This is an excerpt from my memoir, Unpacking. Trigger alert: the subject matter focuses on my brother’s suicide and the discovery of his body (note: some names have been changed to protect privacy).
It’s the third day of 1990. The gray sky yields to the early dark of a winter’s evening. No one in the house has turned on any lights. Five months pregnant, I’m wearing my red and white striped maternity top—the one that reminds me of last week’s candy canes— with a heavy cardigan and warm wooly socks. Usually, my home is a cozy cocoon, but today there’s a chill I can’t escape from.
I’ve been on the phone for longer than I like. My former high school Sunday School teacher, Cheri, has called to check on my family and, unlike her previous calls in the past two days, she’s not exhorting me to “think positive thoughts” and “keep the faith.” This one’s different. My brother Burgess has been missing for three days, since New Year’s Eve, and although Cheri called on the pretense of getting an update (there is no new information since we last spoke, and I tell her this), she awkwardly fills the minutes with minutia as I wonder how to end the call. Mercifully and dreadfully, our call is finally interrupted by an operator.
The telephone becomes heavy in my hand. My lips tingle.
My house has become the family hub during Burgess’s disappearance. When they are not at work, my parents have been here these past two days, forwarding their calls to my home phone so as not to miss communication with the police or anyone else with helpful information.
Now, a detective has called to speak with my father. Cheri breathlessly gets off the line and I signal my dad to the phone from the next room. He comes toward me and I pass the receiver to him like a relay baton, wanting it out of my possession as quickly as possible.
Stepping into the doorway between the gold and brown kitchen and the beige living room, I can see the entirety of my little cottage, save for the two bedrooms. I feel like a detached observer, watching actors on stage, having already guessed the ending to the script.
On the brown couch in the living room, still wearing her plaid Catholic school uniform, long curly hair disheveled from a full day, sits my 12-year-old sister Lillian, not far from the television – the room’s primary source of light in the growing darkness. Alf is on; however, her attention is focused on the kitchen rather than the TV. Beside her, my daughter Sarah sits, dressed in a pink sweat suit with appliqued flowers, her silky blonde hair is in two stubby ponytails, thanks to Aunt Lillie. Sarah’s mesmerized by the canned laughter and the overly animated actors on the show. At sixteen months, she is too young to understand what’s unfolding around her.
My father looks older today, more salt than pepper in his hair. The slight paunch of his belly, accentuated as the weight of these past few days presses heavily on his shoulders, bending him from the middle. His once-imposing presence is mellowed; softer. He greets the detective, traces of his stutter under the pressure of this stress makes it tough to get the “h” out. Clicking his tongue on the roof of his mouth, he says “Hello, Jack Willis,” into the receiver. His voice is hoarse.
I’ve talked with the even-toned officer assigned to the case quite a bit over the past 48 hours. Initially, he insisted police involvement was premature, even after the standard 24-hour wait time following an adult’s disappearance. It’s taken more than a bit of convincing on my part to get him to believe Burgess did not simply take up with some girl he encountered while ringing in the new year for a few days of clandestine celebratory sex.
“He is 24-years old,” the detective gently reminded me in our first conversation, implying we were most likely making a big deal out of nothing.
“I know my brother,” I countered. “This isn’t like him.”
The detective sighed heavily, seeming to waiver.
I’ve known in my gut something is wrong since I learned Burgess disappeared from a downtown bar following an argument with his girlfriend, Rachael, while 1989 came to a close. As she recounted: it was noisy, they turned away from each other after a few shouted, heated words over the din of the music and boisterous crowd, when she turned back a short time later he was gone. They’d driven downtown in her car. She waited awhile at the bar, then searched the surrounding area with her sister and brother-in-law. He never turned up. Since he was living with my parents, Rachael called them during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day to let them know what was going on.
Throughout New Year’s Day, we made phone calls and searched downtown, looking for a sign of my brother. The night of January first, after coming up empty-handed, the police officially started an investigation.
My father, cradling the phone between his shoulder and his ear, stands legs wide apart so as to be low enough to the counter to take notes on his pad of paper without stooping. A former newspaper reporter, his face is blank as he gathers the facts from his subject. My mother, equally aged these past few days, paces, flitting from my father’s side to hovering over Lillian and Sarah in the next room. Her once-dark hair even more gray than my father’s. Whispers of silent prayers cross her lips, a secret incantation between her and the Divine in an attempt to conjure up my brother. I want to tell her it’s too late for that. My husband David sits at the kitchen table behind me in the L-shaped room, silent, waiting. Despite his Arabic coloring, he’s pale.
“Uh huh,” my father says several times, pen scratching paper in his looping handwriting, a pause, then, “I see.”
Next he asks matter-of-factly, “So the body looked to be in good shape?” and he writes down “HYPOTHERMIA” in large, capital letters and underlines it twice.
At the pronouncement of the word “body,” my mother releases a sound akin to those common during childbirth, clutching her hands to her mouth as if she’s going to vomit.
That’s it. Now we know.
My brother’s body has been found on an island owned by a chemical company. The island is in the middle of a river that cuts through the heart of our city. No foul play is suspected. One friend, Ken, saw Burgess as he exited the bar and said Burgess seemed a bit distraught. At the time, Ken thought little of it. Everyone had been drinking, he later said. It was tough to tell how upset he really was. Nearby is where Burgess is believed to have jumped—just beyond the end of the block where he was last seen. Once in the water, he made his way to the island, several miles away, possibly swimming or perhaps simply carried by the current. Burgess’s body was discovered during a routine check of the island’s perimeter towards the end of the workday, three days later.
The chemical plant’s safety inspector happens to be my husband’s first cousin. He tells David it was clear Burgess was trying to get to help when he died. Some fencing was bent, shallow holes were dug into the frozen ground, an obvious attempt at getting out of the cold. Burgess was tenacious but the elements were too tough a match for his wet body. It’s too early for an official cause of death, but the unofficial speculation is hypothermia during an aborted suicide attempt. Burgess died trying to live after trying to die. Does this make it better, or worse? I will wonder when I learn this news.
But now, my head is trying to catch up with the irrefutable news I’ve been sensing for the past two days. He is dead.
I need to get out of here. My instinct is to bolt for the front door just across the living room and take off running into the now-dark of the cold January night bound for anywhere but here. I look down and realize I’m not wearing any shoes and I’m five months pregnant. Instead of running, I feel myself silently implode. My ears ring. I’m numb. My legs are suddenly limp and I slowly sink to the floor, guided by the glossy white doorframe against my back. I turn my head to my right and feel as if I’m watching someone else’s life going on in someone else’s home. This isn’t me. This isn’t us. Who are these people?
The girls are still on the couch, faces lit by the sepia glow of the television. Lillian’s has transitioned to a blank stare. The one-liners and canned laughter continue and I wonder if anyone else watching the show at this exact moment realizes the entire world has just changed.