Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, a drug overdose, and the loss of a family member due to a drug overdose, which may be triggering to some readers
"Carrying Separate Halves," Jaran Stallbaum
On Halloween of 2015, I found myself swallowed by Sixth Street in Austin. During the day me and some co-workers were attending a student media conference, wide-eyed and diligent. On the last night, we celebrated the holiday as any twenty-somethings would. We drank too much. We crumpled into our hangovers on separate planes. That morning, I had an hour to get myself from a stranger’s apartment, to my university funded hotel, to a shuttle that would eventually lead me home. My mother and grandmother picked me up from the airport, a burrito and water bottle offering in hand. I scowled at them. I wanted nothing but my cat and the sinking hole of my mattress. An aggressive one-night stand in Texas left my body bent, ribs cracked. I was feeling awfully sorry for myself.
My brother would be dead in less than 24 hours.
The following evening, I unpacked just enough to visit a friend-or-something-like-it’s house for overdue affection. I’d been single for two months at this point, and craved an exit from loneliness.
My mother has always called me too much. My phone buzzed somewhere on the mattress, between blanket folds. I let it ring six, maybe eight times before I couldn’t kiss through the sound anymore. She needed me home. She refused to tell me why. I yelled my apprehension at her until it ran out. My guessing game fizzled. My grandmother didn’t die, or my cat, dad was fine. Her car hadn’t broken down on the highway. Possibilities were running out. I knew then.
And then I was driving on a dark highway, sobered from the call but still whiskey punched. I was calling my best friend for 20 minutes straight, but she wasn’t answering. I walked into my house at quarter to 2 in the morning. My parents had their shoes on. We were going, somewhere, we had to, but where do you have to run to when your brother is dead? Where do you go now? I can’t remember if the car radio was on.
My brother’s fiancée found him slumped in her bathroom, blue and sticky with puke, all needles and dried blood and stillness.
We stopped at my eldest brother’s first. My dad banged on his door and collapsed with sobs when it opened. When we all reached the hospital, the secretary pointed with no sounds to a closed door.
I went in first. I still don’t know why. They warned me about the tubes shoved all inside him, taped to his lips. He still had color, no heartbeat. My dad came in just to scream at his dead face. “Look what you did to yourself!” And then he wept.
I stood there and felt the blood dripping around my stomach. I almost threw up my own heart. I didn’t cry until the next day. The sun rise looked ugly through the gaps in my bedroom. I could not rise with it, not for hours at a time, and then days. Everything I ate tasted like salt.
Justin was my half-brother, but the fraction never counted. His mother asked me to compose a eulogy and I did, unblinkingly, read without one tear in front of a hundred people. I sat down next to my mother after and collapsed in my own cries. People I’d never met told me how beautiful it was. They blinked around tears and said they liked my dress. I was being complimented in front of a body. It felt wrong.
I bawled over the casket when everybody left. My father was more worried about my dead brother’s fiancée than me. At the cemetery, someone’s little niece handed me a flower after the casket hit the dirt. I stepped on it with my heel. It felt as though someone had aborted all my emotions, except for numb and angry.
Between edible arrangements and sympathy cards and the solemn, understanding eyes, I found myself sick of saying “I’m okay,” or even worse, “Thanks for asking.” So I stopped apologizing. Eventually, they stopped asking – about me, anyway. “How’s your father?” “Is his mother doing okay?” “Your mom, I know she wasn’t, but…she knew him his whole life.”
My own ball of grief weighed even heavier when no one wanted it anymore.
And then I just floated in this new version of routine—my father wearing Justin’s clothes and my mother picking out flowers for the stone, the way you’d pick out a new blouse. Christmas morning two months later and all eyes on Dad, sullen in the space at the table where his son would have sat. Forget about the way my oldest brother keeps his eyes on his plate, how he can’t look up at the gap.
Forget about me, Justin’s only sister, how I sat detox program lobbies with bags of socks and underwear and new toothbrushes, or courtrooms with crumpled proof that my half-blood enough could section him behind bars. Baby sisters to their brothers are just play-things or parasites, sometimes both, never more. “At least now,” a drunk family friend tries to relate to me once, “You don’t have to see him suffer anymore.”
They were wrong. I see it every day. I can still hear how my feet sounded on hospital tile. I remember how glassy Justin’s eyes got when he got off his bike and barreled into my house for dinner, and how angry his highs made me. I can recall the hung silences as he walked away injured from my bedroom door when I didn’t want to talk to him, not really, because he was so selfish in choosing the needle over me. When I look in mirrors I see his tiny eyes and his sneaky grin because they match mine; because in ways we were the same, after all, since now I’ll just go out and drink to forget him just like he went out and got high to forget me--
And the rubber band snaps back, because that’s grief. It’s harsh and then it disappears. When, for a second, I feel almost at peace, but there’s days where my lungs just don’t fill up right and I want to sit with him again, feet crushed under his weight. How I’d rather him here and hurting me over hurting me while being gone.
I don’t know why they aren’t asking anymore, but I think I’ll eventually stop wondering. It’s just, I think people assume that loss is concrete, and since someone says there is nothing worse than a parent losing a child, that means all the other floating victims of loss are only hurting for a phase. That phase could be a month, or a year, or on the schedule of whenever his birthday comes around, but a phase nonetheless.
I would like to stand up and say that my grief as a sister is not a phase. My panic late at night or my memory bites making me ache until I’m dry, and hard, and then soft again, it’s not going to leak out.
I no longer feel resentment for the people that don’t ask me if I’m okay anymore. I should have known this a lot sooner, but now it’s definite – not asking doesn’t substitute for not caring. Just like, not crying doesn’t substitute for not hurting.
While I appreciate your tip-toes around the subject and the way the air hisses between your teeth when you think you’ve said too much, I sincerely disagree. Losing him hurts me all the time, every day, nearly every second. You can numb me up or hug it out, but the ache’s not going anywhere.
My grief has taught me that my brother’s death has not caused a bruise. It’s broken something in half. I’m learning to carry both halves now, that’s all.
The first time after my brother’s death that someone asked if I had siblings, I stammered. I almost cried. One was still alive, after all, but where do I go from here? I tried to explain. It felt artificial. Now, I say two, there’s two brothers I love, and I leave it there.
Grief breaks you forever. You won’t heal, and that’s okay. You’ll learn to carry your separate halves.
About the art:
I ran through a few ideas for this piece before coming to this concept.
As someone who has also suddenly lost someone close to me, I really connected to the idea Jaran had about floating through time with a constant ache, and hitting hard ground on certain anniversaries or birthdays. The pain never goes away, but you learn to live a new normal. That new normal can sometimes feel unreal, or like you're floating and watching everything happen around you like you aren't there.
I created an image of Jaran floating in what could be sky, space, or water - finding herself hovering over and looking down at time passing below her as the seemingly unreal reality continues around her.
It may be damn near impossible on some days, but I hope Jaran continues to float on.