I’ve been meaning to write you for a while now — a long while, actually. There are about four and a half years of updates. I’ll start with here and now (not to be confused with the NPR segment), and follow up with additional important chapters that you might’ve missed. You always lamented the fact that attention spans have gotten shorter, so you’re not allowed to skim!
Here and Now
We’re currently living in a pandemic because of this thing called Coronavirus, which spread from bats to humans sometime last year and has killed tens of thousands. It has sparked some mindblowing idiocracy and few civil wars over toilet paper. There’s also a debate about wearing face masks, which shouldn’t even be a question, but President Trump has taken a rather unscientific and divisive approach to the whole thing.
Yes. You read that correctly: President Trump. I know what you’re thinking: “Sarah, as in…Donald Trump? The orange-tinted-racist-Oompa-Loompa-Esque-moron who had a reality TV show?” That’s the one. The country swung hard and far after Obama.
Anyway, the Coronavirus is still raging, John Prine died, and I cried a lot. Have you seen John Prine up there? How’s he look? Have you jammed? Is your guitar always in-tune in heaven?
Black Lives Matter
In the midst of the coronavirus, George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was murdered by a White policeman as several other cops stood by, sparking a new wave of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This came shortly after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and thousands of others.
The Movement is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed or been a part of. John, we fucked up. How is it that we never discussed our Whiteness? Our privilege? Growing up, I knew we were fortunate. Still, I did not know that we were part of a carefully crafted system, designed by White men to directly uplift our race as they built an unequal and intentionally oppressive society on the backs of Black people.
I’ve been rethinking, relearning, and discovering how to be an ally. I’ve been watching footage that makes my heart want to explode in anguish and reading books that make me cringe in angst. I have (gladly) lost friends in light of unbridgeable differences as we take our stands on opposite sides of history. I remind myself that my pain of waking up isn’t even a fraction of what Black people have had to endure — not just in America — but around the world…for centuries.
If you were here, I know you’d be with me, challenging the system and everything we thought we knew. Hell, you’d be busting out the Risk figurines to help coordinate protests and amplify Black voices. Keep an eye out for me if I get arrested, would ya? Most of the cops are dicks.
June 4, 2020, was a doozy. It was my 33rd birthday, and the first time I’d turn older than you. Sounds weird, huh? The day I became older than my older brother. It will never be right or fair that you died at 32. It wasn’t until this past birthday that I understood how young you were when you were diagnosed. The realization brought on a new phase of grief and a shift in perspective. You seemed so much older than me, even after death, until I turned older than you.
These days, I try to live with my grief on autopilot to make others more comfortable. Most people don’t like hearing about dead brothers…go figure. I used to talk about what your death taught me about living, but those who do not understand loss assumed that when I spoke about you, it was out of sadness — not celebration. I think they were worried I’d get my sad on them.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, sadness is mixed with celebration. It’s a strange hybrid of emotions. Example: Did you know that your incredible friends finished your album? (They joked that the only way it’d ever get finished was if you died and someone else had to do it.) We had a listening party in Portland, with just your hat, suitcase, and vinyl on stage.
That song you wrote about Katie gutted me. You know — the one about pushing her away after the doctor told you your cancer was Stage IV?
“Longest road I’ve ever known
It’s better I walk this road alone
Guard your heart,
Your friends are right.
Get out while you can, girl,
It’s not your fight.
Now more than ever I wish you’d stay,
I won’t ask you that,
I already know what you’re going to say.”
You know she would have stayed.
The album is GOOD, John. I hope you can hear it.
When the sadness does come, I’m alone. I’m reliving the smell of the hospital, the feeling of your clammy skin after chemo, helping you up the stairs when you became too weak to walk, and hearing the words you said as you cried…
“Fuck. I don’t want to die, but the only thing I can do is march head-on into this as bravely as possible.”
And that’s what you did, often to your detriment. Dang, you could be one stubborn asshole.
I’ve been hiking a lot more. Sometimes, at the top of a mountain, I want to feel your presence so badly I practically suffocate the moment. I stand there desperately waiting for you to show me a sign that you’re near, so I have another memory of you to hold on to…something fresh for my fading John archives.
“Give me a bird! A gust of wind! Anything!”
Then, I’ll whip around, as if perhaps I just missed you. You’re never there, and that’s okay. You weren’t the type of person to act on demand.
Immediately after you died, my dreams of you were awful…no offense. You were still cancer-ridden, with short hair, cracked lips, and sallow skin. I always woke up sad, wondering whether it was “you” or just my subconscious processing.
Then, two nights ago, I saw you healthy for the first time in my dream. I’m pissed at myself for not writing down the details as soon as I woke up, but I remember you were assembling something large, and you were busy. We didn’t talk. I kept hoping you’d look at me because I knew it was rare and unusual to see you — alas, you were fixated on the task.
I hope that’s what you’re doing now, wherever you are…building something from a dream. Being busy. Buzzing around the universe as a “wild-haired Cadillac-driving bank robber,” (if we’re using John rhetoric).
Anyway, now that we’ve covered some current affairs, my most recent birthday, and your posthumous album release, here’s a semi-chronological account of what else has happened over the past four and a half years:
A Slew of Updates
I fell in love once, and he died with a needle in his arm. You would have liked him, besides the minor heroin-addiction-thing.
I’m in my seventh year of sobriety. I’ve struggled with willingness a few times, usually when I’m not careful and start romanticizing my former life. The illusion quickly fades.
I fell in love for a second time. This guy’s name was “Kenny,” (inside joke with Dad), and he had another woman. I wouldn’t find out until I’d already wasted years feeling like something wasn’t right. You probably would have insisted on kicking his ass, and I would have said, “That’s okay,” but fully appreciated the big brotherly gesture.
Our sister, Katharine, is a little over 18 months sober. Can you believe it? She’s working construction and still slays harmonica along with anything else remotely musical that she touches. Last night she played a (COVID-friendly) show with your guitar.
Oh, and we spread your ashes as you wished:
Dan and Kate picked up your money tree from Mom, who, by the way, is moving out west! What an uncharacteristic and bold move by Nancy Pants Fountain. Jordan, Luke, Tony, Katie, Iris, Alicia +Will, Will Li and I stay in touch. I always think about how happy that would make you.
I worry about Dad — a lot. Always. You know how he is.
I got fired from my job for calling my boss a dick, (among other things), which we absolutely would have shared high-fives over. I started my own lil’ marketing biz and it’s been flourishing for two years. I live in Colorado, and I know you despised Boulder, but I promise — there are good humans here.
Leaving Maine terrified me because memories of you were so easy to access. One breakfast sandwich from Otherside Deli could bring you to the forefront of my mind. One glimpse at a sailboat and I could almost see you at the helm.
Even though it becomes harder to remember you, I carry on much of what you taught me:
I have fully embraced your appreciation for good food, I often eat dessert first, and I seize adventure even if I have no plan whatsoever. I fight for everything that matters, and sometimes even when it doesn’t.
I try to use my GPS less and maps more, I try to put my car keys in the same place every day, and I mush avocado before putting it on my toast. I take time to listen to good music, and I remember there is absolutely no excuse to be uneducated in today’s world. (Dude, you should hear the conspiracy theorists today…yikes.)
Love you, John, and I miss you something fierce. Feel free to visit anytime.
Your Always Younger but also Older Sister,
PS: I have awful news about Tom Brady. It involves Florida. I’ll tell you in the next one…