some sort. It was a sweet way to celebrate the day that Justin was given life.

I don’t know how heaven works, but I hope he was able to peer over the edge for a minute to see all of us there, honoring the day he was born.

I didn’t do something specific on each of the 8 days before his birthday like I intended. But I did learn how easy it is to do something small to remember and feel close to someone when they’re not here. And that’s a pretty great gift.

My brother, the wordsmith

My brother was a skilled user of words. Okay, fine, that’s the exact definition of a wordsmith- but I’m not the one with the impressive language skills, he was. Justin loved words so much that when an opportunity came up to take a vocabulary class in high school- he jumped at it.

The first story I remember about Justin’s abnormal vocabulary was when he was somewhere around the age of two. My uncle would show him off like some people show off a cute puppy. For full effect, he would gather a crowd around before asking, “Now Justin, what’s that thing called when you can see something out of the corner of your eye?” Two year old Justin, who could barely pronounce the words, would proudly exclaim, “peripheral vision!”

Once he took the vocab class in high school, he was off and running. Justin took a lot of joy in knowing the meaning of words that others didn’t. He would drop impecunious into conversation just as easily as circumambulate (two words he taught me that mean ‘having little money’ and to ‘walk all the way around something’, respectively). He had an incredible memory and only had to hear something once to remember it and repeat it for the rest of his life.

One of my favorite memories where Justin’s imagination and love of words came together was one winter in elementary school. We had a large sledding hill in the back yard and he made up a creative game called, “Hi, Jack- bye!” or it could also be known as, “Hijack, bye!” through a little wordplay. Justin loved a good pun.

The rules were simple.

If you were on a sled going down the hill, you were, “Jack.” If you were, “it” your job was to run and jump onto the moving sled once Jack was midway down the hill and hijack their ride. First, you had to greet them with, “Hi, Jack” then you had to try to shove them off their sled while yelling, “Bye!” If you were successful, you rode their stolen sled the rest of the way down the hill like a boss while Jack watched on from the middle of the hill.

It still makes me laugh to think about it. It was a physical game and it usually ended with someone in tears, what with all the snow, ice, running and wrestling on a moving sled kind of stuff.

I’m glad I was able to grow up with a brother who came up with such fun things for us to do. Love and miss you, Gus.