Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Independence Day"

     On the evening of July 4, 2001, I finished the holiday celebration with friends. On the drive home, I put in Bruce Springsteen’s CD, “The River.”  Having listened to this record a hundred times, the songs were familiar. On this night for some reason, I was drawn into the lyrics of his song, “Independence Day.” Bruce, in his soul-filled style sang, “So, won’t you just say goodbye, it’s Independence Day.”
     On July 4, 1999 my mother and my stepfather were hosting a barbeque for friends at their home in California. At 9:00 p.m., with no warning, my mother quickly stood up, vomiting her entire meal. It was 10:00 p.m., Colorado time. The next night, a chaplain came to their door.
     I was at my home sitting in bed reading when at 11:09 p.m., on July 5 the telephone rang. My husband answered the phone and said it was my mother. Concerned, I walked to my desk and sat down to answer the call. My mother’s voice shook in agony and despair as she told me, “Ross committed suicide last night.”
     I fell off my chair, fainted. With my husband stirring me, I regained consciousness. I could hear my brother’s voice telling me, “I’m free, Debbie, I’m free.” 
    During the afternoon of July 5, I was driving alone in my car, not yet consciously aware my brother’s life ended. I began crying unexpectedly, needing to pull to the side of the road. I apologized to my brother, for all the terrible things I did to him while we were growing up. I begged him to forgive me for being such a horrible sister. After 30 minutes, I began driving again. Somehow, a part of me knew what my brother did last night.
     One year before Ross’ death, I dreamed of his death. In my dream, Ross was shot in the heart. He was wearing a blue and green Pendleton shirt, Levi’s 501 blue jeans with a brown leather belt and brown leather lace-up work boots. It was an extremely painful dream. My mother and I carried Ross’ body to the coroner’s office in the middle of the night. I remember being overcome with fatigue and grief, causing me to drop Ross’ ankles to the ground. After awakening, I was tremendously upset. For weeks, I cried about the dream. At the time of Ross’ death, I realized my dream warned me what would become a painful reality.
     July 7th, my mother and I flew to Colorado to gather Ross’ belongings and have his body flown home. When we arrived in Colorado, we spoke with Mike, my brother’s roommate. Mike told me about the dinner he and Ross attended on July 3rd, with his parents and a few friends. Mike said Ross was having a great time, laughing and sipping a cold beer.
     Ross began a new job as a machinist and was excited to begin. Peter, his friend, helped him get this job. Mike’s father told Ross his new company might not pay for this holiday, as Ross was a new employee. Ross leaned his tall frame back in his chair and with outstretched arms announced it did not matter because, “Tomorrow is my day of independence!”
     One week earlier, Ross telephoned Russell, a longtime friend, back home and asked about his plans for the July 4th holiday. When Russell asked Ross what he would be doing, Ross responded, “July 4th sounds like a good day to die, don’t you think?” The day before Ross’ funeral, I learned of this conversation.
     My mother and I went to Ross’ previous place of employment, where he’d worked several years. We thanked his former boss and employees for the condolence flowers they sent. I toured the windowless machinist warehouse with Mike, who also worked there. I took mental note of the untidy, drab and depressing surroundings.
     Mike led me to the back of the warehouse, showing me where my brother sat at a table alone, for hours into the night, pounding on tiny bits of metal. Ross performed this tedious work for a penny per piece, trying to make ends meet. Picturing my large, strong, proud brother bent over this table for hours into the night, instead of sleeping for his next day’s work, was more than I could bear. I turned and silently walked away.
     From there, my mother and I drove to Ross’ new place of employment, where he worked just one day. His new supervisor was dumbfounded with my brother’s decision to end his life. Steve, my brother’s new employer told us he searched for years for the person with Ross’ machinist capabilities.
     When Steve met Ross, he hired him instantly. He made sure Ross had the “best seat in the house”, with his work table directly under a skylight. On Ross’ desk was his very own coffee mug, engraved with his name. Steve made sure the mug was sitting on Ross’ desk the first day he began work.
     This new place of employment was immaculate, complete with white shiny floors. Steve rolled Ross’ large Snap-On toolbox from the warehouse and handed my mother the keys. He said he would have it shipped free of charge to the location of her choosing. I took Ross’ mug with us.
Ross gave Peter a work apron, thanking him for setting up his new job. Ross dropped the apron off at Peter’s front door step on the afternoon of July 4th. Peter was not home at the time, however, when he returned, he found the apron and card.
     As I walked into Ross’ bedroom, I could feel his presence. I stood at the side of his bed, gazing at the indents still on his pillows. I struggled with the knowledge he recently laid his strong, seemingly indestructible body at this very spot, sleeping.
     My mother and I donated his clothing to charity. I neatly folded his clothing, which was still in the dryer. Over the years, my mother sent Ross many Pendleton shirts. As I touched each one, I could feel my continued connection to Ross. On his leather belt, looped through a pair of Levi’s 501 blue jeans, I found his old high school belt buckle. Being less than one year older, I instantly envisioned this same belt buckle as my brother walked with determination down the halls of our former high school.
     Finished tidying Ross’ bedroom, I rounded the corner of his office, stopping dead in my tracks. The brown leather lace-up work boots, Ross was wearing in my premonition dream, were in the doorway to his office, facing me. I called to my mother, who was in the living room with Mike. I pointed to the boots and she said, “These are the boots from your dream.” 
     I walked into Ross’ office and in front of his desk pinned to the wall, was the letter I sent him two months prior, April 30th. My letter was written in response to awakening out of a sound sleep. Out of that sleep, I was compelled to send Ross the following message: “Dear Ross, You are frequently on my mind and I could not let another day pass without telling you how much I love you and how much I miss you. I am proud to have you as my brother. I am looking out my window at the brightest of stars, (it’s actually a planet), and wondering if you see it, too. I have asked it to watch over you. Love, Deb.” Included with the card was a photograph of Spencer, my son. Ross stapled Spencer’s picture to the top of my letter. I removed the card from the wall and put it in my pocket.
     My brother estranged himself from the blood relatives he’d known since his birth, seven years prior. When the urge to write him awakened me in the middle of the night, I didn’t realize the vital importance of reaching out to him. From then to the time of his death, we corresponded by mail weekly. I could hardly believe we once again made a connection therefore, I anxiously awaited the arrival of his letters.
     Saturday afternoon, June 26th, Ross telephone at 2:10. He said he was calling to say, “Hello.” Given the fact we had not talked in over three years, this was unusual. Ross, fascinated with animals of any kind, was excited to say he and Peter were going to see live tigers. The tigers were brought to town for a promotional exhibit at a furniture store. Eight days later, my brother was dead. After he died, I realized he actually called to tell me, “goodbye.”
     I believe Ross died of a destroyed heart. His marriage ended three years prior and for whatever reason he was unwilling or unable to seek help for his emotional devastation. When Ross married at age 22, he told me he would never divorce. Taking his own life was Ross’ way of fulfilling his promise.
     On the night of July 4, 1999, Ross drove his car to a secluded area in Salida, Colorado, two hours from his home. The Spanish translation for Salida is “exit.” He duct-taped one end of a pliable hose into the rear driver side window of his car and attached the other end to the tailpipe. Sitting in the driver’s seat, Ross neatly placed his wallet next to himself, setting his watch on the dashboard. He laid his book, We the Living, by Ayn Rand, on the passenger seat. With a full tank of gasoline he started the engine, kissing his life and his loved ones goodbye.
     I drove my brother’s car back to his apartment, marveling at the smoothness of the ride. I followed my mother, who drove the rental car in front of me. My mother could not handle seeing me in the driver’s seat of Ross’ car. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the heater of his classic car, so I called to his spirit for help. A moment later, I could feel the warmth of his spiritual arm around my shoulders. He kept me company during the two-hour drive back to his doorstep.
     It took two years to just say goodbye to my brother. July 4th will never have the same meaning to me. Although finally saying goodbye to Ross was horribly painful, I know one day we will be together again.

In loving memory of Ross Edwin Patterson,
My brother
Born: March 30, 1961, Martinez, CA.
Died: July 4, 1999, Salida, CO.

“I’m Free”
Author unknown

Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free
I’m following the path God laid for me.
I took His hand when I heard Him call
I turned my back and left it all.

I could not stay another day
To laugh, to love, to work or play.
Tasks left undone must stay that way
I found that place at the close of day.

If my parting has left a void
Then fill it with remembered joy.
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss
Ah yes, these things, I too will miss

Be not burdened with times of sorrow
I wish you the sunshine of tomorrow.
My life’s been full I savored much
Good friends, good times, a loved one’s touch.
Perhaps my time seemed all too brief
Don’t lengthen it now with undue grief.
Lift up your heart and share with me
God wanted me now, He set me free.

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