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Pathway of Hope

Text by: Stephanie Hamson

March 9, 2011. That's the date I calculated that bleak December morning in 2004, sitting at my brother's funeral. That’s the date I would reach the exact age my best friend and brother Brad had been when he died-- 15 days after his 37th birthday.   March 9, 2011 would be fifteen days after my 37th birthday. That’s the date that would drum in my head for the next six years. March 9, 2011, a day of apprehension.

Even at the age of thirty, 37 seemed so distant. Yet Brad was young, too young to die. That was painfully apparent when I looked over at my mother, sitting on the opposite side of the pew. I had never seen her in such distress. The grief was not just in her face; her whole body was consumed with it. After all, one of a mother's worst nightmares is losing a child. One thing motherhood has taught me is that no matter how old your child gets, you still see them as small and vulnerable, and my heartbroken mom was burying her little boy.

Brad died of AIDS. It is a different experience than any other I have witnessed. I was there when my dear mother-in-law passed away from cancer. I've been close to those that have lost their precious loved ones in car accidents, from heart attacks, fires, child bearing, drowning, and age. I've also had close friends die by suicide or overdose, which share some of the same heart-wrenching prejudices as those lost to AIDS.

© Zen Goddess

This is a piece of my brother's story, as seen through my eyes.

Brad was known for having many fine characteristics. He lived for Christmas; it was his favorite holiday. He was funny, giving, stylish, selfless, compassionate, charismatic, sweet, notably handsome, and full of integrity. And I don't think I've ever heard anyone describe him without using the word "kind." Kind is such a simple word, and not just the best quality to have, but to BE. After someone passes away, it seems we rarely recall their flaws, but I wouldn't be true to him if I did not. Brad was also self-doubting, self-destructive, angry, and — though it pains me to my very core to say it — sad. These undesirable attributes began surfacing quite early, as he struggled to figure out who he was. When he realized he didn't fit what everyone else wanted or expected from him, it got him beat up in school, questioned in church, and shunned by friends, as well as necessitating two school transfers. All Brad wanted from people was to be treated with the same kindness he showed to others, but many failed to return it.

Brad contracted HIV in the mid 90's. Very few would even learn of his aliment until just before his death. I was one of the many left unaware. I learned of his AIDS status in 2004, less than a year before he died. I think he kept it from me, because we were so close. We talked at least five nights a week. His phone had only a 90-minute life span, and we were disconnected more often than we hung up voluntarily. I'm sure he didn't want our relationship to change either, and probably didn't want me always asking him if he was making healthy choices and taking his medication, and then scolding him when he wasn't. Regardless, I am thankful he shielded me for all those years. They were years of laughter instead of worry. I'll always be grateful to my older sisters for bearing that heavy burden instead.

Brad came home for Thanksgiving with the intent of returning to his beloved city of Seattle in a few short days. As we saw him step off the plane, his family could tell with a glance at his appearance that was not to be. My big brother was coming home to die. This once-gorgeous man was gaunt. His skin was discolored and pale, his eyes were sunken and dark, and the whites of his eyes had turned yellow. And hardest for me to see (proudly sharing the rare family redhead gene), his beautiful, dark, red hair had gone a dull brown. It was obvious to me he was in pain from the way he walked. Yet, because of his nature, he forced a smile, as he would continue to do every day for the next month.

My brother had such a fighting spirit. He didn't want to give in to this horrific disease. He believed he could still beat it. The next four weeks were full of trips: the bookstore, where everyone around us was scrambling for Christmas gifts, while we futilely scanned the pages of health books, searching for anything that might give us a few more days; the hospital, for countless blood transfusions and pain relief; the AIDS clinic, to report new symptoms and receive endless prescription refills. On these treks, it was not always easy to ignore the stares of others. They may have been looks of concern, but they felt like looks of horror. It was especially difficult to look at the unaccompanied, 20-year-old boy at the AIDS clinic, seeing the tears well in his eyes at the sight of my once-robust brother. To imagine the fear he must have been feeling for his own future by the sight of my best friend still makes me weep.

When I ask my oldest kids what they remember most about their Uncle Brad, they always follow "fun" or "funny," with "He loved Christmas." To him Christmas meant family, friends, shopping, and giving — possibly his four favorite things in life. Brad was steadfast in his resolution to live through one more Christmas, for he loved the holiday so much, he was afraid that his death would forever tarnish it. He loved his sisters, cherished his mom, and adored his nieces and nephews. He loved family traditions, specifically our
McNeal Craft Saturday, which was girls-only, but we made an exception for my sweet brother.

Even though he was surrounded by loving family, Brad really missed his apartment in Seattle. He was always making us lists of things to bring to him "when someone could retrieve them," so we could make the room he was in more comfortable and familiar. We did the best we could, and we were determined to make his last Christmas memorable for everyone, but especially Brad.

Fast forward to the afternoon of December 22nd, just three days before Christmas. Brad was looking defeated for the first time since Thanksgiving. After being assured by his nurse he still had time to live, I left to pick up my little ones from school. It was not easy to do, as I had rarely left the house, let alone his bedside, in four weeks. In the short 20 minutes I was gone, he looked at our mom and eldest sister in despair. Our mother gave him a loving reminder that Christmas was just three days away. He sweetly responded, "Okay. When they come back, I'll tell them I can't go yet." After hearing this, they painfully gave him permission to go. And he did.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

Our church is known worldwide for their humanitarian services. A lot of service takes place on a smaller scale in communities, as well. It is common for church members to provide meals for a family after a birth, a death, or surgery. Care is provided for those who need it. The sharing of burdens is emphasized, and regular interactions encouraged. As someone who had managed those charitable services, the lack of phone calls, meals, and visits for my mom was so disheartening! My broken mother, who had been a faithful church member her whole life, was only visited by her bishop after I sternly insisted. When invited in, he chose to remain on the doorstep. At Brad's funeral services, the bishop's counselors avoided every member of my immediate family. In hindsight, it could have been that they simply didn't know what to say, but at the time, I felt as if we were getting the same kind of treatment my brother had received throughout his life. I didn't realize it then, but I started taking on shades of Brad’s undesirable characteristics. I began to harden. I was angry!

© Stephanie Stringfellow

When first invited to write this feature on the idea of growth, I turned it away without hesitation. It wasn't because I didn't want to write about my brother. I just felt incapable of helping someone else grow. Truthfully and sadly, I was indifferent to that thought. But why? I hadn’t always felt this way. I taught classes for adults, and I had been a volunteer in many charitable services. I was confident in my life roles then, but now I doubted my capabilities. I also became self-destructive. I made some choices that were inconsistent with my personality, that hurt those closest to me. I felt if I didn't hold onto my anger for Brad that I would somehow dishonor him. I was afraid it would seem that I wasn't proud of him, of the life he lived, or that I was ashamed of how he died. I grew wary of church members, of religion itself, and quite possibly, wary of God. For six years, I've had bitter thoughts of all that may have made my brother sad. I never stopped to ask myself why I felt this way. I couldn't see how I was hurting myself, and those I love. 

Upon reflection I became painfully aware for the first time that by holding to on to Brad, I was holding on to his afflictions. I had become stuck. On that bleak December morning when I counted to March 9, 2011, I stopped nurturing a piece of me, a piece that was still blooming. I buried it away as I buried my best friend. Was this another reason Brad had kept me blind to his illness? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect he didn’t want to see me decline emotionally any more than I wanted to see him decline physically. So here I am, just days away from March 9, 2011, the day that has drummed in my head for six years. December 23, 2004 is a day my brother never saw, but I will see March 10, 2011. It will be the day I feel ready to let go of my best friend, to finally release our collective pain and sadness. For I have learned that letting go is not forgetting. And by letting him go, we both can grow.