I've never been much of a whiner. It's just not in my DNA honestly. I'm so much like my grandmother Puddie. When things get brutal I just put my head down and keep on going. Today Chris kept asking "Are you okay?" And to be honest I didn't know if I would get out of bed this morning. But I did. And for a brief moment as I poured freshly ground coffee into my percolator I forgot what today was. I forgot that this day MADE me the person standing in her kitchen, with a pixie cut, a t shirt with a political candidate's name plastered across my chest that was stained with spit up from the 4am feeding, with three little boys under my feet. As Chris walked out the door for a unexpected work shift his words stayed behind. Was I okay? When our baby sitter got here and I told him about today, he asked me again "Are you okay?" images littered my mind as I stood in my living room swaying back and forth soothing Ollie's upset tummy. A broken phone. A trash can pulled out from under a desk. the words "It's okay because..It's okay because.." repeated themselves over and over again in my head "No?" I said. Because the truth is this day isn't okay. It slays me. Every. Single. Year. So I decided it's time for me to really tell the story of the day my brother Ben died. This story is just really messy. People are messy. My life is messy. But this is it:
In 2005 I was 17, and one of 30 kids picked to represent my county and state as a United States Senate Page. It was a HUGE deal. It meant I would spend 5ish months living in a dorm in DC, going to a prep school from 6-9am every morning and then working a 14 hour day on the United States Senate floor. You could actually see me and the other pages on CSPAN, walking around, sitting on the steps of the rostrum. If we weren't running errands or on the Senate Floor, we were in the back hallway of the floor doing our homework (which was about 6 hours a day of homework, for me at least. I am NOT brilliant and school has always been hard for me. And if our grade point average dropped bellow a C we would be sent home, humiliated. No biggie...) I would sit with my nose in my history book next to Hillary Clinton. or Barrack Obama. It was his freshmen year as a Senator. I knew these people you see on Fox News. Not well, but I knew what they smelled like, I knew how they treated their staff, and I knew how they liked their ice water when they were speaking on the floor.
A DAY into the page program I found myself sobbing hysterically, locked in the girls bathroom of my school. The principle had just given this super inspiring speech about how we would come home super stars basically. They would turn us into Ivy League potential. We would be incredibly successful as adults. WE would come home a sliver of the person that had left our home. And this slayed me. I LIKED myself. I was truly happy, just being me. My little brother was at home dying of a heart condition most people had never heard of. I didn't want to come home a different person. I wanted to just be me. Looking back I really think I started grieving that day, and that deep in my heart I knew Ben would die while I was in DC.
The last time I saw Ben was the morning my parents and I flew to DC. It was very early in the morning and Ben was a night owl, so he was still asleep when I came into his room. I climbed into his bed and hugged him close. He woke up and said "Oh Mary Kate, I love you do much" and then we both cried. I think we knew this was the end for our earthly journey. We were 17 months apart. It felt like we were twins much of the time. From the time I could climb I was in his crib. In most of our family pictures I'm right next to him. My favorite place in the world. That place seems so far away now. Ben had been given a few more years to live at the point I left for DC, so it seems so odd I would be so gripped with fear that he would die before I could get home. But now I know my soul knew something my head couldn't.
I struggled for weeks with homesickness. I was gripped with it and couldn't shake it. Which is bizarre because I'm the last person you would think wouldn't be able to just get it together.. I would call home every night, weeping. It didn't help that being a homeschooler I was a little bit of an outcast. Kids can be mean. And 17 year olds are no exception. Looking back I don't blame them for thinking I was a little bit of an odd ball, with my sheltered background (I didn't get my first kiss until I was 18 folks!) my weird hair, and my just slightly out of style clothes, I was probably a little hard to love. Plus, what high school junior really wants to befriend the girl calling home every night in tears?
By the time March 17th rolled around I could see the sunshine starting to peak through my extreme home sickness and fear. The Republican cloak would (which was kind of like page headquarters) allowed me to call home before lunch every single day, to talk to Ben. It made a big difference. And even tho I was still heading to the library to eat my lunch alone, the ice was starting to thaw and I was slowly getting to know my fellow pages a little more.
I usually called Ben before lunch, but for the first time ever I considered calling him after I came back. I decided against it and called him at 930ish his time. He sounded just terrible. He was mad my mama wouldn't let him take a shower until he and our little brother Robin had a devotional with her. (Had Ben taken a shower that day he would have died, alone. Which was one of my sweet mama's biggest fears)
as we talked his tone softened and the edge left his voice. At the end of our conversation we talked about how I would be flying home in exactly one week for my spring break. I said "Just hold on buddy. Hold on. One more week" "I love you Mary Kate" he whispered. "I love you too buddy" and we hung up the phone. I went off to the library for lunch.
30 minutes later Ben, Robin (then 11) were on the couch in our living room in my childhood room. At this time my mama was suffering from horrible back pain that would leave her on the couch, often almost unable to move the pain was so unbearable. My mama started to the read the Bible, and in the middle of it Ben turned to her and said "Mama, I can't feel my heart anymore" and within seconds he passed away in front of her and Robin. I'm weeping as I type this, because everything happened too quickly. One minute Ben was here, and the next he was in glory. My mama told me she just kept saying "No, not yet. Please, please not yet" For Ben to die this way was almost unbearable. No warning. No time to gather his close knit family around him. My daddy was at his office. My older sister in college 3 hours away, and I was a thousand miles away. The timeline of events is still so fuzzy for me, but I know that Robin called my Daddy. I picture my Dad now, racing down the stairs of his office. The ambulance was rounding the town square heading to our house as he raced to his own vehicle. He followed the ambulance the whole drive to our home, to find my sweet mama on the floor with Ben. She had tried to do CPR but the pain from her back had left her almost unable to move him to a hard surface to perform CPR. One of the paramedics snapped at my mama and said "You tried CPR on the couch?! Don't you know you have to perform it on a hard surface!" But Ben was gone, and no amount of CPR would have ever brought him back. Ben was gone. and I was still at lunch, oblivious to the horror my brother and parents were going through.
Let me add in Chris's story here now- Yes the man I'm married to.
Chris was an Iraqi war combat veteran who had moved to my home town to marry a family friend. Chris had taken my little brothers under his wing in the two years we had known him. He Loved my brothers, spent time with them, and enjoyed being a big brother to them. Two days before Ben's death, on Ben's birthday Chris and his best friend Will had actually spent the day with Ben and Robin watching the Incredibles and just having a blast. At this time Chris was in college finishing up his degree, and worked part time at Will's new sandwich and coffee shop, across the side street from my Dad's office.
I have a feeling that one of the first phone calls made after Ben died was to Chris's Father in law, who was a good family friend. Chris's wife at that point was racing to get to Chris to break the news to him that Ben had passed away, but someone else coming from my Dad's office got to him first. Chris was devastated to be told the news, and as soon as he could he headed to my house and was met by my own dad and his father in law. He walked into my parents bedroom to find my mama, who directed him towards her one of her biggest concerns at the moment- Robin. Chris took Robin outside away from all the prying eyes and walked with him all afternoon, without saying much.
My sister had been told the news and was being driven home, with our childhood friend following in Ana Eason's car.
But there was still me. A thousand miles away. I got back from lunch and started in on my homework. After a good hour of homework our supervisor walked through the hall doors. He nonchalantly looked around the hall at all the pages, I assumed looking for a volunteer to run an errand. I instantly perked up, hoping he would pick me. He picked one of my room mates and then said "Uh, Mary Kathryn you can go too I guess. I need you two to head to the dorm and pick up a package for me" An errand, OUTSIDE?! We were thrilled. On the 15 minute walk we talked about our excitement over Spring Break and how I was buying an ipod from another page for Ben's birthday. I didn't even notice when we walked into our dorm that the school secretary whisked my room mate away. I walked into the school office, and was told I had a phone call. I instantly grew concerned that I was being sent home due to a low GPA. They handed me the phone and told me to call my Dad. The phone rang and rang. I sat quietly waiting, assuming that the phone had rung so many times I would get his voicemail. But then he answered. And at the same time I heard his voice I happened to glance up. The office was totally empty, the door closed. And through the glass window I could see all the employees watching me. I felt nausea claw at my throat. "Mary Kate. Mary Kate" I heard. "Noooo" I moaned. Daddy kept saying "It's okay because he didn't suffer Mary kate. It's okay because he didn't suffer Mary Kate" At this point I heard screaming. Blood curdling screams. I glanced around looking for someone else in the office. I realized it was me. He hadn't told me that Ben was actually gone, so I started to slam the phone into the wooden desk, because if the phone was broken, Ben wasn't really gone. The phone shattered into pieces of plastic, and finally the school employees ran in to take the phone from me. "I'm going to throw up. I'm going to throw up!" I kept shouting. Someone pulled out the trash can from under the desk and I lost my lunch. My lunch I'd eaten alone, hiding in the Senate library, reading Jonathan Edward's sermons.
Someone, I can't remember who, told me I had to call my Dad back. And within seconds of someone handing me a new phone, I felt a surreal strength flow into every bone of my broken little body. I got it together. After reassuring my Dad I was okay, I turned to the school secretary and told her I had to go down to the school computers and change my flight. To this day I have NO idea how I changed that flight, or packed my bags to head home. I then headed back up to the capitol to tell my fellow pages goodbye. I shared with them that Ben was gone, shared that my heart was aching inside, but somehow I was able to point the entire situation back to a providential God. Even if my heart was dying inside of me, I still knew one thing. God had not left his throne. When I got back to the dorm, I was greeted by some truly precious people who had befriended me along the way of my journey of being a page. A young married couple who worked for the MS Senator I was sponsored by, and a chief of staff to a MS congressmen. All three had seen my pain, had witnessed my homesickness, and loved me well through it all. To this day those three people are so precious to me. After telling them goodbye I was taken to the airport and boarded my flight alone. I sat next to two burly, middle aged men who both looked like they weren't up for any type of conversation, which was ideal for me. I sat down, numb and broken inside and stared straight ahead. Five minutes into the flight the younger of the two men turned to me and said "You heading home young lady?" "Yes" I whispered. "Home" "Were you on vacation??" He sure was chatty. "I was a page. My little brother passed away this morning. I need to get home" the younger man nodded his head knowingly, and then his friend next to him began to quietly weep. I stared wide eyed, unable to process why this grown man was weeping over this news from a complete stranger. He stopped crying and turned to me "I lost my younger brother in a car accident two years ago today. I know your pain, and I'm crying over the changes you will experience the moment you get off this plane". I didn't understand this kind strangers news then, but ten years later I certainly do.