Grief is a strange thing. It can be manipulated, ignored, felt, pressed down. Grief can devastate, inspire, comfort, and numb. Grief can take your breath away like cold wind.
Every year around December, since 2007 anyway, my breathing starts to tighten up a little. Not complete breathlessness, where every inhale and exhale is pure pain, but noticeable shallowness.
My big brother was killed on December 30th, 2007. No matter how I paint it, even with the Hero brush – which is truth, it’s still just a stain on my heart. It was violent, scary, and fiery. I don’t know why I try to gloss over that sometimes.
Mikey was a 17 year veteran of the Coast Guard. He was a decorated search and rescue pilot, and forgive me, I cannot remember the name of the craft he flew. H-65, I think. You’ve seen the Guardian? He was the guy that flies those big whirly faith-mobiles into bad weather no one wants to be flying in. He held steady for the divers, and continued to do so until everyone was back in and safe.
He plucked a young girl and her dad off a sinking plane, and spent holidays on call so that the guys with families could have more time. He baked, he volunteered, he played piano at the Senior Center, and arranged Santa Claus for orphans. On retiring from the Coast Guard, he joined the Reserves and started flying for an Air Ambulance company, and continued his service career.
Mike was funny. So, so, so very funny. So many conversations with him were him talking, me laughing. Our last conversation was exactly that. Mike was giving me a narrative of the Wal Mart he was in, as well as some stories of the Fainting Goat Festival, and other local color hits and misses.
He was the whole package.
Late December 29th, a hunter got lost, alcohol was involved, and they called Mike and his Air Evac crew to find him. After almost calling it off, they found the lost man, lit him with the spotlight, and ground searchers moved in. While in the hover, something went wrong… my dad described it as a perfect storm of bad luck.
A witness said that if not for Mike’s maneuvering, the helicopter crash would have killed people on the ground. So in the wee hours of the AM in the cold northern woods of Alabama, it landed upside down, then exploded – killing Mike Baker, Allen Bragwell (father of 4) and Tiffany Miles (mother of 2, just off maternity leave.) In the even wee-er hours, in Anacortes, I woke up because I thought I’d heard something. Turns out, I had.
The hunter was taken to a hospital for exposure. He lives and I hate him, or did. I just want him to be worth the lives of Mike and his crew. Cure cancer, build hospitals in the Sudan, ANYthing. But I have no idea who he is, or what he does. He never even said thank you, to my knowledge. However, we can’t pick and choose like that. If Mike did, he’d never have been able to do his job. Every life, no exceptions.
I wrote a long letter to that hunter once, and never sent it. It needed to be written. It was mean, cruel, honest, brutal, pleading, and cathartic.
Do we “get over” losing someone, or just figure out a way to live with it? Our vision goes, we get glasses. Our hips go, we get pins and walkers. It’s just adjustment, and resignation to a life that is different forever.
I do Ok. Looking at pictures of him doesn’t always give my heart a painful twinge. Talking about him and his mischief still makes me smile. There is gratitude in every breath that I had that amazing big brother for so many years to walk with me, put band aids on cut fingers, entertain me on long trips… hide in the woods and pretend to be a bear and scare the CRAP out of me… Losing him shifted perspective. I made stronger decisions, took riskier actions I might not have otherwise. There are still four of us – three more awesome brothers and me. Our setting is just missing a bright stone, is all. It changed our relationships, brought us into focus. Thats a good thing. Yes, this is good. Still, every once in a while, I get clocked and have to text my big brother, Steve, and say I still miss him. This SUCKS!
Mike’s memorial DVD – put together with kind and gentle assistance from Tony and Karla Locke when I was in pieces – had three songs. Circle Game by Joni Mitchell, Bless the Road by I don’t remember, and 10,000 Miles by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Pictures of Mike appeared and disappeared, from infant to his last picture taken – standing with my dad while they worked on his house together, just 2 weeks prior to his death. In the background, those songs played.
If Circle Game or Bless the Road pop up on CD or play list, I’m fine… A little pre-empty nest emotional, perhaps, given they are both songs about little ones growing up and away, *sniff*, but, I’m ok. I got this.
10,000 Miles is another story. I don’t play it anymore… unless you count about a half hour ago. Epic fail.
The song wrecks me. Her voice breaks me, the words break my heart, the melody shatters my resolve not to grieve anymore – and all this pisses me off because it’s a beautiful song and needs to be sung.
I get it! Death is part of life! Remembering him in a healthy no-crippling way is a great theory, and I put that into practice. But, do I still want to kick and scream? YES! Because I miss him so much. I’ve forgotten his voice, and that terrifies me. There is all this healthy good stuff and affirmation and celebration and other ‘ions – but it all dissolves when I remember that he’s just. gone.
That damn song. That’s what started this. My guitar is where I left it. It’s as old as I am, but it’s only been with me for ten years. In its other 29 years, it has surely played out some heartaches. I can hear the damn thing telling me, like those almost imperceptible harmonics, “Keep trying, kid. Just get through the whole thing once. Play it out. It’s not going to always feel like this. I promise. ”
(10,000 Miles in case you were curious.)