For decades, I couldn’t hear the sound of fireworks on New Year’s Eve without bursting into tears. The song Auld Lang Syne stirred anger within its first few measures. Celebrating the holiday was simply not in my repertoire.
In the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day 1990, my brother froze to death. He most likely heard the fireworks heralding the end of one decade, the dawning of another as he was crawling out of an icy river onto the bank of an island in the middle of our city. He was exactly one month shy of turning 25.
My brother, Burgess, was 14 months old when I was born. As tots, we developed our own language and for a long time there was little incentive for me to speak actual English. My parents marvel as they recall the intricacies of our indecipherable banter with tones that indicated back and forth comments, questions, and even jokes resulting in deep-belly laughter. They note how articulate I was, they just had no idea what I was saying—a running theme throughout my life.
In those years, Burgess served as interpreter between my parents and me. At some point, he began calling me Dibbs—possibly in an attempt to repeat the gender-neutral “Sib” (short for sibling) my parents often used when referencing me to him. I was “Dibbs” and he was “Burgie.” By the time I entered preschool my language developed into regular English and ours became lost, yet the nicknames remained.
Our bond was stretched when, at the ages of seven and eight, we were sent to live with relatives as our parents attempted to navigate graduate school amidst the steady stream of chaos that permeated our lives.
The plan was we would live with our paternal grandparents in rural coastal North Carolina, but the day we were to depart, we were presented with a choice.
It was the end of the Christmas holidays. My family had spent the week with my father’s brother and his family in suburban Maryland where my uncle was a colonel stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. He summonsed us to his living room and instructed everyone to join hands, preparing to pray for safe travels. A gentle flurry of snow fell outside.
“We can keep one of you,” my uncle announced once everyone was quiet.
“Me!” I shouted, raising my hand.
The adults smiled. Decision made.
I couldn’t look at my brother. Instead I squeezed my eyes tightly shut as my uncle prayed.
Shortly after, I watched from just inside the storm door as my brother climbed into the backseat of my grandparents’ baby blue Gran Torino station wagon with a mixture of relief and guilt. He’d be on his own with my gruff grandmother, and although he was one of her favorites, she seemed to barely tolerate the lot of us.
The plethora of kids living in the houses that lined my uncle’s cul-de-sac provided at least a distraction from the loneliness incurred by the fracturing of my family. When we were back together once again the following year, Burgess was angry, often physically violent with me, and I assumed it was because I’d abandoned him. It would be 15 years before we fully reconnected.
When I had my first child, it was Burgess who kept me company as I sheltered in my home, fearful of the germs and potential kidnappers waiting to accost my baby. We spent endless hours playing Scrabble and eating nachos from Taco Bell when he wasn’t in class at a nearby community college.
In hindsight, there were warning signs. Burgess still lived with our parents. With little regard for home environment, they were oblivious to the fact that their ancient rental was literally crumbling around them. Home was depressing. Frustration over the on-again, off-again relationship with his girlfriend left him restless, agitated. What he voiced as a slow, arduous journey through community college with little income prompted him to frequently state it felt as if his “real” life was never going to start.
“Sometimes, when I’m driving down the road, I wonder what it would be like to drive over the side,” he once said, referring to a stretch of mountainous highway on the outskirts of town. His confession came as he stood in my kitchen doorway. I was fixing dinner.
I was distracted. I had a new baby and a new life. I didn’t have the mental space to consider my brother was suicidal. Besides, those sorts of things happened to other people. The moment I learned Burgess was missing, however, I knew with certainty he was dead.
He’d gone out on New Year’s Eve with his sometimes-girlfriend “Rachel.” They were at a downtown bar. As the clock crept toward midnight, the two argued. She turned away from him. When she turned back several minutes later, he was gone. She looked around town for several hours afterward, but it was fruitless. Since they’d ridden downtown in her car, she knew he hadn’t simply driven home.
“Have you heard from your brother?” my mother asked when she called, mid-morning on New Year’s Day. She then relayed the series of events from the previous night as Rachel had told her.
“When did Rachel call?” I asked.
“Oh, it was around 5AM,” she answered.
“Why did you wait five hours to tell me?” I pressed, irritated.
“I didn’t want to bother you. What were you going to do—go downtown and look for him?”
“Yes,” I responded.
After the standard 24-hour wait time following the disappearance of an adult, the police opened an investigation. Nearly 48 hours later, a state police officer called my house with the news. Burgess’s body had been found on an island in the middle of the river that ran through our city. He’d frozen to death.
In the coming days, we’d learn of his last hours, of people who saw him, what police speculated he did between the time of leaving the bar to arriving on the island, several miles downriver.
I was four months pregnant with my second child and if not for that, I might have left this world as well—not from a desire to end my life, rather the act of living seemed too difficult. Instead, I reminded myself to breathe and eat and drink so as to pass life on to my baby. In many ways, Burgess had been my proverbial canary in a coal mine while navigating a chaotic childhood with mostly-absent parents. What would I do without my guide now?
We held a private viewing before the public wake. Burgess hated being in front of crowds. When the funeral director pulled back the curtain that separated my brother from the gathered family, the reality of his death hit me in the gut leaving me so stunned I couldn’t move. For what seemed like at least an hour, I stood nearly bent over, numb, waiting for my body to give me permission to inhale again.
I was aware of people approaching the glossy gray casket, leaning in for a final look. Many commented on how good Burgess looked, complementing the work of the mortician. He didn’t look good, he looked dead, and the make-up intended to camouflage the frostbitten spots on his face did nothing to hide that fact. I feared that if I moved a muscle, everything in me would come unglued and I would start screaming and never stop. I imagined running to the coffin and punching Burgess repeatedly in the chest, and screaming “GET UP!” over and over again. Instead, I willed myself to keep breathing.
Eschewing tradition, my parents skipped a suit, opting to have him buried in clothing he wore in his everyday-life. His long, lanky body was decked out in jeans and a t-shirt from a Christian rock band sporting the slogan, “Our hair points to the sky, the place we’d rather be.” No, I thought, that’s not where you’d rather be, you idiot. You’d just rather be anywhere but here! But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I continued to stand, refusing to look away, mentally recording one last sight of my brother, wondering why I didn’t see this coming.
A week after the funeral, I explored Burgess’s room at my parents’ house desperate to know what was going on inside his head leading up to his death. I sat on his bed, surrounded by shelves of books and plastic milk crates full of record albums. Hand-written signs were taped to his walls, interspersed between colorful posters and photographs. One immediately caught my eye: “I THIRST.” It was scrawled horizontally on a sheet from a yellow legal pad in Burgess’s left-handed all caps handwriting. In the lower right corner was a reference to a C.S. Lewis book. I thumbed through his journals. They were full of writings: poems and detailed entries sprinkled among doodles and rambling pieces—some, perhaps inspired by whatever book he’d been reading at the time, others most likely from inside his own head. “I can hold on until the end of the year,” one entry read.
A poem, dated just after my wedding was entitled “Crocodile Tears.” It was a harsh critique of my emotions during the ceremony. Burgess had often said that I gave my heart away too easily, that I seemed desperate and careless in declaring my love for one guy after another, and this poem, an ode to my wedding in which he viewed my tears as contrived, was a summation of this sentiment. My mother saw me reading the entry.
“He was so moved by your wedding,” she said, seeming to imply that crocodile tears meant “touching” or “impactful,” perhaps.
“Not exactly the message I’m getting.”
This was the guy who’d refused to say, “Good morning” to anyone if it was not truly a good morning. Doing so would be disingenuous in his opinion. He refused to lie like that. This measure of self-scrutiny he also extended to those around him. I’d like to think that in the few years between my wedding and his death, Burgess came to see that rather than “crocodile tears,” mine were tears of relief, shocked that my groom didn’t change his mind at the last minute. Prior to my marriage at the age of 20, I’d been living with my parents because I couldn’t afford to live on my own. Less than ten years earlier, they’d traded grad school, weed, and speed for Jesus, faith healing, and casting out demons, each phase leaving them little time or energy to care for their children and physical surroundings. I saw my marriage as a way to flee a situation that was suffocating the life out of me. I suspect Burgess sensed a similar suffocation. Going down the aisle was my way out; heading downriver, apparently, was his.
Six weeks after his death, I accompanied my parents and husband to the police station to view photos of my brother’s body as it was discovered. Some people—including the receptionist at the front desk—tried to talk me out of exposing myself to these images, given my “fragile state” of now being six months pregnant.
“Are you sure you want to see these, Honey?” The receptionist touched my arm as my family headed into a small office behind the front desk.
“I’m sure.” I refused to be swayed.
I was not sleeping. Nightly, in addition to recalling most every detail of the week between his disappearance and his funeral, I also vividly imagined Burgess’s death in dozens of different scenarios. For my own peace of mind, I needed to see exactly what he looked like when he died. One real scene, no matter how shocking, would be better than countless imaginary ones, I reasoned.
An officer laid out several photographs on the table in the middle of the room. With each picture, I was reminded of how much Burgess detested being the visible center of attention. “Don’t look at me!” he’d said, laughing, as a group of family and friends surrounded him to sing Happy Birthday when he turned 18, seven years earlier. We obliged by turning our backs to him before belting out an enthusiastic rendition of the song. Now, in these photographs, Burgess was encircled by a ring of yellow crime scene tape without a self-conscious bone in his body.
He lay prone on the dirt in the middle of a smooth clearing, having moved the concrete chunks lining that portion of the riverbank to prevent erosion. He was diagonal on an incline, feet downhill from his head, posed as if he was trying to do the crawl stroke, or pick an apple: his left arm stretched high on the ground overhead, his right, bent at the elbow, hand resting near his face. His eyes were open. He wore an identical expression to the one I saw as a three-year-old when he’d landed unmoving at my feet on the hardwood floor after my father threw him across the room in a fit of rage. This new image fit into that memory like a puzzle piece. A few feet from his head was a chain-link fence at least eight feet tall, topped with barbed wire. Some squares of the fencing were misshapen from Burgess’s attempt at climbing over it. At the base of the barrier was a shallow ditch, where he must have tried to burrow under.
“The coroner said he was most likely on autopilot by the time he was trying to get to help,” the officer said to our downturned heads as we studied the pictures.
I wasn’t sure how to return to a normal life with the gaping wound of this loss open and exposed. Because of the conservative nature of our religion, seeking the help of a “secular” therapist was considered dangerous, putting one’s soul in jeopardy. My second child was born at the end of May, and by the following summer I was pregnant again. Busyness became my drug of choice to numb the pain that threatened to consume me. This worked, during the day, but come night, sleep remained elusive. Sweats and chills, diarrhea, and shouting aloud when I did manage to doze off were nightly occurrences. As time passed, the intensity of these symptoms eased up, but insomnia plagued me for decades.
Another residual effect of Burgess’s death was a fear of being cold. With winter’s approach each year, I barricaded myself indoors, only venturing out when it could not be avoided. My children never saw me play in snow.
Finally, in my early 50s, my subconscious informed me I’d had enough. On the brink of a nervous breakdown, I sought out a therapist. It had been years since I’d subscribed to the faith that had at one time cautioned me against such a thing, but the residue of its fear lurked inside me disguised as “not enough money” and “not enough time.” But now, I was utterly exhausted from fleeing my pain.
As I unpacked my emotional baggage under the guidance of my therapist, I was able to examine all of my figurative artifacts for the first time. One that I’d hauled around, carefully wrapped in a protective shell was that of the responsibility for my brother’s death, gilded in gold by the numerous instances I’d failed to protect him throughout our childhood.
I described to my therapist the circumstances surrounding me living with my uncle in Maryland, an episode that haunted me regularly, one that I desperately begged the Universe to do over. In tears, I recounted how, when my uncle announced that he could keep one of us, I quickly claimed the spot. I described the guilt I felt afterwards.
“I abandoned him,” I told her. A sob caught in my throat. “When we got back together, it was never the same. He was angry with me.”
“Wait a minute,” she interrupted me as I reached for a tissue. “How many adults were present during this good-bye?”
“Six: my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my grandparents.”
“And how old were you?”
“I was seven. Burgess was eight.”
“Who asks a child to make a decision like this?” She sounded incredulous. I’d never considered that. For the first time in more than forty years, it occurred to me that I was not necessarily responsible for sending Burgess off alone with our grandparents.
For decades, I blamed myself for the anger he came home with, and when I explained this to my therapist she presented the possibility that perhaps his anger was not at me, even though I was the recipient of his brutality.
“Do you think he—especially as a nine-year-old—would have kicked and hit your parents to express his anger and sense of helplessness for the situation?” she asked. I shook my head and she continued. “Of course not. He’s going to kick the proverbial dog, the one lower than him in the pecking order. You were it.”
As I inspected my collection of artifacts, the 50-something me realized they were not The Truth that I had believed them to be. I released myself from the guilt of not being enough to keep my brother alive. With each revelation, it was as if a layer was removed from a long-growing callous. Throughout the process, some layers came away with relative ease while others left me feeling raw, exposed. But there was still my intense fear of cold.
A few months into therapy, I attended a retreat with my home yoga studio at a lodge in the middle of the woods. It was early November. Throughout the weekend, participants had the opportunity to take advantage of massage and other treatments. Out of curiosity, I signed up for a Watsu session.
With no idea what to expect, I joined the practitioner, “Sam,” in the four-foot deep Watsu pool, sheltered within a greenhouse filled with fruit trees and other tropical plants. I crouched to keep my shoulders in the warm water. We faced one another, chatting for several minutes as I acclimated to the pool.
“Can I hold your hands?” Sam extended his, palm up, towards me. I placed mine, palm down, in his. He explained that the physical sensation of the session would hopefully be like taking a nap on a cloud as he held me afloat in the water. “The goal is for you to relax and just be. Water has been used therapeutically for thousands of years; for as long as people have been walking the planet, and even before. It’s sacred.” I nodded, acutely aware of the scents and sounds around me. “There are great healing benefits to combining hot and cold water, as well. After our session, you might want to get into the hot tub,” he pointed towards the courtyard outside the greenhouse where a wood-fired stone tub bubbled, “and then go down to the sauna and do some alternating rounds of the sauna and the cold plunge tub—it’s filled from a natural spring. The water is a consistent 56-degrees.”
“Oh, I’m great with doing the hot tub and the sauna, but there’s no way I’ll do any cold plunge tub. Ever.” The mention of cold water had me instantly on high-alert.
Sam tilted his head and looked into my eyes. He squinted. “Can I ask why?”
“Well, my brother froze to death after being in a river when it was 18-degrees out and there’s no way I’ll ever get in cold water. I don’t do cold water. I can’t.” The words tumbled out of my mouth. There’d been times when my husband and I had visited resorts with hydrotherapy spas, and while I was happy to take advantage of the hot tubs and warm pools, I avoided the cold plunge pools. Their mere existence made me angry.
Sam continued to hold my hands, gently swaying in the water, gazing steadily at my face. I tried to slow my breath and fought the urge to look away. He inhaled slowly. “Perhaps your brother would have his legacy to you be one of freedom, rather than fear. What if your brother wanted you to experience unbridled joy when you thought of his life instead of the fear and tight restrictions you’ve associated with his death up until now? Would you at least be open to that during our session?” I was being presented with a choice. What if my primary focus was of Burgess’s life more than his death? How he lived as more influential to me than how he died? What would it feel like to have unbridled joy instead of restrictive fear when I thought of him?
Shit. I thought. I’m going into that fucking cold plunge tub.
The one-hour session seemed to last only a few minutes, during which I did indeed feel as if I was floating on a cloud. I rested, fully relaxed in the hands of my practitioner, breathing deeper than I’d been able to in a long time. Afterward, Sam left me in the pool to swim alone for a while. “I don’t usually do this, but there’s no one scheduled after you and I feel your brother’s presence here. I want you to take this time to swim and think and do whatever feels right to you; and when you’re ready, get in the hot tub and just sit for a bit.”
I spent the next twenty minutes swimming alone in the small stone pool nestled under the canopy of tropical plants while dots of sunlight danced on the surface of the water. With each stroke, I felt lighter, freer. I left the pool and went outside to the hot tub. I lowered myself into the bubbling water, the steam drifted around my head. Peace enveloped me.
Within minutes I was fueled with a resolve. Before I could talk myself out of it, I slipped on my boots, gathered my things, and headed toward the sauna a quarter mile away, clad only in my bathing suit and a towel.
“Don’t you want to put on your bathrobe? It’s a little chilly!” Sam called after me as I headed down the dirt road, the November sunshine on my back.
“Nope! I feel great!”
Arriving at the sauna, I was happy to discover I had it to myself. I spotted the plunge tub about fifteen feet away, connected to the sauna by a wooden bridge. The plunge tub was just that—a standard-sized white bathtub filled and overflowing by a constant stream of water coming out of the ground just above it. . . 56-degree water, Sam had said. I went into the dark shelter of the hot sauna, breathing deeply. After several minutes, I was uncomfortably hot. I opened the door and was greeted by a breath of cool air. I easily traversed the distance to the tub in a few seconds. Holding onto the railing I stepped into the bath, barely more than 18-inches deep. Instantly, my feet were numb. I stood for a minute or two before trotting back to the sauna where I warmed up for several minutes feeling my feet tingle as the blood resumed normal circulation.
It took several trips back and forth between sauna and tub—each time, getting more and more of my body in—before I laid down in the 56-degree water up to my ears, then finally dunked my head. Euphoric, I went back to the sauna, laughing aloud, filled with such lightness and joy I couldn’t contain myself.
I baptized myself out of the bondage of fear and into the freedom of joy. I allowed myself to experience joy in what I’d previously viewed as a suffocatingly horrific scenario. I felt as if a one-hundred-pound weight had been taken off of my chest. Giddy, I headed up the road toward the main house. I stripped down and bathed in the outdoor shower despite temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, reveling in my new-found freedom. Rinsing the shampoo from my hair, my upward gaze revealed a view of a bright blue sky. Look at how big the Universe is! a voice inside my head exclaimed, and I immediately recalled how excited Burgess was when he saw a clear blue sky after days of dreary gray ones. I thanked him for teaching me exuberance.
I shed something in that plunge tub, and although it took a while to clearly identify it, I realized it was the last layer of shell that had been keeping me from my true self. The name of that layer was fear and what it held firmly in place was inhibition. I returned home with the conviction that I am enough. I stopped paying penance for my brother’s death.
Born in New York City and primarily raised in Appalachia, Eleanor Willis Haddad currently lives in Nashville, TN. She studied writing at Belmont University. Eleanor is a member of The Porch Writers Collective. She has told stories on-stage for Tenx9 Nashville. Her stories can be heard on their podcast. Eleanor is currently working on a memoir, Unpacking, chronicling her journey of self-discovery following a near-nervous breakdown, the result of a carefully constructed busy life designed to distract from the pain of a chaotic childhood and the suicide of her brother.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.