On the night my brother died, I was half a world away, wandering the cobblestone streets of Prague’s Old Town on a drizzly night. It was a perfect evening: the cobblestone slick in the light rain, the streets shiny under the glow of gas lamps, the muted clop of a woman’s heels the only sound in the world. It was a perfectly unremarkable evening, too, until my phone rang and another brother told me the news.
In that moment, thousands of miles away, my little brother (well, he always towered over me, but I always thought of him as my little brother) lay lifeless.
Joan Didion once observed that when tragedy strikes, we fixate on the normalcy of the moment.
The light. The sounds. The air. The calmness.
“Confronted with sudden disaster,” she wrote, “we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred.”
“Life changes fast,” Didion said. “Life changes in an instant.”
After my brother died, a higher-up at my office offered to buy me an early plane ticket home. Another friend took me for Long Island Iced Teas when I returned. Long lost friends appeared at his burial. Each outpouring, in its own way, represented to me the true kindness of people — and the clarity of true friendship that emerges in times of chaos.
My brother and I were not best friends, but the truth is, we were accidental companions. Our age drew us together — we were probably closest to each other, among our family of five kids. We went on wild excursions through the back-of-beyond (dans les concessions, as they say in Acadian French), where he taught me how to successful make a car do a recreational 360-degree spin on snowy roads; he introduced me to my future obsession, Sarah McLachlan; he taught me how to shoot a gun (indeed); we even went on a particularly embarrassing double date or two (ditto).
The experience of his death taught me a few things: we all grieve in our ways, and in death, we often remember people differently — sometimes quite differently — from the reality of how we knew them in life. Varying versions of history and memory emerge when one is gone, though perhaps none is more or less valid than the others.
But mostly, I was struck by the profundity and simplicity — oh my, I sound like my English-teacher mother — of one line that I discovered.
“The timing of death,” writer Mary Catherine Bateson once said, “like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it.”