Originally published in June 2013.
It happens once a year. The temperatures start to climb. The summer heat returns, bringing with it that Virginia humidity that makes the air a little harder to breathe on certain days. It brings birthdays and pool days. And, of course, for me, the summer also brings my brother’s “death” day.
He was only 10. I was 17. In the time since he died, I have gone from hating the summer, cursing the summer, dreading the summer to now somehow welcoming it like an old friend I don’t get to see often enough. So you might ask how I got from there to here.
Almost 21 years to be exact. The first 10 years I dreaded the summer. Everything about the heat, the thickness in the air, even the flowers that only bloom late August. It was all a painful reminder of the day that was coming. The one that would remind me that he was gone. The one I would play over and over again in my head the weeks and days leading up to it.
The phone call I didn’t know would be the last time we would speak — or the last time anyone in my family would speak to him. The waiting for what felt like an eternity for someone to tell us what happened, where he was, how he was … only to watch my dad tell my mom he was gone. Me watching like it was a scene from a movie — the visions of her beating on his chest, calling him a liar.
And that old familiar knot would settle in my chest — heaviness made up of both anxiety and sadness. Then the day would finally arrive.
Then one year it was a little less awful. I found myself half way through the summer before my thoughts kicked into “death day” mode. At first I thought I was betraying him somehow by not being sad enough or crying enough.
To me, feeling the pain was some horrible way of honoring him. It meant I hadn’t forgotten him — that my love for him wasn’t gone just because he was. And with more and more time that passed when I’d see kids playing little league or hear a song he use to sing at the top of his lungs, I would smile.
Then something happened. Something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. I started to actually look forward to the summer again.
My memories had shifted from being centered on that horrible day to remembering mid-day swims and late afternoon baseball games. Playing hide-and -seek after dark, catching fire flies in mason jars and sunburn!
Maybe it was the new life breathed into our family with the arrival of my niece. Maybe it’s the way that sometimes when I’m holding my son’s hand I’m reminded of holding my brother’s hand — feeling for a split second like it almost is my brother’s. Or maybe it’s just that old saying, “life goes on.” Because in essence it did and has.
So what have I learned? That pain doesn’t honor my brother, it only punishes me.
To honor him means to continue on living. To see him reflected in my son’s smile or hear his laugh echoed through my daughter. It means it’s OK to still cry after so long because I miss him — and I still miss him. But ultimately it means that summer doesn’t stink anymore!
Our thanks to guest author Kim Madison for sharing her story with us.