I had received several missed calls and voicemails from Joel, unusual but not unheard of. He was good about calling to check up on our life here in Florida. I wish I had been just as good about checking up on him. I remember preparing myself to call him back. He mumbled something about apologizing to me. I didn’t know what he meant but assumed he was having some sort of guilt for our relationship as kids. We fought quite a bit and I often felt guilty about that as well. But he sounded frantic. I wasn’t sure what that was about. I prepared myself to assure him that I was equally guilty for any childhood bickering and assumed it would end well, maybe some small talk about all the running and biking he had done lately – I was very impressed by how dedicated he was to managing his emotions and stress through physical activity and hobbies. But that’s not how the conversation went. It was the first time I thought to myself “this might be serious”. …That moment shouldn’t have come so late.
I stepped outside, knowing our conversations were never quite “casual” anyway, and worrying I might give in to some pent-up emotions from our lifelong struggle as brother and sister. Breathing deeply as I dialed his number, I listened for his voice on the other end, hoping to hear a casual “hey Darb”. Then he picked up.
(delayed) “yeah, hey”
“How are y-“
“-Stop. I.. “ (Breathing) “I need to say this”
“Ok.” (I could tell he was trying not to let me know, but it was obvious he was crying)
“I’m sorry too -“ (I tried to prattle on about how it’s normal to fight with siblings and how I’m a brat but he cut me off)
“No. I needed…. I need to…” (struggling to get any words out. The silence was huge and painful but we both needed that pause)
“I’m just……….I’m sorry”
“You should come see us soon”
“k” (his breathing was getting worse, I could tell he wasn’t up for small talk)
“I love you, Joel”
I stood outside for a few minutes longer, collecting myself. I don’t know at what point I started crying but I didn’t notice the tears until I hung up. Such a short conversation but so emotionally exhausting and confusing. But I also felt relief. I needed to know he loved me. Not that I didn’t know, but with Joel it was always hard.
I thought this was a step toward healing. Some sort of check on a list he formed to work through a problem. And maybe it was. Or maybe it was a peace-making because he knew he would be leaving soon. I won’t ever know. So I’ll always fight through this conversation in my head, wondering if I could have known or if I should have pushed harder to find out why he was so upset.
That was in May. I received a text from him on June 22 saying he got the shirt we sent him. 6 days later he died by suicide.
I’m so thankful he called me. I needed to share that moment with him. In 23 years of being his sister I never felt so close to his heart. Yes, it’s a burden I’ll carry probably the rest of my life. But some burdens are worth carrying.
Sharing our story helps me have perspective, helps me learn. And I’m confident I still have much to learn from Joel.