Monday, April 11, 2011

Fireworks

My brother's name was Jay. He died last week, April 1, 2011, far too young. He was 24 years old. 

My brother and I have not always been on good terms. Though we were very close as children, in the past few years we’ve had some knock-down, drag-out, hit-below-the-belt fights, mostly over things that don’t seem so important now.

I moved back to Charleston, SC in August of 2010, shortly after graduating from law school in Tuscaloosa, AL. At that point, Jay and I didn’t have much of a relationship. While I was falling back in love with Charleston, Jay was stumbling into bad situations. In January of 2011 he realized he needed a new start in a new town, so he asked me if he could move to Charleston. Because of our troubled past, because I didn't trust him based on his past behavior, and because I felt protective of my life in Charleston, I almost said no.

At my best moments, when I'm thinking clearly and long-term and am able to separate anger from fact, I have a life philosophy that goes something like this:

When I’m old and frail and I look back on the many times when I made the wrong decision  and everyone is wrong once in a while  I hope my wrong choices will have been wrong on the side of being too loving, too open-minded, too gracious, too kind, too trusting, too generous, or too forgiving. Since we're all human and we all fail in ways big and small every single day, being right all the time isn't the alternative. The alternative is having erred on the side of hate, bigotry, mercilessness, selfishness, pessimism, and greed. That's not the life I want to live.

With that in mind, how could I refuse to help give my brother a new start, no matter what had happened in the past?

True to form, Jay made friends in Charleston faster than anyone I’ve ever met. Within a week, I had to call Jay to find out what my own friends were up to.

Jay & Cinnamon, clearly in love.
Jay convinced a waitress at Waffle House named Cinnamon that he was going to ask for her hand in marriage. Jay, my roommate Chandler and I took walks to the battery, through the beautiful wealthy neighborhoods in downtown Charleston, and made a game of guessing how much each mansion cost.

My neighbor, who we nicknamed “Cousin Curtis,” is an eccentric old man with several dozen birdhouses strung from the tree in his front yard. Jay and I spent hours making up a fictitious background story for Cousin Curtis. In our lively imaginations, Cousin Curtis' alarmed storage shed in his back yard was obviously a meth lab... But only until we saw The Onion's "Justice Shed" report. From then on, Cousin Curtis was a patriot hero; he'd obviously built his own Justice Shed.

Jay started a running joke. When we were out in a group, he'd get everyone’s attention and say “Hey guys, remember that time when I…” and fill in the rest with something endearingly ridiculous. “Hey guys, remember that time when I invented windshield wipers?” “Hey guys, see that huge fish mounted on the wall? Remember that time when I killed it with my bare hands?” Once during March Madness he announced "You guys, remember when I invented basketball? I had NO IDEA it'd get this big!"

Tara Reid (titled"Dirty Martini," by Peter O'Neill)

In one of our favorite restaurants in Charleston there’s a painting by an artist named Peter O'Neill. It shows a nondescript blonde woman in a black evening gown looking over her shoulder. Jay decided she looked like his crush, the celebrity Tara Reid, and had us laughing for 10 minutes when he declared “Hey guys, you’ll never believe what I had to do to get Tara Reid to pose for that painting.”

Although Jay’s life didn't play out like we all wished it had, I’ll always be tremendously grateful for the two months that he lived with me in lovely, familiar, healing Charleston. I had some strangely merry, revealing, restorative times with Jay, my brother who I'd grown up with; the only brother I had, who I fought with and fought for with equal ferocity. Until he moved to Charleston, I hadn't seen my brother  with his true, untouched-by-drugs personality  in four or five years.

For far too short a time, free from the things that dragged him down during the last years of his life, I got my brother back.


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*Added at a later date: If this had to happen  and I do not accept that it did, I do not believe it should have happened  but working with reality, knowing that it did happen, I am so, so grateful for my time with Jay in Charleston for the few months before he died.

Knowing that I truly did the right thing even when it was incredibly hard, that I did more than most reasonable people would've done, has saved me from spiraling into a depression I'd never survive.

Jay, in a way you saved your older sister. Just like I tried  and wish so much that I'd succeeded in  saving you.