I can breathe. Inhale for four beats, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, then repeat. In. Hold. Out. Hold.
Our front yard is filled with mourners, all in black. A bead of sweat rolls down the nape of my neck, melting into the already damp collar of my loose cotton shirt. The dry Wyoming breeze does nothing to cool me down, but it carries the voices that wash over me like ice.
“So young,” they say.
“Too young,” a weary sigh agrees.
“His mother? Oh, God.”
I turn my head in their direction.
“I know. I could never imagine burying my baby. Not like that. Did you hear she found him?”
I shut them out, turning instead to see a lithe figure glide toward my surviving brother, a plastic-wrapped Pyrex dish in her arms. “You take care of yourself, young man.” He nods, takes the food. Her gentle and frail hands wrap around his angular arms, and I can see the grip is tight. “You and your parents have been through so much. Just be good to yourself.”
I want to hand Mikey the Kleenex I have in my pocket, to wipe the tears beginning to fall on his face.
A squeal bursts through the air; a giggle follows.
“Mommy!” The little girl bounds past me, hair mussed, laughing as her brother chases her with handfuls of grass: the ammunition of choice against his big sister.
“Kids! Over here, now!” Their mother corrals them, pointing toward the open garage door. “I swear, sometimes I just. … ” she breaks off as my dad approaches.
“It’s OK.” He envelopes her in a bear hug, his arms wrapping around her small body. His voice shakes when he speaks again, lips quivering. “It reminds me of when the boys were that young. Let them play.”
He steps away from her, a watery smile peeking through his haunted eyes.
Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Hold.
I barely notice the wetness dripping down my cheeks, remembering being chased in that same spot 20 years ago, grass in my own tangled hair.
“His poor girlfriend.” She’s whispering, but I can hear every word.
“Oh my God, I know. Did you know they fought that night?” Her friend leans in, even quieter.
Their cigarette smoke wafts over me.
Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Hold.
“It’s so fucked up. He fucking shot himself, and Mike and their mom found him. And his dad was working in Colorado, so it was just them, having to see that shit.”
My exhale follows them as they move toward the house.
“David seems to be doing all right.” I turn to see a tall man approach, his badge shining in my eyes.
“Nah, he’s about to break. Just look at him. His son just died, and he wasn’t here when it happened. His wife and kid had to find him. Dave had to wait until it was over to know what happened.” The other uniformed man shoves his hands in his pockets.
My dad was in Okinawa when Josh was born. Gone for his birth and death. I named my brother after him while he was gone. I said their name over and over when Josh died.
“I can’t imagine.” The taller cop’s chest rises as he breathes in, matching my breathing. We exhale.
“He knows we’ve got his back, right? April’s, too. And his younger boy. They’ve seen something no one ever should.”
My face is wet again. My collar is soaked all the way around, a salty necklace of tears and sweat. I open my mouth, take a step toward the two men.
“C’mon, let’s go see what they need us to do.”
Still breathing. Tears flow freely now, a sob stuck in my throat, and I’m looking around the crowd on the lawn, searching.
“Hey!” A familiar voice from behind catches my attention. I whip around, wiping my cheeks with the back of my hand.
“No, no, I’m at David and April’s. Yeah, the funeral was today. You coming?” Her back is turned to me, her long hair shimmering like an oil slick in the sun. “Yeah, on Quincy. I’ll be out front, you’ll see me.” Her neatly manicured fingers tap her phone screen as she sways past me, and I can taste her sickly sweet perfume on the air.
I’m still standing in the sunlight, can still feel the sweat on my neck and shoulders. Kids playing, chasing each other and squealing with innocent laughter.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
My mother and father are side by side, leaning into each other and listening to the tall cop talk about the turnout for the service.
Mikey is sitting in an old plastic chair in the garage, his girlfriend curled up in his lap as she strokes his face, her slim fingers brushing away a steady stream of his tears.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends mill about with drinks in their hands and sad smiles on their faces as they reminisce about the boy we buried today. A symphony of laughter, sobs, and melodic storytelling washes over me, but what should be comforting is instead grating.
When I inhale this time, it aches. My chest fills with burning coals, boiling the hot tears that keep spilling down my face and splashing onto the grass below me. A dull roar grows in my head, tuning out everything around me until I can’t focus, can’t feel my own skin, can’t sense the ground under my feet.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
I don’t like emotion. I don’t like feeling.
Comfort is all around me, wrapping my family in a soothing embrace and allowing all of them to feel, to be emotional.
I’m surrounded by grief, love, laughter, joy, sorrow, and devastation, but it belongs to them. None of it belongs to me.
My ache is my own. And I can’t. I just can’t.
Twenty minutes, and I can’t help but dread the next 20, or the 20 after that.