Sunday, September 11, 2005

Jeremy Shepard

On September 5, 2001, my brother, Jeremy, died when he was 15 years old. He collapsed after running the mile in Gym class, and his heart stopped.

He was born when I was a sophomore in high school. He was born with heart defects which had to be corrected surgically soon after he was born. He spent much of his first year in the hospital. After the surgery, we thought there was no reason that he wouldn't have a normal life without problems. And he did have a normal life (as normal a life you could have in my family) until his sophomore year in high-school. His death came as a complete surprise and shock to everyone.

For some reason, the day of Jeremy's death is stuck in my mind, but the year is something I have to think about. In fact, I cannot recall the birth dates of my children (March 10th and April 5th) as automatically as Jeremy's death date. 0905 is stuck in my mind. 2001 isn't. When I have to remember the year, I can by reminding myself it was the year before Tyler, my oldest son, was born. Why I have such a hard time remembering the year (without a brief reminder) is a mystery to me. You would think that September 2001 would be especially easy to remember (September 11, 2001 was in a few days), but for me, it isn't.

Tracy was home alone when my dad called on the afternoon of the 5th. I was riding my bike home from work and unavailable, so I didn't know until I walked in to find my wife crying. She told me to call my dad. "Some thing's wrong," she sobbed to me. Apparently he didn't tell her what exactly was wrong ... just to have me call immediately.

I was devastated when my dad told me Jeremy was dead. It was just something that I could not believe. 15 year old kids don't drop dead from over-exerting themselves, especially athletic ones like my little brother. I swear I was just sitting there waiting for the punch-line; it was just so unbelievable that Jeremy was gone. I don't remember much about the rest of that day. There is no doubt that I was in shock... sort of a painful, gloomy, lose-all-hope sort of fog. In fact, I was in that same fog for weeks or months after the death.

I don't think I ever felt angry over Jeremy's death. I didn't try to blame God or the high-school or doctors. I was never angry, but I was certainly confused. And of course I was just utterly heartbroken. I did beat myself up a little bit for not being closer to my little brother. I started remembering every time I wasn't as patient as I should be with him as a little boy, and thinking about how seldom we talked after I graduated high-school, and even more-so after I graduated college.

I don't remember much about the couple of days after Jeremy's death. I had to make arrangements to get back to Beach Park, Illinois for Jeremy's funeral on the 10th. I had to tell people at work that I would not be around for a few days. Neither of these things were much fun to take care of. I think I cried more those two days than I ever have in my life.

Somehow, I ended back in Illinois with my pregnant wife for the wake. One thing I do remember about the wake was that Tracy had a big bag of glop (trail mix) because pregnant women need snacks every few minutes. Luckily, she was willing to share the food, because I think ended up needing it almost as much as she did.

The wake exhausted me. The line to view the casket snaked around outside for a couple of blocks. There were literally hundreds of people saying how sorry they were and how they just didn't know what to say. I told most of them, "That's OK... I don't really know what I want to hear." In my head I kept saying, "just tell me that it is just a bad dream and that I will wake up soon with my brother alive again." I was struck by how many people told me what a wonderful, kind person my brother was. He had lots more friends than I ever had in high-school, and they all had stories about what an energetic, kind, joyous, funny person he always was. I bet I didn't actually talk to 20% of the people who showed up ... and I felt like I was talking all night.

A bunch of my college friends also showed up. Some of them drove a couple of hours to help comfort me for a few minutes. I was actually a little bit surprised that so many of my friends made such an effort. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did.

There was more food at my parents' house than we had room for. And people kept telling us that they had something for us. We had to turn a bunch of food away.

I am definitely an introvert, so interacting with all these people drained me over the few days before Jeremy's funeral. It was nice to hear the nice things they said about him, and I am glad that there were so many people trying to comfort us, but still they drained me.

The funeral was Monday the 10th. The church was packed. Many of Jeremy's high-school friends were excused from classes and came. I remember looking at my Mom who just looked miserable (understandably). I tried to fight back tears, and amazingly, I succeeded for the most part. From what I remember, the service was fine, but I had agreed to be a pall-bearer and for some reason, I dreaded that. The walk down the isle was difficult carrying my dead brother, but I think the most difficult thing I've ever done was to help lift his box into the back of the hearse. I feel like I froze there forever, but I doubt it was more than a second or two. No one else noticed my hesitation. I was the first person on the left side of the coffin, so if I had actually frozen, it probably would have been obvious.

I don't remember the rest of the day, except we watched part of the Broncos and Giants on Monday Night Football. I didn't see the Broncos win and I didn't see Ed McCaffery break his leg, but I heard about both those things the next morning.

And of course, everyone knows what happened on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. It was the day after my brother's funeral. I'm not sure if my shock was greater or less because of the closeness to my brother's death. While we were watching the towers burn on TV, my wife suddenly realized that her brother Tim sometimes worked down in that part of town and ran off sobbing. It turned out that he was no where near the Towers that day, but that was certainly scary to think.

I didn't lose anybody on September 11. Thank God. I'm not sure how I would have handled that on top of Jeremy's death. Whenever anybody mentions September 11th, I associate it more with the death of my brother 6 days before than I do the terrorism attacks. It is sort of weird what perspective we have on such things. For the most part, I would say my life is back to normal. Neither event affects my day-to-day life the way I would have thought 4 years ago.

There are all kinds of references on the internet to the terrorism attacks of September 11th. I can find almost nothing of the death of my brother by googling it. For awhile, one of our neighbors was trying to get a park named after Jeremy Shepard. I don't think anything came of it other than a record of it in the Beach Park Village Board minutes: . I believe my old high-school did a Jeremy Shepard memorial soccer tournament for at least a couple of years, and I am able to find his name on old 2002 and 2003 soccer schedules.

Anyway, here it is 4 years later and I am still thinking about him, but not with as much sorrow as I did 3 years ago or even last year. My oldest son's middle name is Jeremy. Quite often, especially when Tyler was a baby, but still as a pre-schooler, I see some of Jeremy's facial expressions in Tyler. I'm not sure if there is actually something there, or just my imagination. As he gets older, I'll probably see less and less if for no other reason, it is getting harder and harder to remember the details of how Jeremy looked and acted. And of course, after I went away to College, I did not see as much of my brother as I did when we lived together.

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