Losing My Little Brother
Two fears have fought within me since my brother died. One is the fear of grief; that utterly unbearable darkness that hurts in places I’ve never known could hurt. The other is the fear of forgetting him. Forgetting the way his hugs feel or the way he loved Alba or all of our inside jokes. The first fear has ruled in the months that followed his departure from this world.
I’ve built a fortress in my mind around the very thought of him. I had to, it is such a delicate thought, as tender as a nerve. When I am reminded of him I let his name swim only in the surface of my mind. Deep down within that fortress I know there lays great horror I am afraid of, but there is beauty too. There is Zake. I picture a pile of treasure guarded by some fearsome monster. And so, with my wounds unhealed and the sound of his laughter still fresh in my mind; it’s time to dive.
I cannot pretend this is his story, the only stories I can ever tell are my own.
But these are some of the stories we lived together and the story I lived apart.
Zake was born into water in our home, just like I was. From the moment I saw him I announced to the world he was my baby. A declaration I will wear across my heart forever. Our father stubbornly refused to hold him for four days to punish our mother. He did not try to hide the fact that Zake was unwanted. A tiny helpless infant, days old and already treated in ways he did not deserve.
I have a hazy and perhaps imagined memory of the sound of our parent’s fighting and our dad’s van driving away forever. We moved north near our grandparents to live in a small house on Love Lane. Just Zake, mum and I. These memories are bathed in gold. The gold of light streaming through open windows, of ripe mangoes from our backyard tree and of bare skin honeyed by the endless sun.
I wonder sometimes if that period was made idyllic by what was to follow. All I know is I spent a great deal of my childhood wishing to go back to that little old house in Love Lane. Back to just us three.
Life changed when our stepfather came into the picture. The connection we had to our mother was torn by his jealousy. He was short tempered and violent. He sexually abused me when I was a child (though at the time I didn’t understand what that meant) and I hated him with all the fire I had in my little body. Most of all I hated him for how he treated Zake.
How many nights did I fall asleep to the sound of Zake crying until he lost his voice? How will I ever scour from my mind the memory of our stepdad dragging him across the grass like he was nothing? I wanted to pummel my fists into that man, to scream and scream and scream but I didn’t because I was afraid of him. It felt like it was us against the rest of the family and we could never win.
I learned to detach from my mother and brother, to become independent because the burden of their pain was too heavy. To escape into books and other worlds. It was selfish but it was what I did.
And yet there is always light. Our little sister Pixie was born, tender-hearted and covered in freckles. She would one day become the muse that led me to photography. There were five of us kids including our stepbrother and stepsister. We played on the street until late, climbing mulberry trees and building shelters to sleep in.
Zake would write novels hundreds of pages long and I’d love reading them even if I couldn’t care less about epic battle tales. When our stepfamily were away we’d sleep together in one bed like old days. We’d dream that our heroic father would swoop in and rescue us.
Then one day he did, for a short time. He was living in London and he flew us across the sea. I was eleven and Zake was ten. We’d hardly been on an airplane let alone out of our small hometown. We explored real castles, ate ice cream on windy pebbly beaches, rode double decker buses through busy city streets and chose any toy we liked from Harrods.
We had our elusive father in our grasp and we were in London. Far, far away from what waited for us back home. This may have been the happiest we ever were as children and it ended as suddenly as it began.
Mum had tried to make our lives stable. To find a man with a steady job, a home and a family. To tick all the boxes. Once she pulled us aside into her bedroom and asked us, “would you prefer if we left? We wouldn’t have pay tv or a nice house anymore, things would be different.” We said yes, of course, please. But he was unstable and she was afraid of him. The fighting at night grew worse. He told Mum if she left he’d kill us or himself.
He faked his own suicide, leaving mum to find the blood and send us running hand-in-hand to the neighbours to call the police. Zake was so afraid mum was going to be killed he began to cry. For much of his life, mum was the only one on his side. He loved her more than anyone else.
Then one day when we came home from school mum told us we were leaving. She anxiously hurried us to pack our things and I wondered when I’d ever see my step siblings again. Seven years in this house, I knew every inch of it and now where would we go? As I walked through the rooms they suddenly felt as unfamiliar as the day we’d moved in. I was leaving one world for another, swept up in relief and uncertainty.
Our stepfather came home unexpectedly. I remember the rage in his eyes and his voice, how mum handed him a handwritten letter and how he tore it to pieces. He laughed and he yelled. He began to throw mum’s books from the house. Everything went up in flames.
We moved in with our grandparents on a great big property dotted with fruit trees. A river cut through the land and from safe in the treehouse our grandfather built we’d watch the cows drink. Once when we were walking back I was bitten on the foot by a bee. Zake was so worried he’d tried to carry me home himself.
One afternoon on the long bus ride home from school I’d found a doll in Zake’s backpack and I’d pulled it out in front of all the kids. The bus was loud with cruel laughter. When I got off the bus I ran as fast as my legs could take me. It was like life or death. I managed to lock myself in a bathroom just before he caught me. Mum passed sandwiches beneath the door and it was hours before he calmed down.
It was not the only time I was trapped in a room barricading myself from his rage. My bedroom door wore deep angry marks from kitchen knives. My best friend stopped sleeping over. If crossed, he’d destroy anything you held dear.
Mum saw psychiatrists who told her he just needed harder discipline. One spelled out that it was because he didn’t have a “D.A.D”, while he was in the room. I was always sensitive to the way everyone saw Zake, the way they labelled him ‘difficult child’ and saw nothing else. He never made it past primary school and he wasn’t diagnosed with Aspergers until he was 18.
He wasn’t aggressive by nature, in fact he was calm and kind. He was delicate with curling blonde hair, laughing brown eyes and deep dimples. He’d sleep curled around his cat. He held a beautiful trust in the world that was slowly and surely lost. I cannot pretend I was a good big sister to him as a teenager. We were enemies mostly. Though our bond was unspoken it was unbreakable in every moment that mattered.
We had a secret tradition. Late every Christmas Eve one of us would wake the other and we’d quietly open our presents beneath the tree, careful not to rip the paper and desperately trying to stifle our laughter. Once we mistook a popcorn maker for a gaming console we were longing for. It was the most disappointing Christmas ever.
A man came along and promised to help Zake at a time when mum was struggling. She trusted him and he treated Zake like he was special when no one else did. He took Zake away to Germany for six months but when he came home he was even more broken than before.
He became severely addicted to online gaming, he stopped leaving the house and he barely ate. He was a ghost of himself. He lived in another world inside his computer and the real Zake was nowhere to be found.
He wouldn’t talk, so I’d sit on his bed and watch him play his games for hours on end. It was all I could do to connect with him. He never said it but I know he liked me being there. When I moved out of home at sixteen he didn’t come to the airport. I don’t remember if he ever said goodbye.
I was in Los Angeles, staying in my friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills when mum called me. At that point we weren’t close and she never called so I knew instantly something was wrong. She told me Zake had attempted suicide. I was in shock. I relived all the ways I’d failed him as a sister, blow after blow. I needed so badly to be with him, to apologise and to love him.
Then something extraordinary happened. I came back to my hometown to find my brother with light in his eyes. A brother who hugged me, who made me laugh, who couldn’t stop talking. I remember trying to act casual, trying not to cry at the miracle of what was happening in front of me. He told me that when he was in the ambulance he was struck by the realisation that life was just a big game and he got to choose how he wanted to play.
His change was a joy that rippled throughout our whole family. He went back to school and made more friends than I’d accumulated in a lifetime. He got a job at a fast food place where he was known for dancing as he cleaned. He became passionate about what it meant to be a good person. He questioned everything and wanted to be a stand-up comedian.
It became apparent how alike we were. In our sensitivity, our inappropriate sense of humour, our fear of being misunderstood and our way of seeing the world. He’d talk about Aspergers and his depression openly. During his first stand up routine he told a joke about how when he’d tried to electrocute himself in the bath our mother had complained that the short circuit would have broken her computer. It is a true story, our family have a strange sense of humour.
He made a list of his fears so he could conquer them. One was the fear of what others thought of him. So he walked through a busy shopping centre dressed in the most ridiculous outfit - a fairy dress, a spotted tie and a red cape with a colander tied to his head and a pirate’s sword tucked into our mother’s belt. He walked around until he could let go of what everyone else was thinking about him.
He asked me to come along when he got his first tattoo. It was a flying spaghetti monster. Later he would get a tattoo of a deer without eyes. People would ask him what it meant and he’d grin and say, “no idea.” No eye deer. He also got a gorilla with a unicorn in it’s mouth whose moustache read ‘be kind’, a dingo shooting laser beams out of it’s eyes and a rainbow that led to a pot of books. Mum designed most of them. He told me each one was a reminder he needed to be a better person. We planned to get matching tattoos on our middle fingers.
One night Zake told me he was sexually abused in Germany. I told him that the man who abused him had two cousins who abused me around the same time. Two much older men who took advantage of me when I was fifteen. There was something beautiful in being able to tell him he wasn’t alone. Even apart we were collecting the same scars.
He was the highlight of every visit home. He was such a skinny little thing but he gave the warmest hugs. When we’d walk down the street all kinds of people would shout out his name and cross busy roads just to hug him. He knew that every single person had something to teach him and so he treated everyone with the same respect and curiosity. He made a lot of people feel accepted. The broken days seemed to disappear from memory.
We held our hands together, standing on the sand by the sea beneath the stars on Magnetic Island. They were almost identical. Same fingers, same skin, same curves. We talked about how by blood there would never be a single human being as close to us as one other. I thought about the way that went for our histories too.
We’d have entire conversations in made up languages. We’d dance like we were dinosaurs and skype late into the night when we were apart. When his phone was stolen I bought him a new one because I missed his voice. I flew him to the Blue Mountains when I was pregnant and taught him how to cook. He was one of the few people I always had time for. I tried to make up for the years I wasn’t the sister he deserved and in return he was the best brother I could ever imagine.
Zake still struggled with depression. One bad day he rode his bike to a bridge with a rope in his backpack. He sat on the side of the bridge thinking for a long time before deciding he wanted to live.
As he was riding home a policeman stopped him for cutting across traffic. In an attempt to explain himself he mentioned he was suicidal. They told him they would have to take him to the hospital but Zake refused, eventually they held him down and sedated him. He broke a policewoman’s nose with his foot as he thrashed.
He was sent to acute mental care. Mum didn’t sleep that night. She begged them to keep him in there longer but they released him into the watch house instead.
When I came home for him again he was horribly depressed. He kept fretting about court and jail. I remember him standing in the hallway telling me that if he had to go to jail he would just kill himself. He said it so easily, as though it was the logical thing to do. I tried not to cry as I told him I loved him and needed him.
The policewoman took a liking to Zake and didn’t want to press charges. I listened to the interview and thought I could understand why. He sounded so unusually honest, like he was talking to his best friends rather than the police. It seemed so odd within the formality of the interview that I couldn’t help laughing. His lawyer told our mother that the police had had no legal right to force him to go to the hospital. He wasn’t going to jail.
Things got better again. Zake and Alba became inseparable. Every time Zake left the house Alba stood at the door crying, “my ache, my ache!” She’d curl up in the beanbag and he’d spin her around and around and her giggles would bounce off the walls. He told me Alba saved him.
One day Zake, Pixie and I spontaneously ran down the street under the pouring rain in just our underwear. When we got home panting and dripping Zake told me, “I see you’ve put on some weight Nirrimi.” And I just laughed, because he was the only one who could get away with that sort of thing.
He told me I was beautiful often, giving compliments as statements with no expectations or underlying motives; just as truth. When he said something kind you wrapped it up tight and tucked it away in your heart because it was precious and real.
Zake had a housemate who was a young single mum. She had a little girl called Willow who he helped care for from birth. When we’d skype she’d sometimes be sitting quietly in his lap. He’d read parenting books and buy Willow healthy food so she was eating well.
The last time I saw Zake I was on a photography tour with Bee. Our last stop of the east coast tour was my hometown. When we arrived we all sat together in mum’s living room. There was an air of joy about, like simply sitting in that room with my siblings and our mum was incredible. We were all together.
We caught a ferry to Magnetic Island. Zake brought Willow to give her mum a break. In Zake’s arms she was happy and content. I kept thinking about how wonderful a father he’d be.
I remember bickering unfairly with mum, running into the sea with Pixie and laughing with Zake until we both hurt. But mostly my memories of that time are lost and unrecorded. All I know is it felt indescribably right to be together with my family. After the trip Bee said to me, “I don’t think there’s anyone who makes you laugh like Zake does.”
We moved across the country to a beautiful place in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Closer to my family. Zake kept trying to call and I kept missing his calls. Days were full and I was distant. He told me that he needed to tell me something.
“What is it?” I asked when I finally called him back. “I just wanted you to know you’re the best sister ever and one of my favourite human beings.” I laughed, I’m not very good at accepting compliments. He told me things that had happened since we last spoke. When he was excited he’d talk so fast I could hardly keep up.
But he couldn’t tell whatever it was that he needed to. He’d start and stop and change the subject. He told me I’d be hurt and disappointed. I went through a dozen silly guesses before he eventually said, “I’ve been thinking about suicide lately.” And somehow that was a blow I didn’t expect.
Nothing was funny anymore. I felt upset but tried to be calm. He said he wasn’t really that depressed but it seemed to make sense, that every time he thought about it he’d get butterflies in his belly. I told him if he was dead he’d never get butterflies again. He said, “you’ve cured me Nirrimi!” and we both laughed. He made me promise not to tell mum. We spoke about life, death, perspective and meaning. He listened thoughtfully. It felt as though I’d changed his mind. That things might be okay.
I spent the night reading about how to talk people out of suicide. I was going to call him the next day. But by the next night I realised with pain I hadn’t called. The day had been so busy I’d barely had a moment to think. I could get out of this warm cosy bed beside Alba and call him or I could just call him tomorrow. I stayed in bed.
Alba and I wake to the sound of our car driving over the gravel of our driveway. Bee has gotten back from his first night shift at his new job. Outside our window is the forest and the birds are loud in the trees. Everything is beautiful and peaceful here. When Bee comes into the bedroom we pounce on him with questions and cuddles. “So what was it like? What did you do? Who was your boss?” He begins to unravel his stories when my phone rings.
It’s my mum. It’s so strange for her to be calling this early and things immediately feel wrong. When I answer she makes no noise at first and then she sobs my name. It’s a frightening sound, I have never heard anyone say my name like that. My blood runs cold and as she begins to speak I realise very quickly I don’t want to listen.
I hold the phone from my ear, screaming at her to stop. Yelling at her to not tell me because if I don’t hear the truth I can exist in this world a little longer. This world where he’s okay. Bee and Alba are staring at me and I’m someplace far away from our cosy home in the trees.
The only reason I finally let her speak is because I want to hear her tell me he attempted but it failed again. Yes, that must be it because he cannot die. Because that kind of thing only happens in films and this is real life. He can’t die because he’s my brother and he is the only one in the world who truly understands me.
She tells me he hung himself this morning. We cry together for a long time, the sound of our hearts breaking under waves of pain. With horror I realise I should have called him yesterday. But I didn’t. He warned me. The guilt is suffocating me. It’s dark and it’s unspeakable. Alba hugs me and asks me what’s wrong and I tell her Zake is gone but she doesn’t understand yet. Those words taste so bitter in my mouth. I thought I had more time.
I stand on the balcony. I can feel the cool breeze, the heat of the sun and smell the trees so clearly. Everything looks the same and yet everything is different. I have walked into a portal and stepped out into another dimension. I walk compulsively over the planks of wood on our deck, back and forth and back and forth. Careful to keep my feet between the lines.
I ask Bee to buy me a pack of cigarettes, he asks me what kind but I don’t know any types of cigarettes so I just shrug. I smoke on the balcony, pacing again. In between the horror are these strange moments of lucidity like euphoria. They flash for only a moment like my emotions are getting confused.
A song I wrote a few weeks ago plays in my head without pause. “If you die, I die too. No one sees the world like we do. If you die, I die too. No one shares my scars like you do.” A white butterfly lands on the railing and doesn’t fly away. My stomach makes hungry noises and I don’t recognise them. Time ceases to exist.
I search for portraits of us but there is nothing but childhood photographs. I have a terrible habit of hiding from cameras because of the stupid belief that I’m not photogenic enough. I vow to stop caring about something so superficial and unimportant. The first little lesson his death gifts me.
I tell my mum I wish I had a guitar to play. She tells me she wants to buy me one right now, I object but she asks me what the point of money is otherwise. That kindness means the world. Bee drives us to a guitar store and I tell the man at the counter I need a guitar because my brother committed suicide today. He must think I’m insane. I want to tell everyone. I want to scream it to the world. My little brother is dead. I loved him more than anyone and now he is gone forever.
We walk into a shopping complex and everything around me feels false. The glaring lights are too white and the walls are lined with advertisements for push up bras and KFC and 70% Off Everything. Shopping carts full of plastic bags full of stuff.
An old man walks by and I’m struck with the realisation that Zake will never grow old. That I will never grow old with him. I begin to sob as I walk and Bee squeezes my hand. A stranger stops me to tell me they love my blog, of course this happens today. I don’t tell her about Zake, I hope she will read it later and make sense of my red eyes and shakiness.
I can’t stop thinking about mum. On his last night Zake had made her laugh so much she’d doubled over with laughter. When the police came the next morning and told her he’d hung himself from a tree in the nearby park she asked if they were sure he was dead. Clinging desperately to hope.
They confiscated a suicide note that read, “they told me to hang in there.” Making inappropriate jokes until the end. Zake was always mum’s favourite though she’ll never admit it. They were best friends. Now he is gone. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what it’s like to lose a child.
I grow obsessed with how long it has been since he died. The sooner it is the more possible it feels to go back and change things. I imagine catching him in my arms as he falls and telling him it’s going to be okay. I imagine calling him and telling him to pack his bags because he’s coming to live with me. Or I’m going there. Or something. Or fucking anything. The guilt is a dark hand that forces itself down my throat and fills my body with black. It says the same thing over and over. “You should have called.”
The image in my head of his body swinging from a branch makes me sick to my bones. I want to know how long it took for him to be unconscious, how much it hurt and how he did it. I spend hours on suicide forums.
There doesn’t seem to be any point to doing anything. I barely eat and I don’t work. Georgia brings me chocolate, home cooked meals and sleeping pills; the latter of which helps on the nights when all I see when I close my eyes is his face.
Everything feels so fragile. He may have taken his life by choice but it seems to me that anyone could die so easily at any moment. Every time we get into the car I wonder if we will crash and die. I forget what life used to feel like before it happened.
Countless people message me to tell me their loved ones took their lives too. Suddenly it’s not some extraordinarily rare and horrific tragedy; it’s everywhere. It both reassures me and makes me sad. People are so kind it often brings me to tears. The tide of love from both strangers and friends carries me above the darkest parts.
I watch my hometown draw closer from the airplane window, so familiar and yet I’d never return if it weren’t for my family. It almost wavers under the tropical heat. At the airport I am crippled by a flashback of Zake picking me up. He was grinning ear to ear as he shouted, “hey sis!” and he hugged me tight, right here where I stand alone now. He wouldn’t shut up all the way to the house.
I expect to see him here. It seems entirely possible that he will jump out from behind a corner at any moment and yell, “surprise! I got you! I’m not really dead!” I lay awake at night fantasising about it like I used to fantasise about my dad coming home. This expectation stays with me my entire trip. But of course he never does jump out from behind any corners.
I watch his suicide video from his bed, it’s less of a goodbye and more of an explanation for why he’s doing this. There are times when I’m laughing. Damn it Zake, I think, suicide videos aren’t supposed to be funny they’re supposed to be serious. And yet there is an unmistakable darkness behind his eyes, like he is possessed. It frightens me so much I’m unsure I’ll ever be able to watch it again.
At the end he says, ”I’m really sorry for my sister because I have a really strong bond with her and she's the person I respect most and want to be like most, except the dead part you know, but that's my own thing,” he laughs, “well see you guys, I'm going to go hang out now. Goodbye.” He signs off by making dinosaur noises.
When I see Pixie she looks at me fiercely and only says, “don’t cry.” Mum hugs me for a very very long time. My grandparents are here and our entire family arrives one by one. I cannot deny the beauty in that, the fact we are all here together. And really, as strange as our family is, it is special how close we are.
Everyone seems so strong, planning the funeral and laughing about all kinds of things. “Zake wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad,” they say, but I am a mess. When I begin to cry in the middle of conversations hands reach for me and I’m so embarrassed that I disappear.
I stand in the shower tracing the lines between the tiles thinking about him standing there. Did he use this soap? This shampoo? Am I using his towel? I drink the almond milk in the fridge, grateful for the passion I gave him for eating kind. I remember him scanning ingredient lists in supermarkets and teaching his friends about sugar.
I meet Zake’s best friend Rumour. She was the last person to see Zake before he died. I’d heard many stories but never met her. The first thing she says to me is, “wow, you’re so beautiful.” And I can instantly see why they were friends.
She holds my gaze as she tells me how often Zake spoke about me and how clearly he loved me. I try not to buckle under her words. She is sunshine at our house, singing like a Disney princess and always smiling.
His friends are around most days. One boy tells me that Zake used to read my blog in class. I never knew he read it. I talk to his best friend from when he was a child, a sweet little boy who is now a grown man covered in scars who has been in and out of jail.
I sit in the same tattoo shop where I watched Zake get his first tattoo. Only this time I’m with mum while she gets her first tattoo. She has a phobia of needles so she’s taken three valiums and rubbed numbing cream across her arm but she is still nervous. She’d found a rough sketch in Zake’s journal of the next tattoo he wanted and that is what she is getting. She’s an artist herself but she doesn’t tidy it up. She wants it exactly how he drew it.
It’s a switchboard with two switches. One says go/stop and the other says life/exist. I read his journal while we wait for the numbing cream to work. I laugh aloud at the first page, ‘I will tell you the deal. Do not read this book, it contains all of my deepest secrets and most embarrassing moments. Just kidding, read to your heart’s content!’
The journal is a battle between light and dark. Some pages are full of advice to himself to be better, others are written in the throes of depression.
’My whole life has flipped around as emotions deceive me. Knowing this I still continue to follow them to the point where I want to destroy everything I hold dear and make everyone hate me. To the point of no return. This is my life currently. I don't understand why I do what I do, I know where to go to get out of this but for some unknown reason I wish to stay.’
Next to the tattoo sketch he wrote, ‘This ability I have, I like to see it as a switch. Like an on/off light switch. But this switch does a bit more than a light. It gives me the power to be who ever and do whatever I please. The only thing it requires is strong willpower. The cycle has made another circle. This time I won't lose sight of its warning that this will continue if I slip. I have too much potential to waste another day of this life.’
While she is being tattooed Mum says, “I know it's selfish but at least I don't have to worry about him any more. I don't have to stand outside his bedroom listening for the sound of him breathing to make sure he's still alive.”
I get a ‘Z’ in the place we’d planned to get matching tattoos. I like the feeling of the needle on my skin, the way it blanks out my thoughts. I wish Zake could see us here getting tattoos. Around my wrist is the bracelet he was wearing when he died, a braided rope I will wear until it falls to pieces. I wear his teeshirts and they smell like coconut oil just like he did.
In year nine I dated a boy called Deiter. He could have played soccer professionally but ended up in the army instead. He seems tough and blokey and yet he reads Paulo Coelho, listens to folk music and thinks deeply about everything. He is one of the few remaining friends from my youth.
I swim with him on the rooftop pool above his apartment. He tells me a story about a friend who he saved from killing himself. It’s a beautiful and heroic tale but it doesn’t end there. His friend ended up committing suicide anyway, just a few days later. He tells me this because he wants me to know that even if I’d made that phone call, it may have still happened.
I look up at the stars and I say, “I think he’s free up there now. He was so curious. He wanted answers and now he has them.” Sometimes I can feel that he is everything and that feeling is peaceful.
I call Zake’s phone, waiting for him to pick up. He never does. I listen to his answering machine and it makes me laugh. Then one day it stops ringing and I stop trying. I will never be able to call him again.
I go to my cousin’s house for dinner. My cousins and aunt are there and everyone’s drinking and laughing and I can feel the tears come but I bite my lip and grasp for numbness because I don’t want to be the crying one again. I just can’t stay and I’m saying sorry and everyone is looking at me with the pity I’m growing used to seeing and I am angry at myself. Angry that I can’t just act like everyone else. I can’t even walk to the grocery store because it reminds me too much of him.
On the day of the funeral I feel I am standing on the edge of a cliff. Like any little thing might set me off falling and so I need to dig my toes deep into the dirt and be strong. More than a hundred people sit in a wide circle in the park where he killed himself. People wear superhero capes and the craziest clothes they own. I wear my orange velvet flares.
A beautiful woman called Donna performs an unconventional ceremony, which is perfect because Zake would have never wanted anything traditional or religious. She places a branch in the centre of the circle and people come one by one to tie white ribbons and say aloud one word that reminds them of Zake. Mum first, then me. I say “teacher”, and as I tie another for Alba I say, “love” and my voice breaks. Colourful. Unique. Inquisitive. Inspiring. Kind. Honest. Silly. Philosopher. The circle is full of him.
I give a speech where I talk about the lessons Zake taught me and even slip in a joke about us all hanging out, which I know he would approve of. In his spirit we’ve all been making hanging jokes ever since he left.
Our stepbrother is here too. He flew over from the other side of the country, spent the night in a bar and hasn’t slept. He comes to sit by me in the circle sobbing loudly and telling me it’ll be okay.
Mum shows me where the tree is. It doesn’t look like the type of tree where someone would hang themselves. It seems like a happy kind of tree. When I hug it my face disappears into the spaces between the branches and from that little leafy pocket I talk to Zake.
I visit the tree every day. Sometimes with friends. I bring Elise one afternoon, a muse from the days I began photography. She tells me her aunt was killed by her husband. It’s as though I’ve joined some kind of secret grief club and suddenly I’m aware of how many of us there are.
Sometimes I feel like everything is fine. I laugh and I joke. Grief doesn’t always look like grief from the outside. Sometimes I feel a strange pressure to look sad when I’m feeling okay. To be how people expect me to be.
I don’t really feel I belong with the grown ups so I spend most of my time with my teenage cousins and with Pixie and Josh. Josh is Pixie’s best friend. A tall boy who hides his intelligence and kind heart behind a hard act. When I’ve decided to fly Pixie home with me, I realise I can’t leave Josh behind. It means so much to Josh that his eyes well up when he thanks me. He’s never flown interstate or travelled without his family before.
I’d grown fixated on this idea that coming home would be the answer to my pain. That once I was away from the triggers and in the arms of my own little family I’d be okay. But sometimes it’s worse. Being here with Pixie makes me wish Zake were here too. We’re always saying, “how much would Zake have loved this?” He never saw Alba at four. Could she have saved him again? The what ifs are constant but pointless.
Josh is always raving about my cooking and Pixie is always pushing the veggies to the side. I watch dumb youtube videos with her for hours on end and we smoke on the balcony late at night, a habit that ends when they leave. She’s the only sibling I’ve got left now. Even at sixteen she’s way cooler than I’ll ever be.
Mum visits Zake’s body in the morgue and makes a wish for his next life to be better. Before she leaves she slips my own bracelet around his wrist, a swap. Zake had asked for his body to be donated to science but the university said he was so young he might traumatise the students. He is cremated instead. Mum boards an airplane to us.
We’re in bed together when she shows us the photograph of him. It’s still burned into the back of my eyelids. His chin and eyes are sunken, his tattoos are so bright they burn against his bloodless skin and there are his hands, our hands. Only they look so wrinkled and empty now. It’s not Zake.
I hear mum crying in the other room most nights. She talks about Zake more than I can handle. I practice staying on the surface, like Pixie does. Mum tells us we should cry more. She says, “if only he could have come here,” and, “if only we took him seriously.” All these impossible things. She is a constant source of reminders but I also don’t want her to leave.
Then it’s just us. My anxiety gets bad. Easily set off by Alba’s tantrums or Bee leaving for work. I fall asleep with Alba so I don’t have to be alone with my thoughts but time is ticking and soon I’ll have to take those nighttime hours to work again.
Alba helps me without ever knowing it. I find peace in sleeping tucked around her little body, distraction in the games we play and magic in the way I see Zake in her smile. She speaks into the glass pendant around my neck, the one mum made with his ashes inside. “Hello Zake, I miss you,” she says. She points to the stars and tells me one of them is Zake. The thought that he won’t be around as she grows up is one of the most painful.
Sometimes I wish he’d come alive again for just one last phone call. Just to tell him how completely insane this has all been. To joke about how mum has been talking to his ghost over skype and to tell him that I’m finally writing that post about him. I just wish it had a different ending.
The despair of not having portraits and the tales of tragedy I hear every day make me realise I need to do something. I offer ten free portrait sessions to those who need them. Emails come in by the hundreds and in the end I choose nineteen.
For two weeks I photograph stranger after stranger. They bear tragedies I can’t fathom and yet they smile, because they carry hope too. My days are full of them and my nights are full of editing so I’m too busy to sink into sadness. When people thank me, I thank them.
I’ve gotten good at pretending. Good at hearing his name and not flinching. I can go hours without thinking of him. I’m scared I’m writing him out of my heart in return for numbness like some pact with the devil. Everyone calls me brave but I’m a coward. I’m scared I’m forgetting. I have such a terrible memory as it is. The only times I cry now are when I’m playing my guitar and singing about him.
I’ve always thought of my past as just a story I know, it’s easier that way. But I don’t want Zake to become another story. The pain is there because of the love. People say he’s still here in an attempt to reassure me and I know what they mean but it doesn’t help because he’s not here. He’s not going to answer his phone or be there in his bedroom reading books or send me any more stupid memes on facebook. He’s gone.
Jess and Raph come over from next door unexpectedly with limes and a bottle of tequila. By midnight the walls I’ve built around the thought of my brother won’t hold. I am sobbing on their living room floor, crying about how unfair it all is. I feel terrible for ruining their night. They tell me they love me, that this is what friends are for.
A few months after his death we are flown to Europe for a shoot. One of the reasons I accepted this job was because it started in London, where dad lives. He’s 80 now, he’s battled cancer and recently had a heart attack. He keeps telling me he won’t be around forever and since Zake died there is poignancy in those words.
I want to forgive him. For abandoning us, for hurting our mother and most of all for not being there for Zake. But with the wound of his death unhealed I cannot do it. I feel I’m finally taking off the rose-tinted glasses we wore in our youth. I feel anger and rejection and disappointment but I keep it all inside.
And yet dad’s heart is good. He is full of pain and regret. He stays up until 4am every night editing a tribute film to Zake. He sings songs to Alba that he used to sing to me and tells me how much I mean to him every day. At night he is hooked up to a machine that helps him breathe. Anger is replaced by love. Late or not, he is trying.
Dad puts on a DVD. It’s a video of Zake and I on skype. The last time I’d spoken to Zake we’d laughed about the way dad had to record every single skype call, now here I am bursting with gratitude at dad’s obsession. I laugh and I cry and I think, this is even better than a portrait, it’s us.
Months later I’m editing little pieces of the recording to share when I notice another recording of just Zake. He talks sweetly about meeting Bee and about the last time we saw each other and how grateful he felt to be there. I cry grateful tears, because even though I lost him I had him.
His death has brought profound clarity. The loss opened my eyes to what I have and to the knowledge that everything is truly temporary. Even in the worst storms I hold tight to a silent gratitude for my family, my friends, my readers, my life. I’ve taken a vow to never take anything for granted. A vow to love loudly.
I am a seeker of silver linings. From the moment Zake left my heart was stretched painfully wide, allowing me to love in depths I never have. Like love is shining out through every single crack in my broken self.
Resources for depression.
13 11 34
1800 55 1800
1300 659 467
1300 22 4636
1800 273 8255
Text START to 741 741
1866 488 7386 (LGBTQ)
0800 068 41 41
https://twloha.com/ - Online Resources
https://smilingmind.com.au/ - Meditation App
http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ - Support for LGBTQ
http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/ - Online Resources
http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html - International suicide hotlines
These organisations do incredible things, if you can donate (or even volunteer) you can help them continue to save lives.
/// After ///
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtp2yaS_mp4The closest thing I have to a portrait of us. Little pieces of recordings dad made of us on skype in all of our glorious dorkiness and love.