Two weeks ago, Brad and I talked on the phone about books we liked recently—The Corrections and The Plague and some of Elie Wiesel’s writings stand out in my memory. I remember asking Brad if he thought it was a problem that we both seemed only to enjoy sad novels and upsetting stories.
He said no. He thought those were often the only books worth reading, because they were the only ones he could ever imagine saying anything meaningful about life as he knew it.
That was the last time I ever spoke with my brother. The last time I will ever speak with him. Already, the details are fading.
I remember a part of me was satisfied when we hung up—he was rationalizing my own preferences and making me feel sophisticated all at once. But a part of me was heartbroken—I know he liked sad stories because he often felt sad. He liked Jorge Louis Borges’ writings on loneliness because he often felt lonely. On some level, this is of course true for all of us—these are popular books. It’s a question of degree.
When Brad enrolled in a college course this fall, it was the first time he had taken classes in over two years. I won’t say that introductory psychology was easy for my brother. At times, many things could be hard for Brad. It could often be hard for my brother to confront the day, to get himself out the door, to make it to class, to raise his hand.
Still, I’m not above bragging to all of you that Brad hardly missed a question all semester and that he had something like a 95% average, and that all his classmates always turned to him for help, and that basically introductory psychology was easy for him.
He was going to take abnormal psychology next semester.
The point, if I have one, is just that however Brad struggled, it was only a part of him; it didn’t define him.
Brad liked much more than those books we’d discussed on the phone—he liked philosophy and linguistics and something he called “Deep Science Fiction.” Over the past several months he had berated me into finally reading a book called “Hyperion,” which I shamefully gave up after just 12 pages.
Brad loved cabalistic legends, as he called them—and I did too once he’d introduced me to them—he adored the short story of a library filled with every possible combination of written letters—from books full of meaningless character strings to every one of Shakespeare’s dramas.
Brad liked bad movies and comic books. He loved to laugh—brightly when he was younger and wilder; deeply when he was older and grew out his beard. He loved to sing.
It was a great privilege to watch Brad immerse himself in his musicals. I remember him at nine years old, singing “I’ll know when my love comes along” as the gambler Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Later, when I wasn’t living at home, I remember coming back from college to see my brother become Mark in Rent or Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. He took it all seriously—tracking down a historically appropriate camera for his role in Rent and a similarly difficult-to-find typewriter for his role as Cliff in Cabaret. For Brad, it always had to be right.
When we were little, separated by 3 and a half years, I think Brad and I mostly turned to each other out of necessity—when someone needed an accomplice. Growing up, we had a lemon tree in our backyard, and Brad invented a game called Lemon Ball. Very simple. No scoring. No winning. Basically no rules. We would go pick lemons and get a baseball bat and then take turns as pitcher and batter smashing lemons all over the backyard.
Brad and I got closer as we got older. In high school, he read a book about over criminalization. By way of example, the book mentioned that opening a lemonade stand on the sidewalk technically violated several serious laws. Brad talked for weeks about wanting to orchestrate lemonade-stand civil disobedience. Basically, he wanted to set up a lemonade stand and get arrested. I like to think it all started with Lemon Ball.
To me, Brad’s great strength as an adult was understanding people. Getting beneath and beyond the superficial to create moments – sometimes painful ones – where he could find connection. That meant you always got honesty talking to Brad—with a straight face, he’d say things like “I didn’t laugh because it wasn’t funny,” or “I don’t think you get it” or “No I don’t have anything to do, I just want to hang up now.” But in other contexts, when he’d taken the time to listen and ask questions, he could also say sincerely things like “I think you’re doing that for the wrong reasons” or “maybe you should apologize instead of hold a grudge” or “perhaps you will regret this later.”
[OTHERS WILL TELL/HAVE TOLD YOU] how quickly Brad got to know people genuinely, authentically. How intolerant he was of small talk, posturing, and insincerity. How, in just a short exchange, he could learn and relate to a person’s most intimate pain.
I turned to Brad often for advice, especially recently. He was always there for me, and I relied on him greatly. Even in his darkest times, he could step away from himself to be compassionate and empathetic in a way that I have never encountered in another person. He understood me better than I think I will ever know myself.
One of my favorite books is a story of loss and mourning. It’s one of the few deep and moving books I know that I don’t think Brad ever read. This past week, I keep turning over the same line in my head: A single person is missing and the whole world feels empty.
That’s how I feel facing the world without my brother. Twenty-one years ago, I was given the greatest blessing of my life when Lauren and Brad were born.
I feel like a piece of me died with Brad last week.
If I can ask one favor of you all here today, it’s to ask questions about Brad’s life and to listen to the answers. It’s what he would have done.
In these painful days, I continue to draw strength from my little brother. In his short life, Brad thought a lot about death and about life, about the human condition and making sense of his place in the world. He was always on an intellectual journey. I learned years ago that Brad always saw things I never could. I will miss a lot in this world without him by my side.
– Jake Sonnenberg, brother