A love letter to my brother

“Sis, it’s mom… she died.”

Five years since you tiptoed into my bedroom early in the morning and whispered the words that no child should ever have to say to their sibling.

You were only 16, still just a kid. I had a decade more of life experience, but even at 26 I still felt so…young. Not ready. Unprepared for the shock and trauma of everything that was unfolding around us.

Looking back, though, I realize now that nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. The only way forward was through, and once we were in the middle of it, there was simply no turning back. We could only walk forward through the hellscape that was our reality, one excruciating and surreal moment at a time.

So much of that period is a blur to me now; my brain couldn’t process all that was happening. I remember very clearly, though, how I felt. All of the confusion, the hurt, the disappointment in family members who should have known better, should have done better.

In the middle of the chaos, while my heart was ripped open and laid bare, I knew only one thing to be true. I was put on this planet for a specific reason, in anticipation of this very moment in time.

My life’s purpose was to be there for you when our world came crumbling down, to shoulder as much of the burden as possible and simply allow you to be the kid that you were — albeit for the last time.

I tried my hardest to put you at the center of the universe, my universe, in each and every decision I made.

It started the moment I stepped off the plane from Paris and learned that mom had been admitted to the ICU days earlier and might not even make it through the night. Did I want to drive directly from the airport to the hospital to possibly say my goodbyes?

I was so confused; she was supposed to be starting hospice care at home and I had intended to help take care of her during her final weeks or months. But potentially losing her only hours after my arrival? My foggy, jetlagged brain could hardly process what was being said to me, but one thing I knew for sure: I wasn’t going to the hospital without you. We’re a package deal. Whether or not it meant I would miss her final minutes, the way forward was always clear — we were in this together.

Her sheer will power kept her alive that night and for a few days after, giving us enough time to quietly sit by her side, hold her fragile hands and reminisce on happy childhood memories. Sharp, painful moments seared forever into my soul; moments I will cherish until my last breath.

The morning she died, I delicately gave you the option of returning to the hospital to see her one last time, unsure of how you would react to this impossible question. I remember driving through rush hour traffic to get there as fast as we could, feeling dumbstruck that everyone around us could go on with their typical day while our world had come to a screeching halt. It’s not fair, I hate this, how am I supposed to do this? The same refrain constantly ringing in my mind.

Hugging you tightly in that hospital room with her, feeling like I was dead too, at least on the inside. But in my heart, I knew that had I not been there, you would probably not have had this final moment with her. Even in my worst nightmares, I would have never dreamed of being grateful to give you this “gift,” but here we are.

The days that followed were filled with more impossible scenarios.

I learned how to plan a funeral. Spending hours scrolling through all of my old photo files to find a picture that best captured her spirit. The one of her smiling with Rex, I thought, let me get that one enlarged for the funeral service. Where do you even go to print photos onto a foam board? Now I know.

I delivered my first eulogy. I remember it was hard to breathe, and I stood there for a long moment before the oxygen finally returned to my lungs. I remember looking out at you in the front row — too young to be seated in the front row of a funeral. I saw your face collapsing and felt my heart die a little more. It’s not fair, I hate this, how am I supposed to do this?

Several days later, I went to collect a few things from her house. I had only a couple of hours to sift through a lifetime of souvenirs. My first report cards, your first soccer trophies. Boy scout merit badges, handmade Christmas ornaments, horseback riding memorabilia. Photo album after photo album, box after box of documents. Her jewelry, old letters I sent from Paris, an envelope with my first baby teeth and a lock of my hair.

How could I know what would be important to you later on? Why did I have to choose which of your yearbooks we wanted to keep? I couldn’t take it all, and I wish I could have taken more, and I am so sorry if I made the wrong call about a piece of your life that you’ll never get back. Know that I did my very best, and in every decision — to keep or to leave — my first thought was always you.

Months later, when the cloud of grief started to lift just a little, I wrote down as many specific memories of her as I could. Her favorite flower, her favorite scent. Her extravagant birthday parties and holiday surprises. You were so young for most of them, and I knew I had to tangibly capture these moments that would otherwise be forgotten. I can’t bring her back to make any new memories, but I can try to keep the ones we still have alive.

More than a year later, you and I were alone together, sitting on the rooftop of an apartment in Naples, Italy, overlooking Mount Vesuvius. Surrounded by sparkling city lights, drinking red wine, listening to country music and letting our tears fall silently in the dark, we started to digest all that we had been through.

Side by side, we began our journey to heal. Despite the gaps in terms of age and distance, we were still in it together. We’ll always be in it together, my brother bear.

It’s not fair, I hate this, how am I supposed to do this?

It wasn’t fair, and five years later I still hate this — but now I know how I found the strength to do what needed to be done. My love for you runs deeper than I even knew was possible and is a source of strength that I didn’t know existed within me.

When I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and hide there forever, I did the opposite. I stood tall, I flashed her my brightest smile, and I did everything I could to send her off with the love and peace she deserved.

Five years ago my world was filled with impossible moments, but the light shining at the end of the tunnel gave me purpose and breathed life into me when I needed it the most. That light, your light, descended into the universe like a meteor shower the day you were born.

The light within you may dim sometimes, and that’s okay. You might stumble, and you might even fall, but I will always be there to help you stand back up. To help reignite your spark and enable you to live out your purpose in life.

You should have been able to stay a kid a little longer — but the broken pieces of your childhood are shaping you into exactly the person you’re supposed to be.

That person is undeniably beautiful. And that person is right on time.

Sharing stories of humanity, family and my journey working with marginalized groups. Hoping to help conquer xenophobia with radical compassion.