• Neva Bryan

A life without context

Updated: Jul 12


Big Bird, Jamie, and Me: Clothes were colorful in the seventies. Check out my bell bottom purple jeans.

The universe has a warped sense of humor. I know this from personal experience.

My mom had been dead for five years before I could even contemplate writing about her and her death and my grief. In October 2019, I decided it was time. I had a handle on my grief. I could look at it from a distance and talk about it without falling apart.

I began to make plans. I would start writing in December, during my two-week break from work. I was determined to do it.

Then, I got a call in the early morning hours of December third. My sister-in-law cried for me to come next door. Something was wrong with my brother, Jamie. My husband and I pulled on our shoes and robes and ran out of the house. As soon as I saw him, I knew. He had passed in his sleep.

He didn’t even make it to fifty.

So much for my distance from grief. Instead of spending December writing about how I had grieved my mother’s death and how I had handled it, I was immersed right back into death’s black depths.

When you’ve spent your entire life with someone, it doesn’t seem real when they disappear.

Jamie’s death has been painful on so many levels. My aunts and uncles passed away before him, within the span of a few years. Granny and Granddad died years ago. My mom is gone. My remaining blood relatives are far away. If I didn’t have my husband and sister-in-law, I would be utterly alone.

Losing Jamie carries a pain that I imagine is like the phantom pain of an amputated limb. I catch myself thinking that I need to tell him about something that happened during the day or listening for him to walk through the door. How do I forget that he’s dead? It’s as if my brain hasn’t caught up with reality.

When you’ve spent your entire life with someone, it doesn’t seem real when they disappear.

Technically, Jamie isn’t my real brother. He’s my cousin. However, we considered ourselves siblings. We grew up together. We shared an apartment in Charlottesville when I graduated from college. I was the best man at his wedding. He walked me down the aisle at my first wedding.

I have a biscuit story related to Jamie. When we shared our little apartment, I was still learning how to cook. One day I decided to make biscuits. Jamie was excited because we hadn’t been home in months, and he missed my mom’s cooking.

When I pulled the biscuits out of the oven, the look on his face was priceless. He snickered as he picked up a biscuit and examined it. The dough hadn’t risen. At all. My biscuits looked like sugar cookies. “Hockey pucks,” he said.

That’s the thing. He could insult me, and it didn’t hurt. We just laughed about it.

Over the years, Jamie and I did that a lot, talking and laughing about our childhood memories. I love the few cousins I have left, but we don’t have a lot of shared experiences. We can’t claim a collective memory.

One of the most challenging consequences of Jamie’s death is this: I’ve lost my last reference point for most of my childhood memories and family narrative. I can no longer ask “Remember that time when…” and get an answer.

The story of my life has lost its narrative because there’s no one left to give it context.

Have you lost the family memory keeper? Are you the family memory keeper? Share your story below.

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