It becomes apparent, when something occurs that's as tragic and sudden as the death of my brother, that each person processes things in their own way. When something sudden and important happens in my family, it is usual for me to spring into action and start working toward a resolution. It isn't to say that's how I operate when something crazy happens to me - in fact, I handle personal things quite in the opposite way - but when something happens to my family, I am the first person to jump in to the fray and start fixing things.
Old habits die hard.
So when I learned of George's death, the first coherent thing I did was book my flight to North Carolina in preparation for the family meeting that would inevitably take place.
But, as I mentioned in the last blog (and I recognize that it was a very long time ago at this point), the details surrounding my brother's death drastically affected the overall plan.
**WARNING: IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO KNOW THE EXACT DETAILS OF GEORGE'S PASSING, SKIP THIS SECTION...MOVE TO THE NEXT "ALL CAPPED" SECTION OF THIS POST AND RESUME READING.**
As would likely be appropriate for any mother, my mom was fixated on finding out as many details as she could about my brother's last minutes of life, the way in which he chose to die, the thoughts that may have entered his head and any other details that she could obtain. She spoke with the Medical Examiner (ME) I think, initially, to determine whether suicide was the only possible explanation for his death.
George had not been drinking... nor had he taken any drugs within the traditional drug panel, but even without the influence of drugs or alcohol, he had determined that he was going to take his own life. He wrote a note on his computer, printed it and taped it to his computer screen.
He wrote a note warning whoever may find him, printed it, and taped it to his bedroom door. He got his iPod, selected some music, sat on his bed and placed a plastic bag over his head; tying it off with a shoelace then handcuffed his hands behind his back and laid down on his bed.
No one could tell us when he died - but I spoke with him Friday night (September 10th) around 11pm and from what I had heard, he had sent a Facebook message to a friend around 10pm on Saturday, September 11th. The ME confirmed that Saturday night would be "about right" given the rate of decomposition, but explained that time of death is not an exact science as they make it seem on TV. George lay in his room, alone, for just over a day before he was discovered by his building's maintenance department on Monday, September 13th.
The ME told each of these details to my mother who then relayed them to me.
**IF YOU SKIPPED THE ABOVE SECTION, YOU MAY SAFELY BEGIN READING FROM THIS POINT FORWARD**
My parent's plan was to leave New Jersey/Pennsylvania on Wednesday morning and arrive in North Carolina Tuesday evening, but the ME's advice to my mother stopped those plans dead in their tracks:
"Ms. Gumpert... if this were my child, I would not want to see him this way."
And with those words, my mother no longer wanted to make the trip to North Carolina.
I was immediately torn.
I had spent $400 to fly to North Carolina thinking that this would be the place we would congregate; to hug each other, love on one another, and be there for each other - all of us. I couldn't afford to fly to New Jersey to be near my parents.
I didn't want to be alone.
I didn't want to be in North Carolina.
I didn't want to wait.
I didn't want to go and didn't want to stay.
I was torn between wanting to there for Kristen, wanting to be there for my parents, wanting my parents to be there for me, and wanting to go home to wrap my arms around my daughter and just sob as hard as I could.
The plan was for me to fly back up to North Carolina in a week for my cousin's wedding, so I knew that I would get the opportunity to see my dad (and the rest of my dad's side of the family) at the wedding.
I researched flights back to Florida and established that I would be able to fly out around noon the next afternoon...
... But before I could leave North Carolina, there were a few items that needed to be addressed and so I was charged with doing them.
I spent the balance of Tuesday spending time with Kristen, Tricia and Erik - drinking in their hospitality and warmth and observing Erik's every move. His stature and mannerisms were so reminiscent of George it was uncanny. While somewhat unnerving, it was also pleasant and heartwarming. In retrospect, it was as though George compelled me to go to North Carolina because he wanted me to meet Tricia and Erik - he wanted me to see how similar he and Erik were and he wanted me to observe a man who so reminded me of my brother... it helped me process, heal and be ok.
I approached Kristen on the front porch - she had been there for a while. She was staring into the evening blankly. I wrapped my arms around her from behind, crouched down the porch for as long as I could before my thighs started trembling and I could no longer hold my own weight.
We smoked a ridiculous number of cigarettes, and eased into conversation. The gist of it was that I needed to go home. I needed to be near my husband and my daughter and start to process this death in my own way - privately. I let her know that she had a support system in Erik and Tricia - a support that I did not have with them and because of that, the hole in my heart was growing rapidly. We chatted about Kristen's feelings and the fear that she had about her future. She intimated that she missed her dad and I told her that I thought it was time to reach out to them. I am a big believer that family is family no matter WHAT - and that if there any time appropriate to mend long wounded fences, it's when you are 29 and have lost your husband.
All the while, through out this conversation, I couldn't ignore the seemingly overwhelming feeling that George was standing over my right shoulder as I consoled his wife and encouraged her to seek support.
"Kristen... I can't be it for you. I am trying as hard as I can right now to be there for you and support you in the way that you need to be supported but the reality is that I have lost my brother, my parents have lost their child. It's a bad situation that is only going to get worse, and I know that our time is limited. You need someone who is an advocate for YOU... you need family to know that they will be looking out for your best interest no matter what and whose motives you will never question. I am not sure how long that will be true for you and I. It's time."
As I brushed my teeth that evening with the toothbrush Tricia so thoughtfully had laid out for us, I wondered how long Kristen and I's friendship would survive. I wanted to believe that we were rational enough people that we would defy the odds and stay friends in spite of something as powerful as this death.
Kristen and I headed to the funeral home around 8am the next morning. We entered the parlor and immediately wished that we weren't there. We spoke very little but communicated how uncomfortable we were in this old/old fashioned house.
A tall, rather unintelligent man began assisting us and once again I was faced with the difficult and awkward situation of feeling as though I had less "right" to be there than Kristen did. After all... she is the wife... I am just this sister.
No, we would not like an obituary.
No, we would not like any fancy urn.
Yes, please provide 10 copies of his death certificate.
As we were leaving the funeral home, Kristen's grandfather arrived from Melbourne, FL. The man jumped in his car within hours of learning the news and began driving to be with his granddaughter in North Carolina.
I was impressed.
He was a former New York City cop and he was sharp as a tack. I liked him.
Kristen and I got back into her car and started heading back to the house where Tricia would be driving me to the airport.
On the ride back, my phone rang and mom and dad began itemizing things that they wanted from George's apartment. I knew that this was not a conversation which was going to go over very well with Kristen, so I proceeded to "yes" and "mm hmm" them to get them off the phone. When I arrived back at the house, I called dad back and told him that I was not in a place where it was possible or wise for me to start giving a list of requests. When I got off the phone, I was visibly shaken, upset and on edge. Kristen picked up on this immediately (she has, after all, known me for forever) and asked what was wrong. I tried like hell to avoid answering the question, but after the last three days and the substantial lack of sleep I had lived through, I cracked - and what came out of my mouth was loud and inconsiderate of anyone's feelings but my own:
"You have no idea how hard this is! I have mom and dad making demands on this situation and they are angry. They want things of George's and I told them that I can't ask you right now so now they are mad at me because they think that you should be offering to give us these things. I am trying to be a friend to you and not say anything to make you more upset than you already are! I am staying in a stranger's house. I don't know which way to go and I don't know what to say!"
"No one seems to care that I lost my husband," she responded angrily.
"NO ONE SEEMS TO CARE THAT I LOST MY BROTHER."
It was out there - I couldn't take it back ... and I likely wouldn't have if given the opportunity because it was the most honest thing I have ever said for myself.
I had said what was on my mind and had finally verbalized the fact that I felt like a pawn or like a child being bounced between divorcing parents. I spent the last three days catering to everyone's whims, playing peacemaker, working to advocate for both party's interests and continued to neglect my own grief.
Kristen and I hugged each other - apologized for the hurtful things we may have said to each other, and began saying our goodbyes as I had to head to the airport.
Tricia graciously drove me to the airport, and I began my trip back to Tampa. I breathed a sigh of relief that this particular chapter was over and hoped that the ones ahead would be easier... hell, nothing could be as hard as these three days had been, right?