I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My body is a lot smarter than my brain. That’s not saying much, seeing as the three times I’ve broken bones have been due to tripping, punching a wall, and tripping again. But those three hospital visits aside, if I can manage to quiet my mind long enough, my body goes on a productive kind of autopilot. I just do what needs to be done without wasting time overthinking every. Single. Little. Thing. I don’t stop working every few minutes to skip a song on my playlist or look up something I heard on a podcast. When my mind is quiet, I can just go for a run without debating how many and which layers I may need for the 60 minutes I'll be outside. I mean, they say a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but most often all mine does is waste a lot of time.
A weekend away is always a good time for an extended brain reboot, especially when you’re flipping the off button with one hand while balancing your phone with a frozen Irish coffee in the other. It was my first trip to New Orleans, and I was there with a friend who made sure we maintained a steady stream of tequila through our systems for two and a half fun filled days. We biked all over the city, shopped the entirety of Magazine Street with to-go drinks (for Chicagoans, carrying an alcoholic beverage around is a novelty), and ate approximately 8,000 perfectly seasoned shrimp. It was so hot and muggy I sweat through my clothes, which a stranger felt the need to point out to me. “Ma’am, you’ve got a wet spot on the back of your dress.” She clearly did not live in a place that snowed in May. “I know!” I exclaimed. “Isn’t it great? I’m sweating!” While I had a ball exploring such a wonderful city with one of my favorite humans, I felt a little…off. Normally in a no-holds-barred bar situation, I am the first to get rowdy and loud. This is because I am a lightweight, but still. I love the devil who resides on my left shoulder (her name is Drusilla after the crazy vampiress in Buffy) and handing her the reigns usually ends up in a good time for all. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy an impromptu illegal firework show in Chicago’s stuffy Gold Coast neighborhood, or breaking into the ice rink at Wrigley Field, or stealing traffic cones to create humorous detours? (Oh, Dru.) But no matter how many times I went around the Carousel Bar chugging whiskey milks, she wouldn’t come out, and as a result I may be the first human being to not throw up in a gutter during their inaugural trip to New Orleans.
When I got back to Chicago the first thing I did was go for a run, because it’s common knowledge that 40 minutes of moderate exercise can fully erase an entire weekend of cocktails called “Little Red Corvette” and 1am beignets. As I approached Lake Michigan, my gut wretched. I shouldn’t have mixed tequila and gin, I thought. And then it became hard to breathe. My airways were blocked as if I had swallowed a baseball. This is what a 30-degree temperature difference will do, I reasoned. Then I felt them. Tears. I ran off the path toward the water so as few people as possible could see me burst, and burst I did. With a big heave of air the baseball came up and emotion poured out. But emotion from what? What was happening? Why this sudden outpour of feelings? In public no less. The only thing I fear more than public crying is being murdered by a man, because fuck the patriarchy taking me out. But here I was, doing my best to play up my sobbing as a recovering from an extremely fast sprint. I collected myself enough to finish my run but spent the next two days in and out of tears. My chest hurt so bad from trying to stop sobbing that I walked around my apartment cradling it, as if I were made of glass. When that familiar swell of panic took over another run, I once again exited the running path and sat down by the lake. On a hunch, I got out my phone, opened Facebook messenger, searched my brother’s name, and scrolled up. There it was. Exactly two years ago was the last time I saw him alive. In that message thread, I told him I’d pick him up around 9 and we’d go out for beers. He said he’d be waiting outside. The messages jump ahead to the early morning hours when he should have been sleeping. “Thanks for the sibling brewskies,” he wrote.
It is hard to know when grief will show up, especially if you have a master’s degree in Feeling Squashing and are currently working on your doctorate thesis entitled, Emotional Repression in the Aftermath of Sudden Sibling Death: How Beer, Running, and Humor Make Everything Fine, Really, it’s Fine, Please, Please Stop Looking at Me. This is why my mind is always so busy. To keep the real stuff, the painful stuff, buried deep under mundane tasks and inconsequential decisions. Two days of turning my brain off in New Orleans was just enough time to let my body remember what my mind wanted to forget, that May 9th was the last time I saw my brother. The last time I heard him laugh. The last time I worried if it would be the last time I would see him. He didn’t look good that night. His 6’3” frame was gaunt, his cheeks hollow. We couldn’t go to any of the local bars, as he’d been banned from all of them, so I bought a six pack of beer and we drove out to an old cemetery in the middle of a cornfield. As the lightest rain came down, a mist, really, we laid on the hood of my old car and cracked jokes between sips. I wanted to take a photo, but I knew I only wanted to take it because I was scared I’d never see him again, so I didn’t. Now all I have of that evening are the residual feelings of his palpable anxiousness, his restless energy next to me, and the awkwardness of hugging someone so much taller than you. My body remembered all of this, and in doing so, crumbled.
I don’t know if I’ve really grieved yet. It’s been almost two years since he died, but I’ve managed to keep my mind occupied with other things. My mother’s well-being, my job, my marriage. I broke my kneecap just before his first deathaversary last year, so that was a good and excruciating distraction. I also lost a much-wanted pregnancy, so that ate up a lot of brother grief time, too. But life has been uneventful lately. No disasters, no losses, just pleasant time with friends and a man I love more than a chocolate donut that’s so thoroughly covered in chocolate the hole is filled up. My mental hurdles are lower and are spaced farther apart. There’s time now to remember, to feel, to ache, for my body to catch up with my mind and remind me that I cannot use one to deflect the other. Just as we cannot stop our own eventual deaths, we also cannot avoid feeling the deaths of others. Not with trips, or tequila, or to-do lists. Like the villain in a horror movie, our grief is just behind us, no matter how fast we run.