I was 19 when my brother died. He had just turned 15. Joshua Buck Riley, aka “Bucky”. It has been 17 years today since Josh drowned. Summer in a city on a lake is difficult because there is always news of drownings. I recently heard that stats indicate the majority of drownings are teenagers. Maybe I notice such things more because my teenage brother drowned. Maybe not.
The semester after Josh died I took a Creative Writing class at a Hope College. Everyone was so excited because a visiting author was teaching our class for this semester only. Pinkney Benedict. I had never heard of him. I just wanted to write stories. It was a fiction class but I chose to write creative non-fiction. At least part of the time. I wanted to write about losing my brother. It was traumatic and dramatic enough, I thought it would work. I am not sure it was the best idea emotionally to have a group of individuals that did not know it was a true story critique my work. Especially not so with my professor.
I will never forget him telling me that my story was unrealistic. That there would not be blood on an emergency room doctor’s scrubs when he rushed me in to see my brother who had just been stabilized. The way you remember such traumatic events is like a dream. An out of body experience. Because you are there. But you cannot believe it is happening to you so everything you see, everything you feel, it doesn’t seem real. But it is. I wanted to tell Mr. Benedict that it was not imagined. That the blood was real. That I really saw my brother, soaking wet on a table at U of M hospital, air lifted from a river where he had been under water. Too long. But he was not worth it. The story was mine.
All the other days of the year I’m remembering my brother alive, young, full of life and laughter. I’m remembering memories from childhood: when he came walking up the driveway holding his bleeding head with a rubber glove on his hand. He had been picking up the neighbors garbage that our dog had gotten into and took a break to do some bike tricks. He had flipped his bike and hit his head. We were like, why are you holding your head with the dirty glove?! He was accident prone. He fell off the top bunk one night as he dreamt he was flying to the kitchen for a late night snack. He was also considerate. I remember him occupying Jake so I could paint. The last movie we watched together was Powder. All of us kids watched it together after picking Bill up late that night because he’d had car trouble. I remember the last time we all drove up to Grandma Mulvihill’s together. We sang loudly to the radio and old church song from Bible School and Summer Camp.
My memories are mixed. They weave in and out of time, following no straight line. As the years pass I dig deeper and have to think longer. I become afraid I will lose them with time. And then I meet him in a dream. Like it was yesterday that he was here. Sometimes he is 15 and sometimes he is 5 or 8 or 10. It is so good to see him. But also bittersweet when I wake. I should write more of those dreams down like I used to. But it is the feeling I’m left with when I wake, not the event into subconscious, which is important to me.
The week leading up to July 2 is the time I’m remembering the moments leading up to Josh’s death and everything that came in the immediate days following. I remember saying ‘good bye’ and not saying ‘I love you.’ And taking a long time to forgive myself for that. He was so sweet and I was so rude in that moment before Bill and I went out. When we drove back a couple hours later and there were emergency vehicles on the other side of the expressway barrier, Bill and I wondered how bad the car accident must’ve been. We did not know then it was for our brother. A cop followed us back to our condo and we thought he had gotten into trouble. But it was not the kind of trouble we had imagined. Bill and I raced to the hospital in my tiny red car, flying on the back roads uninhibited by speed limits. The radio blared Primitive Radio Gods: Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand and when we arrived to the hospital we couldn’t find our parents but instead a group of Josh’s friends crying. I wanted them to go away. Because they were not us.
There is more. Much more. I skip through it in my mind to the moments at the wake and after the funeral. The friends that took me out on day trips or evening trips or anywhere trips just to help me to keep on living and not get swallowed up by grief. The semester I took off college and stayed home with my mom and we worked through our grief together watching Party of Five and other stories that made us cry.
The time the goes by is the hardest. I want the memories to be fresh. I want to have videos of him to watch so I can hear his voice and his laughter. And I do. But in my dreams. And they are both so clear; I wake, eyes scanning the room. He is not there. I’m afraid of the memories leaving so I ask you for more. Please share those memories with me.
When you are a kid, you never imagine that you could lose a sibling. Your whole existence is playing with your brothers (and sister). They are it. How can you imagine life without them? And then it happens and there was this other life that I lived with you. And now I have lived another life without you. I wonder what you would be like, Josh. I imagine you as a fine young man. A supportive brother. A fun-loving uncle. Would you be best friends with my husband because you were born in the same year? You were such a good kid with such a big heart. I knew how much you loved me. And I pray you knew how much I loved you. I held it together until they lowered you into the ground. I put my favorite photo of us – from my high school graduation – in the front pocket of your favorite shirt. We each had something we needed to be with you as you went under. Frantically, we gathered and placed the items with you. It was our last moment to see you, though I already felt your spirit guiding me down the hall at the hospital when you had died (but before we knew for sure). In your death, I learned forgiveness. And I learned to love big or go home. And shout it out. For what is there to lose, but that person never knowing how much you love them. And then, what is love for.
I love you Josh. Always.