I thought grief was finished with me, at least for a long time. After all, I had experienced two early losses: the death of my mother when I was 21 and the passing of my father 10 years later. On that beautiful May day, the furthest thought from my mind was that by sunset, I would be booking a plane ticket home to Oklahoma to put my older brother’s affairs to rest.
I was living and teaching near Yokosuka Naval Station in Japan. On that day, students and faculty were celebrating the yearly rite of spring: a school-wide picnic. Our festivities overlooked the Pacific Ocean, shimmering and calm under a crystalline sky. We set up long tables on which we placed dishes, pots, and trays all brimming with homemade food. We were enjoying a celebratory time filled with rambunctious games and a lot of laughter.
Late in the afternoon, I went into the school building to make sure preparations for the next day’s classes were complete. Just as I was reaching for the doorknob of my classroom, I noticed my supervisor walking down the hall.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said.
Turning, I smiled at her, thinking she needed a report, a reply to a parental request, or maybe some final detail that often closed out an educator’s day. But she did not smile back at me.
“There’s been a serious accident in the States,” she said.
“Oh,” I replied, stepping toward her and wondering what this news had to do with me.
“Your brother … a motorcycle …” she said, her voice trailing off.
The word motorcycle hit me hard in the chest, and I knew it was my older brother, Olan, who had been riding it. “How bad is it?” I asked, struggling to find my breath.
Shifting her gaze away from me, she shook her head. “He’s gone.”
Early the next morning, my faculty friends put me on a bus to Narita Airport, where I soon began the most gut-wrenching journey of my life. The itinerary included several layovers. During each of these stops, I found a corner in the airport, faced the wall, and allowed the tears to flow. I was glad to be among strangers so that no one intervened in this most private heartbreak. Then I calmed myself because I knew I had to find my gate.
Once onboard the next flight and settled for departure, I’d pretend to read and pray no one would notice my bloodshot eyes. The jet would speed down the runway and once again I would be airborne. I’d choke back tears and gaze out the window. Watching the billowy clouds, I’d allow myself to start missing him, to begin to understand the vacuum he would leave. Having lost both parents in our early 20s, we had an unspoken appreciation for each other.
Olan raised his only child, Emily, on his own. When Emily was in elementary school, Olan helped her cover a shoebox with tinfoil and sign dozens of Valentines; he tried to put her hair in pigtails for a fifth-grade school play. Later, he shopped for prom dresses and stayed up late, waiting for her to get home. With Emily on his arm, he walked her down the aisle and then stood in front of a Southern Baptist preacher as he handed his daughter over to the love of her life.
I didn’t know it then, but healing began the moment the plane touched down at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City, the place where my brother and I had grown up, went to school, and had begun our careers—he as a policeman and I as a teacher. As I got off the plane, I saw Emily waiting for me with her husband and baby boy. After I hugged her and tried to comfort her, she handed me her son. I was holding a little chunk of heaven, a graceful reminder that even in grief’s anguish, the heartbeat of life continues in those who remain.
Children bring spring into the bone-chilling winter of our grief, for a child’s curiosity reminds us of the ever-present wonder before us and the beauty we are numb to when our hearts are broken. Years later, on a summer’s night, I would hold the hand of a 5-year-old as we walked down the sidewalk under the light of a full moon, and I tried to explain why the moon is sometimes big and sometimes small. Soon there would be another baby boy, and I would find myself caught up in his unbound joy in the simplest of triumphs: taking his first steps, hitting a baseball, making a childhood best friend.
As my grief subsided, I slowly began to understand that my brother’s presence lives on in his daughter and her sons. Her mothering is a testament to the care Olan gave her as a father. No time or distance can separate his love from the love she now gives to her boys. My brother left me with a most precious inheritance: his daughter, whose love for him cannot be expressed within the confines of syntax. Some of that love spills over to me, his sister, for she and I are not only his closest kin but also those who knew him best and shared the deepest bond with him. Almost 15 years later, we imagine what he might say when his Oklahoma Sooners football team beats Texas or about the young police officers who are now on the force. We speak of him on his birthday and talk endlessly about the antics of his two grandsons.
I know my friends sometimes pity me because I have lost so many loved ones so prematurely. however, I know a truth they have yet to learn: The love we have for those who are no longer with us still exists for those we love now. The circle of life does continue. The younger baby was born with hair the color of my mother’s. The older boy has my brother’s soft blue eyes. Although death, especially one so accidently tragic, seemed to shatter my soul into a thousand irretrievable fragments, slowly I have picked up the pieces to create a new future—not the life I had once imagined, but one that is full of appreciation for those who still share it with me.