My brother would be 59 today. I had planned to tease him about his last pre-dotage year. After all, on my 40th birthday he sent me a sympathy card and a picture of a black balloon, and when he called he asked how my knees were holding up. I promised to buy him 50 black balloons for his 50th birthday. He said appreciated the thought and would hold me to that promise.
My brother died in 2002, at the age of 46. In many ways he was much younger than his age when he died. To us it appeared that his life had just begun emerging from an extended, nameless struggle; moving cautiously into the promise we had seen years before. We saw his humor, creativity, dedication to work, and intelligence mature from that of an unreliable child to a confident, enthusiastic adult. We were optimistic about his future.
We will never understand why he saw hopelessness where we saw possibilities. In little time his life devolved into a chaotic jumble of severe mental illness, addictions, failed commitments, crime, and incarceration. But we thought he had found some measure of health and happiness in the months before he died. We were optimistic – we thought he was, as well. He hid his truth from us effectively.
The talents, gifts, and immense intelligence he exhibited in youth were no help to him in his last months. Life must have become so abhorrent that waking to another day was intolerable. To our knowledge, he did not reach out to anyone before he committed suicide. His desire to die was profound.
Recently, a woman I’ve known for a short time said that people who commit suicide are cheating; “we are given a set amount of time and it is our responsibility to live out that time”. She said this with conviction. She is a kind woman, but her comments struck me as harsh and judgmental; no one knows how another’s life seems to the one living it. I know of no one who seeks out mental illness as a way of life; no one wants to live as an addict. Maybe she was speaking as someone left behind; I don’t know. I do know how that feels. I do not wish it upon anyone.
I do know, also, that the gifts my brother was given in his life were not lost in his death, nor were they misused. They remain with us. We remember him as a loving, funny, deeply compassionate, intelligent friend who shared what he had willingly and always offered more. When he was not hindered and tormented by a disease he had no control over and no way to predict its recurrence, he was a remarkable person. And that we remember him with such love and such joy is proof of the beauty of his life.
I don’t think he cheated. I think he gave life his best. And next July 10, I will buy 60 brightly colored balloons in his honor.