In the early morning hours of April 30, 2004, my only sibling, my brother Matt, signed off Instant Messenger, swallowed the last of his beer, and took his own life.
Scheduled to graduate from Rutgers with honors in less than a month, Matt had a job lined up, a passion for music and politics, a large network of friends, and a loving family. Though he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 15 and hospitalized several times (once for attempting suicide), he’d achieved stability before finishing high school and going away to college—or so it seemed to me. But having lived hundreds of miles away from each other for several years, my brother and I had drifted apart. A natural, necessary step in growing up; nonetheless the distance between us gnawed at me while Matt was alive, and consumed me after he died.
But my guilt after Matt’s suicide went beyond failing to recognize his decline. Years before Matt’s diagnosis, I had fallen into a deep depression and attempted suicide. My illness strained a family already struggling after a cross-country move, and jumpstarted a pendulum of chaos that would swing between the two of us up until Matt’s death.
As the older sibling, I spent years believing that Matt’s bipolar diagnosis was a hand-me-down version of my depression, his first suicide attempt an echo of mine. Before his death this similarity was a comfort, a hope that he, like me, would continue fighting and flourish in young adulthood. After his death our sameness haunted me. As I grieved, I tried to make sense of our seemingly parallel lives, tracing the evolution of our illnesses in an attempt to understand why he had died and I’d survived.
I don’t actually remember the day my parents brought my brother home from the hospital, but over the years I’ve invented a memory. It plays in my mind like a sepia-toned Super 8 home movie, old photographs and stories brought to life. A flash of light like the glare of an empty projector on a white dining room wall, and I appear: three years old, sitting on a worn yellow couch in a pink nightgown and fuzzy pink slippers. I wave and pull the corners of my mouth into a forced-looking, rectangular smile. It is the smile that appears in all the pictures taken of me around this time, the smile of someone trying to be a big girl, a good girl. The smile of someone who senses excitement in the air, but doesn’t understand it. The tense, pained smile of a new big sister.
There are my parents, standing in the doorway of the living room. Dad is tall and stick thin with shadows under his eyes, a thick brown mustache barely disguising his youth. He wears a charcoal colored satin jacket and holds a blue suitcase. Mom’s light brown hair is permed, a baggy t-shirt covering the thighs of her bell-bottom jeans. In her arms is a small rolled blanket with a piggy face peeking out of it, eyes closed. My parents grin. Dad puts down the suitcase and the two of them walk over to the couch, settle on either side of me. Mom switches the bundle from her right arm to her left so that I can get a better look. I touch my brother’s tiny hand. It moves slightly, but the rest of him is still. I touch the fuzz on top of his head. This time he awakens and begins to cry. Mom switches him back to her right arm, and rocks him gently as she gets up from the sofa and leaves the frame. Dad follows. I look after them and begin to cry as well. I get up from the sofa, walk toward the camera, and then there is darkness.
For the next eight years, those pre-adolescent years where hair length and color-coded clothing are the main ways to differentiate boys and girls, my brother and I look the same. Small rounded noses, wide-set eyebrows, soft jaw lines, and blunt chins. Short, bony legs and arms. Xylophone ribcages. Our faces the perfect blend of our parents, we seem to belong to no one but each other. Even after puberty frizzes my hair and squares his jaw, we still look more like each other than anyone else in the family. And yet we are completely opposite: my hair brown and his blond; my eyes dark enough at times to be indistinguishable from my pupils, his bright and shifting from blue to green to gray. But our expressions, our voices, our mannerisms, the jokes we make, the stories we love, the people and places we know, are the same. Our faces are the same. It is too easy to forget that we aren’t, so I do.