Switching Coasts

After my brother died of the most painful cancer his doctors had seen, I moved 3,007 miles away, site unseen.

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Lisbeth and her brother in Connecticut.

A text flashes up on my phone: “How’s life?”

It’s how my brother, Joe, checks in. He walks in the door full of energy and engulfs me in a hug. He races me in his car to catch my train. He loves trying to get me to take a shot, “Come on Lis, how about just a lemon drop?” He picks the best restaurants for us to try. On my birthday, he researches places to explore. He always tells me he likes my outfits, unless I have too much pink on. He tries to date my friends. He doesn’t let me date his. He wants us to get a two-bedroom in the city. I think I’m his favorite, I know that he’s mine.

We drive in his car listening to Jay-Z. He preps me for my interviews. He loads up his car with my stuff when I move. “How’s Joe?” is always my friends’ first question. He always wants the best for me. We’re so pumped for summer to start.

I was never too afraid of anything because I would always have him. Thank God, I was born first; I’d never have to know life without him. I’d remind myself of this whenever I got worried or anxious. I thought of this often, I remembered it clearly the week before the world broke. Right after summer began.

Considering which tense to use when writing about my brother is tough. I like writing about him in the present tense. It’s too much to commit to using the past tense for the rest of my life.

Do you want me to go there?

If I slow down too much, I might stop. Losing your favorite person to cancer makes it difficult to go on. My healthy, 28-year-old brother woke up on Friday, June 1, 2012 with a bad stomachache. The pain was so severe he couldn’t sleep. Later that day, he had a CAT scan and blood work. One week later, the doctors told us that my brother had a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his liver. It was called intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma – cancer of the bile duct. Eight days later, we learned his cancer was stage 4, and there was only a little time left. My favorite person in the world, just a little longer.

The cancer spread fast. It was the worst pain the doctors had seen. It seemed there were never enough drugs. My mom had to be careful to not overdose my brother. The pain doctors had not worked at this level before.

I watched him turn 29 in hospice.

My only sibling, my younger brother by 22 months, died January 20, 2013. It’s tough to go on. I hear Joe’s voice in my memory. I see the twinkle in his eye, and I cry every time. To picture him smiling and not have him here.

Although, my new “here” is not exactly where he saw me last. While mourning him, I decided to switch coasts. East to West. Connecticut and New York for Silicon Valley. Urbane sophistication for land of tacos and tech.

I wasn’t planning to move. I was looking to stay in New York City. My network, my family, my friends were there. It made sense. Then, a job in San Jose, California, popped up on my LinkedIn feed. I applied. I’ve now been a West Coast resident for five months.

San Jose means St. Joseph (in case you didn’t know that). I’m not religious but like the sound of my brother’s name in Spanish. To be honest, it felt right all along. I hope my mom and my brother’s puppy, Mia, move out here too. Joe would think it was so cool that I’m here. I can imagine him saying, “Awesome! Cali, when are we going?”

Some days are harder than others. I have trouble sleeping and have to reapply makeup before I go out because my mascara has slid down my cheeks. I meet lots of women my age who have relocated to Silicon Valley with their husbands who work in tech, and they think the adjustment is difficult. They have a partner, they moved together, they don’t know what loss is. I don’t know what to say to them. So I end up helping myself to a drink.

I go on dates. It’s an easy way to meet people, but I seem to judge people differently now.  “What do you mean you aren’t close to your sibling?” I think to myself.  “Mine was my favorite and you get to keep yours who you don’t even like?!”  Work is the easiest part, I guess. My brain hasn’t been affected – only my heart.

I sometimes don’t feel like revealing any of this to new people. Not because I don’t want to talk about it but because I don’t like how a stranger’s “oh” or “ah” flat response makes me feel. Sometimes I feel as though I were living on another planet from others. But ultimately, big change was exactly what I needed after my world was rocked. I’m embracing a new world that doesn’t make sense without my brother in it. Trying to ride the waves as they come and play the hand I’ve been dealt.

Lisbeth Garassino is the lyricist for Hush, Baby by Olya. Proceeds from the song benefit cancer research. She also started Joe’s Sister, an open group to help siblings and friends who have experienced loss. 

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