I have been writing this in tiny pieces for more than a decade. I’d leave it for months or years at a time, and then get a little written, a little remembered, a little planned out. I’ve decided that instead of leaving it on a back burner for another decade, pretending I’ll finish it and shop it to publishers or agents someday, that it would be better to just get it out into the world — especially in the face of the coronavirus pandemic — because I believe that four of the most powerful words we can ever say are “You are not alone.”
This is a memoir. It’s a collection of my memories of my older brother’s life and death, and the things I’ve learned about myself from my visits to his gravestone to talk to him about life. It’s a reminder that grief looks different on everyone, and that it’s ok to not be ok. It’s about trauma echoing for years through our lives, and the chance we have to see beauty and joy in the midst of terrible pain. It’s about family and growth and love and loss.
Hopefully, at least one person will feel comforted or less alone, feel seen and validated. If you’ve been fortunate enough not to experience deep loss, then hopefully this will give you a better sense of what other people you know have felt in times of suffering.
You are not alone and you are going to be ok.
“Hi, I’m looking for Zach Heuhnergarth’s room…”
Our family friend, Mr. McAndrews had spent roughly a half-hour in the unusually-warm November sunshine that particular Sunday afternoon driving to the hospital. He had finally arrived at the seventh floor and was speaking with the receptionist. She looked up from her computer monitor and pile of clipboards long enough to point at the appropriate door and say,
“It’s right there… if you can get in.”
Some things become easier with practice — after years of friendship, Mr. McAndrews now pronounced “Hew-ner-garth” without a second thought, but one must hope that visiting dying friends never becomes old hat the way that pronouncing difficult names so quickly does. At any rate, visiting an eighteen-year-old friend on his deathbed is not a common activity for the average American, and Mr. McAndrews was no exception.
His heart raced. He tried not to panic as his imagination sped through a million possible interpretations of the receptionist’s cryptic direction. He arrived at the white door which was exactly like the hundreds of other white doors in the building, save for the number posted within reach on the wall to the right. He turned the knob, and, looking up as he opened the door, was greeted with the unexpected scene that had been unfolding in my brother’s room over the past twelve hours. Mr. McAndrews barely got the door open because the tiny hospital room was full to capacity (probably well over capacity) with friends and relations.
At least twenty or thirty people were sitting, standing, leaning, smiling. All eighty pounds of my brother’s unimposing physique were laying under the clean, though now wrinkled, white sheet. He was aware of our presence, but that was not immediately recognizable — his eyes were closed, and he was gasping for breath, his lungs rapidly failing.
All of his remaining energy was devoted to the now laborious task of staying alive, packing urgent suitcases of breath. We, his family and friends, had gathered there in a tiny hospital room with one window, seven floors high, to smile, laugh, and cry. When someone new arrived or someone said something particularly wonderful Zach’s vitals would soar momentarily, the more excited beeping of machinery making it obvious he was mindful of the goings-on around him.
I wonder, now, if hospital rooms are white and blank and sterile and colorless and impersonal to draw attention to the color and life that even a single person adds to a scene. Even a single ill person. Even a single person on the brink of death. Zach’s room, in spite of the sense of suffering and imminent loss, was undeniably full of life.
We sang some of Zach’s favorite songs, we laughed at our favorite memories of ridiculous times, we watched the ribbons of a scarlet sunset creep over the city and through the lone window, and we saw loads of evidence that in eighteen short years my brother touched a great many lives. One of Zach’s favorite relatives arrived — Uncle Steven — having caught the most immediate flight possible out of Philadelphia, to sit in the chair right next to Zach’s bed.
And so Zach, on Sunday, November the fourteenth, 1993, surrounded by a collection of his closest family and friends saying
“say hi to God for me,”
and “I love you,”
smiled his standard-issue cockeyed smirk,