Bobby died five years ago. This short piece is a reflection on all of the positive ways that event changed me. Jake, how could you say that??? If I could turn back the clocks and somehow reverse his death, I’d do it any day of the week. In no way am I glad he died and I’d take him being alive over anything that I’ve learned or gained since. But it’s significantly more difficult to reflect on the benefits of a tragedy than it is to dwell on all you’ve lost, so I’m going to try.
When it occurred to me that Bobby would probably die, it struck me how closely I dodged that bullet. The consensus seems to be that Bobby got cancer the third time as a result of treatment from the first and second episodes, and the second time most likely as a result of the first. Nobody knows how he got it at age five but if it was lifestyle, we had the same one. If it was heredity, we were nearly identical. What gave him cancer, I somehow avoided. People get near death experiences in various ways. Some get hit by a car, recover from a disease, etc. Mine was the day I realized Bobby would die. And like other near-death experiences, Bobby’s death put my whole life in perspective. It still feels selfish writing like this; to consider only myself in the context of Bobby’s death. I want to reiterate that this is just one of the narratives. I could write something on what it’s like to witness your parents grieve the loss of a child, or on how I’ve become closer with my family, or on the time without such a close friend, or on his suffering that we all witnessed, but that’s not the purpose of this essay.
Growing up I dreaded death. I don’t really believe in heaven so the thought that one day I’d be gone forever was daunting. Then Bobby died and the world kept spinning. We remember him every day. We toast him at every meal. We try to live our lives close to the way he tried to live his. Our parents started the I’m Not Done Yet Foundation in memory of him. But he doesn’t see any of it. He can’t acknowledge it. And that’s okay. Because death happens to all of us at some point or another. It happened to him early and tragically and it will continue happening to kids just like him. It’s happened to billions of other humans and one day it will happen to me. Death is a requisite for life. To be scared of death is to be scared of life. In order to appreciate the quality of our own lives we must confront the fact that we will die. And Bobby’s death helped me do so. It also helped that Bobby and I had a rivalry about everything. If he can deal with death, so can I!
In addition to my developing a relationship with death, Bobby’s death made me realize just how short and important life was. It allowed me to sit alone and truly consider how I’d feel if I knew I’d die tomorrow. I put a ton of energy into teaching (I was teaching at the time), but I also decided to try some new stuff out. I wrote a book, I learned how to sew, I ran a marathon. I wouldn’t have done any of that if life were normal. And years later, sitting unsatisfied with my job in the private sector, I closed my eyes and witnessed the rest of my life from my deathbed. I saw what I’d do and who I’d be if I continued on that trajectory and I didn’t love it. That day I decided to join the Navy because I know from the bottom of my heart that one day I’d regret not doing it.
Bobby’s death gave me a big picture view on life. It showed me how short it is but also how long. I stressed out less, my confidence increased, my self-esteem increased. It was almost as if I was just happy to be here, lucky that I was given a little bit longer than my brother on this planet. It feels like I’m on bonus time. Life is now like that feeling you get at the end of a workday, after dinner, where you can do whatever you’d like until it’s time to sleep.
Overall Bobby’s death led to a golden age of my maturation. Do I feel bad about this? Sometimes a little guilty, but usually not. Bobby would want us to grow, to be better people. If it sounds like I am happy he died, I’m not. Again, I would trade my whole life for his any day of the week. Almost every aspect of a loved one’s death is miserable. But it can also be formative. I have more purpose, I’m more patient, I’m more empathetic, I’m funnier, I’m more easy-going, I have less existential anxiety, the list goes on.
In conclusion, I loved my brother. I wish nobody would ever have to endure what he did, nor endure being a family member of someone in that situation. But with every life experience, there are things to be gained and ways to mature. I know I took full advantage of it and I hope that when the day comes, you will too.
By Jake Menges