My freshman year, after completing my first few days of classes in Ann Arbor, I sat inside M-36 Coffee Roasters Cafe with an iced vanilla latte and felt quite pleased with myself. Here I was — a freshman in college, sitting inside a cozy coffee shop, embarking on a new chapter of my life. I sipped my coffee with gratitude and surveyed my surrounding sights: students studying, baristas chatting and coffee brewing. My amusing observation time was interrupted by a text notification from my mother. Her message informed me she was 30 minutes from Ann Arbor. Confused, as I hadn’t even been away for a whole week, I briefly questioned her unexpected visit. She was already running from Almont to see me? However, my current contentment clouded my judgment — as I sat in the buzzing shop, the possibility of bad news didn’t cross my mind. I told her where I was; she said she’d see me soon.
Not soon after, I spotted my mother’s dirt-road-embalmed Equinox through the window of the cafe. I ditched my latte and plopped down in her passenger seat, excited to catch up. After hugging her, I noticed that her eyes were fixed on the steering wheel. An uneasy sensation sprouted in my stomach.
“Josh is dead,” she whispered.
Parked on the side of South University Avenue, a tornado of confusion and sorrow swept me up and spun me around. Her mouth continued to move, but I didn’t comprehend much after the word “dead” hung in the air. Unable to form words, I repeatedly shook my head and studied my Converse. How was my half-brother dead? For what felt like years, my mom and I sobbed together in the parked car.
During a brief intermission from tears, I glanced at the dashboard’s digital clock: 5:45 p.m. Suddenly, I remembered that my first dorm hall meeting was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. — it was in 10 minutes. My mind grasped at this distraction, disguising it as an important obligation. I pulled some napkins from the car’s center console, wiped my face and asked my mom to drive me back to Markley Residence Hall.
I sat through the uneventful meeting with swollen eyes and a blotchy face. Surrounded by a cluster of strangers, I acted as if I hadn’t just received earth-shattering news. I nodded along to my RA’s explanation of how to pick up packages and to my fellow residents’ picks for their favorite summer songs. I focused on the flavorless green beans in front of me and the gold bracelet traveling up and down my RA’s wrist — anything other than what I learned an hour prior.
Once I was back in my dorm room, I laid down on my stiff mattress, stared at the popcorn ceiling and felt the weight of the heavy truth that rested on my chest: Josh, one of the people I admired most, was not on this Earth anymore. I turned towards the sterile, unfamiliar wall and cried as quietly as possible, as not to let my roommate hear me. I wondered if this was actually happening.
The next morning, I woke up to texts of condolences and funeral plans, all of which confirmed that my nightmare was truly my reality. I powered my phone off and looked over at my roommate sitting at her desk just a few feet away from me. Another realization hit me: I had to tell my horrible, personal news to this person I’d known for less than a week.
For the next 10 minutes, my mind raced, stumbling over different ways I could possibly break this news. How will she react? Will this make things uncomfortable between us? What if I start crying? In an act fueled by pure adrenaline, I sat up in my bed and muddled through some words that sufficiently filled her in on the situation. Her face became stricken with sympathy and concern.
“I’m so sorry, Jenna. Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?” she kindly asked.
My nerves were put to rest by her immediate generosity and understanding — everything I could have asked for. We chatted for a few minutes before she rushed off to class. As our room fell into silence, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders: telling her my news was a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, conversation. Imagine hearing your new roommate sobbing for an unknown reason or wondering why they mysteriously left for a few days. I didn’t want to put her through that confusion, and I didn’t want to put myself through the anguish of keeping secrets. I left Ann Arbor that weekend knowing at least one of my new friends knew what I was going through.
On the way to Josh’s funeral, I shared the backseat with my uncle, who barely uttered a word the whole trip. As we passed by corn fields and rusty mailboxes, I listened to the staticky radio and the fizzle in my father’s beer can. I occasionally broke the car’s uncomfortable silence with my coughs, triggered by my father’s and uncle’s out-of-hand, anxious chain smoking. Under normal circumstances, my mother would have argued with my father to stop, but she wasn’t about to bicker with a man who just lost his second son. I spent the car ride picking away at my nails and fidgeting with my necklace, dreading the hours of misery ahead of me.
The funeral was a blur of tears, hugs and apologies. I made casual conversation with family members and avoided the open casket at all costs, as I absolutely despise crying in front of people. Once I grew tired of repeating that my major was undecided, I finally gained the courage to look at the picture boards of Josh. As I scanned photos of Josh’s bright smile and funky outfits, I felt my heart crumble. Each photo of us transported me back to that particular point in time:
For a moment, it’s 2008, and I’m sitting on my bedroom floor watching Spongebob with Josh. We eat Reese’s Puffs and laugh at Spongebob and Squidward delivering pizza.
Then suddenly, it’s 2010. Josh places headphones on my head and introduces me to Kesha and Skrillex. I realize he is the coolest person ever.
Next, it’s 2012. As “Call Me Maybe” plays on our family computer, Josh and I dance together in my living room, twirling scarves in the air.
Then, it’s 2015, and I’m visiting him in Chicago for the first time. I’m fascinated by his busy life filled with cooking and concert-going.
Then, it’s 2018. Josh is home for Christmas, helping my dad prepare dinner. I wish Josh had come home more often.
Finally, it’s 2021. He’s back in Michigan for a family birthday party. We catch up and joke about my mom’s incessant picture-taking. Unbeknown to me, this is the last time I ever see him.
I stared at this last picture for a while, analyzing every last possible detail: his bright pink hair, the similarity between our printed shirts, his hands that affectionately rested on my brother Jacob’s and my shoulders, our undeniable resemblance to one another. I desperately wished I could transport back into that photo. I wished I could let him know how much I admired and loved him. I wished I could tell him we needed to see each other more often, I wished I could somehow prevent his premature death.
A tap on my shoulder halted my thoughts — my aunt Lara had come to say goodbye. She hugged me tight and whispered, “I hope you know how much Josh really loved you. You were his little sister, and he just adored you. I know you are fighting yourself to be strong right now, but you don’t have to. It will be okay.”
At that moment, I allowed myself to break down. I didn’t care who was watching or how much snot I was getting in my aunt’s hair. I thanked my aunt for coming and walked through a pitch-black parking lot to exit. The desolate environment mirrored exactly how I felt: hopeless and heartbroken. All I wanted to do was fade into the darkness around me. The end of Josh’s funeral signified the beginning of a life without him — a life I had not prepared for. On my drive home, I stared at the sky and envied the stars above, all so distant and detached from the pain I was facing here on Earth.
It’s now been a little over a year since Josh’s death, and I’ve only just begun to process it all. As I go about my life here in Ann Arbor, reminders of his absence linger. Whenever I walk past M-36 on my way to Spanish class, someone asks how many siblings I have or I spot anything associated with Chicago, I’m reminded that he is gone. However, these things also remind me of my resilience. After Josh’s funeral, leaving my family and returning to Ann Arbor was difficult, but I adjusted and created a nice life here. Opening up to my roommate and new friends was challenging, but I did and still have those people to lean on. While deep in grief, I adapted to a major life transition. For that, I’m proud.
There are still days when I pretend that Josh is still in Chicago, flipping burgers at Parson’s. I imagine seeing him at Christmas time with a new, bold hair color and listening to his outrageous stories about being a chef. No matter how much I fantasize, I know I cannot bring him back. I don’t have answers as to how to make peace with this, but I’m not going to stop trying to find them. For now, I’ll keep wearing Josh’s graphic tees, listening to “TiK ToK” by Kesha and holding onto all the pieces of him that I can. I’ll keep trying to make peace with his passing — in honor of my well-being and his beautiful life.
Statement Columnist Jenna Hausmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.