SACRED HEART OF THE HIGHWAY

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When my stepbrother took his own life, I found out via a voicemail my father’s sister left on my phone. I sat in silence for a few minutes, trying to grasp what is just heard. She never mentioned suicide in the voicemail, but I knew that was what had happened. I never returned her call. I couldn’t and still can’t speak to anyone I’ve blood relations with, other than my sister.

This is the landscape I live in. No blood. No ties. No familial rattraps.

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My most current therapist suggested that a good thing for me to learn how to implement/do would be learning how to forgive myself for the anger other people have toward me. It has taken me most of my life to learn how to communicate with other people without coming off as unhinged or in the midst of unraveling. This new thing–attempting to forgive others for their reactions/feelings about me or my actions–this is the kind of personal work that ramps up my self-loathing and tendency to want to destroy myself.

This place is sacred to me, my tiny area inside of myself where I keep the list of people in the world who have anger with my name attached to it. I try to stay away from it, try not to linger on faces, actions, tears or names. I’ve been through SERE training, so any attempt to pry the sacred space open would be a waste of time and energy.

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I purposely did not read anything about my stepbrother immediately after his death. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and I was also trying to be respectful of his family, seeing as how nobody reached out to me personally to let me know what had occurred. In the hours after I found out, I bought and canceled plane tickets twice. When I told my then-wife what had happened, she barely looked up from her iPad and said “that sucks,” and went back to whatever she was doing. I had already made the decision to leave the marriage a few weeks before, at her grandather’s wake, surrounded by all the people who loved and respected him, when the feeling washed over me that I was not among my people but instead swimming in someone else’s tears and feelings.

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Part of the reason why it’s so hard for me to accept that someone can be angry with me is the root of a massive tree I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to cut down. Whenever my father was angry, it never mattered who or what he was angry with because the anger always ended on my body and on my psyche. If he was mad about something that happened at work he’d bury it until he got home and if I did something he didn’t like, well, I’d be the one he could slap across the face and scream at to relieve that tension. If he was mad at my mother, he’d goad me into defending her so he could crack me upside the head. You get so used to this kind of thing that it eventually wears a groove into your heart that only plays the same three sad notes over and over again. You start to believe that there is no love without anger attached to it, that your suffering is a result of someone else loving you.

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A couple of weeks ago I rolled through the social media posts of people who were close to my stepbrother. I went back in time to his death and worked my way to present day, taking in all the words and tears and photos and questions. So many questions. A fair amount of anger and disbelief. A fair amount of regret over time unspent and moments that were fleeting. I read every post and ever comment on every post and I cried and I laughed and I had my own moments of disbelief and my own moments of regret.

The way I felt after spending almost an entire day digesting all of these words and feelings can only be described as unclean. I felt dirty for not being present. I felt dirty for not reaching out to his mother and brother, irrespective of my feelings about them. I felt dirty for not reaching out to his partner. I felt dirty for not getting on a plane. I felt dirty for going on with life as if my stepbrother were never a part of it, never a part of me. I felt dirty for abandoning him with the mess of it all as soon as my father died, for running back to Brooklyn to bury my dead in my own way.

I felt dirty for not really knowing him at all. I felt dirty for claiming to have known and loved someone so obviously loved and cherished by so many.

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There is another place inside of me, less sacred and far more unholy, where my own anger toward myself simmers.

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When someone tells you “everything happens for a reason,” it’s really no different than someone telling you “I’ll pray for you.” Both come from a place that is supposedly kind and tender, but for those of us in the world who don’t deal in cosmic rays or prayer as a means to heal, it’s hard to take gracefully. I’m more apt to roll with the cosmic rays, so I can handle these attempts at kindness, but I know that there are times when I want to lash out and scream when they are being used to placate me or keep me from spiraling down into the abyss. Sometimes the abyss is where we need to be, touching bottom with a toe and bouncing as hard as we can to rise back to the surface of the living world we’re supposed to participate in.

I keep on telling myself that everything is going to be okay. I keep on telling myself that everything is ahead and not behind and everything ahead is limitless. I keep on telling myself that all of the suffering and confusion and pain and innermost turmoil is a thing I’ve walked through and nothing ahead could possibly be worse or harder or more damaging.

I keep on.

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