The Lives of Bryan

My brother often eluded death, but the many trials that he endured could not prepare us for that awful moment when he finally left us

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas (Folio Art)
Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas (Folio Art)

All that is not given is lost.

—Indian proverb

“We lost Bryan,” my father says into the phone, his voice breaking in the cavernous space between each word. He is talking to an old friend of his, someone I knew as a child, one who also lost his adult son. Sitting at a wooden table carried across the prairie in a wagon, my father cradles the phone with one hand and his head with the other. His elbows rest on wood seeped in dailiness and grief. Silence fills my parents’ kitchen as my father either weeps or receives condolence. I don’t remain to find out. I do not stay to learn what can be said next.

Upstairs, I close the door to the guest bedroom. The walls have been so recently repainted in Breezy Beach that the pictures have not been rehung. They remain stacked against the baseboards. That feels right to me. Tracts of emptiness. It is 10 in the morning on the second day after my 46-year-old brother died alone in his bed. We are all new to the language of death. I have heard my parents tell others that their son has died, or has passed away, but this is the first time I hear my father say that we have lost my brother. Like a sock or a wallet. He is not dead, only missing.

I had just handed the passports to the Delta agent when my other brother, Scott, called. My husband, Michael, our two teenage children, and I were on our way to Costa Rica for 10 days. For a moment, I considered not answering the phone, but Scott is often in the mountains and out of service, so I took the call. Pragmatic and a lawyer, Scott did not tell me to sit down. He did not lead with reassurance and love. He did not tell me everything would be okay. “Bryan is dead,” he said. Three words.

In the middle of the recently renovated Salt Lake City airport, where benches double as artwork and an iridescent glass sculpture cascades from the ceiling, I went to the floor. I just wanted to be near the ground, as if a tornado were in the area, or lightning on a mountain ridge, a grizzly on the trail—make yourself small, bring yourself low.

The black granite was cold, hard against my knees.

“Stop checking in,” I sobbed to Michael. “Bryan’s dead.” The agent held our passports in her hand, suspended. The line of passengers pulsed to move forward, roller bags leaning hungrily against legs level with my eyes. I wanted out. This would become a familiar feeling over the next two weeks, the desire to step outside of my life, shed it like a jacket, leave it behind. But grief has no edges; it is only center. Surrounded by strangers all eager to be somewhere other than where they were, I stood up, the phone still to my ear, and threaded between bodies in search of an outside I would never find.

The line pulsed to move forward. I wanted out. This would become a familiar feeling over the next two weeks, the desire to step outside of my life, shed it like a jacket, leave it behind. But grief has no edges; it is only center.

“I’m driving to Texas,” Scott told me. He would be at our parents’ house in 48 hours. The phone line was interrupted, and my mother’s name appeared. Hold and Accept. End and Accept. Accept. Accept. Accept.

“Mom,” I cried. “Mom, what’s happened?”

My parents were stuck in traffic between Southlake and Denton, trying to get to their son to confirm he was dead. They sat gridlocked. I could hear my father in the background saying there shouldn’t be traffic at this time of night. This was not right, made no sense, was not supposed to be. The friend who had found my brother—curled on his side, hand beneath chin, like a baby, Death, a mother rocking him to sleep, or was that a lie, wishful thinking, for we would never know, we would never see his body again, maybe contorted in pain, arms flung, legs bent, hand reaching for the phone, for help, for a way out—thought he was dead but wasn’t sure.

Maybe he wasn’t dead.

Maybe he would be found.

The first time we lost Bryan was at his birth. I was six but felt like 60 when my father, then a lieutenant commander in the Navy, called from the hospital to tell me that my baby brother wouldn’t be coming home. I had never heard my father cry before. It’s a sound a child does not want to hear, the sound that marks, like a hatchet fall, the end of childhood. A negligent nurse, a human being who made a mistake, the worst mistake, the kind that alters another’s life forever, had placed Bryan, minutes old, in a bassinet so that she could bathe him and then accidentally pressed the pedal for scalding water before leaving the room. Dear Lieutenant Commander Sinor, I am writing to offer my sincere apologies for the most unfortunate accident that occurred at this Medical Center in which your son was injured. … After learning … I directed a new bathing routine for newborn infants … immediately … facts … evaluated … investigating … perhaps … provide relief … such an event will not recur … very much regret … sincere concern. … Rear Admiral Earl Brown. Bryan arrived in this world in a cauldron of boiling water. Perhaps that is when he slipped from us, before I had ever held him. I realize now that I never knew his original face. Only my parents, the doctor, and the negligent nurse saw Bryan whole and perfect before he was burned. For his first several winters, Bryan’s tiny feet would turn blue in the cold, the vessels unable to regulate the blood flow, or maybe his skin was afraid of warmth. If flame is what greets you as you enter the world, the smell of your own body singed, how do you learn to trust?

The following day, I returned to the Salt Lake airport, alone. Bryan was dead. The police had roped his home like a crime scene and never allowed my parents to see him. Perhaps, a gift. As I made my way to the plane, I wondered who grieved alongside me. That man holding his phone to his chest like an oath? That woman yelling at her children to keep up? Or maybe that man in front of me on the escalator, muscled calves, wearing Nikes in pink? At first I felt angry at all those rushing along the concourse to make their planes to Bali or Disney or their lake house in the mountains. How dare they be happy? But then I realized I was wearing the same clothing I had worn the day before—before the call, before the news, before my knees knew granite. Dressed for Costa Rica or dressed for death, I looked the same. Tiny wheeled suitcases trundled behind everyone in the terminal, holding what was important enough to carry on. What could not be left behind.

At the moment of hearing that Bryan was dead, what I could not carry was the knowledge that he had died by his own hand. Standing with my children, Aidan and Kellen, as Michael remained at the Delta counter trying to cancel our tickets, I begged the ceiling—face up, palms offered, out loud—that his death not have been by suicide, a possibility that had stalked him since his teens. Strangers avoided our tiny island of luggage, some of them checking in, some of them headed for security, some of them making sure they had their sweater or boarding pass or water bottle emptied, while I implored the ceiling, Please, God, don’t let it be suicide. Please, God. Please don’t let it be suicide. Perhaps another mother would have reassured her children that everything was okay. Perhaps another human would have contained that pain and saved it for later. But somehow, within seconds of hearing of Bryan’s death, I realized that there were degrees of loss, and some versions would break us more than others. It was a strange kind of bargaining: I can accept this loss but not that loss.

But maybe lost is lost.

When we walk out of the Texas sun and into the thin air conditioning of Bryan’s mobile home, two days after he has died, we arrive to a mess. The floor and the counters are covered with the remnants of his life.

The second time we lost Bryan, it was not to fire but to water. Unwatched for a moment, he fell from the deck of our back-yard pool and sank. Not yet two, barely talking, he lay face up at the bottom of the pool, just as I remembered seeing him for the first time in his crib, arms above his head, blond curls haloing his face. I hadn’t even seen him fall. My mother was inside the house answering the telephone while Scott herded inner tubes toward me. I had been standing on the wooden deck, preparing to jump through that stack of inner tubes, when I saw Bryan’s tiny body shimmering in a forest of sunlight on the floor of the pool. He wore only a diaper.

I had not known he was missing.

Were the crows in the oaks so loud that I could not hear the splash when he fell? Or was I too consumed with play to notice the residual waves lap at my feet following his descent? At the age of eight, I could stitch a sit-upon in Brownies, make my own cereal in the morning without spilling the milk, read books devoid of illustration, but I had not known he was gone.

Bryan died sometime before his friend found him, possibly up to two days before. He left the world, and I did not register his absence. I went to yoga. I ate a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich. I slept in the June sun. Waves of loss met my body, but I failed to notice. Was he lost to me in those two days? Or only the moment I found out? Did my brother die the moment Scott called, or did he die two days earlier, alone in his bed, his dogs whining to be let out?

He was dead when my mother pulled him from the water. It never occurred to me to dive down and save him. Perhaps I recognized the limits of my reach. Or maybe I knew I couldn’t carry him to the surface. There are moments in your life that are ambered, so ancient, that you are no longer sure that they happened to the same person. I stood on the ground and watched my mother, clad in shorts and a T-shirt that ran wet with chlorinated water, as she begged God to save her baby. She offered my brother like a sacrifice, his limp body resting on her forearms, her head thrown back, the sounds coming from her mouth not words but sorrow made manifest, serrated and raw. The terror of the moment was complete. I could not move.

She placed Bryan on the deck and began to suck the water from his lungs. His lips would have been cold but probably still soft. Baby smell replaced by chemicals. Would his eyes have been open or closed? Were they closed when his friend found him alone in bed?

I want them to be closed.

I did not see his original face.

I did not see his final face.

I ran to the neighbors for help because that is what she kept yelling for me to do every time she came up from Bryan’s mouth to inhale.

When I returned, Bryan was alive.

I have always held that memory as one of horror and trauma, and I have always felt alone in the experience. Scott was too young to remember, and my mother carries a version all her own. What I have never considered, until this moment, is the joy and relief my mother must have felt when Bryan began to breathe again. I have long thought that the happiest my mother has ever looked was when I came home from school and she told me that my scalded baby brother had come home from the hospital. That was the first time I saw Bryan, the first night he slept outside an incubator. Her smile that afternoon has forever remained with me because it revealed the cloud of grief she had lived under for those many months. The initial days of waiting for him to die, followed by the months of driving to the hospital every day to touch her baby through plastic. I imagine that if I had been there at the moment she brought Bryan back from the dead, the relief would have pulsed through the humid air. Instead, the second time we lost Bryan remains tangled in sorrow and silence. It feels like a story not of resurrection but rather of the frost of the future. My mother waited until my father came home from work to tell him what had happened that day in our back yard. I remember that he brought brand-new mask and snorkel sets for Scott and me and handed them to us before he went with my mother to the kitchen, where I heard her cry once again. The gift crumpled my stomach.

Although we lost Bryan, he never lost anything. He might not have been able to find things right away, but they were never lost. As a child, his room was always a disaster, Legos and books and clothes piled everywhere. By the time he reached high school, my mother had given up and asked only that he keep the door closed. Which means that when we walk out of the Texas sun and into the thin air conditioning of Bryan’s mobile home, two days after he has died, we arrive to a mess. The floor and the counters are covered with the remnants of his life. There is an entire room devoted solely to boxes inside boxes inside boxes inside boxes. Every piece of junk mail he has ever received, every single receipt, every bill, every matchbook, every card anyone has ever sent him, every letter, every present, every photograph, every school paper, every textbook, every movie ticket stub, every free gift from McDonald’s, from Coca-Cola, from Home Depot, every plastic grocery sack, every empty Amy’s burrito box, every pen, pencil, screwdriver, nail, every key to an unknown lock—all of it remains.

“Everyone take a room,” Scott says, handing black contractor bags to each of us. The house smells of dogs, urine, and pot.

“Just decide what to keep, what to toss, what to give to Goodwill,” he continues. “Use your best judgment. The dumpster will be here in a few hours.” The concern is that Bryan’s place will be looted if we don’t clear it now. He lives in the north Texas countryside. Word travels fast. The following day a guy named Larry will stop by with his pickup and say he’s heard that you can come here and take whatever you want. Worried about time, we set to work.

I stand on the dirty tile of the kitchen, the overhead light dimmed by grime. My brother was a private person. He never traveled, he never brought a girlfriend to my parents’ house, he did not go to the dentist or the doctor, he had guns and knew how to use them. His dogs and his music and his cars made him happy. I do not want to go through his drawers.

The house stands as he left it before going to bed on whatever night it was that he went to bed and never woke up. This is only the second time I have been in his house since he graduated from high school. Before we are finished, I will know the brand of condoms he preferred as well as the greatest regret in his life, but the first time I open his cabinets with the contractor bag yawning at my feet, I can only whisper, “Please forgive me, Bryan.” This becomes my mantra.

The third time we lost Bryan, it was to the earth. He was maybe 13 years old—it was the summer we flew from Hawaii, where my father was stationed, to Colorado for our first backpacking trip. My uncle Jerry planned to take us into the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, though if he had known how unprepared we were for such a trip, he probably would have suggested car camping instead. Although we would come to embrace backpacking every summer as a family and learn to travel with lightness and economy, that August we might as well have been toting canned tuna and portable radios.

I wore blue jeans. Heavy denim with rivets that dug into my hip bones and grew 10 pounds heavier every afternoon when the thunderstorms rolled through. We all carried neon-orange backpacks that had been salvaged from Goodwill, with belts that left our jeans-covered hips raw and cracked. None of us had waterproof hiking boots. We barely had hats. And it rained. Every day it rained. Some days the lightning sent us running for our tents.

But what hurt us the most was something we couldn’t see: altitude sickness. Bryan threw up first, out the car window as we drove to the trailhead. He also threw up second and third. By the time we had loaded ourselves with weight, his face had lost its color. We all had headaches that stabbed the backs of our eyes. My throat was dry, and no amount of water could wet it. We no longer peed. Instead, we climbed the trail, dizzy with effort, cotton tube socks chafing our heels.

For whatever reason, Bryan was the sickest. Within a mile or so, he was sitting down on the trail. My uncle Jerry and cousin Shara, well acquainted with the rigors of backpacking, took weight from him. Soon my dad and Scott helped as well, so that Bryan carried an empty pack. Still, he kept stopping. Sometimes to throw up, more often to cry. He wanted to go home.

We trudged on. My uncle had probably chosen a short and easy trail for us, but it felt like climbing Everest. Our party of eight stretched along the mountainside, no one talking. My head throbbed in rhythm with my step. I slid my hands beneath my hip belt to protect my skin, but soon the backs of my hands were red and sore.

At some point, we realized we had lost Bryan. He had simply disappeared.

Taking our packs off, we called his name. A faraway hawk answered, then the wind, but not Bryan.

“What about the fork in the trail?” my dad asked.

“Did he take it?”

“Did anyone see him take it?”

“Who was hiking with him?”

“Bryan! Bryan!”

We made a plan. Some would go back on the trail and look for him; others would fan out into the alpine meadows to look amid the paintbrush and columbine, penstemon and yellow cinquefoil the color of the sun. Released from the weight of my pack, my legs seemed to float above the ground as I walked. Sweat soaked my shirt and made the denim grab my knees and thighs. It was late in the day. Thunderheads gathered overhead. The Mount Zirkel Wilderness stretches 160,000 acres.

I walked the meadows calling for my brother. Pikas chirped from rock piles, and vultures circled the trees. At the time, my ignorance protected me. I knew nothing of exposure or dehydration or lightning strikes. Still, I also understood that losing Bryan in the mountains was not the same as losing him at Safeway. I only had to look around at the glacially carved peaks and the seemingly endless swath of firs to know that the only ones who could find Bryan were the ones right here calling his name.

I don’t remember who found him, my father maybe. Bryan had passed out in a meadow not unlike the one I had been searching. His body had been hidden by the tall grasses, so my father discovered him only when he came upon his sleeping form. Altitude sickness, for the most part, is a temporary condition. Your body acclimates. By the following morning, we were all feeling much better. By the end of the week, we were ready to do it all again. And we would return every summer for the next 10 years to backpack as a family. Except for Bryan. He would remain home, where oxygen is not scarce and you can keep more than what you can carry.

By Sunday, my father is angry. On his way to Bryan’s house, he calls from the road to tell us that we are to stop and do nothing until he arrives. Scott and I are sitting in the parking lot of Home Depot, two more giant boxes of contractor bags in the trunk, when we get the call. I can hear my father’s anger from my place in the back seat. The car vibrates.

As does my father’s body, a half hour later, when he arrives at Bryan’s house. It is the kind of anger that consumed him when I was a child but has dimmed with age. I immediately become 10 again, scared and full of shame. My father’s anger has always been physical. Like fire, it takes the air from the room and sears what remains.

“Get in the house,” he orders as he storms past my brother and me. At 10 in the morning, it is already 100 degrees. Crickets saw in the scrub nearby, the sound electric and grating. Sweat soaks the waistband of my shorts, runs in drops down the sides of my face.

We gather in the room just off the kitchen, where the strongest air conditioner wraps cool tendrils around our sweaty bodies. My mom sits across from my father on a drum stool, my aunt on the floor, Scott and I in office chairs with blown-out backs, and my father in a ratty armchair.

“I have been talking with my brothers and sister,” my father begins. His voice is quieter already. Something about being inside Bryan’s house, or the cool, or the fact that we all did exactly what he said. Or maybe he’s just so very tired that even his anger craves rest. “They all say we shouldn’t be throwing anything away. We should have an auction. There is someone out there who is missing an old issue of Workbench magazine and will want it. We can’t just throw it away.”

I was in charge of the shelves containing the magazines. He is speaking directly to me.

“I have Bryan’s voice in my head,” he continues. Now his words mix with tears. “Why are you letting them do this? Why are you letting them do this? Why don’t you care?”

“But Dad—” I start.

He holds up his hand. “Every time we throw something away, we are throwing away a piece of your brother. Every. Single. Time.”

The day before, I had cleared shelves and shelves of Golf Digest, Forbes, National Geographic, Playboy, Workbench, Mother Earth News, motocross magazines, dirt bike magazines, Mustang magazines, random car part catalogs, a Sunset guide to building a deck, another guide to building a tennis court, one dedicated to repairing quartz watches, Spanish textbooks, chemistry textbooks, pamphlets on succeeding as a student with ADHD, University of North Texas course catalogs from the early ’90s, a McDonald’s training manual. None of the magazines were addressed to Bryan except for a series on motorbiking. They were addressed to subscribers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana. Bought, I would assume, in auction lots. Soon, Scott and I would discover that the most recent lots Bryan purchased were still wrapped in plastic in his giant workshop. It was so full that we could not get through the door. I had filled bag after bag with these heavy magazines and carried them to the dumpster. Tree to paper to earth, I said.

“You are throwing Bryan away,” my father now says.

“Dad,” I try again, this time kneeling in front of him on the floor, crying. “You have to move Bryan from your head to your heart.”

I could be speaking Spanish. Auction has become the life preserver that my father will cling to amid the tsunami of grief. Auction will transmute Bryan’s hoarding into treasure. Redeem him.

Bryan retreated. Into the house. Into his body. Away from the world. He refused to have his picture taken. He walked with his head down and grew his hair long to curtain his scars. He assumed everyone was looking at him.

From that moment on, we decide that everything will pass through my father before being discarded. We designate “auction rooms.” My father stands at the front of the dumpster. Very little gets past. I haul out torch lamps with broken bases and am told a screw is all that is required. A chair that sinks into itself just needs wood glue and clamps. After a few attempts, I take everything to the auction rooms. My father is right: the chair probably could be repaired and reupholstered. But we are doing triage, not plastic surgery, and there is simply no way we are going to find the one person on the planet who is seeking the June 1980 issue of Workbench in order to complete a set.

My dad suffers from the same illness that my brother did, a fear of losing, a fear that this AutoZone receipt from 2005 must be saved because bad things will happen if it is lost. A baby might get burned. A tiny body might plunge into the water, unwitnessed.

You cannot know what you might need in a world that is untrustworthy. Save everything. Save it all. Save it all. Save it all, save it, save it, saveit, saveit, saveit, savesavesavesavesavesavesavesavesave. We are going down.

Air took my brother the fourth time we lost him. Sixteen years old, Bryan was hanging out with a friend in Hawaii Kai while my parents worked downtown. Bored on a summer day, the two of them had decided to make Drano bombs and then throw them from the lava rock pier. Drano bombs require simple household items, specifically Drano, foil, and a container. Once trapped, the hydrogen chloride in the fluid mixes with the aluminum foil to create hydrogen gas. Quickly, often within seconds, the pressure builds to a point where the container bursts, throwing lye everywhere.

Most Drano bombs are made in plastic bottles.

My brother and his friend chose glass.

The second before the bomb exploded in Bryan’s hands, he realized the danger. That flit of understanding saved his life because he was in the midst of hurtling the bomb into the ocean when the Gallo wine jug exploded. The shrapnel entered the left side of his face, neck, shoulder, and chest. If he had held the container, it would have found his heart. When my father arrived at the ER, he says, he knew Bryan was dead. The blood alone was too much. Bryan’s cheek flapped open. The tendons in his neck shone white amid the red. Bryan was not conscious, did not move, and my father began to mourn the death of his son once again.

By the time I saw Bryan a few weeks later, having flown home from college, his skin was starting to heal. Reconstructive surgery on his face would repair much of the damage, but angry red welts would populate his body for the rest of his life. For months, shards of glass worked their way to the surface, a strange kind of birth, where his skin would be pierced from within.

At the age of 16, Bryan retreated. Into the house. Into his body. Away from the world. He refused to have his picture taken. He walked with his head down and grew his hair long to curtain his scars. He assumed everyone was looking at him, mocking him, pointing to his disfigurement. Rather than trust another with his pain, he became a recluse. Held onto every piece of paper. Chose dogs for family because they never withheld their love.

It was like he vanished.

The night before my brother’s back-yard memorial, I sit with my father under the setting of the solstice sun. The longest day of the year, the longest day of my life. Ends that come too quickly or never come at all. He slumps in his chair, gazing at his hands in the growing darkness. For the first time in the day, being outside does not mean being sunburned. Winds play in the field behind my parents’ house; airplanes, like far-off fireflies, make ready to land at DFW, their path across the sky reassuring in purpose.

“I’m so tired,” my father says. These are words I have never heard him utter. He does not mean he needs to go to bed. He means he is tired of being alive.

“I thought he was dead,” he continues, “when I came to the hospital. He was so bloody and pale. I didn’t think there was any way he could be alive. I thought we lost him then.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s why this is so hard. I think we all thought we had made it through.”

“I worry about what the coroner’s report will say. Maybe he was murdered?”

“No, Dad.” I reach out for his hand. “It was a heart attack. Just a massive heart attack. There was nothing we could do.”

The silence settles, and the summer sky darkens on the day we move toward fall.

“I love you so much,” my father says. His voice is thready and thin.

“I know,” I say. “And Bryan knew that, too.”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

We look across the field, empty of cows, empty of horses, full, though, of life we cannot see. Tomorrow a white tent will be erected, and we will set out 50 chairs. But that won’t be enough. Because a hundred people will come to honor Bryan. Most of them I will not know. Other than my extended family, I will never have met any of the dozens who show up. I will open the door again and again to strangers who will say how much they loved my brother, how my brother would stop whatever he was doing to help them. They will speak of his generosity, his kindness, his love. “He helped me lift a door.” “He fixed my car.” “He fed my animals.” They will stand up and bear witness to my brother’s enormous heart. Many will cry. Poetry will be read, “Amazing Grace” sung. All under a sun that will beat down with a ferocity that most of us only want to flee. But we will remain, feeling a sun that never withholds.

The fifth time we lost Bryan it was to the ether, the space between the atoms. It might have been a Monday night, or possibly the Tuesday of June’s full moon. Maybe his final moments were painful and scary. Possibly he knew that Death was coming for him. Or maybe he never woke from the dream he was having, a dream about my father driving the old Porsche Bryan bought for him, its engine finally rebuilt, every single part lovingly restored. Maybe he was sitting next to my father as they raced along a freeway unfamiliar with traffic. Nothing to stop them. Perhaps his last two dogs sat in the tiny back seat or maybe all six of his dogs gathered there, and Bryan could feel their hot breath as they panted over his shoulder, unwilling to miss a single second of the ride. The car speeds down the road, and Bryan looks over to my father with a smile that shows no teeth but lights his eyes, the hazel eyes he shares with my father, and with me. And they ride the road like they used to ride the waves at the beach, joyful in the moment, sun warming their skin, nothing in their hands. Carried.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jennifer Sinor is an essayist and a professor of English at Utah State University.


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