As some of you may know, my brother, Jeff Rieves, was diagnosed with advanced metastatic melanoma a couple of months ago. Earlier this year, we began realizing something was up due to some uncharacteristic behavior and when he finally got checked out, doctors found multiple tumors throughout his brain and body. There was treatment indicated and he started it, but the cancer had too much of a head start and he passed away Monday, May 6th. Though I haven’t said much, I’ve struggled with it ever since.
Writing is one of the main ways I process things. For me, it’s like Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” That said, it feels strange to be sitting down to write about my brother’s passing two weeks after the fact. Honestly, I feel a bit callous having waited so long. I mean, sure, the last few weeks have been pretty hectic for me. I closed out the last semester of my junior year of college, my mom sold her house and we had to get her moved by the end of last week, and I had surgery this past Monday. But this is my older brother we’re talking about, someone who had a huge influence on my life, and I can’t help but think I should have taken some time work all this out before now.
It’s only in the enforced downtime that comes with recovering from surgery that I’ve slowed down and thought about it much at all.
Most of the tributes to Jeff that I’ve seen in the wake of his passing have left me feeling much like the ones I heard about my father: “Who the hell are you talking about? That is not the guy I grew up with.” But that’s normal, brothers have a kind of relationship that’s unlike any other. That’s especially true when they’re separated by more than a year or so (we were four and half years apart). It’s just one of the things that has made processing his death so difficult.
So many things written after someone dies tend to paint them as a saint. And, Jeff had many good qualities. The one that springs to my mind quickest is that he was always there any time I needed him. And, I mean any time. But my brother wasn’t a saint and he’d be the first person to tell you that. He was stubborn, a bit of a know-it-all, and had a latent mean streak – he found great fun in doing things that he knew pissed me off. But, for all of his faults, he was my brother and I loved him. It’s hard to think about a world that doesn’t include him anymore.
That’s been made a little easier due to something I read recently in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s the story of Billy Pilgrim and how he became unstuck in time and met a race of aliens known as Tralfamadorians. A few days ago, I was sitting on the porch reading and came across the following passage:
“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist… When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.‘”
As I read that, I realized that this was not a world that didn’t include Jeff: He exists in all those moments before this present one, where he is in bad condition. But those other times? He is still there, teaching, laughing, and being as irritating as ever. So it goes.