It was a snowy day January 18th, 1991. My mom had been rushed to the hospital to bring my little brother into the world. I remember watching the snowfall out the window in between my jumping back and forth on the two queen beds. The phone rang and we left to go to the hospital. I was so excited to meet my little brother. I remember briefly holding my mom’s hand as she was wheeled down the hallway for emergency surgery due to complications. Little did I know, that could have been the last time I ever saw my mother. I had to wait until the next morning to finally meet my little brother Forrest as he recovered from his complications.
Over the next couple of days, the buildup to ‘Operation Desert Storm’ was underway. General Norman Schwarzkopf was constantly being brought up by Peter Jennings on ABC news. We would count the number of different ties he would wear throughout the day while covering the events. The adults would have conversations about what was going on until I was able to go see my mom and meet my little brother. I remember that first moment when he was handed to me while I sat in the chair in the corner. What an incredible life-changing moment. I was now a big brother.
The next couple of years were filled with learning how to be a big brother. My parents named him Forrest, which until 1994 was a great name then Tom Hanks and ‘Forrest Gump’ came along. He had freckles and fiery red hair. I translated his grunts, cries, and reaching for things as an infant and toddler to help him get what he wanted. He didn’t need to speak until he was around three years old. What can I say, I wanted to help him out.
We grew up on a rural farm, a partly wooded eight-acre plot of land on a mile-long gravel driveway through a turkey farm. We were surrounded by fields and farmland. After school, the weekends and weeknights were filled with taking care of our many animals. We had two sheep, a small horse we found, four dogs, a cat, and chickens that I had to feed and water. Even though he was a toddler, I’d show him the ropes on these chores in hopes that one day he might be able to help me with them. We would play sports together outside. It’s hard to play with someone almost nine years younger than you, you just have to be creative.
When I was thirteen years old and in seventh grade, my school system cut their advanced classes and I became bored. For the next three years, I was homeschooled and self-taught. This meant I spent every day with Forrest. We would tend to the garden with Mom. Read books to each other. Watch “Bill Nye the Science Guy”, “3–2–1 Contact”, and other educational PBS shows. We would play board games, draw pictures, and played outside. I shared my learning with him, feeding his curiosity whenever I could.
I played trumpet for two years in middle school. When I became homeschooled, it became a little harder to play by myself at home. My stepdad Earl, Forrest’s dad, played acoustic guitar. Our family friends all shared in playing music together so I was surrounded by musicians: guitar, bass, piano, drums, vocals, etc. I pretty much had no choice but to learn the guitar. There were at lest three sitting around the house, so I started learning the basics. It was the summer of 1995, I won tickets from 99.3 the Frog FM, to see Dave Matthews Band play at the Nissan Pavilion, now Jiffy Lube Live. After the August 27th concert, I was hooked. The ‘Crash’ album came out several months later and I just had to learn to play like Dave. I sat in front of the CD player in our living room on a high stool, guitar in my lap, trying to learn every song by ear. Forrest would sit there by my side listening along. Frequently commenting on my strumming. Shaking his head he would say, “No, I don’t think that’s right.” correcting my frustrated attempts to figure out the song. I finally found a song that I could clearly hear the acoustic guitar and over the course of several weeks, learned it as best I could with my sidekick along the way. The song was “Lie in our graves”.
At age fifteen, I decided to go back to public school. I wanted a new challenge and social engagement with people my age. Forrest was six years old and just didn’t cut it. I switched school districts and my step-dad Earl would drop me off at Central High School in the morning on his way to work. I had to provide my own transportation since I switched school districts. This meant that I was gone all day just as Earl was, leaving at 6 am and often coming home at 6 pm. My time as a big brother with Forrest quickly disappeared as I now had conflicts, homework, and events to attend. When I graduated high school and went to college, our relationship sadly faded to just the holidays. At Virginia Tech, I worked my way through college, lived on campus as an RA, and held several jobs. I did not have a car so going home on the weekends was complicated and challenging. I basically stayed in Blacksburg year-round. I wasn’t trying to run away from my family, I was chasing after a life of opportunity that I needed to find.
It was a cold and rainy Wednesday, November 14th, 2018. I was in Washington DC for a few meetings and was attending an app contest event that night hosted by Lyft. During my meetings, I received a couple of phone calls from a number I didn’t know. Finally, after the third or fourth one, I called it back. It was Earl. As I walked away from the boisterous crowd at the event to find a quiet corner to be able to hear, there was a sound in his voice that I knew something was wrong. I hid away at the bottom of a staircase and said hello. I apologized for not answering earlier and explained my situation.
He choked back his emotions to say:
“Andreas, Forrest is dead. His body was found this morning floating in the marina by our old sailboat in the Outer Banks.”
Everything around me stopped. My mind shut off the noise and I sunk to the floor. Stunned. Shocked. I sat silently. My mind raced to find a response. Earl couldn’t muster many words after his statement. How could he? His emotions were contagious through the phone. There is nothing like hearing your dad cry on the phone. Trying to find words to comfort my dad in this tragic moment was like trying to grab the string of a helium balloon stuck on the ceiling. I finally muttered “I’m so sorry Dad. What happened?”
“We don’t know many specifics other than he drowned. His body had apparently been in the water since Saturday.”
For the past five years, Earl and Forrest had lived together. Inseparable. Both lived worked at Snowshoe during the winter months. Over the past couple of summers, they had spent time in the Outer Banks. They had an old sailboat that they had sailed and lived in docked in a marina. This fall was one of the few times where Forrest and Dad were apart as Earl had gone back to Snowshoe to start work early.
As the shock of the news broke over me, my mind began to race. What happened? I can’t believe he is gone. Regret sank in as I came to accept and realize that we were not close anymore. We hadn’t been since I left to go back to high school and then college. My memories of Forrest were as a child. We had both grown up in our own ways, yet still very much alike. We both played guitar. We both worked in restaurants during our lives. We both loved the ocean and the mountains. We liked to hike and enjoy the outdoors. But we hadn’t done any of those things together since I was fifteen. Twenty-one years had passed since the last time we were close. We lived different lives and had become different people. But we were always brothers. I cherish the last couple times we were able to catch up, both were unfortunately at funerals of family members. He was a dreamer. Always looking for the next challenge or goal. I will forever hold on to those times together.
As the week went on, I shared the news with family members and friends from back home, people I hadn’t talked with in over two decades. The reality of him being gone slowly sunk in. With each conversation, the news became real. Each time I told the story of his tragic death to the next person, new memories would flood back. After one phone call, I put “Lie in our graves” by Dave Matthews Band on Spotify. I sat in my car as tears spilled down my face. The words were different. A song I have listened to and learned how to play with Forrest by my side and had played for decades now had a different meaning.
when we’re walking by the water
splish splash me and you taking a bath
when we’re walking by the water
come to my toes to my ankles to my head to my soul
then I’m blown away
I can’t believe that we would lie in graves
wondering if we had spent our living days well
I can’t believe that we would lie in graves
wondering what we might of been
Here I am coming to terms with the sudden death of my little brother having succumbed to the water that we loved to play in as children. I thought back to the times as kids we took a bath together playing with our floating toys in the jets of the whirlpool. I remember him coming to my swim meets to cheer me on. Being there when I finished my race excitedly watching his brother compete. The joys of teaching him how to swim. Playing in the waves at the beach on many vacations in the Outer Banks as they crashed down on us. Now I’m here wondering ‘if we had spent our living days well, wondering what might have been.’
Then I thought about what had been and how we lived our days. We laughed. We played. We made memories. We were brothers. We learned life together. We fought. We hugged. We joked. As a kid, I repeatedly called him ‘Stinky McGee’ to which he would shrink his nose folding his arms at me adamantly yelling “No I am not. I don’t stink.” Like any kid that grew up on a farm in the country, we all smelled. As any good big brother would do, I always called him by his new name. We had lived our days well. As kids, we had no idea where our lives would take us. Where our journeys would lead. While I wish we had spent more time together as adults, sometimes life leads you down paths where that doesn’t happen. I love that our memories together were from our childhood when we were young and innocent. We never had a big fight or blowup argument. We never said things we would resent or did things that we wish we could forget. Our age difference made us live in different times, but we still grew up together.
Our days together were filled with fun, laughter, and memories.
I love you, Forrest. Always have and always will. You will forever be a part of who I am and how I see the world.