Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Uncle Ken

Me and my brother, Ken 1974

(UPDATE: See the bottom of this post)

I have hosted this blog for ten months now, and I usually try to keep my topics fairly upbeat and lighthearted. But I can't deny what is in my heart right now, and I want this blog to be honest. Anyone who knows me also knows the one topic I rarely discuss but that always shapes my perspective on life. Friends send me cards around this time of year -- those real, true friends who never forget no matter how hectic their lives are. And it is so important to me that they still remember. Especially since this event happened exactly twenty years ago on Halloween.

I was one of those girls who needed a boyfriend or I questioned my self-worth. So silly to think of now, but I am being honest. In seventh grade, I met a boy named Blaine* who I thought was the equivalent of heaven on earth. And in a shocking twist, despite my total insecurity, he became my first boyfriend in eighth grade. I was smitten with him as only a young teenage girl can be, and this first love lasted well into my high school years. Only it didn't last that long for him. We had a strange on-again, off-again sort of relationship. But during one of our on-again moments, I came back from a short vacation to my grandparents to the phone ringing. It was my friend, Hannah.* She called to tell me that I should brace myself because something happened while I was away. Blaine was now off the market. His girlfriend? None other than Hannah herself, gleeful to tell me of her apparent victory.
* Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

I hit the lowest point I can remember in high school. I had known many of my friends since nursery school, and I couldn't believe that a "friend" or a boyfriend who I thought was so amazing could be so completely disloyal. And the best part was that I got to watch them hand in hand, smooching, and Hannah deliberately eyeing me while she pulled Blaine closer. I felt like I was starring in a really bad remake of a John Hughes film. And while I can make fun of myself at how much I allowed my self-esteem suffer over a ridiculous high school romance, it really felt like the end of the world to me. I started to think terrible thoughts, and those thoughts consumed me.

Ken and me, 1984

What pulled me out of my rock bottom existence? Well, I had friends that didn't give up on me, despite how miserable I was. But my brother and a few of his football friends really helped the most. My brother, Ken, and I didn't usually discuss the nitty-gritty details of our respective boyfriends or girlfriends, but one day, Ken sat down and asked what was going on with Blaine. We were receiving endless hang-up phone calls night after night, and it was driving all of my family members crazy (remember, it was pre-Caller ID). I told Ken that I thought it was Hannah, and then explained the chain of events. In his big brother way, he was furious that a) Blaine would break my heart -- again, and b) that my "friend" made me question so many of my values. To get even, Ken -- a towering 6'3," 200-pound football player whose build was so muscular that the arms on his shirts didn't fit -- walked me down the hallway to one of my classes every day. When Blaine crossed our path, Ken and his football friends would make snide remarks or step in his way. I know; it wasn't very nice, but I appreciated them sticking up for me and my fallen self-respect so much. And speaking of respect, Ken was extremely well-respected by both his peers and his teachers, not only for his athletic talents, but for his unbelievable SAT scores and his famously witty (albeit goofy) sense of humor. He was honor society president and graduated at the top of his class with a scholarship to an extremely competitive college. In my mind, he personified success. He had everything, and even when we had our typical sibling squabbles, I was so proud he was my brother.

Fast forward a few years to Halloween night of my first semester in college, many hours from home. I came back from choir and band rehearsals to my phone ringing as I opened the door. I didn't make it inside in time to answer, but I listed to my answering machine and had several messages from campus security. OH NO! I thought. I knew what had happened. During one of their routine freshman room checks, they had found my toaster. We had been warned that such items were strictly off-limits and that they would be confiscated and the owners would receive appropriate punishment. I was certain I would have to beg them to allow me to stay in college and not expel me. What would my parents think??? Just then, a friend came by as the phone rang again. It was security again, and they needed me to report to their office immediately. I convinced my friend to accompany me for moral support.

When I got there, I met two security guards who escorted me in another room where my resident advisor (whom I had talked to about twice) was sitting. I was handed the phone.

I still wish it was the toaster.

On the other end of the phone was my mom. I was very confused. I don't remember the conversation. I only remember the news.

My big brother had committed suicide.

I still can't say that -- or write that -- without tears. My world was shattered. Twenty years later, my feelings are not much different. My childhood hero and my only sibling is gone. How could he have helped me through my own depression, yet never told anyone about his own? My family and I have been deprived of so many moments we should have shared. Every milestone is difficult to achieve without him: my college graduation, my first teaching job, my marriage, and, of course, my children. My husband would have bonded with him over Monty Python, horror films, and 80s heavy metal. And my boys would have loved their Uncle Ken, his silly jokes, his made-up songs, and his infectious laugh more than I can imagine.

After every store puts away their back-to-school merchandise, I dread the constant reminders of the day that is looming. And turning the calendar over to October year after year has never gotten any easier. I often wonder if it would be less ominous if Ken's death had not occurred on Halloween. The anniversary of anyone's death is difficult, yet every year, when the leaves begin to turn, I am met with an increasing supply of ghosts, skeletons, and dead creatures seemingly reminding me of the day that is quickly approaching. But this year is even harder. Ken took his life when he was twenty. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of his death. That means that after this Halloween, with each day that passes, the amount of time Ken has been gone will outweigh the days Ken spent here on earth. I have difficulty writing that, too.

If you saw my last post, there is evidence that I have come a long way. Before having children, I would have never even considered donning my doorstep with pumpkins or any festive decorations -- most certainly not a ghost. But my needs take a backseat to my little boys' needs, and I understand the childhood excitement and anticipation of Halloween. But my Halloween will never be a "happy" one. It will always be a reminder of the loss of all that once was and all that could have been.

And Big Brother, you would have made a terrific Uncle Ken.

And I still love you more than words can tell.

To read more about my brother, Ken, you are invited to visit his memory blog here.
UPDATE: You can also read my anniversary post on Ken's memory blog here, which includes the story of the original song I wrote about him when I was eighteen, which you can listen to here.


Kelly said...


I'm reading this with tears rolling down my cheeks. I am so sorry for your loss. Not just today, not just 20 years ago, but every day. Because I know thoughts of your brother, and the loss of him on earth, must be with you daily. I cannot imagine that pain you must have felt that day, Halloween, 20 years ago. I cannot imagine the pain you must feel today, and on all of those milestones in your life when he was no there physically. I am just so sorry. There are no words.

Your love for him is so obvious. Your pain is so real. I appreciate you opening your heart to all of us reading this blog. I pray that we can help to carry a little of the weight for you.

The photograph of you and your brother on the top of this post says so much. It is so beautiful, this loving moment between brother and sister. I know that is a relationship that is fragile and sometimes tense, especially as little kids. That you have such a sweet photograph of the two of you is a treasure.

I am saying a prayer for you and your brother as I type this and big fat tears continue to drop on my keyboard. I didn't know your brother, but I know that he is somewhere looking down on you beaming with the same pride that shows on our face from that picture taken in 1974. I pray that you find a way to feel his love every day, because I know he must be sending it to you and your boys.

l e a h said...

This is a very touching post on many levels. I wish you peace, Kristin.

kathy brandt said...

Oh Kristin, please feel my love surround you.

Gemma said...

You know how I sometimes say you make my eyes "leak" when you post? Well, the spigots were wide open this time! This post touched a place in my heart of hearts. It was so gracious and brave of you to share your thoughts about your dear brother, Ken. You are a truly gifted writer, and a wonderful sister, wife, and mother. Thank you.

Lisa said...

Gosh, I have so much to say - where to start? None of it would be helpful, I am sure. Thanks for posting this. I saw a man on TV 2 days ago talking about his sister that had died 15 years ago and how sad he was. He said there would always be a sadness to him. I thought about you and your brother that day and how that is something that you live with too. I don't blame you for not liking Halloween. I found out my Dad had died after spending all day long doing laundry and cleaning out my laundry room. Whenever I have one of those big laundry days that I am catching up on that room, I always think about my Dad and how I had been doing that. I am just so sorry and hope that you can get past tomorrow (and every day) without too much pain. I'll be thinking of you.

That picture at the top is just perfect.

peggy said...

Every year at this time, my heart grows heavy with sadness for both you and your Dad. In reading your blog I can feel the pain that you have and will always have. I know we have discussed this many times, but the pain will never lessen. In reading your blog my tears are rolling for you.

I know that Ken would have been a fabulous Uncle to your boys and a great friend to Eric and myself. What a treasure we are all missing. I know that you feel that the most.

This year will be difficult. I hope that you know that you have so much love surrounding you from both your Dad and myself always.

I have you in my prayers!
Love you!!

Laura said...

Okay, I'm not sure how many times I've read Ken's memorial blog and had tears running down my face, but now they're running again.

You know that I can relate to some of your pain as I lost my brother in October 21 years ago. After all, you were the inspiration for my creating my own brother's memorial blog. Thank you for that, and thanks also for allowing us to enjoy your relationship with Ken through your stories.

I just love the relationship you two had. You remember so many fun and touching things about growing up with him, a very talented and outgoing big brother. The story about him escorting you to class is fantastic. I'm sure those are the types of big brotherly memories that will tug at your heart strings forever more.

I LOVE that picture of you together (top of post). I wish I had something like that with my brother.

This time of year is when we--here in TX--remember all of those special people we've lost (Dia de los Muertos), but I'm sorry Ken's passing happened on a day that you now need to push through and be fun and festive for your boys. You are such a loving sister AND mom, so I'm sure you have enough room in your heart for both sorrow and celebration.

I, too, wish it had been your toaster.

Kristin said...

I'm not sure what to say, either. I've only known one person who's commited suicide, and we weren't close. He was a nerdy kid who worked with my brother. He asked me out at one point, and we went out...once. After that I was polite to him, but nothing more. That was 14 years ago and I still wonder if there was ANYTHING I could have done to help him. I know my experience does not even remotely compare to what you've gone through, but I hope I can offer words of encouragement with this...I absolutely believe you will see your brother again. I hope you have faith in that as well! :)

Nellie said...

Peg was passed on your blog address to me. I think you are so brave to be so honest about your feelings. I know this must be such a tough time for you. I hope doing your blog is helping you. Your site remembering Ken is such a nice tribute to him. I knew he must have been a great person as you and your dad are terrific. It was really nice to learn about him and read some of the comments from his friends and your friends, too. He truly is missed. I will keep you in my thoughts.
On a lighted note I enjoyed the pictures of your kids.

Anderson Family said...

I had no idea when you came by on Halloween. I grieve for your loss and the moments your family has lost. Thank you for sharing such a difficult and personal experience in your life.

Anonymous said...

That was a very beautiful post Kristin. I don't know what I can say, but that took a lot to type out, especially such a long entry. I pray that each Halloween will get easier instead of harder. Thanks for sharing that with us.