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Half-Life

What would you do if there were a nuclear holocaust and we had only eight minutes left to live? It was the opening question for a dinner game my family played during the winter of my fifth-grade year. Reagan was president. News of the Cold War was ubiquitous. My family feared the Star Wars program, certain someone always had his finger on The Button, ready to blow us to smithereens.

We played nuclear holocaust so often we all had our favorite lines. During the first game after my parents’ divorce, eight-year-old Eddie said he would eat all the candy in the world. His twin, Joe, swung at him for stealing his answer. Mom sprinkled salt on her plate. The grains snowed on her uneaten hamburger as she promised to hold us tight and never let go. Had my father still lived with us, his response would’ve been about fishing or letting out an enormous fart. But after years of window-rattling fights, Mom had kicked him out. That night my response had to stand in for both of us.

“I’d fly backward around the world right before the bombs exploded,” I said, referring to the climax of the 1978 Superman movie—the one where Superman saves Louis Lane by turning back time. Everyone agreed time travel was an excellent choice. Life could go on. Our gumballs would never run out.

For a group of northern Appalachian kids living in a run-down rental, playing nuclear holocaust was as good as having a bunker. Once, Eddie said he’d shave a checkerboard into his eyebrow so he could beat himself at a game of chess. Joe wanted to jump into a pool of marshmallow fluff. I always offered an older sister’s practical advice: keep a pay-phone quarter handy; don’t stray too far from the house.

In science class, I’d learned the half-life of uranium was 4.5 billion years, but my brothers and I decided twenty years underground was long enough. Emerging first, we’d eat all the candy left in the postapocalyptic wasteland. In our nuclear holocaust fantasies, there were unlimited supplies of marshmallow fluff.

As my brothers’ protector, these drills seemed vital. Plus, the game was more interesting than the kneel-against-the-wall-and-tuck-your-head-between-your-legs position we practiced at school, or the hours spent hiding behind the couch during my parents’ predivorce battles. Preparation felt like control and control like salvation.

• •

On the day our family disaster struck, the phone was ringing when I arrived home from work. It was during what should’ve been my college years, though my days involved time at a customer-service center and evenings and weekends partying with musicians six hundred miles from my hometown. I’d promised my mother I would call Joe that evening long distance and comfort his broken heart after a recent breakup. At twenty-two, I thought I had all the answers. All I needed was the right drill to set him straight. As I picked up the receiver, I wondered if he’d beaten me to the punch.

But my grandfather was on the line. “Are you sitting down?” he said, his voice shaky.

“What’s wrong?” I said, refusing to sit down.

He must’ve handed the phone to Eddie because his voice was suddenly on the line. “Joe’s dead, he killed himself” were the last words I heard before dropping the phone.

Inside, I detonated. My spirit plumed like a mushroom cloud.

An hour later I flew home, alone, snot-bubble crying through two flights while passengers and crew looked away, probably trying to give me space. The next day snow fell across the afternoon like salt on a plate. Questions about how to move on—or whether I wanted to—knocked around my head as we planned Joe’s funeral and burial in the cemetery where as children, Eddie, Joe, and I had played hide-and-seek behind the gravestones. All I wanted to do was preserve him and our time together. His floury fingerprint on a cookbook, the external-frame backpack he’d worn on hikes, the padded flannel shirt that still held his smell became heirlooms as valuable as that postapocalyptic candy stash. In the months that followed, I clutched his yin-yang necklace and stared out the window at the intact world. Cars zoomed by. Everyone seemed to be heading somewhere, but I wanted everything to stand still.

Once in a grief dream, I transformed into Superman’s little cousin. Replaying that movie’s climax, Lex Luther test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile into the San Andreas Fault. Lois Lane lay buried in the earthquake caused by the bomb blast. This time my brother was in the passenger’s seat. Superman and I nodded, immediately certain what to do. Arms outstretched, we flew against the earth’s rotation, faster and faster, until the planet followed our lead, and the quake reversed itself. Lois climbed out of the car. Joe put down the gun.

Then I woke up.

I’d tried to protect my brothers from the outside world—bullies, the Cold War, my parents’ divorce. But their inner terrain was unknown territory. While everyone said Joe’s death wasn’t my fault, I believed it was.

In her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes, “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion to death.” Anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide knows this to be true. For years, I wrestled with a prismatic, unanswerable WHY: Why didn’t I see that Joe’s anger was really depression? Why didn’t I tell him I loved him the last time we spoke? Why didn’t I call him the day before he took his life and make him come to my house?

In the years that followed I studied everything I could about suicide, believing that if I could just unlock the mystery of his death I could resurrect him, or at the very least, rebuild that bombed-out part of my soul. I gave speeches on psychache, the unbearable psychological pain that results in this unthinkable choice. I used Joe’s story to teach people about suicide’s signs and risk factors—recklessness, mood swings, drug use. Eventually, I came to understand that Joe’s focus narrowed in those last few days until it was the kaleidoscopic wave in a cat’s-eye marble, colors wound so tightly that life felt like an illusion. All he needed to do was wave good-bye.

And we had been waving good-bye for years.

In our earliest good-bye, I burst through our home’s screen door, running away after a fight with our mother that matched our parents’ predivorce battles. Joe sprinted to catch up, though Eddie stayed behind. We huddled in a friend’s basement for hours, planning our next move. At sixteen my actions were legal. I could live at my boyfriend’s house or rent an apartment. But at fourteen, Joe would have to go into hiding, constantly lurking in the shadows.

“Please stay,” I said as he stood three hours later, ready to go home. I held out my hand and tried to squeeze him and never let go. But Joe grabbed my wrist and shook it gently, as if we were meeting for the first time, then he returned to his twin while I fled. After my move was permanent, we met every few days. Sometimes we walked to Dunkin’ Donuts and talked about Nirvana, the band that defined our generation. Other days he leaned against my new home and smoked one Marlboro after another, rubbing the fatigue of depression from his eyes. Each visit ended with a good-bye hug in preparation for the one we’d have to say when I moved out of state after graduation. I always asked about his pay-phone quarter. Most days, he didn’t have one.

In a high school physics class I learned about the gravity of half-life decay, how the breakdown doesn’t happen all at once, how it slices away in fractional parts. Grief and forgiveness follow the same pattern, though like life and death, they travel in opposite directions.

Time and years of writing this story have eased this loss, though grief’s dull ache still lingers. The yoke of guilt I once hauled through life has been replaced by the knowledge that we all did our best. Ninety percent of suicides are caused by treatable mental illnesses, like Joe’s, not broken relationships or missed phone calls.

On sunny days, I remember how much Joe loved summertime and blue, almost cloudless skies. Neighborhood dogs I encounter on my morning walk remind me of the dog he once loved. In a recent dream, he and I sat side-by-side on a beach, laughing at a joke I can’t remember. We held hands, something that didn’t happen in our real lives.

That’s the great thing about dreams. I can reinvent him.

• •

February 8, 2017, marked the twenty-year anniversary of Joe’s death. He was twenty years, eight months, and two days old when he left this earth. On February 9, his death surpassed him. He is made of memories and photographs—school pictures, family portraits, snapshots from birthdays past. In the beach dream, Joe’s hair was still short, the haircut I remember from before I moved away, the one in all those pictures. He was not the long-haired, almost man whose ponytail hung past his shoulders during our last encounter.

That was at two in the morning, officially the day after Thanksgiving. Joe was as old as he would ever be—twenty, the same number of years we would have waited in our bunker. Drunk on Bartles & Jaymes and Milwaukee’s Best, Eddie, Joe, and I swooned over the intensity of our reunion.

“Do you realize how special this is?” Eddie said. He guzzled another beer then dealt a new hand of blackjack. “We’re all here together. Right now. This may never happen again.”

In retrospect, those words sound prophetic, but we had no idea what was about to happen.

“Do you remember that game we used to play as kids, nuclear holocaust?” I said, tapping the table, ready for a hit. Our lines were automatic:

“Head to the candy store.”

“Jump in the marshmallow fluff.”

“Keep track of your pay-phone quarter.”

My brothers giggled as if we could resume our old lives along with the game, as if I hadn’t moved six hundred miles away, and we hadn’t scattered in three different directions. After another game, I hugged Joe tight, ready to head home. His pigeon-boned chest pressed into my cheek as I inhaled Marlboros and Egyptian Musk for what would be the last time.

I can no longer conjure Joe’s adult voice or remember exactly what his hands looked like. But the feel and smell of that final hug will last forever.

So many milestones have happened without him—weddings, birthdays, graduations. Each one brings a prick of pain, followed by that old wish to reverse time. But even that wish has decayed, replaced with the voice in my head that invites Joe’s memory along for the ride. He is always the boy with endless pay-phone quarters ready to jump in a vat of marshmallow fluff.

I am forty-three now, possibly halfway through my own life. Crow’s feet feather my eyes. Worry lines run like rivers across my forehead. My hair has thinned and grayed. The effects of the past twenty years have been subtle, a half-life arriving in fractional parts.

On the twenty-year anniversary of Joe’s passing, I rode the Amtrak to Washington, DC, for a writing conference and toured the epicenter of our old nuclear holocaust fears. On the way home, I sat next to a small-framed woman in her late seventies who leaned against the train’s window.

“My brother died yesterday,” she said, when I introduced myself. She was headed to South Carolina for the funeral—traveling alone just as I had done all those years ago. During the five-hour leg of our shared journey, we swapped brother tales. Our laughter pushed against the heaviness of grief—mine light as a hand resting on a shoulder, hers so new she feared it would crush her. Occasionally, I clutched the change in my pocket, feeling for the pay-phone quarter I no longer needed, but still wanted, at least for this trip.

Lisa Ellison
Lisa Ellison is an instructor and program manager at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared in Huffington Post, Rumpus, Guardian, Streetlight, Gravel, and Rusty Nail. She is currently working on a memoir titled In the Land of Flood and Slaughter.