“What men call the shadow of the body is not the shadow of the body, but is the body of the soul.”
― Oscar Wilde
I have spent all of my life in my brother’s shadow; the safest place I could find in my early years, yet the loneliest in his last. He always had more mass than me. He was older, and taller and stronger, and as a small child in a big and sometimes adverse world, there was extra safety in those added dimensions. I followed him to the creek, and the woods, and the parks and the pools. I sneaked into his room at night when I was afraid. I fell for the jokes, the tricks and the dares, even when I was a step ahead and knew the blame would fall on me. I gladly walked in his twilight; he was my best friend and my built in protector. He blocked a lot of pain, pressure, and fear for me over our years together. But in the dark, there isn’t much light. I couldn’t see what the world was doing to him.
As we grew older, I created my own light; my own life. And in that lightness I saw just how hard it had been to block my view all of those years. There’s a secret language to childhood adversity which unfortunately leads many to not speaking at all. I opened up and found solace in writing and photography and motherhood. My brother struggled with his emotions and found relief in other things, the demons of our youth; the enemy. Those demons silenced him and shut him down; severed his tie to family and friends. Suddenly we were strangers speaking a different language and living opposite lives. Walking in his shadow took a lonely turn.
And his shadow was heavy when he was sick. It meant constantly worrying about him and caring for him like a small child. It meant questioning his honesty and turning away from that look in his eye that said ‘I am hurting. I am hurting you. I have no choice.’ It meant avoiding my own morals and keeping his secrets, under reporting his trips to the emergency room, and giving him money when I knew that I shouldn’t; lying for him and watching him lie to others. Death isn’t the opposite of life, addiction is. My brother was in a living hell and couldn’t find his way out. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for him, it shape-shifted with his mood swings and lack of clarity. He had a dual diagnosis, each he couldn’t manage, but the burden they presented in pair was devastating. One alone has the potential to end your life, but together, the odds are stacked against you. The hope for his full recovery was diminishing, but I couldn’t see that from where I was standing.
And maybe I should have known. I knew that he was being careless with his life. But it never actually occurred to me that my only sibling would go missing 50 years before his time. I was never able to wrap my head around the concept of life without him and I was incapable of accepting his inevitability. I hadn’t been alive on this planet without my brother for even one second before his death. They say losing a sibling is like losing an arm. The wounds will heal and the flesh seals, but you will begrudgingly have to learn to live your life with only one arm. His absence is bewildering to me and at times, complete amnesia. I can’t remember when he was here, and I can’t understand ‘here’ with him gone.
Jake lost his ability to block the sun and cast a shadow on August 19th, 2017. I immediately felt as though someone had ripped a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere from the sky; the sun burned, and the wind stung and the rain bruised. Everything hurt. My bones hurt, and my brain hurt, and my heart broke, and my body refused sleep or food or logic. I have never felt more alone or vulnerable than I did that morning. The call that started it all and the terror that followed. Sitting in his apartment watching mouths move and nodding but inching my way into an almost complete state of dissociation. His funeral was a blur. Something or other about cremation. Tox screens and heaven stones and our mom. Spontaneous outbursts and cries of relief at the end of each painful day. Wake and repeat, on loop. As I have just passed nine months trying to make sense of the senseless, I can finally wake with some peace and rest with some assurance. But those early days were a brutal force to be reckoned with.
I recently saw a picture of Jake’s reflection in the glass door from our childhood. I sat with that image for a long time because that is how I remember him near the end; hazy and unclear. But from where I was standing our whole lives, he was solid, and sincere and safe. In his shadow is where I choose to stay; that silhouette of sacrificial love that saved me from so much pain. His shadow wasn’t where the hurt was; the sickness. In his shadow was his soul.