How do you deal with emotions? I swallow them. Let them sink deep into my gut until they ferment and seep into my subconscious, becoming quips and jokes to stave off any other pesky feelings that might arise. Just bottle them right up. They probably won’t bubble over at an inconvenient or inappropriate moment. Probably. Like a placid lake, my surface is calm and undisturbed, but every so often a body floats to the top, fucking up the picturesque landscape for anyone who witnesses it. Every practice has its shortcomings. Besides, if you think about it, what good are emotions anyway? I mean, who really needs to understand themselves?
The term “too soon” is not one uttered often in my immediate circle, both with friends and family. My mother is the exception to this. She is like most normal people, dealing with her issues in the healthy, open kind of way. I wouldn’t say that I actively seek out others that share my personal philosophy. If anything, people like me tend to gravitate toward each other, finding a likeness in one another that is both a relief and a pleasure, sharing in a mutually irreverent existence in close proximity. These types of friendships are built on the understanding that, while both people possess feelings, neither one will ever want to discuss them. Without this obligatory constraint most friendships require, it becomes easier to simply enjoy the company.
However, this character flaw is not always easily achieved. Sometimes something so staggering happens that you become susceptible to these “natural” emotional tendencies. They shake the foundation of your very being, and make it almost impossible to laugh off. Almost. But, if I’m being honest, even these moments aren’t exempt from my sarcastic inclinations.
Have you ever owned a Nissan? I haven’t. Neither has anyone else in my family. I don’t know if this is because Nissan is just a shittier version of a Toyota or Honda, or because it’s the make of car that killed my brother. Probably the latter. But let’s not completely discount the issue of product quality.
“Killer Nissan” is what we call them now. Not in an angry way, more as a subtle nod to the event that shattered our household and tested the character and strength of our collective beings, as well as my father’s preferred method of dealing with grief. It’s hard to imagine any philosophical notion holding up to the kind blunt force trauma my family was hit with, let alone a philosophy wrapped in the guise of not having emotions. I was five at the time and had yet to develop my model of coping, but from what I’ve been told I was already well on my way to being a chip off the ol’ block in the personality department.
The effects of Rory’s death are vast, and have in some way or another bled into every aspect of my current life. I’ve dealt with issues of rage and violence, insecurity and overwhelming stubbornness that bordered on self-destructive. This is not merely from my own sense of loss, but also from having to witness the breakdown of my family and the lingering repercussions, as subdued as they are, that persist today in our endeavor to hold together. On a seemingly everyday basis I am reminded that I once had a brother. Every time someone new enters into my life (peer, co-worker, random interaction with stranger) general conversation dictates that I must answer for what happened.
“Do you have any siblings,” asks everyone you ever meet.
I have discovered there are two ways to answer this question, each having its discernable structure of discourse. One, I tell the person that I have a brother and am eventually forced to confide that he is no longer living. This is usually followed by a look of embarrassment or whatever face passes for empathy from the other person and an “I’m so sorry”. That’s all right, I tell them, he feels much better about it now. Or two, I tell them I’m an only child, setting myself up to have my personal qualities attributed to growing up without a peer. I choose the second option most days. And while this is done out of a desire to make my life easier, it’s more to let others off the hook from a conversation they didn’t sign up for. People who lay their shit on unsuspecting victims cross a line of decorum in my opinion. Nobody deserves that. Although, I do reserve the right to change my mind on this stance if someone is truly worthy of shaming. After all, there’s nothing quite like dead kid ammo.
Over the years my father’s humor has returned and made it possible to reference Rory’s death in the context of a joke. However, to this day there are reminders that remain off limits. Certain movies or songs that my brother loved risk breaking through my father’s mended, but still considerable ramparts. Talking about the event itself, the details, isn’t an option. The fact that it happened is enough. As an adult I’ve toyed with the idea of broaching this subject with my mother, and she would likely be willing to have that conversation, but I’m not. I’m not looking to analyze why I am the way I am or how his death altered the person I have become, especially at the expense of my mother having to relive the night her and my father had to watch their little boy leave this world. What am I, an asshole? I have an imagination and a good enough grasp on the depths of love a parent has for their child to know that I don’t want to know any more than I already do. We move forward with the hopeful, but not too hopeful, expectations of a brighter future to help diminish the shadow of Rory’s death that continually recedes into our past. Laughter is the sound of healing, even when the joke isn’t really funny. Especially then.
In a way, Rory’s death has created a barrier in me. One on which I stand atop, looking down on every instant in life through a lens of pessimism, searching for the irony that will feed my now inherent need to take the piss out of everything. Other people’s disbelief in how shitty the world can be only validates this practice. And while it could be said that this outlook is depressing or negative or counterproductive, I would argue that it is the most pragmatic of approaches. Murphy’s Law suggests anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. So why not be prepared for the worst? At least then I have time to craft the perfect joke. All of this isn’t to say that I don’t have feelings. I’m just as susceptible to disappointment and sadness as the next sap. I just prefer to curl it inward until the pain in my stomach becomes so dense that it swallows me whole and I can disappear forever. And when that ultimately doesn’t happen I suck it up and try to put a bitter, funny twist on my misery and parade it around for everyone to see. I beat it down with public ridicule. This ideology served me well through most of my adolescent life, and has continued throughout my adult life, for the most part, as well. The one exception coming, not surprisingly, in the form of another premature passing.
Jared had already survived one round of cancer by the age of twenty-four. When it decided to come back for a second go at his insides, more aggressively and more widespread this time, it came to win. And win it did. He was twenty-eight years old when he died.
The suddenness of Jared’s death was no joke. He had been in the hospital for less than a week when his brother, also my longtime friend, Derek, called and told me his condition. I made plans with their mother to come visit him the next day. It had been about a month since I had spoken to Jared. He refused all social media, going so far as to state that he would die before going on Facebook, so if there wasn’t a phone call, there was nothing. His stubbornness to accept aspects of social normalcy was a hallmark of his personality. He wanted to be disconnected from the majority of the world, so he chose his council and kept them close. I always respected that about him. We only lived sixty miles away from each other, but in the rigors of everyday life: working, relationships, laziness, we had unintentionally neglected each other. This would have been instantly forgiven on both sides. I say “would have” because we never spoke again. He died the night before I was supposed to see him. His stepfather called early in the morning to tell me the news and let me know that the services would be held sometime later in the week. When we hung up, I laid back down on my bed, pulled the covers over my face and fell apart as quietly as I could. This was the first of many times in the week to come that my code of emotional deadening failed me. There’s nothing witty to say about this. Well, give me a minute. Maybe I’ll think of something.
If there is one thing that should be made clear about keeping your emotions in check, it is to abstain from or minimize the amount of situations where you risk losing your shit. In the case of Jared’s funeral, I didn’t really have much of a choice. Similar to my emotions, the natural drift in life that separates a person’s true friends from friends of proximity seems to also be crippled under the weight of shared tragedy. I had never witnessed any of our old friends cry before, and instead of feeling comforted or relieved, I felt an even greater sense of resistance and anger. My own tears came steadily before the ceremony, and could simply not be contained in the least as I embraced Jared’s mother, a woman I had come to love as my own family, for the first time since her son’s death. After this, my old friends thought it was only appropriate to view the body, and despite what anyone will ever tell you about this experience, it will never fully equal the sheer absurdity and grotesqueness of witnessing such a convention with your own eyes. As our group of strong young men looked down at Jared, the sniffles and heavy breathing amplified and everybody took it in, except for me. One glance was enough for me to realize I didn’t want to be there.
“He looks good,” one or many of them said.
This was a lie, because he didn’t look good. He looked fucking dead. Like a wax figure with a layer of make-up covering it’s sculpted face. A façade covering a façade. The willingness to accept that body as Jared stunned me, and made me feel like I was losing my mind. This was the joke, the only funny thing I remember from the entire day. I suppose that this ritual serves some sort of cathartic purpose, but in my eyes it’s an exercise in self-indulgence, a way to show everyone else how sad you can get. Really let it flow for the audience. I left the group and went back to my seat. I knew how I felt. That was enough for me.
It took me a long time to allow myself to smile when I thought about Jared. I remembered how much we laughed and the enjoyment we got out of being together, but enacting those emotions was not allowed. And that was fine. In the absence of the right emotion, no emotion is second best. I remember his lightheartedness, his sly wit, the faces he made for any scenario. I remember our conversations, how his conservativism annoyed me, and how he would rile me up just to do it. I remember his stubbornness. He was my best friend.
A few years after his death I officially granted myself permission to laugh when I thought about him. Something happened, an ironic wink sent down from above, if you believe in that sort of thing. And if not, a piece of cosmic perfection applied at the most inexplicable moment. Apparently, sometime after his passing Jared had altered his opinion regarding social media, or at least, a grieving family member had altered it for him. As I looked on the email inviting me to become friends with my dead best friend on Facebook, I cracked a smile and accepted his invitation, knowing the joke wouldn’t have been lost on him.
In the years since his brother’s passing, Derek has finished school and has moved up to San Francisco and begun his career in construction management. Our relationship has always been strong, and it remains that way even now. Similar to my experience, his loss has altered the course of his life and how he chooses to live it. As it should. And like me he seems to have chosen the path of burying his feelings deep within himself. When we get together we hardly ever mention Jared. This isn’t a conscious decision, it’s just the way it is. On rare occasions, and under the influence of enough liquor, this unspoken rule falls flat and he talks about his brother. Sometimes in sadness, and others in celebratory revelry. On those nights I mostly listen. I like hearing about Jared from another person who loved him. I also think it’s a good sign for Derek. Maybe he’s not completely sunk. Maybe he can still crawl out of the emotional bog that I perpetually find myself in. Or, maybe he just needs more time and practice in how to turn his feelings into anything other than what they are. Either way, I’ll be here to help him out.
Maybe I’m just a coward, but even if this is the case I can’t find the harm in it. As long as I am able to recognize the moods and emotions of others, my ineptitude when it comes to sharing my feelings shouldn’t mean anything. Why should I burden anyone? Misery loves company, am I right? Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve always thought that my misery just wants to be left alone, the cave in which it dwells is damp and ill-lit, a perfect place to hide from the prying eyes of other people looking to forge a connection in pain. Why must we suffer together? No thanks. I’m all good on that.
I remain resolved in my course of action, but as time goes on and my focus shift away from myself and more toward the family I have begun, I find that I am increasingly in uncharted territory. I am unwillingly inclined to bouts of overwhelming joy as well as crippling fear of what might happen at any given moment. I look at my daughter, Lilly, and imagine her future. And then I remember what life gave me and I get angry at the thought of her having to go through the hardships that life inevitably hits you with, like a goddamn Nissan. I can’t look down on her existence the same way I do toward everything else, because she deserves better. But that thought is a crack in the walls that defends me from the intrusion of unwelcomed emotions. After years of negotiating the terms in which I view this world and the inhabitants that occupy it, in an effort to stay in control, how is it possible to remain wholly the same when you are no longer invested in self-preservation above all else? You can’t, and that’s the rub. I fashioned my world and the ways I interact with it based on my experiences thus far, only to bring a child into that same world and be told that everything I created was horseshit. It’s not that I have been reformed or changed my tact in any way. I still abide by the old methods that got me here, and it is still effective. But whatever confidence I once had in this is now gone, scared away by the always looming thought of the worst case scenario. Of Rory. Of Jared.
My fears grow with my hopes, both I keep to myself, within myself. To voice these would be to give them weight, creating a context for them to fall and crush me. No, I think I’ll play it cool. When other parents I meet talk about the strides their children are making, I’ll beam with pride and sardonically praise the most mundane or absurd skill my daughter possesses. Yeah, Lilly just learned to shove her whole fist in her mouth. It’s quite impressive. And like that, I will have catapulted myself back onto my perch high above the world, glimpsing from afar, once again, the ridiculousness of it all. At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself.
NOTE FROM SEAN: I am a recent UC Berkeley English graduate that enjoys creating stories that are fun, odd, and engaging.