My brother Nick would have been thirty-six years old today. The last birthday he celebrated was twenty-seven. Within the month, just a few days before Christmas, he died of an overdose.
By the time my mom got pregnant with him, most of my classmates already had siblings. I was desperate not to be an only child anymore—I wanted a sibling too! I was elated when I found out that I, too, had a baby brother or sister on the way. The day he was born, November 23, 1982, is one of my earliest vivid memories. I remember driving down the highway in my dad’s green 1956 Chevy the evening my mom went into labor, toward my Grandma’s house, where I was going to stay while they went to the hospital to deliver the baby. I proceeded to sit in anxious anticipation until the phone rang later that night. I had a brother. His name was Nicholas.
Our relationship went in waves throughout our childhood. Sometimes we were close and other times we were not. Those five years between us seemed like a pretty significant age gap, particularly when I reached my teenage years. At the point when I left home for college, we barely spoke.
And then, somehow, with 3,000 miles in between us, we found each other. We became phone buddies, and hung out all of the time when I came home to visit. I moved back to my hometown for a couple of years in my early twenties, and that’s when our friendship was solidified. That’s when I realized Nick was more than my brother—he was my best friend. In fact, it felt as if he was my soul mate.
Nick was a unique character. He was simultaneously introverted and knew how to work a crowd. He was hilarious and had a lot of depth. The age gap between us seemed to narrow as we got older and, after a while, it felt almost as if he surpassed me. He was full of sage advice, and I leaned on him heavily. There was no one I trusted as much as Nick when it came to gaining insight.
There was something about him that always felt impermanent. I’m not sure if it was circumstantial, or if I somehow knew all along that we wouldn’t have much time together. When Nick was just a year old, he stopped breathing in my mom’s arms as we sat around the Christmas tree. My parents and him rushed off to the hospital while I spent the night at the neighbors’ house, wondering if he would come home. Unfortunately, that, too, is a vivid memory. I can still see the blue and red spinning lights of the ambulance and firetrucks refracting off of the houses on my dark street.
After that, I developed all of these little rituals. I thought I had to do everything four times (once for every member of my family) or something bad would happen to him.
Nicholas battled addiction for about a decade. In retrospect, I think there was some depression at play. Also, addiction runs in my family. As if all of this wasn’t enough, he had the most porous heart of anyone I’ve ever known. In short, his entire composition was the perfect cocktail for addiction to take hold.
He tried to fight it. No one wanted Nicholas to beat the addiction more than he did. We had many conversations about it. But I also think there was a fork in the road, where after all of those years of fighting, he needed some relief. About a year and a half before he died, he had a bad episode and went to detox. I knew that after he was released I would have a small window of time when he was sober. I called him up and said, “Nicholas, you are literally choosing whether you are going to live or die right now.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m trying to decide.”
In that moment, I knew.
For a couple of years there, I began to have pretty intense panic attacks. They were a vicious spiral. Nicholas and I were so connected that I was convinced I would somehow feel it when something bad happened to him. I had felt it when things happened to him in the past. So, when I started to panic, I would perpetuate the situation by thinking something was happening to him—that maybe this was it. And I would panic that much more until I went into a tailspin.
On the morning of December 19, 2009, I woke up early. I remember distinctly how peaceful everything felt. So peaceful. If I’ve ever had an experience like that before or since, I don’t remember it. There was a blizzard outside. It muted the world, and refracted the light so that my whole room was lit up in a snowy white glow. I was at the very beginning of a new relationship with someone I’d had a huge crush on for months. He called early in the morning and I stretched out in bed as we chatted, savoring his voice rumbling in my ear, and the snow and the light and the butterflies in my stomach and the general feeling of extreme contentment and rightness. We got off the phone. I continued to lie in bed to luxuriate and soak it all in.
That’s when the call came. Nick was gone.
I had been expecting the call for a while, but it caught me completely off guard when it arrived. By the time I found out, Nick had been gone for more than twelve hours. And I had had no idea. Here I had been living in this world without him and I felt—peaceful. It made no sense. I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around it. And I also felt like I had somehow failed. On many levels, including those final moments.
I shared this with a friend a few months after my brother died. “Maybe you did know it,” she said. “Maybe it just didn’t feel like you thought it would. Maybe what you were feeling was his peace.”
Her idea stopped me in my tracks when I heard it. I wanted to believe it. So badly. But I wasn’t sure if I thought it was true. Nearly nine years after the fact, I have no doubt that she was right.
Once upon a time, I would have told you there was nothing I wouldn’t have done to see my brother one last time for even a few seconds. That is true—but only to an extent, because I wouldn’t want my brother to have to experience a second’s more pain than he already did. He had enough of that.
In the time closer to Nick’s death, it felt like a hole had been shot through me that would always be gaping wide open. I don’t feel that anymore; now, it feels like part of him lives on through me. Sometimes, this feeling is more intense than others, but it is always there. In some way, he is always here, with his equal-parts sage and sarcastic commentary running in the background.
Nicholas was born the week of Thanksgiving, so this holiday was rough for many years. I remember two years ago thinking, “Wow. His birthday doesn’t hurt this year. He feels more present somehow.” What I didn’t know yet is that, at that precise moment, I was pregnant. Izzy was already here, in the form of a small collection of cells burrowing in my belly.
Izzy is not Nicholas. She did not replace Nicholas. They are two very different people in my life. However, sometimes when I look down at her from just the right angle, she looks almost exactly like Nicholas did when I used to hold him in my lap and stroke his bald, baby head. And when I think about how unlikely her presence is—who gets knocked up at thirty-eight when they are on the Pill and barely having sex?—it’s hard to believe there’s not some sort of cosmic balance out there. We lose love and we gain love but, always, there is love. There is room for hope and light and life.
Happy Birthday, little brother. You are the best of the best.
Finally, I would like to give a big shout out to Dave Matthews Band for all of their number-titled songs.