Updated: Jul 29, 2021
It was Saturday July 10th 2021. I’d been waiting for this day to come for an entire year, and now that it was here, I was having trouble getting myself to finish packing. I was sitting on my back porch steps watching my two corgis play when I first saw a large monarch butterfly. With grace, his wings floated above the grass. My puppy had spotted it now and was clumsily frolicking after it innocently curious. It looked like something out of a Disney movie. It was so cute. I waited to watch the butterfly soar out of sight before I took the puppies inside and head back to my reality. I had an entire week up in Northern Minnesota at Gull Lake with family to look forward to. This usually was something I’d be rushing off to join, but this time there was something different. Something permanently different.
Someone would be missing.
The COVID-19 pandemic kept us from having a traditional funeral for my stepbrother Johnny because he lived in Texas. My stepdad couldn’t travel because he had just finished chemotherapy and was at high risk of getting ill. So high risk, that I lived forty-five minutes away and barely saw him or my mother during the COVID-19 pandemic unless it was outside with a mask on to prevent my stepdad John from being exposed.
Texas numbers for COVID-19 at that time were at a high, travel was not recommended, and if my stepdad caught COVID-19 he would more than likely not survive. We didn’t need another loss in the family, but at the same time Johnny wasn’t getting the sendoff he deserved and my step siblings and family that lived near Johnny did not receive the support that they deserved.
It was a horrific mix of a perfect storm causing a black hole in the middle of our family to be managed at a distance. Nobody should have to go through that.
This would be the first time the family would be together after his death. I had been dealing with this tragic loss the best I could, but it wasn’t until the day of departure for Gull Lake that the twisted knots in my stomach started forming, setting me into a panic. I was no longer going to be dealing with this situation from a distance. I would now be facing it head on, and I was afraid to face the empty seat at the dinner table.
I finally managed to pack up the rest of my suitcase and other items I needed into the trunk of my olive-green Subaru Forester. I wondered if I packed enough clothing for the week as I couldn’t tell you what was in my suitcase. I shrugged it off thinking I’d figure it out. I had more important things on my mind. I took a deep breath, backed out of my driveway in Golden Valley, and headed out into unknown territory.
As I merged onto the freeway, I decided to shuffle one of my playlists on my phone in hopes of distracting myself from the loss. Unfortunately, it only made my thoughts of Johnny louder. With each mile of road, I was closer to my family and therefore closer to his memory. It was almost as if the volume was turning up inside my head as I got closer to my destination.
So many things came to mind.
The flashes of memories while growing up with Johnny were so fresh in my head that I could almost reach out and catch the basketball as he passed it to me during one of our two on two driveway basketball games that we always lost to Curt and Courtney. With a blink of eye, I was back in my childhood home swimming with all my siblings in our pool laughing and having chicken fights. Then there were the moments where all six kids were in the car singing Billy Ray Cyrus, Achy Breaky Heart, on as our parents drove us to Champs for dinner.
Before Johnny died, I had written one of my final graduate papers on the craft of writing about emotionally difficult topics. My research over the previous three years included reading numerous grief memoirs so I could understand just how other writers expressed and survived loss of a loved one. The irony wasn’t the timeliness of my reading material, the irony was that after everything I read, I knew nothing more about grief than I did before I started research. Oh, I sure thought I did, until I experienced it for myself.
As drove towards Gull Lake I realized, preparation is not a word that goes along with grief. The only thing I could focus on at that moment was how I should write a book on grief and call it, Nobody Can Help You: A Realistic Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One, or better yet, The reality of Grief: We Are All Screwed.
I suppose this may not come as a surprise to many people, but in my naïve ignorance it surprised the hell out of me. I tried to take control of my grief wheel as much as possible. I trained for a marathon, stuck to a healthy schedule, set up my appointments with a grief counselor. Don’t get me wrong, these things are healthy and add to overall well-being, but grief is just as involuntary as a heartbeat and much like grief, only changes with the passing of time.
My reaction to this realization was anger. In fact, it pissed me off to the point where all I could do was laugh about it, and I couldn’t help shake the feeling that Johnny was laughing with me in the passenger seat of my forester. His laughter seemed to follow me everywhere after his death. It was one thing that helped calm me in times of panic and despair. It was almost like in his laughter I could hear him tell me that he was okay and that everything would be okay. In this case as I reflected, I could hear him giving me a hard time as usual. That is what we would do to each other. I could picture him sitting in the seat next to me telling me that the joke was on me. All that studying and I was clueless on what grief had in store for me. It made me laugh because that is what we did together, laugh. He always made me find laughter in the darkest things and times.
Not long after Johnny died, my Aunt Marjorie posted, “grief is poopy,” to a response relating to Johnny on Facebook. It made me laugh so hard that she said, poopy. For a moment I acted like a four-year-old and I forgot the loss. In fact, I am laughing as I type this. The funny thing is how much truth that quote has. Nothing like grief can make you laugh one minute, cry the next and feel both happy and sad at the same time. Poopy really is the best way to explain it and is the exact kind of statement Johnny and I would have laughed about.
Grief is personal and incomprehensible outside of an individual’s experience. That is the only thing I know for certain after my research, losing my stepbrother Johnny, celebrating his life with my family, and as I continue on in my own journey through the twisted maze of unknown emotions that go along with grief.
I know nothing. I just experience it as it comes.
I can ponder and come up with stories that comfort me to make me feel better, but to me there is no cosmic or heavenly explanation of why Johnny was taken away from the world so early. I don’t believe things happen for a reason. I believe bad things just happen. I do, however, believe in a greater power and place that is incomprehensible to the human mind. Call it heaven or what you will. You can be Jewish like I am, Christian and Catholic like most of my family, or Hindu or Muslim like many of my co-workers. To me we are all trying to hold on to the same thing . .
So religion being one of the most fought about differences in our world over all time, really, ends up being one of our most common factors as human being. Faith or no Faith we are all trying to figure it out, just like my family is trying to work through this loss.
That week up in Northern Minnesota at Gull Lake with eighty of my family members was one of the hardest times I’ve had in my life; but I wouldn’t have wanted to go through it with anyone else but the Tyszko Johnson family. It was a reminder that despite our differences and disconnections we could all come together as family and support each other. Sometimes what we fight about really ends up being what we love about. I needed to love about Johnny with my family. That is what we did.
Time moves forward without any sympathy, so you either miss everything by giving into the despair of loss or jump aboard and keep on living life. I can’t explain why a monarch butterfly followed me everywhere the week of Gull Lake, just like I can’t prove that it was Johnny’s way of saying all the things he wanted to say. What I can say with absolute positivity that Johnny would want everyone to keep on living their lives fulfilled and happy. Watching us falter into despair would only devastate him. So, I am going to do my best to live life fulfilled and happy. Life isn’t easy to begin with and grief is hard, but I’ll try.
As I sat on the porch of my cabin after packing up the Forester to head home, I looked out over the early morning glassed lake and took an intentional deep breath in and out. It was then I saw it again. I noticed something flutter out of the corner of my eye. There was another large monarch butterfly, only, this time it was fluttering up towards the sun, through the trees rising above into another atmosphere to be at peace and to say goodbye.
Goodbye for now Johnny.
Till we see each other again.