Cinnamon rolls always remind me of my brother. Growing up, they were a staple in our weekend breakfast rotation — Saturdays were for blueberry pancakes and Sundays were for cinnamon rolls, and consequently, Saturdays were for sleeping in and Sundays were for setting alarms. Before breaking bread at our morning church service, we had a commitment to doing so with our pretend third sibling, Sister Schubert, maker of the finest pan of frozen rolls we’ve ever had.
The rolls come in a circular aluminum pan, creating a crumbly crust around the edges and a firm division in households of cinnamon roll consumers. My brother Kendall and I held the strongest and truest opinions about which round globs of goodness should be consumed first, and it was always the center, perfect as-is without a hint of crust. The only problem was that in each batch, there’s exactly one cinnamon roll in the center and exactly two of us.
Most Sunday mornings, I’d walk downstairs only to find the center already missing. I’m still convinced my little brother was setting his alarm five minutes before mine to secure his luck. After a few failed attempts at waking earlier, I’d come to accept that my piece was destined to include crust.
I didn’t expect the Cinnamon Roll Race to last forever. I was sensible enough to know we’d grow up and move out of the house, maybe continuing the weekend tradition if our visits home aligned. It was possible that our taste buds would change and one of us would forfeit the center in favor of a newfound love for crust. Maybe one day we’d eat cinnamon rolls around the table with our own children, or maybe we’d leave the memory behind, sealed safely in our own childhood.
But these days, my Sundays back home don’t include any of those things. Now, my routine is to race downstairs, only to find the cinnamon rolls untouched. It’s my family that lost its center.
My brother died at age twenty. I was twenty-two. We wrote his obituary at the breakfast table while Sister Schubert’s face faithfully haunted the freezer with a smile. Would anyone tell her the news?
There’s a scene in the movie 500 Days of Summer that I relive over and over again. In it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is going to a party hosted by love interest Zooey Deschanel. As he arrives at her home, the screen splits into two sections — “Expectations” and “Reality,” and we watch in slow motion as the two scenarios become opposites. Instead of the scene he expected — arriving as the hostess’s date for the evening and stealing her way for a kiss by the end of the night — Gordon-Levitt finds himself sipping a cocktail alone as Deschanel reveals she is engaged to someone else.
While others may be present to witness our hard realities, most of the time we are left to face our unmet expectations alone.
The thing that no one tells you about a loved one dying is that someone has to keep paying their bills. Someone has to move all of his belongings out of his college apartment. Someone has to throw away the food in his refrigerator. Someone has to figure out what to do with his car. Someone has to figure out his Facebook password. Someone has to answer the phone and tell the solicitors he’s not home.
When we were younger, Kendall once slipped a folded up piece of paper under my locked bedroom door. I can’t remember exactly what had gone wrong, but it had been a rough day. I unfolded the note and read the words written in purple marker: “Kait,” it said, “I’m sorry you had a hard day. No matter what, you’ll always have a brother who loves you.”
But the cinnamon roll in the center of the pan said otherwise.
It was as if I was reverting back to the two and a half years of my childhood before Kendall was born, except instead of anticipating the gift of a brother, I’d spend the rest of my life missing it. I did not know I was expecting too much when I assumed our family would pass through normal milestones together.
Now, our Christmases and birthdays, the days that should have been spent at graduation, are spent huddled around his headstone, marveling over the way the grass has grown around it. And whether or not we’d care to admit it, our lives have, too. My dad says that without Kendall everything, even our favorite restaurants or memories, is ridden with jagged edges. That’s all that’s left when the center is missing.
I’d argue Billy Joel said only the good die young because that’s the only way we can reconcile the reality to our expectations. There’s something about the loss of someone younger—especially when you’re young yourself—that causes you to tumble in the ideas of pain and suffering enough to require a deeper purpose. Maybe it’s “only the good” for some people. Personally, I needed more.
My church upbringing led me to believe that God would not give me more than I could handle. (“More than you can handle through him,” a Sunday school teacher might add.) I expected this meant he would cocoon me in bubble wrap before commanding the harsh winds to blow. For the sake of maintaining his own reputation, I thought he would minimize the pain and maximize the miracle so I would continue to trust him and tell everyone about it.
Other than so far withstanding the harshest blow without any coddling, I don’t see a miracle in this. More often than not, my prayers are shaped by disappointment rather than thanksgiving. Many times, I will peek into the void Kendall left behind and become convinced I will drown in it.
I’m no longer satisfied with putting off thoughts about heaven until I get there, not when living a life where the youngest die first and the oldest grieve most. A child’s death is the deepest tumble into suffering, one that permanently lodges your heart between past pain and future longing. And yet, it wasn’t until I held them in my hands that I knew jagged edges of a broken life are keys to an upside-down kingdom.
God will not meet our expectations, and he will give us more than we can handle. But that doesn’t mean we’ve been cast out of his kingdom. If anything, it means we can see it more clearly. If our lives were not upside down, we would not long for right-side-up. There, unmet expectations have a place. Quieted longings fit. Confused hearts are welcome. I imagine what it will be like to one day sit at the heavenly banquet, cinnamon rolls flowing in abundance, my brother at my side, and ask all of my big questions. But for now, it is enough to know there’s still an open invitation to the table.
Cover image by Joseph Gonzalez.