It has been 5 years since my younger brother, Neil, passed away unexpectedly at the tender age of 26. To those who have never lost a loved one, it is crucial to know that grief is not a one-time event. It continues, lingers, ebbs and flows, diminishes yet persists.
At times when I think of Neil, I smile. The happy memories of his warm and slightly musty smell, his giant hugs, and his simplicity make me feel connected to him even though he no longer exists in this world. I will never forget Neil as a baby; his skin was milky white and radiant. As a teenager, Neil shared the Wheel of Times books with me and we escaped into the same fictional universe together. I remember when he was a freshman in college and had to be hospitalized for an acute deadly infection and diabetes. I spent the night in his hospital room on a bench next to his bed; I couldn’t sleep and was drenched with anxiety until his condition improved. During long car rides between Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth, we conversed about astronomy (black holes), physics (Schrodinger) and how to ask someone on a date. I fondly remember how he helped me through laptop crashes and car issues, always available as my personal tech support even when we lived thousands of miles apart. Memories of Neil’s disheveled apartment and bedroom still make me laugh. His piles of grimy clothes and trash always contrasted with my museum-like, sterile apartment. Neil’s handwritten message on my medical school graduation card is etched in my mind forever: “I am glad one of us finally broke free from the harsh grip of Texas. Have fun in California.” I remember the last weekend I hung out with him. Tulsi, Neil, and I went to Guru Burger late at night in Sugar Land Town Center. We sat outside on the patio and enjoyed the night with beers and much needed sibling bonding time. Those memories bring me unquestionable joy.
But other times when I think of Neil, I feel a pain so visceral that it suffocates my throat and crushes my heart with actual physical pressure. Joan Didion described grief as “the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself”. When the person you love the most dies, it is hard to continue with life unchanged. The meaninglessness felt after losing a loved one is haunting, it carves out your insides and leaves a void that can never be filled. The day Neil passed away, I felt like a small part of me died. My family unit acquired a phantom limb after an amputation and we still feel phantom pain to this day. If I ever get married, I know the wedding ceremony will feel incomplete, because Neil will not be there to bless me as I walk around the sacred fire. This side of grief is cruel.
For Neil’s 5th death anniversary, Tulsi and I traveled to Japan to celebrate our baby brother’s life. We explored all the things Neil loved since he was an avid Japanophile who never had the opportunity to visit “Nippon”. We forged our own Katana knives in a scorching fire with help from a traditional swordsmith who taught us about ancient Japanese swords. Tulsi and I visited the Studio Ghibli museum where beloved Japanese anime characters came to life in fanciful exhibits. We learned about Japanese history at a Samurai castle, grand, white, and gleaming with tradition, and we were awed by the futuristic architecture and technology of Tokyo. The heartbreaking aspect of the trip was realizing the 3rd spoke of our sibling wheel was not there and never would be.
The void following Neil’s absence indirectly forced me to make drastic changes in my career and personal life. Neil always complained that I never took time to chill, relax, and have fun because I always kept myself busy with an ambitious set of goals. He’ll be happy to know that I take time to chill every single day. Sometimes I relax too much, which is when my boyfriend calls me a sloth. 🙂 Neil would also be impressed that I prioritize vacations, festivals, hanging out with friends, and enjoying good food and drinks. After Neil’s death, I tried marijuana for the first time. If only he could’ve seen me get extremely high in Jamaica by eating a giant weed brownie in front of my whole family! He would’ve laughed a big belly laugh. Although checklists of tasks continue to occupy my mind, I am reminded daily by my loving boyfriend to savor the present moment. Neil would be so proud.
Grief continues and memories of Neil will continue…his ties, his hoodie sweatshirts, the treasure trove of artwork and words he left behind, his innocence as a toddler, his collection of marbles, his gaming and tech devices, his curly hair, his philosophical and scientific conversations, his entire life. But I am hoping the pain dampens as time goes by. All I can do is keep living…