It was 1986 and one week before my high school graduation. I was in the midst of studying for my final exams when a police officer knocked on the door. He began talking and I immediately went into a fog. All I remember him saying was that my brother had been in a serious accident on I-95 and we needed to get to the hospital quickly. I don’t remember much about how I got there or who I was with, but the next thing I know is we are standing in the emergency room hearing an officer re-tell a story. He said something about the brakes failing, and it “looked like someone had tried to repair them but just put them back on without repairing the brakes”. He told us that whomever my brother bought the the car from probably knew the condition of the brakes (my brother had bought the car a week prior to the accident for $80.00). The officer continued to tell the story about heavy traffic coming onto the highway and how my brother hit the brakes quickly and jerked the car sideways right into the path of an oncoming 10-wheel Mack truck carrying ice. My brother was broadsided and thrown from the car. He landed on the road where the truck then pushed the car over him. He was in a coma and the prognosis wasn’t good. That was May 27th, 1986.
I remember that I needed to study and pass my exams to graduate high school. I remember being on autopilot and doing what I needed to do in the midst of the distractions, tears and fear. Somehow, I passed the exams and returned to the hospital each day. The second day, when I arrived to the ICU waiting room, I walked up on a conversation where the doctor was in the midst of telling my family that if “the next test showed another decrease in brain activity they’d need to pull the plug”. I screamed, “NO! You can’t do that!” I was so upset and flew into a panic…It was all so surreal. My mom turned to me and abruptly told me to get it together and I had no right to act that way because he was “her son”. I don’t know why, but that conversation changed me forever. For some reason at that moment, I felt like she was forbidding me to feel for him or that she was minimizing my feelings and grief. How was I supposed to shut down my emotions and compassion for my brother who I’d been through so much with and dearly wanted to know better?
I have memories of my brother–but very few good ones. You see, I didn’t lose my brother in 1986…I lost him many, many times prior to that. Our lives began separating as early as I can remember.
When he was six and I was eight I remember playing in our yard with trucks (imagining I was driving away forever). My trip would always be cut short when one of us seemed to be called into the house for something we’d done wrong – he more than me. I remember “escaping” on the sidewalk as I’d make play noises while driving my little orange, metal pickup truck away from the pain going on inside the trailer. I didn’t want to hear his screams , yet I didn’t want to “drive” too far away in case Jeff needed me when he came back outside to play–IF he was allowed to come back outside. When he did, he always returned to me so angry and hyperventilating. He would try to tell me how much he hated me, hated our step-father, hated this place and how he just wanted to leave. I would sit there numb under our trailer and listen in silence trying not to take on his pain – oh how difficult this was. I think this was the beginning of our loss — perhaps it’s how I started to protect myself from something bigger than me. I couldn’t protect him from the monster inside the trailer that continued to mistreat both of us!
Not long afterward we went to live with a family from the church. (You can read more about our story here.) We stayed together in the first home, but it was during the second home where he was sent to live with a different family. I lost him again…although for a short while. I missed my little brother, and he was the only human connection I had from home. About seven months later we went to live in a group children’s home where we spent the next four years of our life. While in the home, we were separated and lived different lives. He lived on the boys side and I on the girls side. We didn’t see each other except at meals (and sat at different tables) or on the bus on the way to school. Thinking back on it now, I really don’t remember having any “sibling time”. I think this was the true beginning of when I lost my brother. I am saddened at the lack of memories I have with him during this time. I mainly remember hearing about times when he was in trouble or causing mischief.
His mischief caused him to leave the group home earlier than I did. He left in February, and I “lost” him again. By the time I went home six months later, I felt like I didn’t know my brother at all. Once we returned home, we began fighting and experiencing jealousy of each other. I can remember he would often scream at me at the top of his lungs, “I hate you, Patty!”. I would scream right back at him just to get even. I’m sure all this was the surmounting anger we’d both suppressed over the years as a result of the abuse, going into care and losing our parents , dealing with feelings of abandonment and having no real family/life skills to teach us how to treat each other. We never got any closer…our relationship was permanently scarred.
I left home at 16 and left him behind — another loss. Our relationship was scarred and I was saddened. It hurt. The “little mommy” inside me, the little girl that wanted to heal his pain was hated and I couldn’t help him. We never had a chance to heal that pain and that loss is still very real to me today.
On May 30, 1986, our family gathered around Jeff’s bed and told him goodbye. As the doctors feared, the percentage of brain activity had diminished so much that it was time to let him go. It was a moment I will never forget. His body was lifeless, but it felt like he could just open his eyes and smile at us. Since his chest was moving and the monitor showed a heart beat, he had to be alive. He had to wake up so we could have more time to make up and be okay with each other. I wanted my brother back. It wasn’t meant to be…once they turned off the machines, it was a matter of minutes until there was silence — he stopped breathing immediately and his heart stopped a minute or so later. The final loss…so final! WOW! What a moment — a moment ingrained in my memory. My little brother slipped into eternity forever. I know I’ll see him again on the other side and I can’t wait to give him a big hug and make up for lost time. Oh how I’ve missed him. I am so very thankful that the last time I saw him we had a sweet exchange. Life is short…we never know if that moment will be the last impression we get with each other.
I’ve grieved and healed a lot since then and often wish my brother was here to share some of the good times with me. I’ve since learned that I’m not an only child and I have another older brother and four older sisters on my father’s side. Although there are many miles between us, we try hard to keep in touch, but those relationships are a work in progress. (Another blog post for a different day.)
Life is so much different now and there are so many blessings, but I often wish he was here to share in them. I often hear siblings fighting and hear people talking about how much they can’t stand each other. I just hope they don’t have to experience a loss as deep as this to know just how much they are missing.
My you rest in peace Jeffrey Lee Gunnels. You are missed.
Have you ever lost a sibling? Do you have an amazing sibling relationship? Please feel free to share and celebrate here with us.