How the hell are you doing? It’s weird that I’m writing you a letter. I feel like I’m breaking up with you. Anyway, it was great seeing you a couple of weeks ago. I’m glad my friend Colin bumped into you and texted me that you were at McSorley’s. It was nice to catch up over a couple of lights and darks.
I know Colin was drunk and overbearing, but he’s a good kid. He’s from a pretty rough and tumble Brooklyn neighborhood called Bergen Beach. His father was a Vietnam veteran who didn’t fully come home. I think his mother had some issues too. He was a close friend of my brother Joey and it weighed on him when Joey was killed. I assume he has some drug and alcohol abuse problems. Not because of Joey. Maybe it is because of Joey. Most likely it’s the composite of considerable heartbreak. But that’s not for me to judge. I am sorry that I haven’t been in touch. When you lose someone the way you lost Jack, I feel there is a numbing “pomp and circumstance” period, followed by the “I want every one to fuck off” period. When we lost Joey, everyone wanted to apologize for our loss, dedicate a flagpole in his name and in general just wanted to be part of the traveling circus that became our lives. That lasted for about a year but by 9/11/ 2002 I was telling everyone to fuck off. My fear was that you would tell me to fuck off because, in the end, no one knows what you are going through and no one truly cares.
I can’t begin to understand your loss. I can’t imagine how it feels to lose your younger brother. For him to be killed. By some scumbag suicide bomber. In a foreign country. For him to get killed in action thirteen years after the war began.
How do you deal with it? Just thinking that Jack survived four deployments to Iraq and then for this to happen in the twilight of his career. Only thirteen days in country. No one can deal with that. No one can understand.
No one can understand how you feel when you visit Colleen and the kids. The Irish twins, Connor and Sean. The feeling inside of you knowing that they will never know their father. How close they live to you. And the burden you must feel to be there. To protect them and make them smile. The strain it must have on your own family. Splitting time between the two. No one understands this. No one.
No one will truly understand what happened that day in September. Tommy, you are the only one with a personal connection to the autopsy report. The feel of sweat in your thumbs as you turned the pages. The feel of horror and relief that there is a good chance he died instantly.
You were there when the young medic told you he died immediately. In that Texas suite. You got a nice suite and a bunch of beers. To make them feel at ease. You couldn’t believe how young the medic was. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old. In your head, you thought they would send a doctor. A wise, experienced man in his forties. But he wasn’t. He was a kid. And the kid told you, Jack was dead immediately. He shook him. Felt helpless.
There were five life-threatening wounds to his right side. One of them did the job. But no one else knows this. No one understands how to lose a younger brother. Your younger brother. You are the only one that understands. You and you alone. No one else. Not me.
I understand my loss. I know how it feels to lose an older brother. For him to be killed. By some scumbag suicide attackers. In my own country. In my own city.
For him to get killed at the very beginning. For him to spark endless war that would lead me to Jack and lead to Jack’s death. Only I know how it feels to survive my three deployments, and the guilt associated with that.
I alone know how it feels to lose my brother at such a young age. A twenty-three-year-old stockbroker. Only I have the fear that he never fell in love. Or had that possible love reciprocated. I understand these fears. No one else.
Only I have the anger that he never had a wife. Never had kids. That he will never be a father. Or an uncle. I’m the only one who can’t breathe when I experience him being scared. The impact. The desk. The phone. The smoke. The heat. The door. The panic. The fear. It’s not the death. It’s his fear that makes me want to throw myself out of this fuckin’ window.
The point is, Tommy, no one knows what you are going through, but more importantly, no one truly cares. Sure, people sort of care. They will ask, “How are you doing?” They will wear a cold steel bracelet around their wrist. They will write you a long letter. They will play a bad round of golf in Jack’s honor. They will sit quietly in feigned interest at your words. But eventually they will go home. They will board the plane. They will drive the Civic. Jump on the L-Train and go home. To eat. To sleep. And not think of you or me or this.
This sounds surly and sad, but it’s not. It’s liberating. You don’t have to care anymore. Before you joined the ranks of the tragic, you thought you had to empathize with people. Understand people. Care about people. You don’t have to anymore.
Empathy and responsibility lead to complexity. God, science and family led you to believe in the gray area. But there is no gray area. Just black and white. You want to believe that there is still a life with Jack in it, but there’s not. People are either dead or alive. Jack is dead.
You want to believe that there is something between good and evil, right and wrong, joy and pain, drunk and sober. But there’s not. You make the choice. To drink. To work. To join. To deploy. To shoot. To breathe. In the end, you only have two choices. The dark or the light.
Sorry to sound so dickish, Tommy. Nothing I say, or what anyone else will say, is going to help. In case my words ring hollow, I wanted to give you something that helped me. Please find the attached envelope. Inside the envelope is a letter. A letter from my brother. As I waded through the sea of shit, this letter kept me above the brown water. It’s important to remember who you were before, but it’s even more important to just let go. This letter helped me to remember who I was before and now it’s time to just let it go.
Take Care, Jimmy
“Letter to a Brother” is included for publication in the upcoming Voices from War, Volume 1, a publication of the Voices from War writing workshop for veterans, and will also be published in partnership with the Headstrong Project in their Words of War E-Book.
J.F. Quinn participated in Voices from War’s Winter-Spring 2014 writing workshop in New York City.