A Thought: One Year Today

I took this photo the morning of 3/1/2016. It was a beautiful spring morning and I decided to take the 50-minute walk to my lab instead of taking the trolley. It was a perfect commute and I commemorated it with this picture. I put some appropriate hashtags with the image (#morningcommute #nofilterneeded #agooddaytovote) and went about my day. Now, I think of this picture as the picture-when-everything-was-still-good. It was a generic Tuesday after that  — I taught a stats lab, had office hours, enjoyed a talk at our division’s lunch lecture series, sat through a lab meeting, and probably did some reading. At some point, Jared and I went to vote in the Virginia primaries.

In the afternoon, I was supposed to work out with my friend, Peter. But, he’d had a rough day because he’d recently lost someone he cared about and so he suggested we have a drink at the local brewery instead. I’d had a few sips of beer and we’d just gotten an appetizer when Jared came rushing through the door and found us at the bar. He told me to come with him right now. I gave Peter a look, raising my eyebrows, jokingly indicating wonder-what-could-this-be. But then I saw Jared’s expression. I became confused. As he pulled me toward the door, I stopped him, all of the sudden in a panic. I asked him what happened. I think he just said again that I needed to come with him. I stopped walking and asked him again what happened. He uttered the words: “Your brother. He’s been shot. He’s gone.

Jared somehow got me outside of the brewery. He ran back to Peter to tell him we had to go. Somehow, he maneuvered me back to the apartment, just a few blocks walk away. I walked and collapsed, walked and collapsed towards home, crying over and over again “It can’t be! It can’t be!”

It’s odd how your mind plays tricks on you when you’re in shock. My thinking wasn’t making any sense. Somehow, I booked our flights, intermittently begging a god I don’t believe in for this to please not be true. Then, I thought about whether I could still go to the conference two weeks away. Little did I know I wouldn’t be able to do any kind of work for months. Then, I realized I had to pack, but I couldn’t understand what you’re supposed to pack for your brother’s funeral. I decided to stuff a suitcase full of already-worn clothes because I figured I’d worn them already, so I knew they’d at least match. Then, I threw some black items into the suitcase as well. I realized that my grandmother was sound asleep in Switzerland, and I knew I had to lock her out of her Facebook account or she’d see what had happened online. So, I did that next. I called cousins in various parts of the world and charged them with telling their branch of the family what had happened. I called a few of my closest friends — one after the other, each started to scream or plead when I told them what happened. Jared called my advisor and arranged for neighbors and friends to take care of our pets while we traveled.

Somehow, we got on a flight. Somehow, as I sat at Philly airport waiting for the connection, alternating between total shock and sobs, Jared picked up bagels in case we wanted to eat something later. But, we wouldn’t really eat for days. We arrived in Dallas, and I ran right by the officer who had been sent to get us. I don’t know where I thought I was rushing to, just that I needed to get there. She caught up with me and directed us into a private room while our luggage was found. Soon after, I arrived wherever my family was (I still have no clue where that was) and walked in thinking: “This can’t be right. They look normal.” Well, it was right. 

Next, decisions had to be made about the service. Speeches had to be written. An urn chosen. We had to help family from abroad arrive. We had a slideshow to make for the viewings. We had to attend those viewings. I remember getting, literally, hundreds of hugs at one of the viewings. Hundreds. Tight bear-hugs, one after the other, from all the officers. I was weeping, inconsolable, and it was almost as if the tears were squeezed out of me. We were driven from one thing to the next, always with the motorcade of blue lights flashing ahead and behind us. I remember the absolute outrage in the bus when someone cut off the motorcade. None of us could eat, but we drank a lot of Fireball, because that was Dave’s favorite. Finally, there was the big service at Pennington Field. As Our bus rounded the corner, leaving Marta and Dave’s house to head to the service, two little boys stood outside of a home, quietly waving American flags. The bus fell silent. That image is seared into my mind. I will never forget those boys. Just as I will never forget the agony of Dave’s Last Call, beautifully and gut-wrenchingly done by one of the dispatchers.

Next, we had to make plans for and decisions about the service at St. Patrick’s cathedral in NYC. More family traveled to NYC, then did we, with a water cannon salute bidding us goodbye from Dallas. We were taken, by motorcade, from Newark Airport to NYC, all the roads had been blocked and we were flying though an empty Lincoln tunnel before we maneuvered empty NYC streets, and we were finally greeted by dozens of NYPD officers, some in uniform others in civilian clothing, saluting us as we entered the hotel. 

 It goes on and on. I will never be able to put down all the details of what happened in those few days. I can’t even make sense of much of the timeline. 

I’m not quite sure what made want to write this all out and put it “out there” for the world. Maybe, in a way, I’m still trying to understand what happened. Maybe, I just want the world to understand that my brother was not just a uniform. He was an amazing, beautiful, hilarious, intelligent, loving soul, and every single day, hour to hour, minute to minute, his loss lingers over everything we do. Maybe, I’m trying to figure out how to move forward. I think many of us touched by this tragedy are making it through our days, somehow, but completely unsure of how exactly we’re doing it. Finally, at least part of the reason for writing this is because I want to acknowledge the literally hundreds of people who have been there for our family over the course of the last year, and the thousands more who have sent us their thoughts and prayers every day. I learned that tragedy brings out the best and worst in people. Some friendships didn’t withstand this storm, but at the same time, total strangers have become unbelievable sources of comfort and strength. 

The moving-forward-part, though, is much harder to comprehend. I’m not sure how to do that. There’s no recipe for this. A driving force for me has been to think about how I can make an impact in a way that would make Dave proud. So, I’m thinking a lot about that. But, no matter how unclear it all still is, I think there are some lessons we can take directly from Dave. As young as he was when he was taken from us, there was a kind of wisdom to how he lived his life. We just need to look at what he did, to know what we can do too. Like him, let’s love our families. Let’s invest in our friendships. Let’s not worry too much about spending that dollar or smoking that cigar or having that drink. More than anything, let’s care for one another, and ideally, make each other smile or laugh while doing it.

Dave, I miss you beyond words. You were my best friend.

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A Thought: The Coming Days

We’re inching our way closer to the looming March 1st end-of-watch anniversary, and everyone is struggling. How could it have been a year already? The weeks ahead of this date lead to constant thoughts that essentially sum up to the worst countdown ever: every day is marked by a “last” something that Dave did or said.

Not long from now, on my dad’s birthday, I’ll think of our plans to surprise him for his 60th birthday last year.

I’ll think of my mild irritation when Dave couldn’t find the international arrival’s hall at Newark Airport (to pick up our older brother and niece before the surprise) because he’d had a drink too many with friends in NYC before he came to meet us. I’ll think about how he was immediately forgiven because of the mischievous smile on his face as he found me and gave me a big bear hug hello.

I’ll  think about re-watching the video of when we all arrived in Princeton for the surprise and my dad’s stunned face when one after the next family he didn’t expect walked into the living room.

I’ll think about the last heart-to-heart conversation we had the day before he left, where he told me how tough his job could be.

I’ll think about how when he said that he would only have a day and half of work coming up when he got home, I suggested to him that he just ask for those days off and just stay in NYC to hang out. I’ll think about how I really wish I pushed him harder to change his plans.

I’ll think about the last hug I gave him around 5am February 29th to wish him a safe trip home.

A Thought: Christmas

Three years ago today I was visiting our grandma in Switzerland and Dave was at work in NYC. That evening we facetimed to wish each other a Merry Christmas and I randomly took this screenshot. Little did I know that this silly picture would become one of the most meaningful.

I miss you baby-brother…beyond anything you can imagine.

This world will never be the same for any of the us.

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A Memory: Maine Winters

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Dave’s love for Maine extended into every season – I don’t think I ever even heard him complain of “mud season” (most of the wet spring and fall that ends up making that whole area a muddy mess). While summers were filled with fishing, boating and kayaking, winters were reserved for snowmobiling.

Our trips always started with a debate about who would ride which snowmobile. My dad ALWAYS picked the Yamaha, which was the fastest, but didn’t have a reverse. When we were younger, Dave and I usually had to share an Arctic Cat two-seater. So, if I was feeling gracious, I’d let him steer first, clinging to the back. Sometimes, I started us up. As the passenger you were pretty much at the mercy of the driver and it could get pretty turbulent back there. Dave would torture me by going too fast and hitting the snowbanks for a little air, till I maniacally slapped him on the back when I was about to fall off. I would torture Dave by taking the curves on the trails too tight, occasionally landing us in a ditch. Somehow, that was my specialty. Once we got older, a third machine was added. From then on Dave landed in a ditch with me much less often and usually just had to help me dig mine out when I got a little too wild.

Our house is right on Mooselookmeguntic lake. Sometime in November or December it begins to freeze over and a few weeks later it’s safe for passage. Earlier in the season, we would take the snow-machines straight to the trails by trailer, but once the lake was safe, we would jump on the snowmobiles in front of the house, take a little trip through the yard, carefully navigate the rocky lakefront and then we’d be free to race over the perfectly flat frozen lake for miles until we’d reach the town, buy a few snacks and finally get on the trails from there. We would ride for hours, stop somewhere with a nice vista, hang out a little, munching on chips and going back and forth about how good or bad the trails were that day or whether some maniacs were riding on the wrong side of the path. Of course, there was always a mandatory discussion about what top speed everyone reached:

— I hit 87 mph!
— Oh yea?! I hit 91!

Sometimes the numbers got a bit outrageous… as in, I’m pretty sure Dave exaggerated!

After our little break, we’d settle on a place to head to for a real meal, eating calorie-laden delicious comfort food, our dad sipping a cold beer. Then we’d gas up the snowmobiles and head right back on the trails. Sometimes we’d be on the trails long enough that we’d have to ride back in complete darkness, which was always a bit disconcerting, but also utterly beautiful with a clear night sky overhead. Sometimes, we’d be hit by an unexpected snowstorm, limiting our visibility to almost nothing and making us slow down to a few mph until the weather cleared again. No matter what, it was always a good story later!

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A Thought: On Strength

People tell us that they admire our strength. Honestly, I don’t feel strong. I don’t think my parents feel strong either. Many days we’re not quite sure how we made it through. In the early weeks after Dave was killed, my mom would say that she didn’t know how she was breathing, and we all knew exactly what she meant. Now, things are a little more manageable.

I guess.

It’s so hard to put into words what life is like now.

My life looks, mostly, “normal.” I walk my dogs. I shop for food and cook. I go to the gym. I attend classes, run data analyses, teach, have meetings and write reports. So, anyone looking in would see a busy grad student. But, mostly it feels like a facade. Just underneath the surface, more often than not I’m thinking about what happened on March 1st, about how long it’s been, about missing Dave. There are constant reminders of him everywhere I look. If I see a patrol car pass, I wish I could talk to the officer – to feel closer to Dave’s experiences, to thank the officer for doing their job, to talk to someone who knows on some level what all of this means (so far, no luck — I’m much too boring for the police to pay attention to me!). When I see a bird of prey overhead, I remember how much he loved them. He could identify the exact type of bird by their outline as he watched them from below. When someone mentions their sibling, I feel a knot in my stomach. When I see something ridiculous, I hear the joke Dave would have made. Sometimes, I manage a chuckle.

Spending time with my family and people who knew and loved Dave is the time when I have permission to let what’s under the surface come to the forefront. In those moments, with those people, I can just be in that grief – however it may express itself. Instead of pushing my thoughts and feelings to the side, I can let them come and go. The best part is, everyone understands. I think that in allowing myself that time, I can work on building myself up again.

So, whatever strength I have is coming from the love and care around me. The grand gestures aren’t what makes this easier — it’s the little reminders that you’re thinking of us: the random texts to say hi and the absurd snapchats that are best forgotten soon after opening. It’s the clever, gritty jokes that remind me so much of Dave’s sense of humor. It’s getting made fun of for being a “tree-hugger” or “super-liberal” (I imagine a cape-wearing superhero). It’s the little tributes to Dave that pop up regularly on Facebook, or just new comments on old posts. I see you think of him and of us, and I know you’re sharing our burden.

So, we may not feel strong, but I guess we’re still standing, still taking one step at a time into, hopefully, brighter days ahead. We’re doing what needs to be done, and we’re doing it with you by our side. So, thank you.

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Our table in the Texas Senate chamber for the Star of Texas ceremony on 9/12/16

On Your Birthday

Today, you would have been 30, baby bro. Today, I should have been able to call you and sing you an atrocious rendition of “happy birthday.” I should have been able to tell you that you’re officially old, and you should have been able to tell me that I’m older still. I should have been able to tease you about having to look out for those hangovers that would all of the sudden start, probably even with that night’s celebration. 

I should have been able to welcome you into one of the best years of your life: a year where you and your love would have had your beautiful wedding day with all your “best buddies” (since you could never restrict yourself to only one best man); a year filled with Mickey’s shenanigans in your newly renovated first home; a year where you FaceTime me from your fire-pit, a glass of whiskey and stogie in hand, just to show me how amazing your pool looked and to tell me that life is good; a year of constant requests to come visit again, or you know, to just move to Texas already; a year of texts to show me the newest smoker experiment and, probably, tell me there’s Fireball in the marinade; a year of super-impressive dubsmashes and wildly inappropriate, yet surprisingly artistic, snapchats; a year of random much-too-generous gifts for the people you loved; a year of ridiculous German accents and impressions; a year of gym selfies showing off your “godlike physique” and updating on the circumference of your biceps; a year of spreading only the biggest laughs and the deepest care. 

We should have been able to tell you to have an amazing day celebrating, envisioning only the most wonderful things for you. Instead, we’re left with only the memories that have already been written.

You are so, so loved. And, you are so, so missed. The amount of love you have generated in others is beyond comprehension. If we can achieve the same in our lifetime, we will have done well. 

Today, we’ll raise our glasses to you. We’ll cry for you. We’ll laugh for you. And, most of all, we’ll try to live our lives a bit more like you did, ’cause let’s face it: you had this living-thing down. 

Birthdays Without You

On Sept. 1st, Jared sat by me and asked me what we should do for my birthday. And just like that, I started crying. Every day since we’ve reached September, I knew these days were coming. My birthday today. Dave’s birthday two days later. Just two days apart, we celebrated them together as kids and as adults (forget the teens…we were annoyed by each other then).

And, now I’m supposed to do what exactly?

Here are a few of our past birthdays that we celebrated together.

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Sept. 2007

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Sept. 2009

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Sept. 2013

Last year, I was in Virginia and Dave was in Texas, so as a poor substitute for having fun celebrating together, we sent each birthday message on via text and Facebook.

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“Bruderherz” literally translates to “brother-heart” and is a ridiculously cheesy, old-fashioned German term to refer to a beloved brother. Whenever I wanted to annoy Dave (so, very regularly), I’d tease him by calling him that in a super-irritating voice. Reading my silly Facebook note, black on white, and understanding that not six months later he would be killed hurts beyond imagination.

We never know when our time is up, so the only thing we can do is to love and care for the ones who are important to us. Laugh with them. Cherish them every day.

Love you, Dave. I know you knew that.

A Memory: Maine Summers

Dave LOVED Maine. He always enjoyed our family’s house there a lot more than me. He loved that it was away from the madness of NYC. He loved to fish and snowmobile and kayak. He loved to invite his friends for a vacation and have a good time up there together. In fact, he always declared that he’d retire in that house.

There was a while, before Dave and I moved out, when our family would spend most vacations in the Maine house. It would take me a while to stop being annoyed at the excruciatingly slow dial-up internet and the complete lack of cell phone reception (except for on that one rock!), but Dave always settled into his routine quickly. He’d have our parents drive him to Rusty’s to get lures and worms and then he’d set out planning how he’d catch the biggest salmon or trout, right off of the rocks at the edge of our property. He could spend hours on those rocks, despite the black flies and mosquitoes, protected by his fishing shirt and a hat, no matter the temperature.

When he didn’t fish off of the rocks, he and our dad might spend the day trolling the lake with the boat. Usually, if we went on the boat, we would leave at dawn, stopping to get freshly-made, still-warm donuts. On the occasions when I’d decide to fish too, I’d basically cast and hold the fishing rod, panicking the moment something actually bit. At that point, I’d hand Dave the rod and he’d handle it from there. But, it was the company that brought me out there, really. I didn’t care about the fish. There was something beautiful and soothing about just being out there with those two. If our mom joined, we usually didn’t fish. We’d just take a long ride in the boat, enjoying when our dad would go extra fast, loving when our German shepherd Quindy would take her spot at the head of the boat and bop around, completely fearless.

Occasionally, Dave would convince me to take out the kayaks, with all of his fishing gear, to go try to catch something a little further out from the rocks. It was always quite the adventure: loading the kayaks, pushing them out into the water and climbing in without the whole shebang turning over. We didn’t have a dock, the rocks were uneven and slippery, so this was all a lot harder than might be imagined. We’d then row out, position our kayaks right next to each other, kind of securing them to each other by placing the oars over the kayaks. Then, we’d sit there, fishing, chatting, and letting the lapping waves carry us wherever. I don’t remember us catching much like this, but when something did occasionally bite, the whole set-up was precarious enough that the kayak might tip over!

When the mood struck us, we’d sometimes kayak along the shore for a little excursion to this shallow, marsh-y area. There the lake would be completely still, with the trees and sky reflecting brilliantly in the water. It was probably some of the most undisturbed and beautiful wilderness that was easily accessible to us. We’d see bald eagles or moose or other wildlife. By the time we’d head back home, our arms would be tired and we’d alternate between quiet, steady rowing and frenzied competition to prove our rowing prowess to each other.

By the time we’d get home, our mom and dad would have probably have fired up the grill and made some cajun shrimp or blackened salmon, and maybe we’d all watch a VHS rented from the little store in town.

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A Memory: Summers in Spain

Our grandparents had a house on the north-Atlantic coast of Spain in a small beach village called Espasante. Starting when we were little there were several summers that spent with them there. These are some of my favorite memories of my childhood.

Dave was always a bit afraid of the water and waves since the water could be pretty unruly in that area. He’d mostly stick to the beach and the shallow, calm puddles that would form after the tide. He’d roam around while I splashed in the waves, and then we’d take walks along the beach to look for hermit crabs and pretty shells and to watch schools of small fish rush around in the shallows. In Espasante, Dave also learned how to fish with our grandpa. Our grandparents would take us on long walks through the Eucalyptus forest to go eat delicious meals. The smell of eucalyptus always transports me right back to those walks. In those days, Dave was a much more adventurous eater than me, happily eating seafood while I mostly stuck to the same dish of steak, fries and salad.

When we weren’t at the beach, we would play in the sand in front of our grandparents house — building large “sculptures,” or pretending to run a restaurant. In the afternoons, we’d go fetch our obligatory ice creams. If we were lucky, we’d get two in one day! In the early evenings, my grandma liked to prepare a kind of “happy hour” with adult beverages for them, soda for us, and chips or olives and nuts or other goodies. Sometimes we’d go for tapas in town.

There are a couple of stories I think of whenever reminisce about our time in Espasante. The first is when we went squid and octupus fishing with a friend of my grandparents. He took us out on his boat and we all tried our best to catch dinner. On one occasion, someone, I think Dave  caught a small-ish octopus. Of course, once he pulled it out of the water, it wasn’t an easy task to get the creature off of the special hooks, so this family friend jumped to help him. As he’s working to get the octopus off the line, the frightened creature sprays ink…all over his face. The funniest part of this scene is that he wore glasses, and when he removed the glasses, he had ink all over his face, with two clean areas right around where the glasses had protected his skin. We all burst out laughing! It was the funniest thing!

The second story about Espasante took place one night when Dave and I were playing with some friends who were also there for the summer. I remember something about eating grilled sardines right out of a fire on the beach. At some point our grandparents were ready to go home and told us to come home within a certain time frame. Well, Dave and I were having way too much fun and ignored the time frame, and then additional calls for us to come home. We finally sauntered back to the house when it started getting dark. My grandma wasn’t going to let us off the hook easily though. She’d drawn the curtains and turned out the lights and made it appear as if her and our grandpa had already gone to bed.

I guess we felt pretty bad about having ignored her calls, so when our knocks went unanswered I unfolded a lounge chair to make us a bed on the patio. When we lay down Dave told me he was cold. So I put my arm around him and found whatever I could to approximate a blanket and we were ready to spend the night out there.

Of course, our grandma was watching this whole scene from behind a curtain and let us in the house after a couple of minutes. She always said it was the sweetest thing watching how I was taking care of him. Like “Hansel and Gretel” she liked to say.

There are a million other beautiful memories of our times in Espasante. Like when I eventually succeeded in teaching Dave how to love the ocean (with the mantra that he should trust me that I will keep him safe) and then we never wanted to get out anymore! Or, the time we found an abused stray dog and named her Hap-Hap and we were so heart-broken when we had to leave her behind at the end of the summer. Or, seeing dolphins jumping through the waves in the distance. Or, the aroma of hot bread that would waft through the streets on our way to the baker every morning. The list is endless.

I will treasure these memories to the end of my days.

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Me, Dave and grandpa at a grandma’s “Happy Hour” in August, 1998

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I’m pretty sure this was Dave’s first SERIOUS fish he ever caught.

 

A Memory: The Best Deal of my Life

I was about 14 and Dave was about 11 when, shortly after we moved back to the U.S., we got some pet-mice. A simple purchase of 3 female mice turned into a saga of 3 female mice, one of whom was already pregnant and ended up having 11 babies. We had to do research about what momma would need to feel comfortable having her babies — separating her from the other mice, not touching the nest too early (stressed out mice-moms will kill and eat their own young! Yikes!), separating the male/female young around the age of three weeks before they are mature enough to…uh…make their own babies (this is a whole complicated process since their sex organs aren’t visible at this age). Anyways, you now know a lot more about mice then you ever needed to. Long story short, it was quite the adventure.

Well, we ended up giving the 3 male babies away and keeping the females. Now we had 11 mice to take care of, instead of 3, and let me tell you…that’s quite a bit of work. The bedding in the terrarium has to be changed frequently or it gets smelly quickly. They have to be fed. And, if you don’t want them to be scared and shy, you have to spend time socializing them too! I can’t tell you how frustrated our mom got with us because she had to run after us to do everything we needed to do with those little creatures! But, we did “make up for it” with our regular mouse-circus performances. Fun fact: we even kept a journal about the mice that outlined their unique “personalities,” likes and dislikes, as well a any special skills they had (e.g., they were really good at balancing on a piece of string).

At that time we also had a cat. Dave and I were supposed to take turns cleaning the litter box, the same as we were supposed to take turns cleaning the terrarium for the mice. One time, Dave was feeling lazy and didn’t want to take care of the kitty litter. As I remember it, he also REALLY wanted this computer game that had come out. Somehow we ended up negotiating our pet chores and, taking full advantage of the fact that he was feeling lazy and wanted instant gratification in regards to procuring the computer game, I suggested what I still consider the best deal of my life. I told him, I’d do the kitty litter AND give him $50 for his game if he took care of the mice from that day forth.

He accepted.

While I took full advantage of poor Dave’s naiveté when I made this deal, I have to give it to him: he NEVER rescinded on our deal. He just kept cleaning the mouse cage till they were all gone.

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A few years after our “deal” with our German Shepherd Quindy & kitty Kiki