There was this one time when I was a child. My family and I had taken a vacation to San Diego. I was boogie boarding when suddenly, on the beach’s distant shore, I saw my father and mother screaming my way.
A moment of fear struck me simply because I trusted their distress.
I turned my head to find a six-foot wave hovering over me. An engulfment of paranoia froze my body and, before I had a moment to think, it crashed down on me. My instinctual scream filled my lungs with salty uncertainty. My desperate swimming only seemed to drag me down further. My mind raced a thousand thoughts a second.
As my body landed on the soft ocean floor, I opened my eyes to get a sense of my surroundings. Besides some seaweed and stray rocks, there was nothing except empty waters which led into mysterious darkness. Not too far in front of me, a fish about the size of my hand was passing by. He looked at me as though slightly confused by my presence. I looked at him as a peaceful piece of life fluttering by my potential death.
And just as that fish headed for the darkness, my mind went entirely blank.
It’s been some time since this memory last dawned on me. But this past Saturday, it weighed down on my mind like never before.
I was trying to get some homework done as my older brother, Donovan, blasted this relentless rap music. I attempted to put up with it for a bit but eventually grew irritated. As I walked down to his room, screaming at him over the noise, feelings of that day in San Diego started to drizzle on my conscious.
Then I walked into the room and saw my brother hanging by the neck in his closet. The moment my eyes were certain, I became so engulfed in paranoia, my body froze. And the wave hit me once again.
I woke up on the living room couch with a persistent headache. I could hear my mother letting out her most horrified cries. I could see my father trying to comfort her as he took in his own pity. And I could see the paramedics heading up the stairs and towards Donovan.
Though my conscious was hazy, I knew I was succumbing to a pang of great guilt. I was aware of my brother’s depression for some time now. I just never properly addressed it.
Looking back on it now, I begin to see how much I just didn’t want to believe him.
Like this one time. Donovan was getting ready to go out on the town with some friends. As he put on his nicest shirt and slicked back his wavy black hair, he was telling me how he wished he never signed up for the army. I sat back in a beanbag, scrolling social media on my phone, as I listened to his experience.
I don’t remember all the details, but my brother was stationed out near some village in Afghanistan. It was one of those villages that had, for some time, been recovering from the destructions of decades of war. Just as my brother was assigned to patrol their streets, they had built a schoolhouse and marketplace.
As is natural, the desert sun became too much and my brother was in need of some water. He went to the newly-emerged local market with nothing but a couple of cans of beans taken from his basecamp. Due to a recent drought, many others were likewise looking for water. There was only so much resource.
As he reached the clerk, he noticed a young boy begging for just a couple drops. When the clerk agreed to trade the beans, he offered the boy water. He happily accepted but continued to beg in an effort to get more for his family.
Donovan walked away from the market in order to continue patrolling. Just as he did, an explosion went off behind – strong enough to force him to the ground. He turned to find a billow of smoke and an array of screams and cries. Soon, other members of his troop were by his side and aiming their rifles.
As the smoke cleared, my brother was painted a picture that he could never forget – bodies upon bodies of people, all innocent, lying in a lake of blood. Some extremely injured and desperately trying to hold onto whatever life they had left. He saw people with broken limbs, organs falling out, and burns covering head to toe. In the mess of soon-to-be-gone survivors was the little boy. A piece of shrapnel had gone straight through his stomach to the point where you could see out the other end. Out of instinct, my brother tried to help him. But the boy fell into a forever sleep in his arms.
Within an hour or so, a battle had struck out. And Donovan fought not caring whether he lived or died. He received a medal of honor for whatever happened in that battle. Though he never told me the details, he made it clear he had killed more people than he ever intended.
Upon returning home, he didn’t tell anyone about this. Yet, my parents and I were well aware a deep change had taken over him.
He didn’t go out with his friends anymore. He didn’t eat with us at the dinner table. He never enrolled in college as he anticipated. He stopped taking care of his hygiene. He started listening to that relentless rap music. He bought his first pack of cigarettes. He lost a lot of weight. And never again did I see him with a smile.
Except for this one quick moment. He was seeing this girl named Julia and she seemed to take his mind off the memory. He had her over a few times and I remember feeling his happiness radiate in the room. However, it was all lost when she lost interest in him.
When I discovered over his experience in the war, I regretfully remember not knowing how to reply. I offered my condolences just as any other person would, but Donovan was looking for more. As to what that more was, he didn’t truly understand. Still, he searched for it long and hard.
And when I really think about it now, I believe that more was inevitably the depravity of his mind.
As I now watch the coffin lower into the dirt, as I see my mother desperately beg for just one more chance, as the brown dirt slowly covers the bright and colorful flowers resting inches above Donovan’s lifeless body, I can’t help but feel guilty.
I knew that whatever my brother had become wasn’t really my brother.
The day in San Diego, when my mind went blank, I woke up to find myself bobbing in and out of the water. Donovan had his arm wrapped around me and swam me to the shore with every bit of energy he had. We both caught our breath on the sparkling sand – grateful for merely existing.
He saved my life that day. Now wish I could’ve saved his.
Featured Artwork by A.A.D.