From a Distance

Sixteen years after my brother’s suicide, keeping his memory alive finally feels less a burden — and more a privilege.

I sometimes think about the last time that I saw my brother Jed alive. He had just dropped me off at my apartment on West 110th Street, and was pulling away in his truck, waving a hand out the window as The Dave Mathews Band blasted from the CD player. (It was 1998.)

The memory is of sunshine and warmth, although that couldn’t be true, since it was December in New York City. I remember standing outside of my building for a moment, happy that we had run into one another.

It was such a classic scene — the music, the cigarette stubs in the ashtray, his embarrassingly huge Range Rover. He was the epitome of a coddled, carefree college kid home for winter break, joyriding around the city.

One week later, I was again standing outside my apartment building. This time, everyone in my family was there, except for Jed. That day we were driving — hurtling, really — toward the place where the police had said (quite casually, to my mother, on the telephone), that Jed had hanged himself.  And I don’t recall it being warm.

Ostensibly, he did it because of his girlfriend. I know that sounds almost comically typical. You wouldn’t even write that into a movie plot, it is so overplayed. Yet it’s the truth. At 20 years old, Jed was impulsive, dramatic and too young to understand the permanence of his decision. Probably ill, although he was never diagnosed, he was unable to see past his driving necessity to prove his love for her.

Of course there was the utter confusion and shock following his death. My parents retreated into a secret world, which they kept secret even from each other. But while they dealt with the horror individually, when needed, they had one another to reach for in the darkness.

My older brother was married with a baby son. My nephew, whose first birthday was four days after Jed’s death, is the only person, aside from Jed’s girlfriend, who was mentioned in the suicide note. (“Tell Max I love him. And to all, a good night!”) My surviving brother barely had time to sleep, let alone grieve. But while I can only fathom how he balanced the enormity of new fatherhood with his despair over the tragedy, he too had a partner to help him see it through.

I, on the other hand, was a month shy of my 25th birthday — wedged between childhood and adulthood. I was consumed with figuring myself out: what kind of person I wanted to be, who I would fall in love with, what I would do professionally. 

At the time,  I was living with a boyfriend, but the relationship wasn’t built to navigate this kind of storm. We soon disintegrated, although I was too stunned and he felt too guilty to end it. I was, for all intents and purposes, alone. Jed had also been alone; it had been a bond between us. We were teammates in our shared youth and confusion. With Jed gone, I was the only loose end left.

To survive the loss, my parents were propelled to do something. They threw themselves headlong into trying to fix a problem, as they saw it, on college campuses. Why hadn’t the school understood Jed’s state of mind better? Should they have? Why did nobody know that Jed had kept a gun in his dorm room?

It became my parents’ mission to identify, and if they could, fix, these problems. I have no doubt that the creation of the Jed Foundation, which they founded in 2000 to promote the emotional health and prevent the suicides of college students, made it possible for them to brave the loss. For my surviving brother, he couldn’t allow my parents to embark on that journey without having some control and involvement in what became of their efforts.

But for me, the Jed Foundation seemed like an attempt to intellectualize something that was fundamentally emotional. It was too adult an exercise, too complicated to boil Jed — the breathing, living person I knew — into a cause. It was exhausting just to contemplate. And it was simply too intense. The Jed Foundation was the burden of my parent’s grief, made real — a fine laser point for what was otherwise an amorphous, unnameable dread. I bristled against the rest of my family’s efforts to create the foundation and at the first opportunity I asked to be freed from any involvement.

I needed to live my life, as best I could, clear and free of his death. And I did. For years. Until now.

Last year, I began to campaign to re-join the board. For more than a dozen years, the Jed Foundation has been working to create better mental health care for young adults, with partners like the Clinton Foundation and Facebook. It is no longer just my family’s mission; it has taken on a life of its own, with many people working tirelessly to achieve its success.

Asking to once again be a part of an organization that I left years ago is a tall order. And maybe some would say it isn’t right that I glom onto the success of others who have made it what it is. But I’m no longer alone, I am blessed with two small children and a supportive husband, and I finally feel mature enough to handle what the rest of my family instinctually understood. That doing something is healing.

Earlier this month was the Jed Foundation’s first gala fundraiser since I joined the board. And it was a wonder. With speeches from the likes of writers Andrew Solomon and Scott Stossel, and unbelievably, the pop star Demi Lovato, I did not have as terrible a time as I typically do.

Rather than feel alternatively guilty at not having helped create this legacy for Jed, or angry at having to be an unwilling part of it, I felt grateful. Grateful that really, maybe, it is making just the smallest difference to some kid. That some other Jed out there won’t go to the hardware store and buy rope and manage to tie a noose. That instead, that kid will find someone online, or a friend, or a professional, who is equipped to help.

Just like we change as we age, so too does our grief change with us. And because I’ve somehow, miraculously, made it out of the shadowy woods that is post-college anomie and into the comparatively sunny meadow of adulthood, I can finally give something to my brother who wasn’t lucky enough to see his way through.

Under the House

This is an essay that will be appearing in a forthcoming book, Modern Loss, to be published in January by HarperCollins.

If a place can symbolize the missteps one makes in the confusing period that follows a shocking death, then my family’s home in Vermont is the poster child. 

The property, a sprawling edifice that stands alone atop a hill overlooking Lake Champlain, is usually empty. It’s not really a home in the traditional sense, having become, over the years, a family warehouse, the place where we keep our most painful memories.

The house is about as far north as you can go before crossing into Canada — close enough to Montreal that the radio often picks up French stations. It was rebuilt some years back on the footprint of an older home that had been there for a hundred years, and, inexplicably, it retains the creaky, hollow bones of its predecessor.  My parents furnished it quickly, with a smattering of leftovers from previous family moves and a hefty helping of my high school watercolors. There are still remnants from the prior owners, who ran a bed-and-breakfast out of the house, such as fake ivy vines crawling across shelves and an empty, oversized aquarium that had once been filled with tropical fish. 

My parents purchased the house in the months following my younger brother Jed’s suicide. I remember clearly the despair I felt when they told me they were going to buy it. We’d spent the weekend in a small hotel in Essex, Vermont, swimming in the pool, exploring the area, and looking at houses for sale. In those dark days my family would often leave town together, as if holing up in some new place could distract us from our anguish. I argued in vain against buying a place up there. It was too far and too cold and too impractical. 

During those terrible months, my parents stuck to my surviving brother and me like an octopus suctioning its tentacles to a rock in a strong current. If they let go, they thought they would float away. My parents bought the house, then, as equal parts refuge and insurance that we’d always stay with them, unlike our younger brother. 

The first thing we did after buying the house was to truck everything that had been Jed’s from New York to Vermont. When you’re young —  Jed was 20 — you don’t normally have an inheritance to leave beyond your physical stuff. Into the subterranean basement went his bulky hockey bag stuffed with dirty jerseys and black skates; garbage bags filled with Dave Matthews and Led Zeppelin concert T-shirts, and intro-to-psych textbooks and English papers. We parked his enormous SUV beside the snow blower and the bikes, and for nearly two decades it has stood there, its black paint now covered in film, its engine now rusted out. And still, my parents continue to pay the car insurance. 

From the start, my older brother and his family used the house the most. As if he were just an ordinary homeowner, my brother invited friends, swam in the lake, and barbecued large summer dinners beneath the orange sunsets. 

I mostly stayed away. I hated the freezing cold lake, didn’t know how to navigate the small motor boat we kept there, and as a city girl, felt uncomfortable being so far from civilization. My parents, too, rarely made the drive. My Brooklyn-born father could barely swim, and my mother preferred window-shopping and eating out to fishing or hikes.

 

Occasionally, we came up as a family. Usually it was for New Year’s Eve, around the anniversary of Jed’s death. One year, my parents stayed in their room the entire day, my brother, sister-in-law and I awkwardly reading in the living room by the fire as my young nephews, oblivious to the significance of the day, played and ran through the halls. But mostly, the house sat empty; a ridiculous, oversized storage space for Jed’s things. 

It is said that homes can adopt a personality. For me this house was a mausoleum. Above ground the sun shone and the grass was green. But rarely if ever did anyone venture to the basement to see what was decaying down there. 

In our way, we’ve each moved past those terrifying first few years. And while we’ve all adapted and carried on, the house hasn’t changed with us. Jed’s things remain stubbornly untouched in the basement; the furniture we corralled ad-hoc into the bedrooms remain unaltered. The same blanket covers my bed where I had once lay so alone and scared, and now sleep with my husband on the rare occasion that we visit.

You would think we would have just joined together one horrible weekend and gone through Jed’s belongings. Confronted those smelly and now likely moth-bitten clothes and books, the pedestrian belongings of a college sophomore. But we have never even discussed it. 

We have talked, casually and in passing, about selling the place. It costs a lot to maintain a mostly empty house tucked away in the rural Northeast. There is a lawn to be mowed; raccoon traps to be set; electricity bills to be paid and frozen pipes to be thawed. My parents would welcome the freed-up cash. We all realize how impractical it is. But against all logic, we do nothing.

Recently, my husband and I put some savings toward a small cottage on the Long Island Sound, where my husband’s family has long spent holidays. In buying it, I felt like we were breaking the pact we made when my parents bought the Vermont house — to always stay together, a single-family unit. So I was surprised at how nonchalantly they greeted the news. The intensity with which my parents had once clung to us has dissipated, replaced by a grim acceptance that must come after so many years. 

If everyone in my family has moved past the utter darkness that enveloped us after Jed died, then why can’t we just tow his car and free ourselves from all his stuff? It may be laziness, but I think it is also dread at having to revisit that rawness of our early grief.  So the house in Vermont stands there like an immobile statue to our family tragedy. Its contents packed away and set aside. Above there is the appearance of normalcy, while down below, there is Jed’s decrepit SUV, its insurance up-to-date, as though the engine would actually turn on, and as though one day one of us would drive it away.