When I lost my brother, I lost a part of me. Many people try to imagine how it would feel to live without someone they love dearly and how they would react. The truth of the matter is that you could never even begin to fathom the pain and the emotion that shocks your body in that moment. And you could never calculate what knee-jerk reaction you take as a person to that pain. The thing of it is, I never thought about the “what if” when it came to losing my brother because that was someone I never imagined losing. I, like many other people, took having my brother with me for granted.
When I lost my brother, I felt pain that I never thought I’d feel before. The emotions I experienced were greater than any. When I lost my brother, I felt angry. I felt angry at God. How could he allow this to happen to such a good man? Why my brother and not some scumbag off the street who was serving no real purpose in life? How dare this happen to my brother, a man of God, who protected and served not only his city but his family and his Lord. What I didn’t know was that anger would follow me sub-consciously for a very…very long time.
When I lost my brother I felt denial for a brief period of time. This was just a bad dream. I was 16 years-old. I found out from our brother, Kyle. It was six in the morning. I was in denial. This was a dream, maybe I didn’t hear him correctly. No…I heard him correctly.
When I lost my brother, I became numb. It was as if the news of my brother being killed somehow fried off all of my nerve endings. As if the pain I was experiencing was greater than anything else going on around me. I was numb to emotion. I cried until my tear ducts couldn’t produce any more tears and dried up. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t feel happiness for the longest time. I was numb to other people and their feelings. I couldn’t feel the warmth of love that the people around me were so desperately, but vainly, trying to provide to me. It’s not that I didn’t notice or appreciate it. I just couldn’t feel it. The lights were on, and I was functioning normally. But my spirit and my conscious were curled up in the corner just staring off into space. I stood in a line next to his flag draped casket as hundreds…no, thousands…I’m not sure how many people came through. So many people saying how sorry they were. Telling me that if I needed anything they’d be there. False promises that it would get better with time. I eventually sat down. I didn’t want to be here.
When I lost my brother, I didn’t want to go to his funeral. I woke up that morning and wanted desperately to close my eyes and just let sleep take over my life. I don’t want to…not today…I’m too tired. I went though. I knew this funeral wouldn’t just be about burying him…but burying a piece of myself too. A part of me that I would never see again.
When I lost my brother, I was proud. I stood in a courtyard at Wake Forest University that was lined with hundreds of police officers, firefighters, military members, EMS workers. When that Caisson passed through the courtyard as everyone rendered a salute…I was proud. When Wait Chapel filled to capacity, I was proud. As “Amazing Grace” blasted out of bagpipes as we escorted his casket out, I was proud. When I was sitting in the limo and looked behind us at the miles and miles that the motorcade stretched out with flashing lights, I was proud. The entire opposite side of the highway stopped. They didn’t have to , but they did. I remember seeing a marine standing on the other side of the highway rendering a salute. Every overpass had a fire truck with the cherry picker extended and an American flag hanging off of it. Every exit we took had K-9 squads, motorcycle teams, EMS teams. It was if the whole world stood at attention for my brother. We passed through a neighborhood. The streets were lined with residents. Children held signs that read “Thank you Officer Willingham” and I cried. There was a 21-Gun salute. Taps played. It was time to go. What now? What happens now?
It’s time for life to resume….I cry. It was as if the Novocain that filled my life had worn off. I felt everything. I was in pain. It was a crippling pain all over my body in parts that I didn’t even know existed. But it was necessary. It was time to keep living, no matter how terrifying that notion was or how painful it was going to be.
When I lost my brother, I became a different person. In many ways, I feel like my life sped up and I became an adult. To this day I think what hurts the most is that I don’t have my brother here to guide me through adulthood. Russell was our rock. I mean, he even helped our other two brothers with their taxes. I can’t take advantage of the lessons he could share. I can’t call him or text him at three in the morning when I’m wasted and ask him something completely irrelevant and silly. I can’t tell him that I love him. I guess the only thing I thought I could do was to try and live up to his example; to do great things, to be great at whatever you do. To always be humble. Always show people respect, even when they probably don’t deserve it. And most of all, just be a decent human being.
When I lost my brother, I promised that in everything I’d do…he would be proud. When I lost my brother, I promised that I would start living…if not for me, than for him.