Oh, December 21st. You’re here. I’ve not been looking forward to you.
In the early morning hours of December 21st, 2020, my brother was in a severe car accident on the interstate. He suffered severe and what would end up being fatal injuries from the crash. He would later die, as I held his hand, on January 3rd. Easily the hardest day of my life.
I saw his accident.
I didn’t see it happen when it happened, but I saw where it happened, soon after it happened.
One year ago, my friend Dennis booked a same-day flight to come out and spend the holiday week with us. Our daughter Lydia had officially become a part of our family just a few days before. He was excited to celebrate the holidays with us, now that we were a family of five, to celebrate Lydia being our daughter.
Lydia rode with me to the airport. Dennis’ flight had been an hour delayed, so it was after midnight by the time we headed out to pick him up. I was excited about Lydia riding in the car with me. We talked about life and love and marriage and relationships and family situations, you know, the fun stuff, on the way to the airport. We passed by my brother’s apartment complex on the way, which led to a conversation about him for a while. It was fun late night drive for me as her new dad.
We arrived at the airport, picked Dennis up from outside baggage claim, exchanged hugs, and got back in the car to head back home.
This was special all very special for me. I was full of joy.
On the way home, as I was about to merge on an interchange from one part of the interstate to the next, I saw someone standing in the middle of the highway. It was dark, so it wasn’t clear exactly what was going on. As we got closer, I saw that it was a police officer who was motioning to me with his arms to detour at the exit on my right. He was getting traffic cones out of the back of his cruiser to put across the road to guide people to the exit as a detour from the interstate.
As I slowed down to take the exit, I looked down the interstate and noticed lots and lots of flashing blue and red lights. The interstate had been closed by police. There had been a pretty serious car accident based on the number of emergency vehicles, which stretched across the entire interstate going south.
As I took the exit I said something like, “Oh man. That’s not good. That looks like a really bad accident. I hope everyone is ok.”
About fifteen minutes later, we were home. Lydia was very tired, so she said goodnight, and went directly to bed. I helped get Dennis settled in the guest room a bit before he went to bed. After his travels, he asked to take a quick shower. And as he did, I sat down on the couch in my living room and mindlessly scrolled on social media and YouTube for a while.
As I was scrolling, a little after two o’clock in the morning, my phone started buzzing in my hand. It was a call from my mom.
A jolt of adrenaline rocketed through my veins.
Oh no. It’s the call.
My mom was emotional and panicky on the phone. “Andrew, Matthew has been in a bad accident. Someone has died and Matthew is at the hospital now. He’s unconscious. I’m headed there now.”
I forget many of the exact details of what was said, but I remember my ears ringing. My brain was flooded with so many thoughts, so many emotions. It was hard to filter through them all fast enough. There was this overwhelming sense of inevitability about the call, though, and that bothered me so much. It felt like I had almost anticipated the call from my mom in some way.
There was a sense of deja vu about it, too. Back in 2010, my dad had been in a severe accident and I remember the call from Sarah in the middle of one of my night classes in grad school.
“Your dad’s been in a serious car accident.”
I remember back then I left the classroom and went to the public computer that was set up in the hallway for students to use. I searched my dad’s name and within seconds had photos and videos from the scene of the accident.
My reaction this time wasn’t much different. I jumped onto Twitter and searched the Omaha Scanner account. I saw mention of two accidents, one of which was the one that we had been redirected from on the way home from the airport.
No. It couldn’t be that accident, could it? Surely not. No.
But after searching the Omaha Scanner page on Facebook and seeing the description of the accident and the photos I realized that the accident that we had been redirected from, the accident we saw with all those flashing red and blue lights, that was my brother’s accident.
We saw his accident. We were redirected from his accident.
There’s more odd happenings and circumstances and connection points that can be discussed about that day. I won’t get into those in this post, but the details are oddly overlapping and seemingly coincidental. The truth often seems stranger than fiction.
Trouble comes to us all eventually. If you’re not familiar with the feelings and complexities of grief or loss, then count yourself blessed for the time being. Death is universal. It can’t be escaped. And despite what I’ve been told, and despite even the things I believe, death still stings. And when it doesn’t sting, it’s a dull, nagging ache that can’t be completely ignored. A gnawing. Like being sore in a way where it feels impossible to ever feel fully comfortable.
Grief is a strange thing. It alters my everyday experiences. It has for a year now. I’ve struggled to find the right word to describe it, the right word to convey how altering it really is to my thoughts, my experiences, my emotions, my motivation, my perceptions, my hope and faith and love.
It’s overwhelming. That’s for sure. Grief is overwhelming. It’s like an unsolicited spell has been cast upon me and I’ve now been in a non-consensual trance for a year.
The word I’ve been looking for, though, is ecstasy.
I know that when we think of the word ecstasy we usually think of extreme happiness or delight. Some of may think of the MDMA drug often called ecstasy that produces feelings of excitement and pleasure.
That’s not the definitions I mean when I say that there is an ecstasy to grief.
Ecstasy comes from the Greek word ἔκστασις (ekstasis). It means a displacement of the mind. It’s like being in a trance, caught up in overwhelming emotion.
That’s what grief is like for me.
And time. My goodness. Time, time, time. What is time anymore? The pandemic has made our concepts of seasons and the passing of time confusing. We know this. This was all supposed to last two weeks, remember? Now we are approaching two years, with another surge from another variant. 800,000 people have died in the United States. Yikes. And the world continues on.
Time and grief are an odd pair. There is a gravity to grief. I’ve felt the pull, the tug of gravity from the one-year anniversary marks. As I have day by day come closer to these dates, I feel the weightiness of them.
Like approaching the event horizon of a black hole, time moves differently for me than others. There’s an element of this anniversary that feels like no time has passed at all. Maybe a second or two. But a second or two in the ecstasy of grief has in actuality been a year. It’s disorienting.
But here we are.
There are people out there that are cynical. The cynics try to point out all the troubles of this world, point out the hard things of life. But life is so much harder than they even seem to know. Things are so much worse than the cynic acknowledges. But those of us that have gone beyond the event horizon of grief,who have lived in the ecstasy of it all, we know that on the other side, love still endures somehow.
Love endures. It transcends time and space.
There’s something special to that being a major theme in the movie Interstellar, a movie that my brother and I saw together in the theater when it came out, and one that we often talked about and referenced. I thought about maybe watching that tonight in honor of Matthew. A belief, a faith, a hope that love doesn’t just exist in the here and now. It stretches well beyond that, even to those who no longer are with us physically.
And it’s in this sliver of belief that I try to find some peace today.
Blessed are those that are in on the joke.
And the punchline of the joke is love.
And love, it never fails.