My parents have always been the best at throwing birthday parties. While my brother and I would have been perfectly happy with boxed cake and character balloons, we knew to expect extravagance—not in dollars spent or friends invited, but in thoughtfulness and creativity.
One year, a full-bellied Santa Claus traveled across the nearby lake on a speedboat to wish everyone at my birthday party an early Merry Christmas. Another year, Batman visited to teach us the “Hokey Pokey.” I still don’t know how my parents pulled it off.
Then there was the year my brother Kendall was obsessed with anything and everything related to construction. Wearing matching hard hats and similar sly grins, we plopped down in a streamer-covered sandbox next to a handful of friends in the “Excavation Zone.” Armed with shovels and tiny dump trucks, the two of us continued to fill buckets with sand even after all the guests had gone home.
They say hindsight is 20/20, but I had a witness. My brother would certainly testify to how our childhood was the perfect combination of sentimental and steady.
It shouldn’t have also been my parents’ responsibility to plan a funeral for their child, but they did that, too. After Kendall passed away unexpectedly, they carefully chose each Bible verse and favorite hymn for the service, even though we were sure we wouldn’t have enough combined breath to make it through the processional. And as my black heels sunk into the wooden floors below the first church pew, the cemetery digging had begun—our hearts already excavated.
No more steady, no longer sentimental, no witness to take a stand.
It’s sad to stare down the grave of someone you love, but it’s worse when you know they loved you back.
A few months after the funeral, my aunt wanted to plant a tree in Kendall’s memory. So the digging began again. Clearing a spot in the arboretum where my brother’s cross country team used to run, a gardener unearthed the soil and packed it back on the tree’s small roots—a measure of our grief. I couldn’t imagine allowing them to grow even more, and doubted their ability to sustain a new life.
Although I was two-and-a-half years older, I always felt like the luckiest when my brother chose to hang out with me. I was also lucky to make it through an outing without one of my girlfriends asking what they could do to catch his attention. With a head in the clouds and two sturdy feet on the ground, he was friend to both dreaming and doing. He was tall with a palpable kindness and eyes that were blue or green, depending on the day. The ever-present flock of girls surrounding my brother made me especially thankful I had a long-standing place in his life, and he had a permanent place in mine.
The last phone conversation I had with Kendall lasted over two hours. I’d just moved to Nashville and he’d just begun his junior year of college. We giggled into the night about our parents’ use of social media and made plans for him and his new girlfriend to come visit me. After the conversation, my roommate asked if I’d been talking to another boy. “Yes,” I said. “My brother!”
A few days later, I lay in the same bed, reminding myself over and over that the cars I hear pulling into the driveway will never be his again.
That year, we paid special attention to Kendall’s birthday. It felt weird to celebrate without him, but worse to not acknowledge it. I was determined to make the day extravagant in the name of our family tradition—bringing together as many of his loved ones as possible to make it less obvious that he wasn’t there. But before the day came, my ambition could not outrun my sadness, and the plans burst in the way grief would have them.
My parents and I determined to spend the day together and make the best of it, as much as you can celebrate the twenty-first birthday of a boy who wasn’t getting older. We didn’t wear hard hats or fill buckets of sand, but we’d gone down the same party aisles of the grocery store, grabbing balloons—orange and white, his football team’s colors—and white cake cupcakes with white icing—his favorite.
We stood in a field with the balloons and cake crumbs on our faces, our tears in competition with the words we planned to say, and took turns releasing the orange and white balloons.
As my parents’ only child present for celebrations, I’m plenty familiar with survivor’s guilt. I find myself wondering why I was the one chosen, and thinking that, had the situation been reversed, Kendall would have been much better at this whole “grief” thing. At night, I sit with my thoughts and try to avoid the realization that maybe if one thing had gone differently, he would still be here. And when I’m home at my parents’ house, midnight footsteps tell me I’m not alone.
Survivor’s guilt, sure, but survivor’s gifts? I have two.
The first is sentimental. She remembers the white-cake-with-white-icing details, and cries when we hear his favorite songs. Sometimes, she calls me “Kait” just because he was the only one who did. My mother sends me his sweatshirts in the mail, and reminds me how proud Kendall would be of my accomplishments.
The second is steady. He takes care of the hard details without ever speaking of them. He fights for our family’s justice and for any breaths of relief he can give us. He is not afraid of my sadness, and welcomes it with his own. My father shares my insomnia and wakes to comfort me, just like my brother used to.
Two witnesses. My parents, the only two who can attest to our boy’s greatness and silliness, the depth of our grief and the pangs of our hope. The only two who can tell me that my hindsight is 20/20, and it really was as good as we thought it was. The two who have become my neighbors in celebration of life and hatred of death, my co-laborers in grief—they are the true gifts.
We went to visit our grief tree for the first time in a while the other day. It’s grown tall, just like our boy was. Underneath it lay a family of four reading books on a picnic blankets together, celebrating Mother’s Day. They don’t know the grief that grew to give them shade, or its rare kindness, but we do, and I’m so glad I’m not the only one.
Cover image by Roman Averin.