Four years ago today my brother died of a heroin overdose. Maybe not died - that could have happened days earlier. We're not clear on that. My brother lived in Colorado, my parents in Pennsylvania. I had moved down to Tennessee to be with T, so none of us could drop by Gunnar's place to check on him, even if we had been concerned. I found out only later that my brother hadn't answered his friends' calls for a couple days before he was found, the needle still in his belly. He didn't answer my call that day, four years ago, a few hours before his body was discovered. I didn't think anything of it. I was sure he was off somewhere in the summer sun with his dog, happy and laughing. Gunnar experienced joy just as fully and deeply as he did pain. Like me.
Before I allowed his friends in to clean out his apartment I spoke with the detective investigating his death, a kind man, who never once made us feel that Gunnar was just another dead junkie to him. I told him I had a very difficult question, but I needed him to be honest with me. I wasn't crying. I don't think my voice even broke as I asked him what the condition of my brother's body was when he was found. Would it be awful if his friends came to clean his apartment? I couldn't send these people, most of whom I knew, some of whom I loved, into that situation. No, the detective answered back. The fan in his bedroom had been on. It had been cool in there. They would be fine.
Waiting for the detective to answer that question was not the worst moment of all the awful moments surrounding my brother's death. At that point I was riding a wave of dull, dumb numbness that even the term decomposition - never spoken aloud, but squatting like a poisonous toad in the back of my brain - couldn't quite pierce. No, the worst was the moment my father told me, over the phone, him in Pennsylvania, me in Tennessee, that my brother was dead. He said he didn't know how it had happened yet, the police officer who came to the door had just told him Gunnar had been found in his bed.
I remember it took a bit for me to get that my dad was telling me my brother was gone. Irreversibly gone. Forever gone. T was standing before me, holding my arms, looking into my eyes. I whispered to him that Gunnar was dead and he helped slow my collapse to the floor. I hadn't quite understood the meaning of the word keening until that I heard the sounds that came from me then, an unholy mix of sobbing and screaming and the word "no" repeated over and over again. I cried until my voice was gone. I cried until my face was swollen. I don't know that I've ever really stopped crying. The tears are always there now, ready to spill over whether I'm happy or sad.
I moved back into my parents' house after Gunnar's death, T joining me later. The grief I endured over the next months didn't lessen so much as mutate. I felt infested with it, like it had metastasized from my heart, creeping into my blood. My bones. The pain that had once been sharp, so sharp it made me double over, curl into myself with the force of it, turned into a relentless ache. I tried to alleviate it with therapy, with writing about my brother's death and the sorrow I was experiencing. I don't know that it helped.
I didn't try to lose myself in drugs or booze or sex. When Gunnar died I was more emotionally stable than I'd ever been. But I still look back on that time with wonderment, amazed that his loss didn't destroy me. I knew that my brother's fate could have - should have, maybe - been my own. My end could have come at so many times, in so many ways. Suicide. Sex with a stranger who turned out to be a monster. An accident borne of self-destructive recklessness. Overdose. For decades I invited it all. But I dodged what Gunnar couldn't and I don't know why. Four years out from his death and I still sometimes wonder in my worst moments why I made it and Gunnar didn't.
If I had died, would Gunnar have lived? Would he have gotten the help he looked for but never found, shocked sober and sane by my loss?
Maybe part of the bottomless grief I feel is borne of survivor's guilt. Or maybe it's because I didn't try to save my brother, not really. I never visited him in the year between the admission of his heroin and crack use - just to me, not to our parents or his friends - and his death. I called him, checked to make sure he was still clean over a phone line from a thousand miles away, but I didn't get on a plane to go see him. My relationship with T was already a nightmare. I was already dying a little, losing who I was in order to be what he wanted. I believed that if I left T to go to Colorado he would make me pay for it, withdrawing his affection, what passed for his love. I was exhausted and confused and I chose T over my brother. I don't know how I live with this.
I never got to tell Gunnar how brilliant and beautiful I thought he was. He knew I loved him, at least I hope he did, but I don't know if he ever knew how dazzled I was by him, by his charisma and humor, his intellect and generosity. That haunts me. Gunnar and I loved each other and battled each other in equal measure, two people too alike not to clash. But he was the one person I believed would be with me my entire life. My parents are in their 80s, in failing health. After they're gone I'll have no one. So I suppose my grief is not only for Gunnar, but for myself. For the years we should have ahead together, but don't. For the loneliness I'll soon face, and the longing for a family that no longer exists.
People keep telling me, well-meaning people, people I love, that my grief will lessen. I don't believe them. My grief resides in a small, secret place tucked inside of me, where no one can go. I won't allow it to be made weak, or diminished. My grief will endure, burning cold and bright because I owe it to my brother to bear it.
We went easy on our trek through the High Atlas. Slowly and carefully. I was climbing with someone who'd never done anything of the sort and it was enormously difficult for them, not the least because they were terrified of heights. I didn’t know that until we were well on the mule path, when we discovered how steep the drop from it was. Maybe we should have asked Ahmed, our guide, to take us back, but I was already gone, blissful and selfish. Stoned on the discovery that I still belong in the mountains. Or maybe it’s more that I belong to them.
The joy that I felt as the land fell away beside the path, opening up the view to the Berber villages thousands of feet below, was undistilled and overwhelming. It was almost impossible to rein myself in - I wanted to feel my heart thrum and my breath hasten and the muscles in my legs grow hard and unyielding as they struggled to carry me onward. I tried to slacken my pace, but I often found myself so far ahead of the others I had to stop and wait for them. I’d stiffen if I sat, so I remained standing, looking at Morocco spilling out beneath me.
It was my first time in the mountains since I failed to summit Aconcagua. I don’t know that I can count the slog up Little Malene in Greenland a couple weeks back, as difficult as it was. I never felt immersed in that landscape the way I did in the High Atlas range. We didn’t venture deep into the outback in frozen Greenland, though the climb was harder, with a sharper elevation gain. The ascent in Morocco was initially gradual. The toughest part for anyone with acrophobia, like the other trekker I was with, was the slender path, and the fear of the long fall if you stepped off of it.
Maybe I burned through any fear of falling at the beginning of the trek. I think the greatest concern anyone has for me - at least I’ve been told this, often with as much consternation as love - is that I’m reckless. That I take too many chances, don’t consider the consequences. I suppose it’s true; I’ve been trying to live a more careful life. I don’t know that I’m any good at it. Because after Ahmed gleefully scrambled a few feet up what was more a wall and less a hill, returning to earth dusting his hands with a grin, I challenged him to take me up it.
He told me it was dangerous, that the path up wasn’t even a mule trail. It was only for mountain goats and mountain guides, specifically those who had grown up in the High Atlas, like him. But I pushed and Ahmed eventually gave in and up we went. I was fine ascending, even as we climbed hand over feet, 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet and even higher. I think I was at one point four or five stories up, totally unsecured, with no one belaying me.
The precariousness of my situation didn’t hit me until we needed to start moving across the face of the incline. We left the path, which wound higher, and it made me feel every step was insecure. If I’d fallen I would have bounced until I hit the road that was far enough beneath me I’d have been killed, or at least badly broken. It crossed my mind that I could become a very sad and even more stupid cautionary story about a woman who pushed it too far once too often.
After I lost my nerve I spent some time sort of shuffling on my ass across the dirt, stone and scrub, until I felt more stable and could stand, a bit wobbly and ever so carefully, again. In another 10 minutes we'd picked our way off the hill, onto the road. We continued on, methodically trekking toward the Tizi Mzzik Pass, 3,000 feet higher and six miles away. I didn’t feel any elevation sickness along the way, although we eventually reached more than 8,000 feet in elevation. I’m not sure if I should be heartened by that, when it was acute mountain sickness that got me booted off Aconcagua. But I am.
I haven’t trained, not once, since coming down from Aconcagua in February, but I felt so strong during the trek. The last section was very steep, a merciless switchback that I climbed slowly, but without getting winded. My steps were sure and I worked my walking sticks well, in proper rhythm with my stride, even as we raced against the encroaching darkness to make it off the mountainside before full night fell. It felt right, my being up there, right the way it is when you fall in love, or the perfect song comes on as you’re driving fast down a back road in summertime, the sun bright and the wind soft. It felt, I suppose, like coming home.
Jill Gleeson is a journalist based in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She is a current contributor to The Pioneer Woman, Country Living, Group Travel Leader, Select Traveler, Going on Faith, Wander With Wonder, Enchanted Living and State College Magazine, where her column, Rebooted, is featured monthly. Other clients have included