I knew something was wrong when I received this Facebook message from a police officer:
Ashley are you related to andrew bethard ? Can you please contact me at the sandusky police department tomorrow between 6a and 6p . . . [phone number redacted] . . . I'm trying to get ahold of a family member related to andrew bethard . . . my name is ofc [name redacted] badge # [redacted] . . . i know this is an odd way to communicate but seemed easiest at the moment
First, there was the pause. The stillness of my body in that moment. The air rushing out of my lungs. The prick of stress chemicals spiking in my bloodstream. Forgetting to breathe, as if refusing to allow my biology to continue would prevent bad news, or keep the panic from setting in.
I wrote back: Hi [name redacted], he is my brother. Can you tell me if he is okay? I have been trying to reach him for over 24 hours.
I pushed away the icy feeling in my stomach. It was the same icy feeling I had going on two days when I hadn’t heard back from him. My text messages had gone unanswered, and calls went straight to voicemail. I tried reasoning with myself: This had happened before, many times. Days gone by with no contact. Eventually he would call back, telling me he was sick, or tired of the ceaseless inquiries from well-meaning but annoying family members, and had turned his phone off for a while. In more serious cases, my mother would call with bad news: He was in the hospital, recovering from an infection or illness or suspected overdose. She never used that word exactly. She danced around it, like she didn’t want to believe. The end result had always been the same: He was okay, or he was not okay, but he was alive.
The officer’s next message was can you call me on my cellphone, and at that moment I knew the icy feeling was there for a reason: The moment I dreaded for years. I grabbed a pen and paper and called. With shaking breath, I remind myself how to breathe: Deep in, long exhale. Maybe it’s not that. Maybe. What if? Could he be okay? Let him be okay.
When the officer answers, I identify myself: Yes, I am Andrew’s sister. I have been trying to reach him for over 24 hours .
Is he okay? I ask.
The officer dodges my question, but starts to say something. A non-answer.
Is he alive? I ask, interrupting him. He went quiet.
He was found— he paused, interrupting himself to clear his throat. He has passed.
I gasp. I don’t remember any other sound, just the memory of my drying mouth dropping open. My body felt deflated. I felt separate from it, like my soul had been shocked a thousand miles into space. I slid to the floor, holding the phone to my ear with one hand, and placed the other on the hardwood planks in front of me, my eyes fixated on the grain and worn spots of varnish. I tried to steady myself but also tried to sink, letting the rest of my weight drop, give up, collapse. I wanted to scream. I wanted to be off the phone so I could wail and beat my fists against the floor of this house that Andrew hadn’t yet seen. The house he promised he’d visit soon.
An OD, the officer said. But there was something strange about it, the way the body was positioned, he said. He would not give me any specifics. There was no suspicion of foul play, but it appeared that someone else was there. His body had been found with two opened bags of white powder. Heroin, we think, the cop said. He went on. I wondered if he was afraid to end the conversation, to leave me alone. A part of me was desperate for his kindness.
He told me that he couldn’t find a way to contact either of my parents, though he told me their names and the cities they live in. At the same time, my phone began to buzz with an incoming call. It was my father. I ignored it.
So my parents don’t know? I asked. I felt my anger rising. I cannot tell my mother. I can’t tell her, I plead. You need to call her tomorrow.
I go on to explain, with the misguided logic of those who don’t comprehend the reality of a situation. She is in bed right now because she works early. She starts work sometime around 5 a.m . I gave him her cell number. I knew he wouldn’t call.
The officer told me more. We, ah, knew Andrew, he said, rattling on about his brushes with the law.
I’m sure, I said. He had his fair share of trouble.
After I got off the phone, I called my father. He already knew something was wrong—the same cop had messaged my cousin in Arkansas looking for connections to Andrew, and she had called him. It’s true, I sobbed. I told him I just got off the phone with the cops, and that I’m driving home tomorrow. I told him mom doesn’t know, that I couldn’t bear to wake her up. I didn’t think to ask him to tell her. He was calm, but his sighs were full of the devastation he was afraid to let out. I’ll be on my way home tomorrow, too, he said. Let me know when you get home.
I didn’t know what to do. I put away my groceries. I paced. I sat down. I stood up. I paced. My emotions vacillated between peace that he is at peace, and panic that he is gone. I will not have him anymore. I began taking inventory of all the things that were gone forever. The long, jumbled text messages and rambling voicemails with bits and pieces of his voice distorted by shitty reception. Phone calls with tears or Heyyy, what’s up or I’m okay or even I’m not okay. Every conversation we will never have again. I don’t get to say I love you anymore.
But my own grief is interrupted, tempered by another shock of panic: I had to tell my mother. I have to go home. I want to go home. I want to go nowhere. To go anywhere. To run away from this.
I climbed into the bathtub. I wailed. I sobbed. No, I said. Over and over. No no no . My body felt like it was purging itself, rejecting this new reality. I let out long low utterances that turned into a high-pitched whine. I scared myself, the unfamiliar noises bouncing off the plastic molding. I didn’t recognize myself. The grief was an animal that had taken over my body. So this is what this sounds like.
All the other times are light-years away. They mean nothing at all, because this time my brother is dead.
The next day I went to work, and I was sent home by my concerned boss, and briefed on the family death leave policy by a kind HR officer. I sat there stunned, nodding, unable to make much eye contact without tears. I went home and stuffed clothing and toiletries into a suitcase, then sat on the couch, staring at the phone on the coffee table. It was after 10 a.m. and I needed to call my mother. I tried texting and calling her cellphone, but she didn’t respond. Finally, I called her job, telling the receptionist to please page her.
What’s going on, she asked immediately.
I told her to sit down.
Just tell me, she said.
Are you sitting down? I asked.
No, just tell me, she said, as if the refusal to sit was a way to ward off what was coming.
Andrew is dead, I said, and I squeezed my eyes shut, bracing my body for a full hurricane.
She gasped and let out a trembling ohhhhhhhh right before the wail that turned my bones to rubber.
Andrew struggled with mental illness and addiction for more than half of his life. This reaction—hitting pause on panic, then talking myself out of the possibility of anything too terrible or irreversible—was one of my steadfast coping mechanisms. This is what more than a decade in crisis mode looks like: The pause, my version of a prayer, a moment to take stock of the universe, and let myself remain suspended there, but also a dizzying reminder that I was not, in fact, in control of it.
One time when I was at college, my mother called me, wanting to know if I heard from my brother. It was an Ohio winter evening, the kind of winter where it’s dark by 5 p.m. and the nights swallow most of the season. I told her I had; he visited me earlier that day. He was sixteen years old with a newly-minted driver’s license, and I was just a forty-minute drive from home. He called me first, asking if he could come, assuring me he had asked our mother and she was fine with it. He wasn’t answering his phone, she told me. None of his friends have seen him.
Later that night, she called back. Andrew had been in an accident. He slipped off a snowy back road and crashed into a utility pole, snapping it in two. The top half landed on the car, power lines dragging along the ground. He was found by someone who lived nearby, who saw the crash and trudged through the snow to see if he needed help. They found him passed out drunk at the wheel, empty beer cans littering the floor. Later that week, after visits to several doctors and therapists, he told us it had been a suicide attempt.
Moments like this were a normal part of high school and college for me. My mother lived alone with my brother and would call me in tears with the latest crisis: Andrew snuck out and took my car last night. Andrew overdosed on pills and is in the hospital. I need you to come home this weekend. I can’t handle this. It became a pattern: I would drive home after the latest incident to provide emotional support, and to keep an eye on him. A brother I loved, but who was surly and disagreeable and constantly testing boundaries. I watched his anger spill over into shouting matches. He refused to take his medicine, a cocktail of antidepressants and psychotropic drugs that he insisted were ruining his life. He would fight with my mother, call her names, and scoff at my authority, which I lacked. I was helpless, but at least I was there.
At the time, I didn’t think to ask who I was there for, or why. It was obvious to me. My parents were separated, their marriage dissolving. My mother was alone. My father spent most of the year several states away, living in the house I grew up in. She needed me, so I was there. I told myself, this is what families do. I didn’t question it.
A few months before he died, on a freezing winter day, I went to see him. I bought us everything bagels loaded with cream cheese from Dunkin’ Donuts and we took our food back to his small, cold apartment. It was my first time at his new place, the third place he lived in less than a year.
The house was on Wayne Street in Sandusky. In the projects, he called it. It was a large house, but only large enough to hold three or four apartments comfortably. When we got to the steps, I noticed the mailboxes. There were several, more than ten, and at least seven of them were recently marked for current tenants. The outside door was locked. It was a two-key system: one to the external door to keep people out, and another individual key to get into the apartment. The outside stairs, with its peeling paint and brittle wood, seemed like a good candidate for rot or termites. Walking inside the small, cramped foyer, I was immediately hit with the smell of mold and cigarette smoke and cat piss.
He offered me a seat: The large recliner with a small table in front of it, where he’d normally sit. He sat on the edge of his twin bed, fidgeting. We ate mostly in silence, his hands shaking as they pulled apart the bagel. The slow way he moved a piece to his mouth and took small, uncertain bites, as though he were testing an unsteady stomach. We were both trying for normalcy, but he was more quiet than usual. Nothing I said was enough to shake him from the deep place he was stuck in. What would normally be laughter was replaced with a small half-smile and silence.
It was vastly different from how our visits used to be, chain-smoking cigarettes on the porch, talking about life. He wanted to know everything about my job, my writing, my boyfriend. He’d talk about his latest job or job search, or share stories about people he knew in prison. We’d remind each other of childhood memories and complain about our parents. I’d take him grocery shopping and we’d load the cart with loaves of bread and gallons of milk for him to freeze, canned goods, anything boxed and pre-packaged, loaded with preservatives so it would stay edible for a while. I’d pay the $150 grocery bill and we’d leave, him buoyant, relieved at the fact that he had one less thing to worry about that day. I’d drop him off, and within an hour he’d send me photos and texts of the massive feast he made for himself.
But the last visit was dark. The stained wallpaper curling from years of neglect. Battered doors in all directions. The uncertainty of his trembling body, the way he ran to the bathroom after eating—all of it points to a body being consumed by addiction, a precursor to his death. His cupboards were mostly bare, but he didn’t seem to care. Now, the memory is sharp, stained by an unflinching reality: This is where my brother spent his last days. This is where my brother died.
Two days after he died, on a hot May day, my parents and I went to clean out his apartment. The kitchen was filthy. Dirty dishes towered in the sink, crusted over with remnants of rotting food. The oven was coated with a mixture of blackened grease and burnt food. His cupboards were not completely empty, and I thought, well, at least he didn’t die hungry. But I saw the strangest thing: In the cupboard above the sink, there were several boxes of opened macaroni and cheese. The noodles were there but the cheese packets were missing, and despite the zombie-like sadness that had taken over my body, I laughed.
There were vases of dead flowers in murky water, surrounded by their dropped petals that had started to curl. There was a cup of coffee and a bowl of vegetable soup, just a thin layer of broth and two string beans remaining. The makeup bag was in the bathroom and the clothes were folded and put away in the makeshift wardrobe system he had devised—some plastic drawer sets, a tall, skinny wooden tower of drawers that my mother had given to him, some plastic storage bins.
All of this was there. Why wasn’t he? How couldn’t he be? All I could think was interruption. There has been an interruption. This was not supposed to happen. As we were going through his things, through his life, I expected him to walk through the door at any moment, pissed off. What the fuck are you guys doing? he’d yell. Can’t anyone stay the fuck out of my business?
And we’d laugh and try to calm him down as he huffed and puffed, his face red and eyes wide, pushing the sweat up off his face and through his hair, until we were all laughing together. You wouldn’t believe this, we’d tell him, but they said you were dead.
Bitches be tripping, he’d say, rolling his eyes.
When I think about my brother now, I think of that apartment. It’s a loop I’m stuck in, playing on repeat in my mind. I’ve heard plenty of superstitions about ghosts haunting places they’re attached to, especially if they don’t get closure. But what about a place as a ghost, this apartment haunting me? It’s become the physical location of my grief. I still visit when I’m in town, slowly driving up and down Wayne, staring up at the large bay window that was his, the window he once lined with candles and books. His favorite part of his apartment.
Instead, we do the things we do for the dead. Except I realize I have no idea how to do any of those things. Death is a direct assault on everything I believe. I’ve been so privileged, moving through the world for so long relatively unscathed, with precise expectations about how things will be handled in times of mortal crisis. There’s very little intuition to go on. My own ignorant expectation was that others would swoop in to help take care of it. To help clean up. To clean out the apartment, to go through the documents, to decide what to keep and what to give away, to find and identify the body, to slog through all the endless, stupid decisions at the funeral home. To bury or to cremate? To host a public or private viewing? To host a memorial or not?
The funeral director gently warned against viewing the body. He told us that because of how Andrew was positioned in death—slumped forward, face down—that lividity had set in, the blood pooling and congealing in his face. There is a lot of dark bruising , he said. My father’s natural indignation was softened by sadness. Instead of rage, he said quietly, We need to see him. To say goodbye. The funeral director nodded, but I read the uncertainty on his face. I’ll do the best I can, he said.
We had a private viewing: me, my parents, and my aunt who had flown in to be with my mother. My aunt, who had lost her own son—my cousin Zach—eight months earlier in a car accident. The viewing room was large, made to hold a crowd, the winding lines of people waiting to pay their respects. It felt too big for the four of us and Andrew’s body. His hair was neatly brushed back into a style he would have hated, but I appreciated the careful tidiness of it. Despite the heavy makeup, parts of his face looked like a mottled bruise. The black and purple showed through on his cheeks and temples and I wanted to cry: My beautiful, bruised brother.
His hands were clasped together, his black nail polish chipped. All of his rings were on, and this brought me some comfort. I lay my hands on top of his for the last time. I talked to him in a hushed voice. I didn’t cry until my father walked up and wrapped his arm around me, squeezing my shoulder. He had such a hard life, my father whispered. Such a hard life. I gasped, my mouth twisted open in silence. I was one breath from wailing, one exhale from making every sound my body could muster. I leaned over the casket with tears streaming down my face. They dripped onto my brother’s body, his hands, my hands.
After, we went to one of my brother’s favorite spots: Shoreline Park on the Sandusky waterfront. The rock formations jutted out into the bay, the boulders crusted with gull shit, but we sat anyway. I stared off into the water, looking for the part where the bay turned into Lake Erie, even though I knew my eye was not trained nor my memory of the place solid enough, because it gave me something to focus on.
This was the place my brother and I reconciled a few years earlier, after months of not talking. I took a photo of the two of us that day, both of us smiling at the camera. He is perfectly centered, looking directly at the lens, and I am leaning in toward him, my head tilted. We’re standing on rocks that are out of frame, but behind us you can see the ethereal specter where water and sky run together. On that day, he seemed happier than I’d seen him in years. His expression is gentle. For once, he doesn’t look like a person constantly at war with himself, with the world.
My aunt finally broke our silence. Let’s get a drink, she said. We went to a bar down the street, where she promptly ordered a round of Fireball. Let’s do a shot, she said. Half to Andrew, half to Zach. To Andrew, may you finally be in peace. To Zach, may you lead the way.
Later that night, we had a bonfire in the backyard. We turned the house upside down, filling bags and boxes with things to burn. I cleaned out the filing boxes in my childhood room, tossing several years’ worth of old financial statements, college papers, and books beyond repair into the flames. My father brought out fireworks and built a makeshift launchpad out of cinder blocks and bricks. He lined the paper tubes up neatly. After lighting them with my mother’s lighter, he darted away with a speed that betrayed his age, a movement that was almost childlike. They began sizzling, a fast-paced crackle, followed by a whizzing whistle and POP, and off they went, glorious streaks of light arcing across the cornfield, and we watched them explode against the pitch-black sky. What a world, I thought, that could be so full and so empty at once .