The Running Kind, by Merle Haggard. It reached out of the ether yesterday morning and wrapped itself around my heart as I was scrolling through my favourite stations on Sirius, on the way to work. It stopped me cold. That, is my brother’s song.
He’s been gone for almost 22 years.
Lately, a trigger as small as that – as small as hearing: ‘within me there’s a prison, surrounding me alone, as real as any dungeon with your walls of stone’ – leaves me knowing that something is coming. That, very soon, at some inopportune moment, I’ll have to find a computer, a journal – or God forbid, my phone – to scribble down what’s on its way to me, and will not wait.
So here we are. Again.
It seems important to say his name. His name is Michael Edward. He was named after my great-grandpa on my dad’s side.
Fifty summers ago now, when he was about 8, he was riding my big sister’s bike around the farm on the 59 Highway outside of Tavistock. He always had a need for speed. So, I can imagine his delight when he realized he could get it by rolling her big bike down the bank of the barn. And that decision shot him right out onto Highway 59 where he was promptly hit by a car. He nearly died. For the first time.
He lived a difficult life and, I’m certain, came close to that more times than we ever knew. Those brushes left him with a certain knowing that his life would be short. He talked about that often, always saying that he didn’t believe he would live to see 50. That last summer before he died, he changed his mind. He told me he didn’t think he would live to see 40. He was 36.
He had been the running kind. He left home at 15. He lived everywhere – and sometimes nowhere. If he loved you, he loved you fiercely, but he couldn’t stay around too long. He stayed true, above all things, to himself. And that meant that, despite a few settled stints, he moved on a lot. His spirit was restless. But even if it tore him apart – and it often did – he couldn’t stay. At times, he struggled deeply with authority, the law and addiction. Only in the last year or so of his life did things seem that they may have settled for good.
He was all of those things and….he was so much more – including wonderfully loving and sentimental. His hugs were as deep as his voice. He was a tough dude who would cry openly. He always called. He never missed a birthday or important event. And he never ended a conversation without saying I love you.
His years away had taught him the preciousness of family. We learned from him. And we loved him through it all. He was, and is, the unspoken inspiration of our little flock of black sheep. In many ways, he still powers my social conscience, helping me know when I have to stand up – for myself and for others, particularly for the folks society would prefer to cast off.
Recently, the memory of the struggle of his life quietly pushed me to write the City’s position on safe injection sites. I know it is a deeply concerning and divisive subject for many people. I respect those who don’t agree, but for me, the answer is simple – it’s very different when you have loved someone who has struggled, or is struggling, with addiction. Had he needed it, I’d have wanted that boy who struggled so deeply at times, to have every opportunity to live, and to have people care enough to help him find hope and help.
It’s an understatement to say that we miss him. I could stitch together a quilt for all the times I’ve wished for another day. Or wished I could tell him the things I understand now, that I didn’t then. All of the things I am grateful to him for that I once couldn’t see at all.
This is not meant to be a shattering sorrow-light of a piece. There are so many good memories too. And there is so much joy in this journey with him. Twenty-two years later, I know that love is bigger than grief ever will be. I know that I have the power to withstand sorrow. And not only to withstand it, but to use it to keep me moving forward. It was his parting gift.
I still hear him. I still listen to him. I still carry him powerfully within me.
He is frozen in time at 36. The man he was. That’s what he will always be: the 36-year-old who made it as far as that dark side road on a cold October night. The man we loved deeply. The one who called me “baby sister”. The guy who sold everything he owned so he could come home from the west and be in my wedding. The one who wants us all to know that he’s okay ‘over there’. The one who wants us to find joy and peace, knowing he’s still beside us. The man who wants me to be the person he didn’t get to be.
To be anything else dishonors him.
And the strange and painful truth is that I am a better person because I lost him. And I think he knew all along that that would be true. I know now that his death opened a door in the universe for me that only two people with a sacred contract could have planned for. We made a divine deal. He was meant to be my brother. He was meant to leave early. His death was meant to propel me toward a life I couldn’t have otherwise imagined. And writing about that touches a divine place within me that, I know, is him.
Of course, I’d give it all back for him to be here with us again. And then the fact is too, that this grief taught me things. It required me to suffer. And it compels me to reach. I’m coming to understand that this world is just a place for us to learn that we need each other more than we want to admit. I needed to know those things. And because of him, I do.
He’s been one of my greatest gifts, and most profound revelations, in this lifetime – teaching me how to love, how to suffer, how to accept and how to forgive. It’s been 22 years and I know he still has more to show me. I honor him by creating something of it.
And I intend to make it beautiful.