In the Median
by Sarah Jackman
My two oldest brothers died when I was sixteen. Tom was twenty-four and Andy was twenty-three. A truck driver saw their little grey car drift into the median of a Mojave highway and hit the innards of what is now a drainage ditch, piled then forgotten, worn by time and hardened by elements. The truck driver pulled over and radioed for dispatch to call the California Highway Patrol, but it was already over. My family’s Thanksgiving table was trimmed by two and the Sixth of January became a significant date for us.
Finding out that they had died was much like you see on screen. About nine-thirty at night, in the middle of Law & Order, two Salt Lake City police officers and a chaplain rang our front doorbell. They sat uncomfortably on one side of the brown leather sectional and performed what must be the worst part of their job, while my parents sat on the other side and I looked over the banister to see what was going on. Eventually I went upstairs, but only after my remaining older brother came down, phone in hands shaking so badly I had to dial my sister’s number for him. He wouldn’t tell me why those uniforms were on the couch, or why my parents were quietly sobbing.
My younger brother speculated that maybe something horrible happened in Los Angeles, where my brothers had been vacationing before a new semester of college started. I scoffed on the surface but inside, deep in the recesses of my heart where I always find the hypothetical to be the truth, I knew the men upstairs were here about my brothers. And because they brought a chaplain, I knew Tom and Andy wouldn’t walk through the back door again.
In the living room, my father told me Tom and Andy had been in an accident in California. In an attempt to prolong ignorance and extend innocence, I asked if they were okay. My mother looked up at me, with wet cheeks and waterlogged eyes, and said in an unsteady voice, “No. They both died.” Even though I knew that was what the outcome would be, even though in my soul, from the bottom of my toes to the blonde wisps on top of my head, I knew that they had somehow met their end earlier that day, I wasn’t prepared for the confirmation that came from the lips of my mother, or for the unbearable looks of the chaplain and the two unfortunate policemen sitting on our couch.
Tom and Andy lost their lives that day in that little grey car; Andy’s head came to rest on Tom’s shoulder after the force of the impact bounced the car up onto the pile of debris that ultimately saved them from crossing into oncoming traffic. About seven hours northeast up Interstate 15, those of us who remained lost the lives we’d known as well, just in a different sense of the phrase. Everything about my life before January Sixth changed the moment I heard my mother utter those words. My family, the future, the way I drove a car, high school, relationships with friends: nothing was ever entirely the same, nor would anyone expect it to be.
I am thirty-two now—nine and eight years older than they were when they died. Half of my present lifetime has been lived without them and now I find my memories of them are beginning to fade. They no longer have distinctive voices, it’s all the same, low, masculine growl, no matter who is speaking when I try to remember them individually. What they looked like in their twenties is replaced by their senior portraits, but with updated hairstyles, which are the pictures of them I’ve most often seen for the last decade and a half.
One memory I can’t seem to lose, and the one I most wish I could, is the way they looked in their caskets at the funeral home the night of their viewing. They did not look like themselves. A head-on collision with no seatbelts can do that to a person. Tom’s face was too flat; Andy’s too wide. The makeup was too unnatural but a necessary treatment. We placed their senior pictures in the crook of the caskets’ lids because people should see them how they looked in life, not how they looked in death.
It greatly alarms me that I’m losing my memories of them. There are things I’ll always remember because they were such monumental moments in my then-young life. The day Andy’s cat, George, died on the back porch and I watched him bury the little tabby underneath a bare crabapple tree on a windy November afternoon. Going shopping with Tom three days before Christmas because he hadn’t gotten anyone a gift yet and said he needed my expert knowledge of the mall to get it done.
Now I find my more prevalent memories are of them missing when they would have been there, like my college graduation after I finished my degree while waiting for a kidney transplant. I graduated from the same university Tom would have if he’d lived five months longer. When either of my living brothers married or when all nine of my nieces and nephews were born. I wished I could give Andy a call last September when my cat died in Utah and I was living in New York. He was the only one who would’ve understood how much I loved that little mean and beautiful cat and how devastating it was for me to lose her.
My little brother told me last Thanksgiving that he hardly remembers them at all. He was a mere thirteen when they died, with all the hubris and apprehension of any thirteen year-old boy. He spoke at their funeral while I sat next to my sister on the front row of the chapel and clutched Tom’s picture. After he told me he doesn’t have many memories of them I gave him a shocked look and managed a pitiful “You don’t?” We didn’t discuss it much further, but it clangs around in my head as I wonder if there might be a way I can pass the memories I have of Tom and Andy to him, so he has a little something to hold on to.
But he does have something to hold on to. His oldest child is a boy, and was born on January Sixth. My younger brother and his wife named the baby after the uncles who died on his birthday twelve years before he came along. I see in my nephew the cautiousness of Tom and the tenacity of Andy, and I hope that gives my brother something to remember about them when he feels the memories he has start to slip out of reach. I know it does for me.
After my family buried Tom and Andy on January Twelfth, after the phone ceased its incessant ring and the doorbell quieted. After the food went bad and the flowers died. When we felt brave enough to return to work and to school, we began to labor to fuse our lives and ourselves back together. The effect of losing Tom and Andy was like dropping a glass Christmas ornament on a tile floor–one complete thing explodes into a thousand tiny ones, sharp and disjointed, and it's relatively impossible to find all the pieces or glue it them back together. It’s a job that is never complete, as the nature of grief is to never dissipate entirely.
I admire my parents for their strength, for not letting the loss of two of their children destroy them. Anger is an appendage of grief that too often expels dire outcomes, but my parents took grief at its heart and left the anger out of it. That’s easier to do, perhaps, when there is nothing you could have done to change the circumstance. When there is no one to blame. Even when there is no earthly explanation for why the car drifted into the median.
Sarah Jackman is an MFA Candidate studying Creative Nonfiction writing at Columbia University. She is currently working on a series of medical narrative essays regarding her history of kidney failure, transplantation, and the experience of being a young patient with major medical trauma. Her work has previously appeared in Enormous Rooms. Besides being a writer, Sarah is a cat enthusiast, lover of pop culture, sports fan, baker, and in-training New Yorker. Read more of her writing here: http://thebest8years.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahtoNYC.