A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief

It was nighttime when Mom turned her key in the lock to let herself in. I’d fallen asleep on the couch, my arm around Kaleb, when my youngest brother nudged me awake. Mom was pacing in front of the door, her thumbnail in her mouth as she chewed on it. I was too tired to confront her, letting my eyes droop closed as I listened to her feet pace back and forth until they had traveled to the stairs and out of earshot.

My memories of that night are a little fuzzy, because the next thing I remember is Kaleb missing from my arms and being awoken by my mother’s horrendous, moaning cry. She’d kicked a kitchen chair, letting it crash on its side. By the time I sat myself up, she was in the process of flipping the table. I was awake by then, shocked by my mother’s actions. I guess that’s the thing about grief. We don’t expel it in that first moment of revelation. We feel it for days, weeks, months… a lifetime. It had barely been twenty-four hours, but Mom wasn’t done expelling her rage. I quickly learned where Chris got his impulse to throw things from.

Digging through the kitchen cupboards, Mom grabbed can after can, tossing them to the ground along with the cereals and dry foods. I was scared to approach her, afraid she’d lash out at me. So I slowly made my move to reach her, dodging the weapons. She moved on to the fridge, making her way through the condiments in the door. She’d dropped a bottle of ketchup to the floor and was going for the mayonnaise when I was finally close enough to touch her. Mom—the cop—trained to dodge me, did just that, pulling herself out of my reach.

“Mom!” I screamed, desperate to make her stop. I couldn’t tackle her like I had Chris. I couldn’t exactly fight my own mother. I had to shout twice more before she finally stopped what she was doing. She froze, looked at me—or more like, looked past or through me—then collapsed to the ground, her cries somehow louder as she buried her face in her hands.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. What do you say to your Mom when she’s falling apart? So I did what I could. I closed the refrigerator door and began to stack some of the cans scattered on the floor as she cried.

She hadn’t stayed like that for long, though. I’d only gotten so far before she suddenly stopped making noise and stood. Reaching for her purse on the counter, her hands shook, her eyes avoiding mine as I watched warily from a few feet away, not far from Jarod and Reece, who I’d noticed had perched themselves on the stairs in curiosity. Her hands pulled out her wallet, then a credit card. She took a deep breath, stretching her jaw, then proceeded to close the distance between us, her eyes on the floor the entire time. Pushing the card into my hand, she said, “Take care of the funeral.”

I couldn’t believe what she was saying to me. I was seventeen. I had no idea how to plan a funeral. I didn’t remember ever going to one growing up. Both my parents’ families were estranged. When most parents give their son a credit card, they don’t accompany it with those words. But those words weren’t what broke me.

She continued. “It’s not my problem anymore.” Her breath was shaky as she pulled it in one last time before speaking her final words. “And neither are you.”

I froze in stunned silence. It felt like I’d been body slammed, the breath in my lungs immediately catching, refusing to move in or out. I stood there, my mind reeling, my chest aching as she returned her wallet to her purse and left. I remember thinking how horrible that day had been. Still to this day, I consider it the worst day of my life. But Mom’s words had made it a hundred times worse.

. . .

My brothers helped me clean the mess the next morning before church.

Whenever I tell this story, there are always people who are surprised that I’d gone to church two days after my father passed. Not only that, but I’d managed to drag all my brothers with me. My sister would have gone too if she wasn’t elsewhere that morning. Before Mom had come to the house and thrown a tantrum, I’d allowed Sabrina to go to a friend’s house, figuring she needed to be around people.

My short answer to people’s inquiries about why I’d gone to church is usually more about funeral planning than anything. It wasn’t that I needed answers for why my dad was gone. It wasn’t that I thought I could pray to God for healing. It wasn’t to deny that anything happened. It was mainly because I needed somebody who knew how to plan a funeral. Who better to ask than our pastor?

Dad was a church man. A follower of God. The way he talked sometimes, he’d often come off like a pastor—someone who led by word and example. He tried to be there for others when he could, but it wasn’t out of a pastoral obligation. He wasn’t licensed for anything like that. He was just a good person who also happened to believe in God.

I’ve read his story—the one he kept scribbled in an old, battered journal. Even after my many rereads over the years, I still don’t completely understand how he stayed in close relationship with God. Dad didn’t exactly have an easy upbringing—something his death passed onto us. Maybe that’s part of the reason I admire him so much. He found and held faith in some of his darkest moments. Maybe I wanted to do that too. After all, I’m always trying to be who he was. So maybe that was why I went to our pastor first and not to a funeral home.

We probably looked terrible. How could we not? It would’ve explained Pastor Mack’s reaction. I hadn’t thought about the possibility that he hadn’t yet heard. I wasn’t expecting to have to tell more people.

It’s been almost twenty years and still, every once in a while, I will run into someone who knew my father. “How’s he doing?” they’d ask. Some would start to ramble so much that I had to stand there and nod along for several minutes before I could get a word in. “Haven’t heard from him in a while. I was just thinking about him the other day, actually. Thought he might want to play a game of pick-me-up if he’s up for it.”

The last time that happened, I was with my kids in the beverage aisle of Target, trying to keep them from touching everything. Even with my mask, strangers recognized me because of how much I look like my father. This guy was the rambling type. He must’ve known my dad in college when he played for the Jayhawks, maybe a little bit later.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still in good shape with all the grandkids to keep him on his toes. They certainly keep you on yours,” the man said as I reached for a falling bottle of Gatorade, catching it before it hit the floor.

I try not to think about it too often—what my dad would be like around my kids. The day my oldest was born, I couldn’t help but cry a little, wishing so much that he could have been there to see and hold him. There were days when I never thought I’d get there myself. Having to devote a good chunk of my life to being a father for my siblings took a toll on me.

I studied the bottle of Gatorade, one of my foster kids trying to pry it from my hands. Finally letting the kid take it, I looked at the man. “He would have liked that,” I answered, swallowing the tiny lump in my throat. The thing about grief is that it never completely goes away, it just gets easier to deal with. I was able to smile a little, thinking happy thoughts of my father playing with my kids. “He passed a while ago, but he would’ve loved to run around with these munchkins.”

“You don’t have a grandpa?” one of the fosters asked my middle daughter.

“I have a grandpa,” she responded, confused by the question. She does have a grandfather—one she knows and loves—it just isn’t my dad.

The man tilted his head the way everybody does whenever they offer their sympathies. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He blinked, shaking his head. “Wow, I had no idea. He was a good man.”

The morning my brothers and I walked into the church was the beginning of the never-ending slough of questions. “Where is your dad?” “Why isn’t your father here?” “I haven’t seen your dad in a while.” “I wanted to catch up with your father. Is he around?”

Pastor Mack had been greeting people at the door, smiling and shaking hands with every parishioner who came before us. When we appeared next in line, the weight of grief seeming to plaster itself on our faces, he paused, his hands in midair, his mouth curving into an o-shape.

Our youth pastor came up behind me, giving my shoulder a little shake. “Sorry about your dad.” He’d somehow heard through the grapevine—more likely the local news—but hadn’t thought to pass the information to the other pastors on staff.

“Did—” Pastor Mack stopped his question and restarted. “Did something happen to your dad?”

I inhaled sharply, dodging his eye contact. I’d broken the news to five people the day before, I didn’t want to add more to the list. He was supposed to already have known.

Jarod sniffled, snot coursing through his nasal cavities. We were starting to cause a small traffic jam as people struggled to pass on their way to the sanctuary or nursery.

The youth pastor ushered us to the side to keep the space in front of the doors open. “You didn’t hear about the accident?” he asked the lead.

Pastor Mack’s eyes widened, shaking his head. “No, I hadn’t.” His hands reached for his chest, grappling at nothing. “Is he…?” He looked among my brothers and I, unable to complete his question. Our faces told the truth. Dad was dead. Ace Brunswick was no more. He extended his hand to touch my arm. “Is there anything I can do?”

I hesitated, glancing at my brothers, then back at him. I’m not sure why I didn’t want them to overhear. It wasn’t like they didn’t know Mom had left me in charge. Maybe I was trying to protect them from having to hear more about Dad’s death than they needed. The morning was already taking a tumble downhill. Pulling Pastor Mack to the side, I lowered my voice. “I need your help with the funeral.”

. . .

Pastor Mack guided me to his office. We sat across from each other in silence for a moment, unsure of what to say. Strewn at messy angles on his desk were framed photos of his four children. They were all younger than me, but not by much. We’d all grown up together. In fact, his youngest son was best friends with Reece for years.

There was a large and outdated family photo on the wall behind him. It reminded me too much of the one in my parents’ bedroom that was taken shortly after Kaleb was born. My eyes started to sting at the memory.

“I’m sorry,” Pastor Mack said after clearing his throat.

I didn’t give his apology much thought. “I’ve never even been to a funeral before,” I explained, my throat trying to close. “I didn’t grow up knowing my grandparents or my parent’s grandparents. I know my mother has two sisters, but she never speaks to them. In fact, they could be dead for all I know. My father—” I had to stop for a second, the tears interrupting me. “My father was tossed from house to house because his older brother did some things… bad things to people. I don’t exactly know what he did or who he is or if he’s alive either, only that my father didn’t deserve the harsh childhood that his brother had created for him. I know I’m rambling, but now I’m stuck with this burden, and I don’t know what to do.” The sobs were no longer containable. I had to bury my head in my hands to muffle them.

There was a short pause before he spoke. “I’ll be right back.” Then he left me alone with my thoughts.

When he returned a few minutes later with a phone book in his hand, we spent the morning combing through it, trying to narrow down the list of possible relatives as another pastor took over the service. There were only four people with our last name listed in the area, so we moved on to the White Pages online, hoping to be more successful. Nobody was the right age to be my grandparents or great-grandparents. We switched to mother’s maiden name—Lite. The list grew even longer—tons who fit the right age. I knew that my mother had a sister who went to college in California, but that only expanded our search. I only wished I knew more to narrow the suspects.

It wasn’t until we thought to look into my paternal uncle’s criminal files when we finally got a lead.

. . .

Copyright © 2021 E.K. Barnes
This story is the intellectual property of E.K. Barnes. Under no circumstances can the above text be copied or distributed without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations. Copying and redistributing is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.