18 years ago today, my brother died. He was 29 years old and full of life. He was an amazing dad and a vibrant human being. He had struggled and had his demons, but he was good in his heart. He went into the hospital for pancreatitis and got judged for his tattoos. The put him in a room, filled him up with fluids, and his body went into shock, of which he never recovered. They kept him alive for us to get there and say our goodbye. Like so many of those before him, he was judged and set aside to die. Shame on you.
What they didn’t know is that my brother had the same doctor for three years. He trusted his doctor to look after him, and his doctor didn’t. My brother wasn’t some tatted up loser. He was an artist. He owned a successful tattoo shop that looked more like a doctor’s office than a tattoo shop. There was a publication in the local newspaper when he died – full of people speaking about what an amazing, giving man he was. All those people at the hospital saw was his skin, his outside. And they let him die for it. Shame on you.
We took the case to trial and tried to right the wrong, but the courtroom was filled with medical terms and jargon. I sat in the trial and cried for 4 days straight. Literally. I remember my mom saying she’d never seen someone cry so much. I now know that I was crying for so much more than his death. I was crying for the loss of my innocence, the loss of my dreams, the loss of a chance for my babies to have a good life. I had never stopped long enough to actually cry. His death gave me permission to grieve. For his loss, for my loss, and for my kid’s loss.
During the trial, the jurists were yawning and disconnected. Once again, he was set aside. That was a human life you were judging. Shame on you.
The truth is, I wasn’t very close to him growing up. We were only a year apart, but I always felt like I annoyed him. He was close to my older sister, and I often felt like a third wheel. He left our home when I was 14, and he was 15. He went away to live by our biological father and his side of the family. I never understood the dynamics of him leaving. I grew up in a household where you just didn’t talk about “those things.”
One of my favorite memories of my brother is when he was a freshman. He was a late bloomer, so he was bigger around than he was tall. He was being bullied, and I stood up for him. I am not sure if he was mortified by the bullying or his younger sister protecting him. I can still see his sweet face. He was standing in the stairwell at the high school. I do not remember what he said or what he did. I just remember his sweet face. My brother had such a soft heart. And like me, I am guessing he paid for it immensely.
After he left our home, we didn’t speak for a long time. My sister went to see him in Ohio and spent a lot of time with him. I had a baby when I was 16, another when I was 19. I was busy raising my kids and trying to survive. I had pain of my own. Not knowing he would no longer be with us, I disconnected and continued survival mode.
When I was 28, my husband at the time attempted suicide. I had already suffered significant abuse, and I was terrified for my life because of his family. I sat in the hospital trying to make sense of it all. Trying to save my husband’s life while protecting my own. In a moment of desperation, I reached out to my brother to come to visit and protect me. He was in the process of opening a new shop and couldn’t come. I felt abandoned. I felt unsafe. And, back then I was a hothead anyway. I told him “fuck you,” and I hung up on him. A year later, he was dead.
As an adult, I can look back and realize that he was expressing appropriate boundaries. He was putting his needs first and his family’s needs first. At the time, I did not understand that. Today, I respect that.
For a long time, I used his death for an excuse. An excuse for addiction. An excuse for all my messed-up behaviors. An excuse for my pain. The reality is, my pain started long before he died. And my need for protection did too. Every time I told my story, I focused on his death as a turning point in my life. The reality is, it was the only piece of my story I could own.
Each year, I make social media posts about making sure the last words you say to a person are meaningful and honest. This year, I will honor my brother in a more authentic way. This year, I open my heart to you in the hopes that you will honor your pain. Slow down, take the time to heal. Do not be afraid of judgement of the severity of your pain. You do not have to be your story. You can stop, heal, and rewrite your story any time you are ready. I did. And I was a seriously wounded human. I had nobody but myself and the willpower to change my life for my kids. I didn’t love myself enough at the time, but I sure loved them enough.
Joseph Litteral, You didn’t deserve for your life to become my tragedy. You deserved to be honored, respected, and celebrated. You deserved to be a dad, a grandpa, a brother, and a son. You deserved to shine your bright light wherever you went. You didn’t deserve to be judged for what was on you – you were worth a pot of gold for what was inside you.