This past Thursday, my family and I celebrated my brother's 22nd birthday at a nearby sushi restaurant like we've done for the past few years. We shared anecdotes about my brother growing up; his favorite (inconceivable) bedtime snack of hot dogs, cheese and onions, perhaps with an added egg. That blue baseball hat that he refused to take off for an entire year, even when showering.
Only my brother won't be celebrating with us this year. He hasn't celebrated with us for the past 4 years. He's been in jail.
My brother is incarcerated, charged with manslaughter. And it's my fault.
I was always hard on my brother. He is 2 years younger than me and, being the eldest child, I've always felt the need to assert my dominance over my siblings. My parents will tell you that my brother is the sweetest of their children. Rightfully so. I'm hot headed and temperamental. My short fuse would often find its victim in my brother. I once locked him in the garage and giggled as he pounded on the door for me to let him out. I would tease and torment him. It wasn't until we were both in our late teens that my brother and I began to have some semblance of a friendship. I was surprised to realize how funny I found my brother.
In his late high school years, he did all the normal "bad teen" things. He drank, broke curfew, snuck out and started smoking pot. Aren’t these all staples of a childhood? One night he confessed to going to bad parts of the city to buy dope and as I would shake my head he would tell me not to worry because "so and so" carried a knife and no one was sure to bother them.
"And, hey," he would say, "I’ll get a knife, too." You have to understand that his behavior didn’t worry me. I thought he was all talk. He was my little brother -- he was a nerd.
On Saturday, my brother asked me if I could buy him and his friends alcohol. They were going to a party. He was 18, still underage but only a year away from enjoying all the pleasures of adulthood. A year seemed like nothing. I mean, at 18 you can drink in Quebec. With that logic, I agreed.
Besides, he’d let me keep any extra cash and I was headed out that night with friends, too. I don’t remember exactly what I bought him, but I do remember picking up a 26’er of Southern Comfort and I remember thinking that boys were gross.
I would like to say that I thought long and hard about the decision. I would like to say that it was morally agonizing. That at the cash register, I paused before handing over the money because deep down, I knew this was a defining moment. The truth is, it wasn’t, I didn't. I don’t know that I cared that much. Would you?
I handed over the booze that evening and didn’t see him until Sunday afternoon. He was oddly quiet all day. He usually had this habit of rambling on and on about the top 10 Nick Cage movies or examples of Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish in films but he was just quiet. I thought he has hungover.
On Monday, early afternoon, it was my day off from my part time job at Old Navy and I was home alone. My room was a mess. Remnants of the weekend ladies night were left on my floor. Empty pizza boxes, empty wine bottle, board games and clothes strewn across the floor. Had I known that the police would show up moments later to inform my parents that my brother had been arrested, charged with murder, I would have cleaned up a little.
What I knew: At a party on Saturday, there was booze and a fight and that knife he had thought about buying had been pulled. That goddamn bottle of SoCo had been downed by my brother. I was scared of getting in trouble for buying alcohol for a minor, but I came clean to my mother. I had to be interviewed by lawyers and a private investigator.
When I had locked my brother in the garage as a child, he had pounded on the door for me to let him out. The fact that I had incited this hysteria had made me giggle with delight. I was satisfied with what I had done. When I saw how upset he was, as he went crying to my mother, a trickle of shame came over me.
Fielding questions from the private detective, the same feeling crept over me. Isn’t the older sibling the one that protects? What had I done to my brother? What if I hadn't agreed? Could this all have been avoided? Would someone still be alive?
After speaking with the PI, in the car with my mother, she told me not to feel guilty. She said that if I hadn’t bought my brother alcohol, he would have found it elsewhere. She was right. At his age, it wasn’t hard for me to water down some of my parents vodka.
For a long time, I refused to feel any guilt. I felt like if I allowed myself to admit that I had contributed to my brother’s actions, then I would get sucked into a hole of self-despair. I would never leave this bottomless pit of self-hate. So, I didn’t think about it.
That didn’t go so well. I started having panic attacks, I cried a lot at night. I felt overwhelmed all the time. I just wanted to not try anymore. I was tired.
I’ve decided to feel my guilt and make it a part of myself. You can swallow guilt, allowing it to run your life, but running from guilt is also letting it run you.
When an incident so unexplainable happens, you want to blame any and everyone but where does this end? You could blame me for not seeing the signs of someone in trouble or my parents for not being stricter but it doesn't change anything. Maybe this would not have happened if I didn't buy alcohol, maybe it would have. But it's useless to go over "what ifs."
What happened was a tragedy, but assigning blame doesn’t make any less so. I’m not forgetting, but I’m also forgiving.