Tomorrow is the probably the most bittersweet day of the year for me. It’s the 23rd anniversary of my brother Bradley’s death.
He was 16 months old and just started walking and talking.
He called me Nonna. My fondest memory of him was when our brother, Bryan, would dump him in my bed at 5:30 every morning because he was crying. He would snuggle up next to me and nod back off.
Oh, I miss those cuddles. That sweet baby who often preferred me to Momma. The dance parties he had on the kitchen table.
And the walks we took every afternoon to see the ducks.
Every afternoon when I arrived home from school, he would waddle up to me and say, “Duck, duck.” We’d get his stroller and stroll on down to the neighborhood boat dock to feed them bread scraps.
But this afternoon was different. I had a test the next day and I was stressing about it. I don’t remember the subject or if I ever even took the test.
I pushed him away and said we would go later to see the ducks.
I remember it was really warm that day, like a March day before a storm system blew through. Mom was on the phone with her sister in Dad’s office. Dad was prepping a shipment in the garage.
It was a pretty typical afternoon at the Johnson house. Doors and windows open. Kids running around.
Everyone thought someone else was watching Bradley.
And then Mom walked in. “Where’s Bradley?” she asked.
We called 911, just in case. Dad handed me and Bryan a picture and told us to start knocking on doors. For the next 30 minutes, we asked everyone if they had seen our baby brother. No one had.
Bryan and I rounded the block and saw the worst sight we’d ever seen. Our mom was crumpled next to an ambulance. There is no other word to describe it. She was folded in half. Her face distorted in pain.
I saw Dad up ahead and asked him what happened. He said, “They found Bradley in the water. They are trying to revive him.”
We were ushered home and the details are blurry from here. All I can remember is sitting with my brother and four sisters waiting with our grandmother in the living room.
I remember praying. I don’t remember the words, but I do remember that it was the first time I prayed on my own. I begged God to save our brother.
The next thing I remember is waking up thinking things were ok. I walked sleepily into the living room and saw the saddest look on my dad’s face. He looked like the life had drained out of him. Like his soul had been sucked away. Mom was frozen. Her hands were clasped. The TV was on, but no one was watching it.
I think some of the other kids joined us. And we asked, “Is Bradley ok?”
And Dad answered, “No, he’s gone to heaven.”
A thousand questions flooded my 10-year-old mind. But the biggest one was, “Why?”
I would hear that question resounding in my head and from my mom’s room for the next two years. I knew from that moment on, life would be different. Very different.
I didn’t feel like a kid anymore. I often say that that’s the day I grew up.
The next few days were filled with ham platters, casseroles and shopping for funeral clothes.
I remember telling Momma I wasn’t going. Her sister was going to stay with me. I was scared to say goodbye to my brother. It hurt too much. Funerals were spectacles. I remembered that from when Momma’s mother passed a few years before. Cold and creepy events.
I wasn’t wrong. The smell of carnations was intoxicating in that sickly way. It lingered in my memory for weeks. I still can’t be around a lot of flowers at one time. It’s the smell of death in my mind.
I tell you this story because it’s good to remember the hard times in our lives. These are the moments that shape who we are.
I can’t begin to understand why my brother’s life was so short, but I thank God for every single moment our family had with him.
I can also tribute my brother’s life with opening the seeds of faith in my life. I know Jesus was right there walking along beside us. He gave me a strength I didn’t know I had.
Some of the hardest times came after those three sad days. My mother hurt so badly. She was so angry. Dad was so strong on the outside, but you could see the despair in his eyes.
I don’t remember doing this, but Momma said I came to her and asked her to come back to us. To be our mom. And she picked herself up.
I know Jesus was holding my hand when I said that.
I also know He never let hope leave my life. Even in my deepest pain. Those moments when it felt like it was bad to laugh, he gave me hope.
Hope that things would get better. That Momma would stop crying all the time. That I would stop crying myself to sleep.
Romans 5: 2-5 (NIRV) says it best:
Through faith in Jesus we have received God’s grace. In that grace we stand. We are full of joy because we expect to share in God’s glory. And that’s not all. We are full of joy even when we suffer. We know that our suffering gives us the strength to go on. The strength to go on produces character. Character produces hope. And hope will never let us down. God has poured his love into our hearts. He did it through the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us.
Suffering hurts. But separation from hope hurts more. I’m so grateful God gives us hope as a gift. Bradley was a gift to our family. I don’t know why he left us so soon, but as my grandmother used to say, “God called him home.”
A wise lady I met a year or so ago gave me the best encouragement on why my little brother left this world so soon. She said his soul was too perfect for this world.
I don’t claim to be an authority on perfect souls. I do know that I love my brother and know he has a purpose in God’s kingdom.
I know my brother is not just in a better place, but the best place. He’s at the feet of Jesus. A place I can only begin to imagine.
But the impression Bradley left on my life is one of hope and perseverance. I miss him so much, but my hope and faith is that he’ll be one of the first people I see when it’s my time.
I also know this – I can spend every March 4th mourning his lost earthly life or I can remember the sweet moments and celebrate that his life helped me find the source of all hope and strength. I choose celebration and hope. Because if God is for us, who can be against us?