Mostly, I remember the boxes. They kept coming for days – weeks, it seemed to me then – after my brother died. All of them had “Airman Gary Scott Banks” scrawled on their sides in black misshapen letters. Inside were
’s neatly mounted black-&-white photos, negatives, and camera equipment. Photography magazines. Clothes. Nineteen years of life crammed into a bunch of boxes…I couldn’t get over it, any more than I could understand how they’d been able to fit my brother, skinny as he was, into that narrow flag-shrouded coffin. Gary
I was almost 15 when
Gary was killed in a car accident out in . A few days later, I was back in school, writing poetry and drawing pictures during geometry. I took long walks in the field behind my parents’ house. I read and played with my beloved three-legged Siamese, Christy. And all the while, I felt cut off from the world around me. I was grieving, and I didn’t want to be. So I buried that grief even deeper than they had buried my brother. Like Christy, who had learned to get about gracefully on three legs after having been hit by a car, I learned to move about as though I was still whole. Idaho
I wasn’t, of course. And because, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I would not stop for grief, grief stopped for me. Frequently. Politely, like a well-mannered guest waiting for me to finish what I was doing so that it could say what needed to be said. It showed up in all sorts of ways. In driver’s ed. a year later, I’d freeze behind the wheel; and all the instructor’s advice and all my father’s kind, patient after-school instruction could not banish the tall, skinny curly-haired ghost who sat beside me in the car. Then came the day that all the driver’s ed. students were supposed to watch footage of a fatal traffic accident. There would be a short film about driving safety first, the instructors informed us, followed by the main feature, “Mechanized Death”: we were to watch at least 10 minutes of it before making the decision to walk.
I spent the last few minutes of the first flick staring at my feet. The micro-second the lights went down a second time, my sneakers hit the floor. It helped that several of my friends decided to join me in flight: there were too many of us for the instructor to catch us all at once, and all of us except one made it successfully to another floor.
When I went off to college,
went with me in a different way. I brought his camera with me. He had been a photographer; I would, I told myself, be a photojournalist. I never did become a great photographer, but I felt a little closer to him when I was outside trying to capture images with his camera. Gary
Over time, his presence faded. I overcame my fear enough to get my license. But there were moments when I looked into a mirror or at a snapshot of myself and saw his face staring back at me. People who had known him back in school would meet me and say, “You look like him…”
But I still found it hard to talk about the boy whose face I shared. “I lost my brother,” Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn writes in her book The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age, “and because of my family’s inability to find a way to cope and to attempt to heal, I lost the grief. I stuffed it into that back closet…And because of that I lost my brother even in the way I might have kept him.”
Then one night, when I was out with Tim, the man I would later marry, someone asked me how many brothers I had.
“Two,” I replied.
“You have three brothers,” Tim corrected me quietly. He knew
’s story. Gary
He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to let that ghost out of the closet I had so carefully blockaded. And not just the ghost but all of the baggage that came with it, including the additional strain on my father’s heart that had eventually killed him. The way that
’s death had broken apart the charmed circle of our childhood. Gary
It has taken me a long time to find my brother again. I came across an old photo of
not long ago. In it, he is sitting atop a fallen tree trunk on a mountain, staring off to the side. He is wearing his characteristic scowl, slightly toned down. He looks fit, thoughtful, and at peace among the rocks and trees he loved photographing. In it, I see someone who shared my love of nature. Whom I might have even been able to work with some day, my words and his pictures coming together to tell a story. Gary
It’s just a pipedream, of course. I don’t know the person my brother would’ve become, and I will always regret the not knowing. But I’ve learned to let grief in – to honor the loss. A photo Gary took of my cat Alexander snoozing by a toy airplane…looking as though he’d just thwacked it down with a paw a la King Kong…now hangs in my living room. The onyx horse-head bookends he gave me before he left home hold up some treasured books on the shelves of the secretary where I write. And some days, I take my camera out into the yard and photograph the trees or the way the sunlight spills through their branches.
The break in the circle is healed, and so am I. By befriending
’s ghost, I have my third brother back again. Gary