I lost my brother, Andy, to suicide. Those words still feel wrong coming out of my mouth. But that’s what happened. My brother is dead.
So many times when someone takes their own life, the survivors don’t talk about it. But my brother didn’t want hushed tones around his suffering, and he wouldn’t want them around his death. He would want me to tell you the truth. He would want people to know.
My brother, Andy, was a loud, hilarious, fun to be around guy, but he also struggled silently every day. These were parts of him that could not be separated. He was in immeasurable mental and emotional pain that took over his thoughts like a monster from a nightmare. He tried so hard to escape it.
His son, Landon, was his everything. He called him Bubba and taught him soccer and wrestled with him. Landon adored him. He told Andy that he wanted a tattoo that said “Daddy’s Boy.” Andy was delighted by that. He was so proud of his Bubba. Their relationship was so beyond special. He was the light in the dark that kept Andy going for so long.
His stepson was Zachary, and no one could have ever convinced him that he wasn’t that kid’s dad. He spent hours with his boys coaching them in soccer, often after a full day of work, still in his serious banker clothes. He was the kind of dad who, when his boys were Mario and Luigi for Halloween, went as Bowser. And I mean the full length dragon-turtle suit, head to tail. Amanda, his wife, was Princess Peach.
He also had a daughter named Mackenzie who, due to circumstances that were completely unfair and incredibly painful for him, he didn’t get to see. He hoped that one day when she was an adult she would want to know him. I hold onto that hope for him now. I will tell her every bit of him.
Andy was a Marine for life and proud to be. When he got out of the military, he pulled himself out of terrible circumstances and became an investment banker, and he was incredibly proud of that too. He hated the licensing exams but he passed them the first time. He was so intelligent and he worked so hard.
He was protective. Don’t let him ever hear you say a cross word about someone he loved because he wasn’t afraid of a fight. He saw his share of trouble when he was younger, but he grew up to be a good man and exceptional father.
The hardest part about talking about my brother, though, is trying to adequately communicate what our relationship was like. When we were kids we fought endlessly. He was exactly a year, a month, and a week younger than me. I was mild and quiet and he was loud and mischievous. We couldn’t figure each other out.
Then I went away for my freshman year of college and hated every second of it. I came home every weekend. He was a senior in high school so we ended up partying together and I became friends with his friends. We each started to learn who the other really was. We bonded over late night comedians and I made us cakes that we ate straight out of the pan. We called that “cavemanning it.” We had sleeping bag campouts on top of the kitchen counters. We were weird. We were actually really alike. It’s funny that it took us that long to realize it.
Then he went away to bootcamp and it was hard. He wrote me long letters. He wrote poems. He always loved to write poetry. I wrote him long letters in return, every day. I worried about him and about what life in the military would be like for him.
We never lived in the same state again. First he was stationed in other places. Then he was medically discharged (for a previously undiscovered heart condition) but I had already left our hometown. Our grandmother—who was such a core part of both of us—had died and I couldn’t stay. He went back home with hearing loss and PTSD.
He struggled. My brother wanted nothing more than to have a family and to be loved. He found it so hard to love himself, but he loved others fiercely. He had Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, and anxiety on top of the PTSD—a terrible cocktail that made his brain an enemy. He couldn’t feel how much he meant to people.
He meant the whole world to me. We called each other all the time. I do not talk on the phone—my friends know not to call me because I hate it—but I would have answered his call at any time, day or night.
That became especially important after his first suicide attempt. It was in 2007, I think, a few days after Christmas. He texted me that he loved me and said goodbye, and I responded “I love you too; where are you going?” He didn’t respond. I called. He didn’t answer. I called and called and called. I called my mom. I knew he was at the farm where we grew up, where he was living in the basement, where my mom and grandpa still lived. I called and called until I finally got through. She found him downstairs. He had tried to hang himself. That was the first time he was hospitalized for his mental health.
It was one of what would become several hospitalizations. Sometimes it really seemed like it worked—he would do really well for a while. Then he’d hit the lowest lows and we’d spend hours on the phone talking through it. When it got bad enough he went into the hospital again. One of the last times he was in, he helped another person who was in a really bad way to calm down. A nurse told him that maybe he should consider a job in social work because he knew how to talk to people in crisis. He said “I just said to him what my sister says to me.”
We were unfortunately in that position together a lot. He told me that I was his anchor. When he was in trouble he knew he could call me, no matter what. I talked him down countless times. I would have done it every day if he needed.
A few months ago he was having a bad day and called me. We talked for a long time and by the end he was doing okay, joking like we always did. We hung up and I thought he was fine. Hours later I got a call from a cop. “What’s going on with Andrew tonight?” I was terrified—I had no idea what he was talking about. It turns out that Andy had spiraled again and called the Veterans’ crisis line saying he was having suicidal thoughts. The crisis line called the police. They sent several cars with lights and sirens on, pulled him out of his house, and put him in cuffs. He was humiliated. Then he felt like he couldn’t call the crisis line anymore.
His world started to fall apart. His wife filed for divorce. It was not unexpected—they had struggled for a long time. She asked him to move out of the house. When we talked he told me that he felt like he had no one but me, and I was so far away. I knew he was in immense pain. I knew he was holding on for his Bubba. I knew he was holding on for me.
He hated his apartment and wanted to buy a house as soon as possible. Some days we talked and he couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. On others he talked about how maybe Landon would go to college in Texas and he could move down and live near me. I never knew which Andy I would get—whether he could see a future that day or not—but I could tell as soon as he said hello.
Last week he saw a new therapist, but she heard him say he had BPD and said she wanted to try to refer him to someone else. He called me that night and said he felt hopeless. He wondered if electroshock therapy could help him. The next day I sent him everything I could find on the internet about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and therapists who specialized in it in his town. I wish I’d pressed that more, but in the the next series of texts we were back to joking around again, this time about magic mushrooms and Fox News. For the record, we were pro and against, respectively.
On Tuesday morning I woke up to see I had two missed calls from Andy and one from his wife. I knew this meant trouble. I saw he left me a voicemail but I didn’t stop to listen or read the transcription. I called and his phone was off. I called his wife’s and it just rang. I called him again. I called her again. She picked up and she was sobbing. I don’t even really remember what she said, but I know it was that my brother had shot himself and that he was gone. All I remember saying through tears was “This isn’t real. It isn’t real.”
I know I asked for the cops to call me and she texted me their number. I called and got a dispatch person and explained that I was told that my brother was dead but I needed someone to confirm that. I didn’t. I knew Amanda would not lie to me about that. But my brain needed some kind of confirmation—part of me still thought that this was all a mistake. The dispatch person asked for my number and said someone would call me. I called Andy’s phone again. And again.
I told Travis through sobs. I was so lost. This was all only a few days ago but it is all a terrible smear in my mind that I cannot make sense of.
Then I called my mom to tell her. I don’t really remember what she said either. We were both crying. Then I heard her tell my grandfather. For some reason I really wanted to talk to my grandpa in that moment, but when he got on the phone all I could say was “Grandpa I don’t know what to do.” He was as practical as he always is and said he would call some of our relatives who had connections to the police in Andy’s town.
When I hung up I got a call back from the police dispatch who asked for my address. They didn’t confirm anything but they said they were sending local police to my house. I knew what this meant.
I called my best friend, Soup, and when I told her I completely tore in half. She sobbed with me. She knows how special our relationship was. I don’t know how long we cried. Then I said that I was mad that I had to let a cop into my house and started talking about how much I hate cops’ attitudes and the way they stand. I especially hated their stupid creaky belts. That made us laugh. We laughed and laughed at how ridiculous cops were, walking around with so much shit on their ridiculous creaky belts. Andy would have loved that—laughter through despair was one of his favorite things.
As soon as we hung up, the doorbell rang. Travis let them in, and I put on a mask, and this cop with the shittiest job ever told me what I already knew. I thanked him. I hate that I thanked him for being some random guy whose awful job it was to come into my house with a creaky belt and tell me that my favorite person was dead. He was attractive and that made me mad, too.
I fumbled up a lot of things that day, both in brief text conversations with my brother’s wife and just in my own mind. I don’t know what I was even doing. I was just trying to exist around this horrible thing that had happened.
I finally read the transcript of the voicemail. I still haven’t listened because I don’t know if I can make it through hearing the agony in his voice.
The transcription starts “Listen to me” but I know this is wrong. He would have said “Sis, it’s me.” That’s what he always said. The rest is this:
“I just want to tell you I’m sorry. I kept trying to fight the pain. I’m just hurting so bad. I know you’ve always been there for me and I truly, truly, truly thank you. There’s too much. I really love you. Please take care of my Bubba.”
I am so mad at myself for being asleep and not answering the phone. I know I shouldn’t be, and I know that this whole terrible thing is not my fault. But I also know that if I had picked up that phone I would have been able to stop him. No one in this life or any will ever convince me otherwise. I stopped him so many times and I would have done it again.
But I also know he was in terrible pain. I would never call this awful thing an inevitability—that would be a discredit to how hard he tried to survive the monster in his head—but at some point I wouldn’t have been able to be there. I’m still so mad that this was the time that I wasn’t.
He was so worried that if it ever became too much and he had to let go that I would be mad at him. I’m not. Not in the slightest. I am so broken and so sad for his kids but I do not blame my brother at all. It kills me to think of how he must have been feeling to put that gun to his head. It kills me that this time it was so bad that he pulled the trigger. But on some level I feel relief that he doesn’t have to carry this incredible pain anymore.
I don’t want this essay to be about the importance of mental health systems or about funding suicide hotlines or about support for veterans with PTSD. Everyone knows all of that and I won’t reduce my brother’s life and death to a public service announcement. Last year when our estranged father died I wrote an essay about grieving what could have been. This isn’t that either. This is about grief for what was.
Andy was a pillar in my life—a support that most people didn’t see but that propped up some of my most core parts. As much as he knew he could depend on me, I knew I could depend on him. If I needed a favor that was too much to ask anyone else, I knew I could ask him. He drove through a blizzard for thirteen hours on New Years Eve to officiate my wedding. He had always wanted to be “that guy” and was willing to do anything to be there. That was the brother he was to me. When our father was brain-dead and we were both trying to navigate our complex feelings, he called me on speakerphone from the hospital room so I could say what I needed to say before the machines were turned off. That’s the brother he was to me.
When he was at his rock bottom and couldn’t hold on anymore, I was the one he called. He spoke his last words knowing that I was the one who would hear them. That’s who he was to me. That’s who I was to him.
Grief is so weird. Sometimes I’m okay and then absolutely nothing happens and I feel like I can’t breathe. I told Soup that it feels like I have a gut full of rot that will never go away—like I just have to figure out how to live around this awful rotten part of me now. I know this isn’t true. When my grandmother died I did not think I could live through it, but I did.
But now I have to replace that pillar that held me up with memories. Luckily the ones of my brother are the best. When I can’t call him I’ll think of the time he came to visit and T introduced him to virtual reality—he had the headset on and was swinging wildly, so committed to fighting virtual robots that he almost knocked me out. I’ll remember the time when we were kids that he kicked me in the shin so hard I still have a dent there. I’ll remember when we were in high school and he learned the entire N’SYNC “Bye Bye Bye” dance and performed it for the ladies at the Moose Lodge. They loved it.
He would do anything to have fun or to get a laugh. I hope that everyone who knew him remembers him for that. I hope his kids remember him for Bowser and for driving around wearing a Batman mask. I hope they remember the best parts of him.
I will remember everything—the good and the bad and the monster that took him from us. I will tell his story over and over. My brother Andy, who had a great laugh and loved so fiercely, who was genuinely fun to be around when he was feeling good, who held on as long as he could. When my phone rings, for a split second I’ll hope that it’s him. It won’t be, but I’ll hear his voice anyway, telling me a dad joke or roasting me mercilessly and then telling me he loved me. I’ll remember that for 37 years there was someone on this earth who was forever and unquestioningly on my side—just as I was on his.
That’s who he was to me.