Each year, The Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas (or BFI) releases a collection of written pieces around a theme; this year’s theme was growth. Local writers and students from BFI all contribute. This year, I was lucky enough to be chosen. The books will be available to purchase on the site soon, but are available for sale at the BFI storefront in Seattle (Greenwood Space and Travel). All proceeds go to support this extraordinary institution.
In the last few years, I’ve had to push myself to be more personal with my writing. I’m an open book in person, but when it comes to putting words out into the world, I’m more guarded. I have been working on this piece in one form or another for about 10 years. When BFI asked me to contribute and gave me a theme to write around, I finally had a reason to finish it.
What We Keep
“I kept this”, my grandma said, showing me the empty Stroh’s can. We were standing in her bedroom. “I know that’s silly, but I can’t throw it out. He drank out of it.”
“Not silly at all”, I said. I hesitated before hugging her. At least I think I hugged her. Suddenly even affection that normally came naturally was difficult. I was fifteen years old and I was stifled, completely unequipped for this kind of grief.
I remember that time in slides, prints stored in the back of my mind. I can’t tell you what my favorite song was then or my favorite show. I can’t remember who I had a crush on or my class schedule, but when I look back on November 2000, I see more vivid snapshots than any other November in my life. The Stroh’s can is one snap, the flat, cold, gray road to my grandparents’ another. Then there’s my dad standing at the bottom of the stairs, sleep still in his eyes, hair tousled, in a yellow t-shirt and BVDs, breaking the news.
My Uncle Jimmy was shot and killed on the west side of a Chicago on his way home from a friend’s retirement party one Friday night in November seventeen years ago. He was found early the next morning. His car was still running. We don’t know why and we don’t know who. About once a year, I wake with a start and think, “Did that really happen?”
James Patrick was the oldest son and middle child of a Chicago cop and a housewife. He was 18 months younger than my mom. He was thoughtful, funny, dry, and smart. He got married to Aunt Phyllis in a courthouse wedding, giving my grandparents a heads up only the night before, something that surely stunned them. When my mom hollered the news out the window to my sister and I in the front yard, we ran down the street announcing it to to the neighborhood. He worked for the gas company, and owned a beautiful three flat on the north side of Chicago, where he lived. He was devoted to his wife. He called his parents every day after work. He liked reading, travel, and being outside. He had a one-room cabin in Wisconsin where he fished. He was more reserved than my dad’s brothers, who were boisterous and affectionate. His affection was subtle – an arm around your shoulder, a half-hug, and making faces across the dinner table. His humor was the kind you appreciated more as you got older; he was nuanced and witty.
Uncle Jim had a dog named Zeb that died when I was five. I loved Zeb as much as a five-year-old can love any living thing, and his death was my first foray into grief. When my uncle returned home from the vet with only Zeb’s leash and his collar, he kept the leash and gave me the collar. “He was our dog”, he told me when he handed it to me. We were in the garage and his arm was around me. Despite my age, I was aware that it was vulnerable moment for him.
Murder is a different kind of grief in that it’s horrifying. One human being makes a conscious choice that another human being’s life ought to end. That is the part that’s especially devastating. And there’s the subsequent shock of it all; not only were we stunned into grief, we were bewildered. The Monday after he died, I stood by my locker, feeling naked. I remember asking a friend to stand next to me; just feeling the presence of someone near seemed necessary. The most surprising feeling, though, was one of embarrassment, the fear of having to actually say what happened out loud and then explain it. I felt shame in my embarrassment, along with a snarl of other emotions I couldn’t access or articulate.
At fifteen, I was an avid collector of inspirational quotes. I had a binder full of them and I’d bring it to school. Other girls would ask to borrow it for the day, passing it to someone else between periods, some making copies. If there’s one thing teenage girls treasure, it’s random, out-of-context sayings about love and life. This was back in the early days of “live, laugh, love”, back when it really meant something. My attachment to these quotes was, I suppose, my way of making sense of life. The teenage years are confounding for anyone. Reading something like, “Everything’s okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” assured me that whatever was going on – bullies, boys, boobs (in my case, a lack thereof) was going to come to some kind of resolution someday.
For the first few years after my uncle’s death, I tried to tie some kind of meaning to it, or some kind of lesson. There had to be a meaningful explanation for all this. About six weeks after Jimmy died, my mom and I went to the mall and stopped in a store called Successories, per my request. You might remember the posters they sold there. You can still find them hanging up in dentist offices. They say things like “Opportunity: You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” with a dimly lit basketball hoop in the background. I was excited to find something there that day that might help. I picked up a bunch of postcards to hang in my locker. My mom stood in the store, unimpressed.
“I’m not really in the mood for this kind of thing.”
It was the end of the year, so she apathetically picked up a new date book. I remember feeling crestfallen; maybe there was no quick way out of this grief, and maybe no inspirational poster could to make sense of it. Everything was okay in the end? How could that be possible in the framework of murder?
I can’t and won’t speak for everyone else in my family, but we have all struggled in our own way. In the subsequent years, we’ve found ourselves tiptoeing around a sometimes raw but persistent wound. Murder leaves an aftertaste unlike other deaths; a sick feeling, a lingering rancidity.
As a teenager, it was all too unfathomable. No one I knew had lost anyone to murder. That just didn’t happen in our world. My response was mostly to push it away. I left the room whenever my mom started crying. I avoided bringing him up if I could. I’d break down alone in my room or in the car, maybe on a school retreat, but never with my family. With age, I’ve accepted the gravity. When I look back on it now through the lens of adulthood, I find I’m stunned in new way – the thought of losing a sibling at middle age when everyone has settled into an adult life, the thought of my aunt, worried and waiting for him to come home, only to get a knock at the door and find the cops standing there (that’s the stuff of nightmares). I know that parents never stop worrying about their kids, but I imagine my grandparents’ worries had eased as their children grew up, only to get this news well into the final years of their lives.
It has been over seventeen years since that November. In that time I have, despite my best efforts not to, become an adult. I live 2,000 miles from home where I am gainfully employed, I’m engaged to be married, I’ve lived and worked in other countries, I floss regularly. But at no point in my life has this event not been with me. It’s a dull hum in the background that has informed much of who I’ve become.
Grief is something we carry, a heavy knapsack. Sometimes I forget it’s there, other days I want to shrug it off.
Last October, my other uncle (mom’s youngest brother) and my aunt came to town for a visit. On their last night with us, we stayed up drinking wine in my living room and trading stories. As they pulled away at the end of the night, we stood at the top of our driveway as their car pulled away, waving just like my grandparents did years ago (both hands up, waving side to side) and laughing. “This is what they used to do in their window when we’d pull out of their driveway”, I explained to my fiancé. As we walked back inside, I was struck by a thought that had never occurred to me- how much I wish it had been both my uncles and my aunts there that night, with the adult me and my husband-to-be. “He would have loved you”, I told my fiancé through tears.
You don’t just miss a person at the point in which you lose them, but you miss them at every new stage, every new chapter that you don’t get to share.
I’ve always been anxious. I’ve erred toward being overly empathetic and sensitive at times. Losing a loved one to a random act of violence only compounded those things in me. I’ve lived the last seventeen years afraid to bask too much in happy times, hindered by a subconscious vigilance that at any moment, everything could collapse. Therapy and meditation have helped me find ways to cope with the worry and tension, but there’s no erasing the fact that life is random and ruthless.
The morning I woke up and read the news about the Las Vegas mass shooting, I felt ill. I feel sick every time I read these stories, that same familiar rancid feeling. I’m rattled in a way that others might not be. I can’t help but feel burdened by thoughts of the families. “How did they get the news?” I remember waking up to my mother’s sobs down in the kitchen. A few days after my uncle died, I was struck with a thought that terrified me, “He must have been so scared.”
I wonder if it’s mere idealism to think that more empathy and awareness could solve so much.
Surely a surplus of empathy is hardly a trade-off for loss, but I think because of this, I am deeply aware of our responsibility to each other as people, a bit more tuned in. I can’t say that it’s all because I lost someone I love to a violent act. I can’t measure each part of me against this event, but when I stood at Machu Picchu nearly eight years ago, I thought of my uncle. I thought of him in the jungles of Costa Rica and remembered his pictures from his time there (and the t-shirts he brought back). I think of him when I’m in the Cascade Mountains and the San Juan Islands. “He’d think this was so cool.” While I can’t say for sure what kind of person this loss has made me, I know for sure it has defined much of who I am. As much as the dull ache of lasting grief has hummed in the background of my life, so too have the things he quietly instilled, the traits we never knew we shared, the endurance of his character.