The Chance I Never Had

You know those days in life that are completely normal and mundane, so you don’t really pay attention? But then you get hit with a life-altering moment, one that hits you with the force of an F5, and suddenly you can remember every scent you smelled earlier in the day, the texture of everything you touched and the sound of everyone’s voice?

I remember everything about the day my brother died.

It was the first day of summer vacation, the official ending of my sixth grade school year. It started out as any other day – I woke up to the sound of my brother’s footsteps running down the stairs to come jump on my bed (and face) to wake me up waaaay too early for it being my first day of summer. After a morning of breakfast, Hot Wheel cars and Spongebob reruns, my brother had an appointment to his very first haircut. Only when we got to the barbershop, they were closed because it was a Saturday and we hadn’t thought to call ahead. As my mom, stepdad, brother and I stood in the parking lot debating on where to go for lunch now that our plans were foiled, my brother picked me a yellow daffodil. I put it in the pocket of my khaki shorts.

We went to a pool party that night. My brother was the youngest kid there and his excitement to spend the day swimming was hard to contain. For me, the appeal of pool parties had lost their luster a few years before. Still, I spent the late afternoon and early evening swimming with my brother and watching the summer fun underneath a tree. He was having the time of his life splashing, kicking and playing at that made me happy. 

The night started to get late, and the adults drank more and more.

After all the food had been grilled and it was time to eat, my mom took off my brother’s floaties so he and I could begin eating at the picnic table. My brother sat with me. My mom told me to watch him while she went and grabbed ketchup for his crinkle fries. I agreed casually – I had been told to watch my brother before and it was no big deal. Simple.

But that night I wasn’t the protector I was supposed to be. I didn’t notice him leave the table. I didn’t see him go into the pool.

I only noticed his disappearance when I heard someone say “What’s that in the pool?”

Screams. Phone calls. Crying. Lights. Ambulances.

My brother was pronounced dead at the hospital what I assume was an hour or so later, though time had lost all its meaning to me.

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My brother’s name was Jessie. He called me Tessie because he couldn’t quite say “Chelsea”. He was full of a curious personality that radiated from him. He loved the color orange. His favorite movie was “The Land Before Time”. If you told him to smile like the Grinch, he would squidge up his nose, squint his little eyes and smile the biggest smile that showed all of his baby teeth. He liked to tell jokes about Scooby-Doo and liked to wear his Batman shirt to bed. He also smelled like syrup, because his favorite cereal was Waffle Crisp. He’d eat it dry, so the smell would linger on his sticky fingers and in his hair.

Jessie’s death was my F5 experience; the defining moment of my childhood. I learned at a very young age what it means to feel guilt, depression, hate, heartbreaking love and denial; all things most people (hopefully) don’t learn until they’re well into their lives.

But here I was, a 12-year-old kid, learning what it means to question God, to hate God, to hate themselves and to feel a guilt that poisons your bones for years.

And I’ve still never quite rid myself of that guilt. It’s a guilt that drove me into deep, dark places a few times in my life.

But I found the light again. I’ve found it each time I hit a dark valley, despite the guilt I feel. I’ve accepted and come to terms that the guilt will never go away – I’ve just learned how to cope. I remember that each day I live is a day he never got to see, so I stay busy and thirsty for life for the both of us. I want to make him proud of his sister, of the person I’ve become.

So here I am, a 24-year-old who is a writer one day, a dreamer every day, a poetry enthusiast and an artist on the side of her 8-5 profession who wants to do and see more in the world than time and reality will probably ever allow. But I’m going to try. For me and for him.

I tell stories of my brother not because I want sympathy or pity or someone to hold my hand and tell me they’re sorry or that it’s going to be okay. I know it is. I want someone to laugh with me when I tell the stories. I want people to ask about him and wonder what he was like. Ask me what his favorite food was. Ask me what books he loved to read. I want people to see him when they see the color of orange, like I do. I want to see that he is still making people smile even though he’s been dead for over 10 years now.

I’ve come out of my F5 experience a little broken, but so much wiser and stronger. I know what it’s like to feel depressed, angry, hurt and like you don’t deserve any good that comes your way. But I also know what it means to be strong and to love myself even when the guilt in my bones starts to spread.

So this is my message to you. No matter what you’re experiencing, fighting or hurting through right now – it won’t be like this forever. Your F5 moment will pass. You are strong, and light will come.

Please remember that no matter what demons you’re battling, you can only overcome them if you remember that you are so worth loving.

Written and loved on by Chelsea Tench