Grief, all spread out

NOTE: Before I dive in here, I need to say clearly and firmly that nobody died in the writing of this blog post. 

Have you ever lost someone you love and wanted one more conversation, one more chance to make up for the time when you thought they would be here forever? If so, then you know you can go your whole life collecting days, and none will outweigh the one you wish you had back.

Mitch Albom, “For One More Day”

About two years ago, maybe more, I lost someone extremely dear to me. For most of my adult life, I’ve described him as my favorite person in the world. I’ve long felt like he understood me better than anyone else I’ve ever known. If he turned up on my doorstep tonight, I’d feel completely known, understood, and loved. The twinkle in his eye would make me giggle uncontrollably. A simple hand gesture would make me feel awash in that feeling of being at home. A raised eyebrow would communicate volumes. A smile would make my heart swell up with love and acceptance and feeling like this life is going to turn out OK, after all.

But I lost him. And I have no idea how it happened.

The first time I met him, he was a tiny creature who had the gall to show up in my world with a Y chromosome and a name that was not Amy. My mother placed him in my arms on my grandma’s couch, and pictures snapped the moment I first met my little brother. From that moment forward, I felt a fierce sense of protectiveness. I’m not his mother, but I’ve felt like his mother many, many times in my instinctual need to shield him from the troubles of the world.

Eiffel Tower, creatively wrapped
Robert and his girlfriend bought this Eiffel Tower for me for Christmas in 2008. They cleverly engineered the water bottle cover so that, when they wrapped it, it wouldn’t be as obvious what it was. I never took the water bottle cover off, because it makes me giggle at how clever, inventive, and wonderful he is.

As he grew up, he went through a manic phase of wiggling, jumping, and yelling. He was a boy; we must forgive the boyishness. When I was in high school, he yearned to tag along with me and my friends, and in many cases he would, inserting himself when we’d be hanging out on a Friday night. I’m sure there were times that I found his presence irritating — I mean, I was a teenage girl, so basically everyone irritated me occasionally — but my memories of those days are marked with feelings of affection and appreciation for his presence in my life.

As a child, he was unusually willing to help people around him. His big heart made itself known very early. In those days, technology hadn’t delivered unto us a wireless remote to control the TV. No worries, though. We had Bobby. “Hey, Bobby, will you put the TV on channel 3?” He was only too delighted to be of service. My mom would say, for much of his childhood, “EVERYONE needs a Bobby.” She was right. Each of us needed a Bobby.

We still do.

Sometime around adolescence, he retreated into himself. Again, he was a teenager; we expect these things. He became much more headstrong; if he didn’t want to do something, he just … wouldn’t. The Norells are a stubborn bunch, but none is more stubborn than my brother. He’s turned stubbornness into an Olympic sport, and he’s the gold medal winner time after time. My brother, it’s fair to say, is the Usain Bolt of stubbornness.

While others find his persistent resistance difficult to deal with, I’ve always had a Robert-whisperer streak in me. When he was just learning to talk, I always knew exactly what he was saying, even when nobody else could. I served as Bobby-to-English translator for a while. When he was struggling in high school — “struggling” not with mastery but rather with homework completion — my parents had no idea how to handle the situation. I came back from college and tried to run interference.

Robert at St Louis
This picture was taken in St. Louis in March 2014, when we met for a few days during my spring break. It was the last time I felt genuinely connected to him. We had a wonderful trip.

As adults, I’ve always felt my brother understands me as no one else has ever been able to rival. Even though we’ve always seen each other infrequently as adults — he lived in Kansas City, then Colorado Springs, now back in KC; I lived in Dallas, then Nashville, now southern middle Tennessee — I feel a very strong, very clear connection to this person wandering around the world. If we were twins, this would make more sense. We’d call it “twin sense” and shrug. But it’s not that. I feel connected to him through shared experience and remarkably similar worldview. We are much, much more like one another than we are like anyone else in our family, immediate or extended. I can feel his feelings, even from afar. It’s as though a part of him is me, and vice versa. Sometimes it feels like I don’t make sense in this world without him.

My brother has the uncommon ability — I’m telling you, the stuff of gold medals! — to become stubborn even when nobody’s asking him to do something. Because I know him so well, because I can almost hear his thoughts even from 10 hours away, I know what he’s thinking. He has constructed a story about our relationship, and even if he knows, deep down, that it’s not true, he can’t will himself to break out of the inertia of that narrative.

Liz and Robert
Christmas 2008

And so, here we are, more than two years into almost complete radio silence. Calls go unanswered; texts go unacknowledged; holidays are spent with an empty space on the couch and — more importantly — in our hearts as we miss the joy of having him nearby. The holidays feel hollow, unsatisfying, because this person who feels like home to me isn’t there.

I weep. I mourn. I grieve.

I miss this man so much it literally, physically hurts.

And I send out a little loving kindness to him Every Single Day, hoping that this Quiet Period will be over soon, that my favorite person in this world will come back to me, and that my life and my world will once again make sense to me.



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  1. Robin Gray-Urgelles says:

    Beautiful, Liz.

  2. Chris Mikaelian says:

    This is beautiful. I’m going to show this to my daughters who fight with each other and their little brother.

    I hope the silence ends soon for you both.

  3. […] sure will ever fade — with my younger brother, about whom I’ve written before (“Grief, all spread out,” Sept. 28, […]

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