I used to have this book of matches with a polka dot pattern. The Pennsylvania state police gave it to me in 1985, along with my brother’s wallet, when I went to retrieve his personal effects after he was killed in a crash on the turnpike.
Perhaps you’ve heard this story. I’ve been telling it for 33 years. I’m sorry, I can’t seem to help it.
Anyway, Greg was 28 when he died in the passenger seat of a car that his friend drove into the back of a semi on the turnpike. They’d been to a concert. Sting. It was late. Maybe his friend drifted off at the wheel, or maybe he was just inattentive.
The impact ripped off the roof of the car. The undertaker did not let us see Greg’s body. His friend went to jail for a few months.
For years, I had the matchbook and my brother’s old ski pass, and I’d take them out and study them until I realized how reliably they hit “play” on the movie in my head—the violent frames about Greg’s last moments. So I kept the ski pass, imprinted with a picture of his handsome face, but eventually I ditched the garish matchbook in hopes that it would stop triggering the movie.
It’s so easy to get stuck. If you can help it, don’t get stuck THERE.
That’s very difficult. The trouble with mastering recovery after the sudden eradication of a young life is that the heart wants to huddle in the wrong corner.
A wise mourner finds a way to redirect, and to focus on the years of life: the sardonic comments, the brotherly advice about boys, the Foghorn Leghorn imitation. “Fortunately, I keep my feathers numbah’d.”
That’s the goal. However tragic the loss, don’t keep that matchbook any longer than you absolutely must.
When my brother died, I was 24, and I suppose that I did the best I could with my improvisational coping efforts. Years later, a shrink would tell me that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I cocked an eyebrow. That sounded to me like a disservice to soldiers and crime victims, but I couldn’t argue that our family of Catholic introverts had successfully “processed” Greg’s death.
My mother and two living brothers exhibited extraordinary stoicism; my father wept at holiday dinners. I wrote occasional self-indulgent essays that forced readers to bear witness and that tried to make something understandable of it all.
Just like now.
There were, I think, other options. Talking to each other as a family would have helped. We might have discussed the impossible dreadfulness, the worst and most painful parts. But maybe then we could have insisted on embracing the days we all had to share. We might have agreed, out loud, not to be ruined by the ruinous.
I wish I had sought the company of my brother's friends before everyone scattered to their own lives. They had stories I've never heard.
But I was a little too hospitable to the tragedy. The shadow crept in, as it will, but I let it stay, and it shrouded things in gray for years.
The trick is not to do that. The trick is to insist that the aftermath of a sudden, tragic death will—not today or tomorrow, but soon—be a fierce celebration of life.