Chainsaws, Chili Cheese Dogs, and a Mountain Dew

Matt and I spent very little time together when we were younger. He was older than I was and probably had no interest in an annoying snot-nosed little sister, but nevertheless, I thought he was awesome and did everything he said or did. He enlisted in the Air Force when he was seventeen, and several years later, in 2000, I moved to Pennsylvania to go to college. I graduated in 2004 but stayed to begin graduate school. In 2005 I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation, and I moved back to Michigan from Pennsylvania with the help of Matt and my parents. Matt asked me if I wanted to stay at his farmhouse in Lawrence, Michigan with his family and then cleared out a room on the second floor/attic for me to sleep. My room was at the top of the stairs in a side room with no doors; my nephew, Lane, slept in his crib on the other side of the stairway in an open room; my young niece, Samantha, had a large bedroom adjacent to both Lane’s and my rooms. My brother and sister-in-law slept in the only downstairs bedroom in the farmhouse, and they shared that room with my youngest niece, Josie, when she was born. Somehow we made it all work.

His career in the Air Force had ended a few years before, when he saw the impact his dangerous deployments had on his family. It was a difficult decision for him, but one he gladly made knowing he also wanted to pursue education to become a pastor or missionary. While I was living there, Matt would wake up at 3:00AM to do his schoolwork, work from 6:00AM to 6:00PM, eat dinner, and spend time with us until he went to bed. My sister-in-law, Leah, homeschooled my niece, took care of the kids and house, and worked hard to stay on top of everything to make it possible for Matt to graduate as quickly as possible. I kept busy with my own role. When I wasn’t substitute teaching at the Van Buren County Behavioral Education Center, I was picking at least ten different types of fruits on the fifty-acre farm, cutting and splitting firewood to heat the house, mowing and clearing brush, and keeping the kids active outside. Although it seemed we were always moving in different directions, we always time for one another.

Matt and I found our own unique ways to spend time together: Manual labor, food, and Mountain Dew. Typically when we were working alongside each other, it was without much talking because chainsaws were involved, but we connected more through manual labor than anyone could imagine. Fun was reserved for a trip to an actual “drive-up and park” Rootbeer Stand for some chili, cheese, and onion hotdogs. We both had stomach issues and should not have enjoyed those as much as we did. Sometimes, especially on the weekends, Matt would stand up, grab his keys and wallet, and tell me we were going for a ride in his blue, beat-up (that is a bit of an understatement) Chevy pick-up. We would (manually) roll the windows down, turn the music up, and speed down the Red Arrow Highway toward the gas station for a Mountain Dew. Across the street from the gas station was a park where day laborers would take breaks from maintaining and caring for the grape vineyards to play basketball or eat lunch. Matt and I would sit in a parking space facing that small park and talk about life.

My first ride out to the gas station and park was shortly after I moved back to Michigan. Matt had questions about what led up to my hospitalization, and he wanted a guarantee that I would not emotionally scar his children. I never questioned his ability or intention to harm me when he told me that my consequence for traumatizing his kids would be “the worst kind of torture.” While he may have threatened my personal safety, he also listened intently and patiently and asked questions. Matt had an uncanny ability to make me feel as though he heard, saw, and understood me, no matter what I told him; it was easy to share anything with him.


If you were to list all of the traumatic or distressing events in your life and assign a number to them (zero being no distress and ten being the most distressing), you would find that some memories or events hold much more power than others. My therapist at Annie’s House asked me to make a list like that while I was in Utah. After establishing my safe place and making that list, my therapist asked me to choose one of my level four or five events.

I have thought many, many times about how desperately I wanted to go back and fix or change things between Matt and me. I intentionally stepped out of my brother’s life at a time that ended up being just as crucial to him as it was for me. That strain impacted the rest of the events in our lives until his death on June 29, 2018, and I’ve thought about how things would be different if I could go back and change something. That was what I chose to look at.

I sat down in the blue chair that I had labeled “The EMDR Chair” and took a deep breath. After a few minutes of conversation and preparation with my therapist, the small table was placed between us. His tapping and guidance led me in and through sadness, regret, and inner turmoil. I had chosen not to tell Matt about some things that were going on in my life after I moved back to Pennsylvania in 2006. I felt as though I needed to hide because of the shame, guilt, anger, and confusion that controlled me. I rarely called or answered the phone when his name appeared on my phone screen. When Matt and I did talk I was vague, kept the conversation about him, and always had an escape plan to end the conversation. Our relationship faded while both of our lives were secretly falling apart. Matt and I went down our own unique self-destructive paths. Maybe I should have told him what was happening. Maybe I should have trusted him enough to believe he could love me through anything. Maybe if any of those things were true, he would still be alive today. Those “maybe’s” have haunted me.

As I walked through the pain of Matt’s death in my EMDR session, orienting myself felt strange. I was aware of the present moment, where I was, who I was with, and why I was there; however, I was having a conversation with my dead brother. My conversation seemed to be happening in the present moment but in a location and situation that could have only happened in the past. Every time the tapping started, Matt and I were sitting in his truck at the park, and we were drinking Mountain Dew and talking. Every time the tapping stopped, I was sitting in the blue chair with my hands on the table, facing my therapist. It was like a strange, lucid dream.

Our conversation provided me with the opportunity to release the pressure valve on my shame, at least with him. I told him everything I wished that I could have told him before, and it was an oddly easy conversation.

The tapping stopped. My therapist prompted me for the next set of tapping. He asked to think about how Matt would have responded according to his character and who I knew him to be as my brother.

The tapping started. Matt turned in his seat to look at me squarely with a complicated gaze of disappointment, sadness, and compassion and said, “I love you, how can I help?” The last time I saw my brother alive, he pulled me aside while stuffing his mouth with ham and said, “Stop caring so much what other people think about you. Stop worrying so much about disappointing them.” Those were the same words I heard as the tapping stopped.

I opened my burning eyes, and when I did, I couldn’t see through the salty tears. I blinked and felt the warm river flowing down my cheeks, and I was thinking deeply about something I was reminded of during the tapping. Every time Matt and I talked, he would ask me the same thing before saying goodbye.

“You need anything?”

He can’t ask me that question anymore. I can’t go back and change things. I can’t know for sure how he would have responded if I had told him everything. I will never know if maintaining our relationship would have changed his trajectory. I don’t even know if changing his trajectory would have been enough to spare his life. What I do know is that he loved me and would have done anything for me, no matter what. That is what I was able to experience again in my EMDR session.

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