My brother Stephen and I sat in the back of our sister Kelly’s sedan. Korey, her twin, sat in the passenger seat. Identical strawberry blondes. We were dropping off Stephen after our last family get-together before my journey from my home state of Florida back to my soul city of Portland during the spring of 2009. We hugged and kissed, and he assured me leaving Florida was the best thing for me and that he planned to escape with his wife soon, too.
I watched him walk the pathway to his apartment in the warm dark night. A foreboding doom consumed me as he took each step on the concrete. I got lost in the grass blades. Each footstep echoed in my mind. A hurricane of sadness engulfed me and poured out of my eyes and mouth as Stephen neared the door of his home.
My twin sisters consoled me, “It’ll be okay, sis. You’ll be back.”
“I know this is the last time I’ll see him. Something bad is going to happen. I think my plane is going to crash.” I sobbed uncontrollably the entire ride home.
My big brother Stephen and I should’ve been twins. We were more like best friends than just brother and sister ever since we were children. We had five years difference in age, but it never interfered with our bond. He toted me everywhere he went: the food court in the mall behind our house, his friend’s skate ramp; I was behind him more than his own shadow until I was about 12. Nothing could come between us and together we were invincible, or at least so we thought.
Many of my few childhood memories are of the times we spent together. One of the funnier ones is when we used to go to Catholic Sunday school in South Florida. Our mother would make us breakfast; usually scrambled eggs or waffles. We’d chow down, kiss her goodbye and venture on our weekly journey to catechism class. Looking back, I’m surprised we didn’t protest it too much because neither of us pursued the Catholic faith in our adult lives.
The morning smelled of freshly mowed grass. The sunlight glistened on the steel frame of my brother’s bike. He thoughtfully avoided the bumps on the road, as he towed me on the handlebars. I veiled the sun from his eyes with my shadow. We did not extend the same courtesy to our neighbors.
Stephen stood up and pedaled faster and faster.
“Kick the can,” he said.
The trashcan tumbled over in a raucous. Rubbish spewed onto the street and lawn.
“Now aim for the mailbox.”
We laughed and left the mangled mailbox dangled from its stem. We were fallen angels, and this was our earth-bound ritual.
We weren’t always mischievous, but we were always off the beaten path when it came to music, at least during the time we were kids—punk was not popular back then. I would run straight to my brother’s room to pick through his piles of cassettes and CDs when I would get home from grade school. Sex Pistols, Ramones, the Dead Milkmen. Original drawings of flames, skulls, and vines cluttered his nightstand. His beloved acoustic guitar rested against the wall. I rolled back and forth on his skateboard as I read inserts for CDs and tapes. I felt like I was in a sacred place.
I cannot deny my brother Stephen shaped who I am today. He got me into music. He got me into being creative. He taught me to discover and pursue my talents. No one else believed in me, or my writing, like he did. I will never be able to do anything artistic without thinking of him. He is immortalized through my creativity.
Three months after I left Florida for Portland, I received a phone call from my mother.
“You need to sit down.”
She told me my brother Stephen had passed away of a sudden heart attack on August 16, 2009. The world suffocated me. I needed to sit down, forever. Part of me left with him right then and there. I didn’t think I could live without him. I told myself it should have been me instead. He had more to live for. He had a wife. He had hope. He had optimism. I panicked. I thought of everything that connected us and felt so lost. Who am I without my brother? After his death it became clear to me how much of my personality grew from his. I felt like nothing without my brother. An empty pit of zero.
For years, I’d fantasize about driving into a building to be with him. Driving and crying was my new hobby. I wanted to die so badly that I thought for sure I’d somehow will it with sheer thought. My suicidal ideations sent me into a blackout on a bridge one night. While staring into that dark water, I came to and heard my brother’s voice in my head. It changed my life. It snapped me out of the five-year funk that tried to kill me damn near every day. It brought me solace. It turned my grief into joy. It made me remember him and laugh instead of cry. His words to me on the bridge that night embodied his essence. It was exactly what he would’ve said, and it’s exactly what I needed to hear.
He told me not to waste my life that I had worked so hard for, and to be happy that he finally escaped Florida.
Happy Birthday to my late brother Stephen George Giarritta, who would’ve been 42 years old today. ❤