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The After Series: Reclaiming Lost Love

by Kathryn Leehane

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We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after. Trigger warning for violent imagery. Those who find themselves suggestible or find it difficult to deal with upsetting thoughts might choose to avoid reading the piece.

I stand at the unfamiliar door, shivering despite the scorching Arizona air. “My brother touched this every day,” I think, turning the doorknob.

Images from our childhood flash before me. Building blanket forts. Fighting imaginary monsters with swords fashioned out of sticks. Acting as lookout while the other one stole cookies from the pantry. Growing up as the youngest of six children, we were co-conspirators. He was my first best friend.

By the time I cross the threshold to empty out his apartment, however, my brother was a stranger. I haven’t seen him in sixteen years. He left town without saying goodbye, never responded to my attempts at contact, and later hung himself in a city hundreds of miles away.

He didn’t leave a suicide note, giving me no insight to his final thoughts. Who was the man I am mourning?

His home promises answers. I am searching for information, clues, anything to assuage the guilt of no longer knowing my sibling. I need to reconnect with him and make up for the support I wasn’t able to give when he was alive.

Beyond the perfectly appointed decor, I can see the vestiges of a life gone wrong. High-end furnishings that once boasted prosperity are now marred by garbage and filth. Overflowing ashtrays, food wrappers, and red plastic cups litter the coffee table. Dirty dishes, crumpled paper towels, and crusty containers cover every kitchen surface. Unopened bills and prescription bottles lay abandoned on the entryway counter.

My stomach churns. I know what drives a person to forsake their mail, their laundry, their tidiness. Years ago, I tasted the same kind of suffering that precedes suicide. Contemplated the same way out of the darkness. Let it linger on my tongue. Though I had spit out the bittersweet notion, I understand. Perhaps I knew my brother better than I thought.

Brushing away crumbs and cigarette ash, I sit on the couch, imagining a time before his death. My brother huddled on the sofa, me by his side. Smoke stinging the back of my throat, I place an arm around his shoulders and assure him everything would be OK. “I can help,” I’d have told him.

Despite my desire to cling to his belongings, I need to empty the apartment. Remove any trace of the person who once could entertain an entire room with his stories. I haul out furniture, box up paperwork, and discard trash. I hold onto each item for a moment, trying to absorb him, soak up his spirit.

Sticky ice cream cartons reveal his love for cherry chocolate chip. Empty vodka and orange juice bottles hint at his drink of choice. A tower of greasy pizza boxes tells me his preferred toppings—sausage, mushrooms, and olives. I talk with him as though he is here with me, sharing stories of my wedding, the one he didn’t attend. I tell him about the niece and nephew he never met. Clearing unwashed pots and pans from the stovetop, I prepare imaginary meals with him and laugh at his jokes—the way I did so many years ago. Emptying rotten food from the refrigerator, we cry over our parents’ divorce, the one he didn’t witness. We share joy and sorrow. Celebrations and heartbreak. His home becomes mine, if only for a day.

The closet is the last room I scrub of my brother. Pressed suits and button-down shirts hang from expensive wooden hangers, and footwear neatly lines the storage bench. I take note of his preference for Vans sneakers and his vast collection of neckties. I picture him checking his appearance in the hallway mirror before work each day.

A large reddish-brown stain at my feet thrusts me back to the present. My gaze is yanked upward to the closet rod and then to a shorn necktie dangling from a rack. I’m standing where he killed himself. Where he took his last breath. Where his body hung for weeks before the landlord found him. Abstract details suddenly become concrete images of The Where and The How. I stare at the serrated remnant of silk, as his final moments replay in my mind until I feel disoriented.

My heart seizes as I re-examine the dark stain on the carpet—the dried remains of his bodily fluids, the only piece left of my brother. I would never be so close to him again. A small swarm of tiny insects hovers over the mess like they want to be near him too.

I rip a shoe out of the gore, and something snaps deep in me. My knees buckle. I sit with my brother inside that closet, and we pray the Our Father together—a prayer from our upbringing meant to unite the faithful, one I long since stopped reciting. Trembling on the carpet, I whisper those sacred words for him. For us.

In doing so, I feel the jagged edges in my gut start to soften. Despite our worlds being separated by distance and death, my brother no longer seems like a stranger. I shared time and space with him that afternoon. Though gritty and ash-covered, new memories have been made.

I collect mementos—antique lighters, watches, sports memorabilia—to give to my family. Perhaps they too can feel closer to him, relish the warmth of proximity, and rekindle their own relationships with the man they’d come to see as a specter from the past.

Now he is present, real. Just in time to let him go.

*      *      *

 

Submissions for The After Series are now closed. We continue to explore and discuss mental health (and everything else that occurs around life and death) on The Orange Dot. To get a sense of what else we might be looking for, read our guidelines for submissions.

Artwork by KYLE BECK

Kathryn Leehane

Kathryn Leehane is a writer and humorist living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two kids, and two ferociously snuggly pit bulls. She is a contributing author to several anthologies, and her writing has recently appeared in McSweeney’s, Redbook, Scary Mommy, and Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

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