I’m writing this to get some of the pain off my chest, and for a couple of other reasons – first, to let you know that if you are ever forced to go through an experience like this, you will not be prepared for it, nor equipped to deal with it and secondly, to let you know that you’ll be OK. This, my friends, is one of those moments that causes you to veer.
This won’t be a fun read – there’s my disclaimer. I’m going to copy a small amount of a previous post regarding my brother and then I’m going to spend a few minutes fleshing out that experience.
My brother Gary was the black sheep of the family. He spent years in jail, and he lived a hard-boiled existence. The last job on his resume was an enforcer and bodyguard for a “family” business. He was 10 years older than me, and he was like a deity to me. He was massive – anyone who knows me from years ago and who had met Gary will attest – he was a monster, physically-speaking. Also, if you’re a movie buff, you will notice in the picture below that he looked exactly like Danny Trejo. Scary stuff. Gary moved to B.C. to get away from his life and his past here – he got married and had a baby daughter and did his best to be a good husband and father. I think he succeeded at the father part, but perhaps not so much at the husband part. Gary made a concerted effort to visit his family in Edmonton whenever he could and would always bring his daughter with him. We loved seeing him – everytime he’d come, he’d pick me up in his arms and hug me until I couldn’t breathe. To me, he was 6′ 3″ and weighed 290 lbs – and 8% body-fat. He really could squeeze the breath out of you.
Although he was a bad man in his other life, he was also the sweetest person you had ever met, and I know for a fact he would die for a stranger if he could save their life. Early in the week before Mothers Day weekend in 1994, we got a call from him, saying he couldn’t wait to come up to Edmonton for Mothers Day. I talked to him, and told him about what was new with me. He always wanted to know what I was doing and told me to be a good kid. I told him about my girlfriend at the time. I told him about my progress at the U of A. I told him about my 20V Audi Coupe and some modifications I had just done to it. I told him about my recent speeding tickets, leaving the room so my mom wouldn’t hear about it. My dad, of course, knew about them and I noticed as he quietly smiled to himself, listening to his sons exchanging notes about their speeding ticket “trophies”. And I told him I loved him and couldn’t wait to see him in a day or two. He said he loved me too, and that he’d see us soon. I told him to drive carefully – he had a habit of driving way too fast. My mom was so excited, as always, and we prepared to have the whole family together.
The Wednesday evening before that weekend, we were at my other brother’s house when we received a call. It started with the phone ringing and my brother excusing himself to take the call. He walked to a quieter part of the house and suddenly we heard him yelling “No!” – we all ran to the bedroom to find him in tears and saying “No, it can’t be!” Turns out the call was from my other brother’s estranged wife in Richmond, B.C., calling to tell us that my brother had been killed in a car accident. He did not have ID on him at the time, but the police identified him through fingerprints and tattoos because of his criminal record – but still technically needed family to identify his body. Truly the news did not sink in at the time. We were numb, but nevertheless sprang into action. In retrospect, it amazes me what a person can achieve in a state of complete mental numbness. My parents and I made our way home, packed and drove out to the airport, taking the next day’s first flight to Vancouver.
Little was said on the way there – it early in the morning when we arrived. That day was truly a blur, yet I’ve spent some time discussing it with family to remember it because I want to share it. That day went a long way in making this shocking occurrence seem real and also helped us come to terms with some things are start our grieving process.
The first stop we made led to the moment I dreaded most – our visit to the funeral home. I knew that within those walls, somewhere, lay my brother. They say that sometimes in times of sudden loss, our mind’s last defense mechanism, denial, is so strong that until the second one sees their loved one, they retain that faint hope that it just isn’t real. I never had that illusion. I knew from the initial phone call that this was real. It didn’t seem real, and walking through the experience was trance-like, but nevertheless, I didn’t need convincing. But this didn’t make it any easier. As we were led through the sombre hallways of this bricks and mortar portal between life and death, listening to the quiet, soothing music playing over the speakers, I just couldn’t wait to get it over with. We were taken into a quiet chapel where Gary was laying on a funeral stretcher. He looked peaceful, asleep. I expected the worst, and due to the nature and brutality of his accident, I had assumed that he might even have been unrecognizable. I’m grateful to this day that he looked exactly as he had looked in life. Nothing in our minds works as it should during these moments, and what struck me most was that he was wearing a Harry Rosen sweatshirt that I had given him for Christmas. That’s what broke me down into a sobbing mess. The only thing that looked off was his massive chest was somewhat concave – I would attribute that to the autopsy. We identified this man as our brother and son – and moved on to the next step. It is strange that we felt as though we had to move through this process with purpose, as though we were almost prepared for it.
The police in Richmond played a big role in clarifying what happened. When we first arrived, they knew we were coming and drove us to their impound lot. They showed us Gary’s car and after seeing what was left of a car that was only 2 weeks old when the accident happened, it was clear that only a miracle could have saved someone from this impact. It was a brand-new Mustang, and the rear bumper seemed only a foot or so away from the front seats. The back of the car had accordioned into approximately 1/3 or less of it’s original length. They asked us if we wanted anything out of the car – there wasn’t much in there, but I did manage to salvage the tape that had been playing – Bob Marley’s single “Iron Lion Zion”. I still have it. One other thing I clearly remember is my brother’s bloody hand and fingerprints on the back of the passenger seat – likely struggling for breath before he was helped out of the car. That was hard to see.
If you’re familiar with Richmond, B.C., you’ll know there are numbered roads that run parallel to each other. They are big roads and they can get busy. My brother was travelling at a very high rate of speed down the No. 3 Road, near Alderbridge Way, when he hit a slight curve, spun around 180 degrees and continued sliding backwards, at an estimated 160 km/h, into oncoming traffic – specifically a 3/4 ton truck with a camper on it, and a massive custom-made steel front bumper. Lucky for its passengers, because that particular bumper likely saved their lives. It was also estimated that they were travelling at 60 km/h, so combined, it was a 220 km/h collision – the police explained it would have a similar effect if my brother’s car was not moving and was rear-ended by that truck doing 220 km/h. No small feat then, that my brother survived at all. But I’ll get back to that part. The police took us to No. 3 Road, which is a busy, quick-moving 4-lane road and actually closed it for us for about 5 minutes, so we could have a look at where the accident happened. This wasn’t necessary but we sure appreciated the effort they went through. The momentum from the collision threw my brother’s car, spinning, into a parking lot of a strip mall. Amazingly, his car spun around a dozen or so times, traveling 150 feet directly through the driveway to the parking lot and ended up in a parking spot – not hitting any further vehicles or pedestrians to add further tragedy to this incident. We saw where the vehicle came to rest, as there were still lots of vehicle fluids on the pavement.
Yes, I did mean that my brother survived this incredible impact. The coroner’s autopsy report, as well as the police involved and the EMS professionals we spoke to, all clearly stated that it was the size and build of my brother that aided his survival. They essentially indicated that most mere mortals would have died instantly of internal injuries – these internal injuries are what my brother succumbed to as well, however not for another 35-40 minutes afterwards. The EMS folks said they have never seen someone hang on as long with that severity of internal injury. Virtually every bone in his upper body was cracked, hairline-fractured or broken and virtually every major organ was punctured, lacerated or had imploded. The police were kind enough to arrange for us to meet with the EMS people that were the first responders, arriving before the police or fire department did. This broke my heart, because we were able to establish that yes, he did live for short while, and maybe what impacted me most – we were able to learn what he said as he was dying. The paramedics advised us that he was exceptionally calm and polite and that he never panicked. My brother knew that he was dying – he pointed it out to them right away, and thanked them for being there, but just asked for a blanket as he was getting cold. He told them that he wished he had lived his life differently and he knew this was going to have a big impact on his family. He was worried about what would happen to his daughter now. They told us that he did cry, but not from physical pain – he cried when he talked about having to leave his family this way. I hope you never have to lost a sibling this way, but to hear these things will change you. I still well up with tears when I think about this long conversation we were able to have with the medical professionals that showed up to my brother’s accident.
Our final stop was different, but just as difficult as the others. Because we were considered his next-of-kin, it was up to us to clean his condo up. We found it as he had left it, and that was so hard to see. I noticed many similarities between how my brother and I got things done – some which I didn’t know. One thing that really struck a chord with me is that he used lists, exactly like I do. I make one or more lists every day, with my to-do stuff on it. He had lists everywhere in his house. He surrounded himself with things that were dear to him – just a few books, most of which I knew he loved, his music including his beloved Nazareth’s Greatest Hits CD, photographs of his daughter and us, his family. It was sad to think he would never return to these surroundings again, but the fact that he was really gone hadn’t even begun to sink in.
At the end of the day, we went to our hotel because there was nothing else we could achieve that day – my brother and I slept in one room, and my parents in another. We fell into a deep, exhausted sleep and flew back home the next morning – in Edmonton we continued to make arrangements to have his body shipped here and arranged his funeral.
It was an extraordinary experience, and the trauma was indescribable. I have never documented it before -sure, I’ve told the story in bits and pieces, but not like this. This brought up many tears and sad thoughts, but also reminded me to remember my sweet big brother. He was always 10 years older than me, and so it always seemed that he and my other even older brother were almost a generation ahead of me. Yet, in writing this, I came to a realization – he was only 30 years old when he died, and I have now lived 6 years longer than my brother ever got to live.
I’ve met a few people in the last 6 months or so that have lost someone close to them, in a quick, cruel and traumatic way. I’ve shared grief and stories with them, and everyone of them has asked me to share this story in its entirety. I hope that if you ever have to go through anything similar to this, that you had a chance to say good-bye and that you have a lifetime, as short as it may have been, of memories to hang on to. You’ll make it through, but it will change who you are. If it doesn’t, you probably aren’t human or you might want to check your own pulse.
Gary, I still love you with all the love my heart can muster up, and I still miss your crushing bear hugs, big brother. Hope you’re OK, wherever you are, and I know that you’re watching out for your daughter and your little brother – because you wouldn’t have it any other way. Just know that I wish you’d been able to meet my wife and kids and to give them those bear hugs too. And that every single time I listen to Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” I start crying, because I can’t think of anything but you. I miss you, bro.
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