13 June 2011

Invictus (Unconquered)

It all happened far too quickly. One minute my brother was here, and the next he was gone.

The unexpectedness of the role I now find myself in, that of a bereaved sibling passing through the 1-year anniversary of my younger brother's death, is probably what makes it so difficult to understand, even still. Brent was a (relatively) healthy, bright 26-year-old young man. He had a benign brain tumour for most of his life, with successive surgeries and radiation to try to remove it, but the surgeries and radiation were never totally successful. But Brent had lived with it ever since he could remember, and he wasn't having seizures or feeling sick. In fact, he had a new job in a new city, a partner he loved, and a passion for the wilderness.

But then there was that day when everything happened. All those years of his living seizure-free finally caught up to him - like the gods had decided that he'd had enough luck, and his time was up. None of us were there, and all we know for certain are the conclusions of the coroner and the police department. Brent had a severe seizure at his place in Ottawa, and while his mind was firing off unconnected electrical charges, disorienting him, he stumbled through the screen door to his balcony. He tripped, then fell 8 storeys, landing on a parked car. He probably died on the way to the hospital.

No one - not his girlfriend, not his parents - knew about any of this until the police came to knock on doors with the news much later that night. Even later, my own phone rang, with my partner telling me that he and my uncle were at my apartment because they had bad news. I can remember thinking, "please don't let it be my mom and dad," never thinking for a second that something had happened to my brother. And then my uncle told me what happened. And then I was an only child. And then my heart broke irrreparably.

And then the world continued turning and the media started calling and the newspapers featured stories and photos of my brother, who was mine, not theirs, to tell stories about.

I know as much as I ever will about his death. But the suddenness and the apparent callousness of it still takes my breath away. There were so many coincidences that had to be in place for this to happen the way that it did, that it makes me question the nature of the world and whatever power may govern it from on high. And that doesn't really signify, because no matter what my level of understanding is of life, the universe, and everything, I won't ever have a brother ever again.

In life, Brent was unconquerable. He was governed by an impeccable set of morals. He was opinionated and stubborn. Since he had that tumour for most of his life, he learned to compensate for whatever inabilities he had - he couldn't make choices when faced with too many options, so he eliminated the options by whatever means necessary. He didn't have a lot of short term memory, so he used discussion as a way by which he could remember important things. His language was plain and to the point - why use 3 words when 1 could do just fine? He had great friends - mostly the same group of young men that he'd hung out with since they were all in grade 1. Brent wasn't afraid of anything - not death, and certainly not life. He was admirable, inspiring, and able to look things in the eye and call them by their right name.

After one particularly invasive surgery, my brother lost the ability to walk and was partially blind. I stayed close by his room at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, going in whenever he wanted me but mostly just listening to the therapists come in to help him try to remember how to stand on two feet. He went to rehabilitation, and gained back the ability to walk while helping other kids with brain injuries study and feel better. Brent did everything his doctors told him that he probably wouldn't be able to - even dying in the way that he did was wholly unanticipated by any of his medical team. I tell myself that he died the only way anyone could have killed him.

Most people ask me about my parents. They get by the best they can, but I know now that when you lose a kid, even if there's another one left, you're never going to be really happy again. I try to fill their lives, just as I try to fill my own. I got married - they visit us often. They travel - I send them lists of things to do in the places they're going. They are my best friends. I work and I work and I work, because if I don't do something with my thoughts, they go immediately to that day that he died. I need a lot of solitude. And I know that one day maybe I won't need to work or be alone, but right now it's still so new, despite it being a year since he died. Our friends and family, as well as Brent's own friends, visit and help my parents and I feel like we're part of a community of memory, or at least that we're not alone in our grief. We thank all of you as we attempt to continue on with our lives and plans. Brent is gone, and our world will never be as good, or as hopeful, or as interesting.

I know now that the last movie Brent watched was "Invictus". Since I found that out, I turn frequently to the poem of the same name by Henley, because the words are just so close to how Brent chose to exist. I'd like to put, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul," somewhere that he would see it, somewhere that he would know that we remember how he lived and what he believed, but that's not possible anymore. Instead, I plan to use the indelible ink of memory, and of love, to try to live that way myself.

Invictus (William Henley)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

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