Memoir

Mourning My Only Brother… And then Learning I Had Another All Along

I spent almost a decade learning to be an 'only' after Matthew died. The un-learning is almost as disorienting.

Mourning My Only Brother… And then Learning I Had Another All Along

On a September night in 2016, I stayed up late, scouring my email and social media accounts for distractions: upcoming events, good news I’d overlooked, an acceptance of some sort lurking in my spam. One month earlier, I’d announced the sale of my first book – a coming-of-age memoir about the suicide of my only brother, Matthew, told through the series of cars my family and I drove.

I’d worked on this book for years. I’d written through grief, divorce, depression, and solo parenting two small children. At times, I’d fall into an episode of despair and self-doubt. Who was I to tell my brother’s story? Just me. Matthew Stephenson’s kid-sister. Missy, he’d called me.

When the book sold, a feeling I didn’t expect overcame me: grief, and fear, over letting go of my brother’s story. When he was alive, we had a relationship, as siblings, that only the two of us understood. He was my brother, my closest DNA match in the universe, and I could always see in his eyes some sliver of me mirrored back, only better, because he was not me. He was him: slim, six feet tall, and covered, near the end, neck-to-knuckle in tattoos – my family’s own superstar.

In August of 2000, Matthew drank a tray of Jell-O shots, loaded a Glock, and shot himself in the head. He was 29, and I was 25.

Last photo of Matthew taken in spring, 2000.

I got the news around dinner. I’d just moved to Texas, and I flew out the next day to help my folks settle his affairs in Athens, Georgia. I came home with a quarter portion of our shared DNA, in the form of bone meal, in a carved wooden box.

I carried that box with me for 16 years, from state-to-state and house-to-house. It sat to the left of my writing desk the whole time I drafted the memoir. I don’t feel like I wrote that book alone. Matthew was my co-pilot, and through the process of making the book, I developed a relationship with him built on our shared history, and his absence. Stories and a wound.

So when I got the green light to share the news that our book would become a real book, I waited a day. There was one thing I needed to do: I put that box of bone meal in a backpack and hiked up Mount Sentinel – a mountain in Missoula marked by a large, white “M” (as in Missy, or Matthew). From the top of that mountain, you can see the valley where I live. From my house, I can see the mountain. At the top, I tested the wind, opened the box, said a millionth goodbye, and let him go.

The next day, I posted the news on social media and watched the likes and loves roll in. I felt a bit like Rocky Balboa or Billy Jean King at the end of an epic match. But I also felt the way I’d felt since August 6, 2000 — like Scout without Jem, Leia without Luke, Lisa minus Bart, Caroline after John.

When a spouse loses their other, they become a widower. When a child loses parents, they become an orphan. But there’s no word for it when you lose a sibling. And if it’s your only one, do you, in fact, become an only, a word one letter shy of an anagram for lonely? I’d been a Lonely Only for so long that I didn’t know how else, or who else, to be.

In my screen-lit bedroom that fall night in 2016, I discovered a folder on Facebook labeled other in ghosted gray font — a folder, I learned, where messages from people who are not your “friends” land, unannounced, and wait.

The message I opened around midnight revised my identity in three simple sentences: “I think your father is my bio father. If you want to talk about that, fine. If not, that’s fine too.”

The message had been sent, I saw, the evening before, an oddity that still baffles me. How did I stumble upon that folder, barely a day after the only relevant message arrived, sent by Tony MacMahon, a husband and father of two from Indianapolis, Indiana?

My father is a social worker and from the time I was young I remember his occasional issues with distraught clients. One woman called my high school writing teacher the spring I graduated and requested copies of everything I’d ever written. Another took Polaroid selfies in our swimming pool when we weren’t home, so I first thought Tony must be one of Dad’s patients – a crazy person claiming to be his therapist’s illegitimate child.

I looked at Tony’s profile, half expecting to find face tattoos, a confederate flag, or links to donate to an evangelical church. I’d always felt like a cultural castaway in Indiana. I was an artsy kid who had trouble finding friends in a state known for car races, basketball, outlet malls, and conservative politics. (Mike Pence hails from my hometown, even.) The chances of me having much in common with any random Hoosier seemed slim. But in Tony’s profile I saw a guy with the same long, sandy brown hair my son has. His build was more like my Uncle Kevin – tall and a tad burly – than my dad or me, who are long and lean, like distance runners. I saw no trace of shared DNA in his pleasant but ordinary appearance, other than the eyes – the same deep-set brown eyes my dad has, my brother had. My eyes. My son’s.

Family portrait on Fourth of July, 1981.

Tony’s posts were the kinds of things I’d see on my friends’ walls: a turntable playing a ’70s tune, a homemade tortilla browning in a cast iron pan, a picture of a camper van. But none of that confirmed anything. My parents had been married since they were 17 and 19, so I had no clue where another brother would have fit into the timeline, and my folks had never seemed complex enough for such secrets.

Tony and I exchanged messages the next morning, and talked on the phone the day after that. When I heard his voice, low and measured, with the ability to slow heart rates – my father’s voice and mine – I knew we were related. I could hear it.

My next dilemma: How would I tell my father I knew his secret? I wrote and edited a heartfelt, multi-paragraph email, saying that I knew about Tony, and I understood why he’d kept him a secret, especially from our mother, who had, after all, lost her only son to suicide. I told him I would keep his secret, too, if needed, but that I was happy to have found Tony – or that Tony found me.

Dad’s three-sentence message back re-arranged my sense of self, and the past, again. “If his mother is Sharon then he’s my bio son,” he wrote. “Of course your mother knows but prefers not to think about it. I think your aunts and uncles knew at one point.”

I had another brother. And everyone knew but me.

Even more shocking, no one thought to say, in the 18 years after his death, while they watched me wring a memoir from my marrow, “Hey. So. Actually? You have another brother.”

I realized my family is not so simple after all. They have kept certain secrets so secret that we forget where we buried them in the first place. It’s the art of what we don’t discuss: my brother’s frightening decline, my mother’s alcoholism, my second cousin’s questionable paternity, and, apparently, my other brother.

Over the next few weeks, however, family members were more or less happy to hear that I knew about Tony. They asked about him. They wanted to know if his life had been more or less O.K. — it had – and they helped me piece together what happened.

Tony’s mother and my father – our father – had been teen lovers. They broke up, and our father moved on to my mother, aware or not – there’s some confusion – that Tony was on his way into the world. Tony was born out of wedlock in 1970, not long before my mother became pregnant and married our father.

I didn’t talk to my mother about Tony because she was – and is – busy dying from late-stage alcoholism, which is pretty much like dying from shame. The loss of her one son was enough. To know my father found another, and that this other son found me? There was just no point, at that point, in adding to her burden.

One of my aunts told me that my mother’s one requirement for marriage was this: That my father never have anything to do with the other child. My mother was 17, her own father a state trooper run over by a semi in the line of duty when she was 14, her first boyfriend killed in a car wreck the year after. Whether or not she delivered that stipulation, I can imagine my mother’s instinct to secure a father for her own child was fierce. Once they married, my parents moved farther away than any of our other family – 70 miles south, to Columbus, Indiana, where I was eventually born, three years and three months after Matthew. Four years and six months after Tony.

I shared what I learned with Tony, using our preferred communication tool: Facebook Messenger. Though I wanted to stay up all night drinking beers with my Other Brother and spill all I had learned about the intersection of his life and mine, I sensed the narrative was now moving a bit fast for him, so I rationed the stories. I shared a little, let that digest, then shared some more.

My father’s sister, my Aunt Carol, asked if she could friend Tony. He said yes. She was the first to meet him, showing up at a Saturday antique market Tony participates in. He was busy, but they chatted. She told me afterwards the he looked and felt familiar, “like a Stephenson.”

Tony told me that, growing up, his mom never talked about his Bio Dad. Tony always thought, though, that his dad’s name was Stephen because his middle name is Stephen. We laughed about the wit behind that, how he grew up thinking – not wrongly – that he was Stephen’s son. Stephenson.

The fact that my folks chose to move south, to Columbus, Indiana, made more sense once I learned about Tony. I’d always assumed they moved because it was closer to Indiana University, where my father earned his degrees. Mom always said the job prospects and the schools were both better. But perhaps not wanting to run into Tony and his mother at the grocery store was a reason as well.

But mostly, I found myself smiling and whispering the words other brother to myself throughout the day. I wanted to tell everyone the news, but it felt odd to take a 45-year-old secret for a test drive, in the open air. I did tell a few close friends about it, in Montana, where I live with my two kids. It felt safe to share the story on the other side of the continental divide.

I told my kids about their new uncle. They’ve been raised away from Indiana and simply know it as the place where their grandparents spoil them, their grandmother is always sick, and pictures of the uncle who died before they were born line the dining room walls from chair rail to ceiling.

My daughter nodded but didn’t say much. At eight, the idea of a lost relative was pretty abstract to her. My son was 11 and the story caught his attention. He asked what this uncle’s name was, where he lived, and how he found me. Then he said, “Do we have any other brothers?”

“No,” I said. “I’m pretty sure.”

“Too bad. Can we meet Tony?”

“In August,” I said.

Because of my mother’s drinking, I don’t visit Indiana, except for a week each August when the pool is open and the sun is likely to be out. During our first visit after connecting with Tony, he and I made plans to meet in Greenwood, a town halfway between our houses. The kids had gone to a bouncy house with my dad, after he’d dropped me off at a beer and burger place off the interstate. Inside, I found Tony and his wife, Kristin, waiting in a booth.

He stood up and they each took turns hugging me. We sat down, ordered beers, and talked for three hours straight – hours that passed like minutes. We talked about the past, about our histories, Tony’s wife adding to the conversation how good she thought this was for him, to fill in some life-long blanks, to know who he came from. The content of the conversation didn’t matter so much as the vibe, which was electric and energetic, like a non-competitive ping-pong match.

Me and Tony during our first meeting, 2017.

At one point, after making Tony laugh with a Matthew story, I said, “He would have liked you.” And Tony said, “Too late.”

I looked at the ceiling, feigning detachment, to blink back tears.

Near the end, my father – our father – showed up with the kids. He’d asked to come, and Tony agreed, though Dad had barely said a word to me about the Tony situation. He sat silently in the background, face heavy, watching Tony meet my kids, who were born three years apart, just like Matthew and me.

My daughter, over-tired, put her head in my lap. My son engaged with Tony immediately. They tossed Star Wars facts back and forth at a head-spinning rate. Tony struck just the right mix of teasing and earnestness. Dad stayed silent.

In the few pictures of Tony and me, we are both beaming like people who just won the lottery, people who want to say “Look who I found,” people who are no longer other or half or lonely or only, but whole.

This past May, on Tony’s birthday, I mailed him an advanced copy of Driven, the memoir about Matthew and me. Writing the inscription caught me off guard. I was sending Tony a book about the childhood he hadn’t been a part of, and the brother he’d never met. I realized then that the book belongs to him, too. I’d created, without intention, a bridge between two lives.

I wrote: “Perhaps you can meet our brother, or a version of him, on the page. He’d have loved you. I’m sure of that.”

The cover of the author’s book, “Driven.” (Click the image for information on how to order.)

While I don’t know who Matthew would have grown up to be if he’d lived past 29, I do know he’d have been tickled by my father’s secret, and thrilled over the idea, and the reality, of Tony. I would have hung on the outskirts as they talked, wedging myself in where I could – the youngest of three, a moon in their orbit.

Tony messaged me in June to tell me he was knee-deep in the book. “It’s amazing,” he said. “You’re a badass writer.” (The little sister in me beamed.) “But I have to go slow. It’s a lot to absorb.”

I told him I wanted to know how it felt to be him, reading the story of his half-siblings’ childhood, if he’d be willing to report back.

This week, his response came through, via Messenger. “One thing that I felt all through the book was a ‘what if’ kind of thing,” he said. “I have pictured having conversations with [Matthew] about the Dead Kennedys and skateboarding as a teenager and the mayhem that would have ensued.”

He said he could tell from the details in the book that my brother loved me. As I read those words, I realized this was a thing I needed to hear.

He went on to crack a few jokes, comment on a few specifics, and wrapped up the message with, “Sorry for the delay but I’m not known for my writing or computer skills.”

This is what makes him more of a Stephenson than anything else, this tendency to get lost in the gap between words and feelings. In our family, we never much know how to talk about feelings or suicide or alcoholism, but we could talk about cars or music or that crazy guy who drove his motorcycle into a barricade. This is a large part of why I became a writer. I wanted to explore that no-man’s land between language and feeling, to return with a story that might save what I loved most from the void. Like Matthew. Like Tony.