A Brother’s Sacrifice: A Story of Loss & Grief
CHAPTER SIX // THE DAY OF THE VISITATION
The house was shrouded in unsettling quiet the following morning as all six of us ate our breakfast. The only sound came from spoons clacking against bowls and the occasionally crunch of cereal between teeth. There were no words, no unintelligible grunts, and no tears. As the oldest child in a family of eight, I was unsure I’d ever witnessed such a thing—silence in the place we called home.
Home is supposed to be a safe place. That’s a line I usually spit to my clients and to my foster children now. I’ve even said it to my own children. Home is supposed to be safe. So I lingered on that thought for a long time, yearning to keep our home a safe space. I started striving toward that goal that morning in the unsettling quiet. We had so many unknowns ahead of us—so many paths we could possibly take, and we had zero control over much of it.
My sister was the one to break the spell. She’d glanced around us, her eyes sweeping the room between slurps of cinnamon-tainted milk. “Where’s Mom?”
I blinked, turning toward her in my confusion. It took me too long to remember that she had been gone the day Mom gave me her credit card and left. She had been gone when Mom said she was done with us—done with me. She had been gone when Mom trashed the kitchen. She didn’t know about any of the events that had happened since the day I told her Dad was dead.
Jarod roughly pushed himself from the table, his chair scraping against the wooden floor. Reece scrambled from his chair, following close behind as Jarod trampled up the stairs. They didn’t need a reminder of all the things that had gone horribly wrong.
As Kaleb continued to eat his fruit loops, Chris answered her, his mouth snarling in disbelief. “Mom left us. Why do you think Austin was the one to find you?” He threw his spoon into his nearly empty bowl of cornflakes, milk splattering out the sides. “She probably won’t even be there today.” There was a long moment of silence as Sabrina processed Chris’ claim.
I’d considered the possibility of Mom avoiding the visitation and funeral. In fact, I was fairly convinced she wouldn’t be attending. Still, I had hoped she would. I had hoped her lapse in judgement was simply that—a lapse. Maybe she would come back, sweep us into her arms, and apologize for leaving us at such a gruelingly difficult time.
It was a while before I eventually stood to break the returned silence. “Do you all want to help find Mom and Dad’s old photos?”
Since I’d decided to keep the services closed casket, we needed plenty of displays that guests could look at. At least, that’s what Pastor Mack told me.
Soon, all six of us were gathered around the table, digging through piles and boxes of old photographs. I distinctly remember finding a sepia-tinted photo of my father at age two—a time when he was probably a happy child in a happy home before his father had to be permanently hospitalized and his mother killed and his brother jailed. There was another photograph of him with our mom taken on the Fourth of July in 1984, Mom’s belly swollen to make room for me.
Hundreds of happy faces smiled at us as we sorted through the photos, assembling them on Styrofoam boards we planned to place around the church foyer. Photographs from Christmases, Halloweens, Easters, and other holidays dominated half the table, several of them threatening to spill to the floor.
We were having a good time. It wasn’t until I started loading the boards into my trunk when I realized things weren’t gonna stay that simple. I stood on the front porch staring at my car, counting seats in my head, then counting my siblings as if that number had miraculously changed, and let out a frustrated roar, my foot slamming into the wooden railing. Only months before had our family owned a minivan—one that was probably in a junkyard being scavenged for scraps. When Dad wanted to take us to church, we usually split between my car and his. We didn’t have his car anymore, not after the accident that totaled it. With Mom gone, it was just my car in the driveway by its lonesome, unable to haul every one of us to the church. Maybe we could have stuffed someone in the trunk. The drive wasn’t too bad. But I hadn’t thought of that and even if I had, my morning vow of safety was too important to break. Tears leaked from my eyes as I struggled to stay calm, but my body shook with the anger it held.
Jarod was the first to find me. For some unknown reason, he thought the best way to gain my attention was to scream bloody murder as he climbed onto the railing. He had miraculously managed to balance himself on the thin, ageing wood, but still, I quickly yanked all seventy pounds of him onto safe ground and urged him back in the house.
Figuring the best I could do was give Pastor Mack a call to see if he could help with transportation, I starting searching for the phone. Before I could find it, Sabrina was running down the staircase, announcing that Dalton was gonna give her a ride.
I shook my head, immediately against the idea. “You know I don’t like that kid,” I vociferated, anger continuing to bubble through my veins. I don’t recall much of the argument that ensued, but it went on until my hand was inches from her face, ready to slap her. I managed to stop myself as she caught her breath, almost as shocked as I was that I’d almost hit her. She continued to glare daggers at me, the clamor of our argument disappearing in an instant. After a moment of silence, she stood with tears in her eyes. “You’re not Dad, remember? Just because Dad died doesn’t put you in charge! God, Austin, he died. Can’t we respect that and move on with our lives? You don’t have to give a damn about me. That was Dad’s job. Stop trying to replace him because it’s not working! Let Dalton give me a ride. For Christ’s sake, it’s just a ride!”
Slowly lowering my hand, at stared at her in disbelief. “He’s a drug dealer, Sabrina. Dad wouldn’t want some stupid sophomore drug dealer to take you to his visitation. It’s a disgrace and a dishonor to his memory.”
I knew, despite my argument, she would leave anyway. She was probably the most stubborn of all of us. I couldn’t help but think she would leave like Mom did and honestly, for a while, I spent a lot of time trying to keep her from doing that. I needed her to stay—to help—because I believed there was no way I could hold our family together without her. It was a fear that stuck with me for a long time. Sighing in compliance, I nodded, agreeing to let her leave with Dalton. I hope that maybe, just maybe, if I gave her what she wanted, she wouldn’t leave me.
I didn’t want to let Dalton’s truck out of my sight, so as soon as Sabrina flew out the front door to meet him, I quickly gathered my brothers, ushering them into the car. Kaleb had different plans.
As I stood at the front gate watching Reece climb out of the tree house, a long-winded scream erupted from within. Recognizing the sound of a Kaleb-sized meltdown, I slouched tiredly forward, making my way to the treehouse. Reece jumped the rest of the way to the ground, leaving room for me to climb the ladder. Luckily, Kaleb didn’t fight my embrace and I was able to carry him to the ground and to my car. Unfortunately, his screams didn’t stop at the change in scenery, and we had to listen to his amplified shrieking all the way to the church. I was practically speeding down Lamar and across Shawnee Mission Parkway, attempting to lessen the time we all had to spend in the car with him. The second I screeched to a stop in the parking lot a few spaces from Dalton’s truck, I ordered Chris to keep an eye on our sister. Reece and Jarod all clambered out of the backseat as I unlocked the trunk, handing the posters to them so they could carry them inside and escape the screaming. Then I hoisted my youngest brother out of his seat and into my arms, hugging him tightly to me the way I did with my kids years later.
“What’s wrong, Kaleb?” I whispered, not expecting an answer. I hadn’t heard him say a word in three days. His screams melted into loud sobs, the water from his tears soaking my sleeve. Most of my siblings had gone inside, but still I stood there holding him, exhaustion seeping in. I couldn’t stop my own tears from joining in Kaleb’s melody.
. . .
The church foyer was packed with people for the visitation. Practically the entire church body had shown for support, as well as eleven junior varsity cheerleaders from Sabrina and Catherine’s squad, six police officers, a few of my friends, and a handful of people I either vaguely recognized or not at all.
Now, the story I’m about to share I’ve heard from multiple different perspectives, but this is how I remember it.
I was on the other side of the room by a refreshment table, Catherine talking my ear off with trivial gossip I had no hope of remembering. To be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to her because there were a lot of people passing by us to quickly offer their condolences. The only part I definitely remember was Catherine pulling me to the wall with my tie, one of her knees tickling my inner thigh, her tongue dancing in my mouth. It was in the middle of all that when the room hushed. Catherine had pulled away by then, opening her mouth like she was going to suggest something, when her eyes darted behind me, widening at whatever sight had caught the room’s attention.
That’s when I heard Reece’s desperate voice. “Dad? Wake up. You’re sleeping through the party.” His voice grew more frantic as he continued. “Dad! You never miss a party. You love them. Look at all these people.” The sobs were starting to reach his voice. “Dad! Please wake up!”
I closed my eyes, willing Reece’s words to disappear. Maybe they were a weird, grief-induced hallucination. Because no way were any of the adults gonna let Reece see inside the casket. In that moment, I attempting to collect my thoughts and emotions, my fists and jaw clenching. My sister whimpered in the nearby corner as I struggled to breathe evenly. When I opened my eyes again, Catherine’s were there to meet their gaze, her arm reaching for my shoulder. I flinched, turning to see exactly what was happening by Dad’s casket.
The crowd had thinned since the last time I’d scanned the sea of visitors. The cops were gone, probably to get back to their shifts. Still, most people were still there, standing and staring at my brother’s unraveling.
I couldn’t see my dad. I was too far back to see much over people’s heads, but Reece, who appeared to be on top of Dad in the casket, was mostly visible. Our youth pastor attempted to lift Reece out as I made my way through the crowd, but my brother would only thrash around, disrupting Dad’s corpse. As I got closer, I caught sight of Jarod with his feet balancing on the stand, struggling to see inside. I headed straight for him, my arm tightening around his waist as I lifted him for the second time that day. Angrily, I plopped him a few feet away, turning to help Pastor Brendan with Reece. Jarod quickly returned to his viewing spot, but by then, Reece was my priority. He was disturbing the crowd of onlookers. I nodded to Brendan to grab Reece’s arms as I went for his legs. After I dropped Reece’s legs to the floor, I ran to the casket, grabbed the lid, and threatened to close it on Jarod’s fingers if he didn’t move. It must have scared Jarod because he lost his balance, falling backward to the floor as I locked the casket.
Dragging Jarod to the back of the room, I prepared to yell, Reece’s cries still occurring in the background. I knew opening the casket hadn’t been Reece’s idea. It had Jarod written all over it. Sputtering inaudible words, I struggled to find the correct phrase to shout. Tears were spilling from my eyes, blurring my vision as my emotions spilled overboard. After several seconds, I gave up, pulling Jarod into a hug. I knew why he wanted to see Dad. I just never thought he needed to.
It was another hour or so before most people started to leave. The crowd had thinned to only include a handful of people by the time I realized my sister had disappeared. I knew Kaleb was hiding in the children’s pastor’s office and I spotted Jarod and Reece playing a game of Uno with Pastor Mack’s son. Chris was speaking to an elderly couple near the entrance, but Sabrina was nowhere to be found. I checked all the rooms to be sure I hadn’t missed her before I headed to the entrance to check if Dalton’s truck was still in the lot.
Chris waved me over as I tried to pass and I obligatorily joined his conversation with the elderly couple, peering out the doors every few seconds to see if I could catch a glimpse of the truck.
Chris introduced me to the couple. “They say they’re Mom’s grandparents. They actually raised her for half her childhood.”
“Oh.” I blinked, offering a hand for them to shake. “I didn’t know Mom still had other living relatives.”
The woman chuckled. “We didn’t know she had six children.”
“We haven’t seen her since she married,” the man chimed in. “Not surprising. She’s always been Miss Independent. Never wanted our help for anything.” The man’s eyes sparkled with the lighting of the room. I struggled between wanting to know more about them and wanting to find my sister. Sabrina won.
“I’m sorry,” I said to them the one and only time I met them. Our great-grandmother would pass a year later, her husband a few years after that.
I reached the parking lot only to find the space where Dalton had parked empty.
. . .
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.