10 days before my wedding, my brother lost his fight with pediatric bone cancer.
It was my wedding day.
I stood outside the doors to the chapel. My heart was racing, and I felt my eyes fill up with tears.
I can’t do this.
Before I could turn and run, the doors flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to look at me. I scanned the crowd. I saw my family and friends. I saw my dad and stepfather waiting in front of the altar to give me away. But I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone, and that was not how it was supposed to be.
I don’t know how long I paused there. I felt like I couldn’t move.
Then my eyes found my future husband, Joe. And right next to him, I saw a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and decided that if I could make it down the aisle to him, I’d be OK.
I felt as if my knees might buckle, but somehow I began walking. It was surreal. I felt as if I were floating, but I eventually made it down the aisle.
18 months earlier, my 16-year-old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.
The diagnosis was grim. The prognosis was not good. He was quick to rally. He was going to be fine. He was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.
10 days before my wedding, he lost his fight.
Now, I look back and I don’t know how my family and I made it through both a funeral and a wedding in such a short span of time, but we did. There would be no postponing of the wedding as I’d suggested. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he "didn’t have time for cancer." He didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do, and he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.
So, even though we were still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding, including the single candle that stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. We read a beautiful poem in his memory during the ceremony. We played his favorite song at the reception. And we danced. And we drank. And, inexplicably, we had fun.
15 years have passed since that day.
15 years and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him. 15 years and I’m still learning about how this "after part" works.
I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back, but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work. So usually, I choose to appreciate the lessons I’ve learned instead.
1. I’ve learned to cut people some extra slack.
You really don’t know what people are going through. You don’t know what they have endured. You don’t know what battles they may be fighting.
There were the times during my brother’s illness when I would find myself driving 15 mph in the left lane. I’d be lost somewhere between grief and exhaustion, and I would arrive home with no idea how I got there. There were times when I’d look up distractedly at the grocery store, only to realize that I’d been standing in the middle of the aisle, lost in thought, for 10 minutes.
I used to be the person who honked impatiently and threw dirty looks as I zoomed past a slow driver, but not anymore.
Now I know what it's like to really have a bad day, to be so lost in a world turned on its head that you’re completely unaware of your surroundings. I learned that we all have bad days. Some of us have really bad days. Most of us are just trying to make it to tomorrow.
2. I’ve learned that true compassion and grace are about suspending judgment.
Over and over, I saw that real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt: granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, being patient and kind even when you don’t know what they're actually going through.
If you have to know the behind the scenes? If you have to know their story in order to be kind? If your kindness is based on an assessment of their pain and if it is conditional? Then it’s not truly kindness; it’s just judgment.
I didn’t get this before. I wasn’t cruel, and I wasn’t mean-spirited, but I was impatient and I was easily irritated. That was before I realized the depths in which people can be trapped while still looking completely normal to the rest of the world.
3. I’ve learned that comfort sometimes comes from unexpected places.
There are people who had a huge impact on me, who helped me through difficult times, and they probably don’t even know the significance of their actions.
Sometimes, for me, it was the soft-spoken coworker who offered me a hug as I was leaving to meet my family at the hospital. He was shy and reserved, but he wrapped me in a big bear hug when I was overcome with emotion. I knew this small gesture was not easy for him to give, but his effort to offered me solace.
In another moment, that solace came from my brash, loud, jokester boss who let me take off as much time as I needed to be with my brother at the hospital. Another time, it was my friend from work who calmly assured me that I would feel joy again after I tearfully confided my fear and pain to her. And often, solace came from my husband’s brother and my sister-in-law, who drove 12 hours to attend my brother’s memorial service.
I learned that an act of kindness, no matter how small, is never wrong. Sometimes it’s the thing that can help someone put one foot in front of the other.
4. I’ve learned that I can still, even 15 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.
Sometimes I’ll be sitting at my kid’s swim practice when a memory knocks the wind out of me. The next thing I know, I’m wiping away tears and hoping no one notices.
Sometimes I’ll be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter might look just like my brother. I’ll feel the loss and pain take over and overwhelm me. And in these moments, I’m always surprised at the cruel force of grief’s ability to blindside me.
Sometimes I'll see him when my kids do something especially mischievous, and my thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of my brother, to memories of the antics of a little boy long ago.
Then, I start imagining what could have been: him egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behavior. And I can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture me as an adult like he did as a little kid.
You can bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but let me tell you: It’s not going away, so you might as well let it happen. You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but I’ve learned that you’ll also be OK. You will be OK.
5. I’ve learned that I’ll probably feel my brother’s presence forever.
I'll still see him in each of my children, in their personalities, in their senses of humor, which is what my brother was known for.
I'll still feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time. I often feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel a warmth come over me, a warmth hard to describe because it’s unlike any sensation I’ve felt before.
And I hope I'll still feel him, forever, kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me. I can almost hear what he would say to me in those situations: Don’t give up. You’re better than that.
I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me. They are bittersweet. They are welcome. And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.
6. What I’ve realized most of all, after all of these years, is that there didn’t need to be a replacement for my brother.
When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to walk me down the aisle, I contemplated other options. But in the end, I decided there was no understudy, and there would be no last minute stand-in. I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.
And as always, even though my brother wasn't physically there, he showed up. He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared. He reminded me that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.
In the end, my brother was still there with me on one of the best days of my life because he always has been.