The first confession:
A year ago, I hauled myself and my large collection of personal demons into my therapist’s office, and said some of the hardest words I’ve ever uttered:
“There’s something I’ve never told you. I have a brother.”
Secrets and lies:
I had been working with my therapist for well over a year before I confessed.
I didn’t keep the existence of my little brother Max a secret from her because I was ashamed of him, or because I don’t love him. I was ashamed of myself and the terrible thing I did to a boy who needed me.
“Lying by omission” sounds like such a small, relatively innocuous thing, doesn’t it? Don’t feel like mentioning the cheesecake you had at lunch to your dieting partner? Harmless. Don’t want to tell your jerky boss that his fly is down? That’s basically a public service! White lies probably feel downright dingy whenever they run into lies of omission at holiday parties.
But omitting a person? Blotting someone’s entire existence from your world and your portrayal of yourself? The cruelty and enormity of that takes my breath away.
I had to cover my face with my hands as I told my therapist about Max. My voice was mangled by sobs I couldn’t hold back. “I need to be able to talk to Max. I need to be family to my brother. Why am I like this? Why can’t I stop running away from the people I love the most?”
That day, I began intensive treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was excruciatingly hard. There were many weeks I think I cried more than I breathed. Max burned in my mind all the time. I prayed the work I was doing would lead me to him.
I didn’t know I was setting something much larger and stranger than that into motion.
Unlucky number seventeen:
It’s been seventeen years since I last saw Max.
Okay, phrased more accurately: it’s been seventeen years since I allowed my brother to see me or interact with me in any way.
My mind keeps catching on that number. Seventeen. Seventeen. It has nightmarish significance in my life.
Maybe that’s just a coincidence, and maybe it’s not. Coincidences, both small and improbably huge, have been piling up around me since I began therapy for my PTSD — an inexorable avalanche of synchronicity burying my lifelong skepticism.
For my seventeenth birthday, my dad gave me the premonition that he was going to kill himself. There might have been other gifts, too, but the only one that’s stayed with me all these years is the memory of how he fell down while singing to me.
The engine of my father’s destruction was a back injury. Every “corrective” surgery made him worse. Pain ultimately defined his existence. In his final months, he hurt constantly and never slept. The slew of medications he took did little to help — in fact, they stole him away from us. He transformed into a red-eyed, shuffling, mumbling stranger who said things that didn’t make sense and filled me with unease.
On the day I turned seventeen, we ordered sushi. When the food was delivered, Max, my stepmom Cassandra, and my dad stood around the dining room table, singing Happy Birthday. Halfway through the song, my father collapsed on the floor, like his legs had abruptly turned into overcooked noodles. He struggled back to his feet, still singing, his voice thick. The entire time, his bleary eyes looked only at the wall, as if it were the birthday girl instead of me.
It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen — and my first encounter with the paralysis of fear.
No one said a single word about the fall or acknowledged it in any way, like it was perfectly unremarkable to collapse at random without explanation. I only went to my dad’s house every other weekend — was this normal now? I stared down at my shoes to hide the horror and confusion in my eyes, waiting and waiting for someone to react to his collapse. The song finished and Dad began passing out plates of sushi. I could barely eat a thing. My instincts screamed at me to run from the silence, but my feet couldn’t move.
For the next few weeks, I felt like I was drowning in glue. I didn’t tell my mom about Dad collapsing. I’d never told her about any of my experiences with Dad’s nightmarish erosion. I lived in surreal, underwater slow motion. My mouth and throat felt clogged with sticky terror.
When the phone finally rang far too early in the morning to portend anything good, I instantly knew my father had killed himself. I sat in the dark at the top of the stairs, listening to the murmur of my mom’s voice. She was too far away for me to pick out any of her words, but it didn’t matter. I knew.
When I was seventeen, PTSD invaded my body and mind like a demon claiming a kingdom — a kingdom it still rules to this day. When I was seventeen, an essential part of who I am became permanently trapped like an insect in the amber of my father’s death.
My little brother Max was only three when Dad killed himself.
By the time Max was six, I had abandoned him, too.
One suicide, many deaths:
Dad overdosed shortly before movers were scheduled to arrive and load up an army of cardboard boxes full of everything he, Cassandra, and my little brother owned. The state of my father’s health and finances had grown so dire, he and Cassandra could no longer stay in Washington. They needed to be in Wisconsin — over a thousand miles away from me — where they could depend on support that only my stepmom’s family could provide.
Paramedics resuscitated Dad in the wee hours of Moving Day, but it was too late. His brain had gone far too long without oxygen.
For a hellish week, what was left of him jerked and twitched in a hospital bed — an irreparably brain-damaged meat-husk entirely dependent on machines for survival. For seven days, my mom, Cassandra, Max, and I haunted miserable hospital waiting rooms and hallways, enduring the exquisite torture of praying for a miracle we knew wouldn’t happen.
On the seventh day, we took Dad off of life support and let him die for the final time.
I think Cassandra was only thirty years old when she became a widow, but she might have been even younger than that. She needed her family’s support more than ever. As soon as arrangements could be made for the transportation of my dad’s body, she completed the move to Wisconsin alone with her now-fatherless toddler.
In the span of roughly two weeks, I lost half of my family. It’s taken almost twenty years and innumerable therapy sessions for me to understand what this did to my heart and mind.
Crack the Whip:
Before Cassandra and Max left, my mom and I came to their house to see if we could get any of my dad’s belongings. I will never forget that day.
Everything they owned was still packed up and sealed. Cassandra, pale and spacey from shock, rummaged through boxes at random, pulling out anything of my father’s that she could find in the labyrinth of cardboard. It was a sad little hodgepodge: some of his sweaters, a pair of Birkenstocks, the long black coat he’d always looked so dashing in, a sword.
We stopped looking fairly quickly. Opening the boxes and pawing at their contents was far too exhausting and upsetting to be worth the work.
When we were finished searching, Cassandra turned to my mom, her pretty eyes wide and dazed. “What happens at a funeral?” she asked. “I’ve never been to a funeral before.” She looked so young it cut into me like a knife.
In answer, my mom swept Cassandra into her arms and held her tight, tight, tight, like she hoped she could permanently imprint the sensation of her embrace on my stepmother’s skin.
I thought the strangeness of seeing my father’s first wife taking care of his third wife had worn off during that week of hell in the hospital. But it came flooding back as I watched Mom hug Cassandra.
I wondered if this was all a dream. Surely, reality had left us behind, like children flung loose during a particularly vicious game of Crack the Whip.
A few months later, Cassandra and Max flew back to Washington to see me. It was a wonderful visit that felt totally wrong.
We weren’t supposed to be a trio. There was a hole where my dad should have been, an absence with a seething presence, impossible to ignore.
Again, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that we were in the wrong reality. In the real world, Dad was alive and we were all together. Somehow, Cassandra, Max, and I had gotten lost, trapped in an alternate timeline soot black with grief and pain.
I stayed in touch with Cassandra and Max after they moved away, but it was difficult.
My brother was only three, and three year olds aren’t exactly famous for their oratory skills. Attempting to talk to him on the phone always left me feeling frustrated and stupid. His voice didn’t sound right when it had to travel such a long distance to reach my ears. Nothing felt right.
You play with three year olds, you chase them, you hug them and tickle them — but you don’t really have full-fledged conversations with them.
No phone call could hold a candle to the feeling of Max sitting on my lap, or the sight of his face as he shouted “Sissy! Sissy!” whenever I came over to my dad’s house. No faltering, long-distance conversation could compare to watching Max do a weird little dance every time he heard The X-Files theme music, or seeing his even weirder impression of a Skeksis from The Dark Crystal.
Each call, halting and clumsy, was just a painful reminder of our lack of connection.
The last time I saw Max was in 1999, when I came to Wisconsin to visit him and Cassandra during my Thanksgiving break. He was six; I was nineteen.
When I arrived at my stepmom’s house, I was greeted by the baby brother from my memories: a darling, towheaded, precocious little boy who crackled with limitless energy supplied by the perpetual motion machine of ADHD.
Cassandra told me Max was so excited about my visit, he’d done a Show and Tell about me at school. He proudly talked at length about his amazing “sissy.” When his teacher asked, “What’s your sissy’s name?” Max was bewildered and more than a little offended by such a stupid question. “Sissy’s name is Sissy!”
Initially, Max seemed unchanged to me — he was taller and he had a much bigger vocabulary, but besides that, I didn’t notice much difference between this boy and the one who used to sit on my lap while I watched The X-Files with our dad.
But each day I spent with Max and Cassandra made it clear that my brother was profoundly and irreparably damaged by our dad’s death. I had been clinging to the desperate hope that Max would emerge from our family’s tragedy unscathed, shielded by his young age. I think hopes that are so huge we can’t even name them are the ones that hurt us the most to lose. I hadn’t known how much I wanted — needed — normalcy for my brother until that hope was crushed.
Six years old and already scarred for life. Six years old.
I couldn’t bear it. It gutted me.
And so I hid. I didn’t just hide from Max, but Max was the first person I hid from, and the one I hid from hardest.
Confessions of a ghoster:
The word ruthless reverberates in my head when I think about how thoroughly I’ve avoided all contact with Max and my stepmom. My silence has been ruthless in its magnitude. I have ruthlessly shunned them when they’ve tried to reach out to me.
When Max wanted to attend my wedding — despite the fact that I’d excised him from my life without explanation, as if he were a cancer instead of a baby brother — I refused to let him come. I didn’t even tell him no myself. My mom had to do it for me, because just hearing his name made me involuntarily curl into a ball and howl in pain.
If you know me, there’s a good chance you, too, have not heard from me in a long time. I’ve vanished on a lot of people. Unopened letters from friends I adore are piled on my desk, growing a layer of dust. Texts and emails languish unread. Calls go unanswered. By now, I’ve ghosted almost everyone in my life.
One of the people I ghosted is dead now.
I will never get a chance to tell her I’m so sorry for running away from you. I will never be able to say I love you, I love you, I love you so much. She will never know how hugely important she was to me. I will never again get to experience even a single second of life with her.
Regret is a stone that will weigh down my heart until the day I die.
I don’t want to be like this anymore. And… I think my very dead dad might want me to stop being like this, too.
The past year has taught me something important: Ghosts do what they want, whether or not you believe in them.
Stay tuned for the next step on my journey down the Ghost Path!
Check out Part 2: My First Ghost Story.