Tuesday, June 2, 2009

happy birthday, little brother

Hi. This post is a bit messy. I don't want to start with an apology, but I think an explanation is warranted since this is so different from what's usually on this blog. All this happened 14 years ago. Though I think about it nearly every day, it's doesn't haunt me like it used to. I don't dwell on it. But when Heather and Mike lost their little girl Madeline this year, and so many rallied around them to try and prop them up in their darkest time, many things came back to me. What I went through is not the same as losing a child. My point of view is different. But there are enough parallels that I wanted to get all this out in writing. This also ended up being a lot more about me than I intended, but that's just where it went. So, thanks for reading, and I'll understand if you'd rather not.

Details are fuzzy. I'm not sure this happened the way I remember it. Probably not, considering how scattered my memories are. Time does that to memory, and it's worse when the events themselves were surreal, as these surely were.

I was in San Francisco, on my way back to LA. My stepfather got in touch with me at SFO as I was heading to get on the plane home. I think he called my friend Nate who showed up to tell me I needed to call home. This was 1995, before cell phones were everywhere, and certainly before I had one. So somebody walked up to me and said I needed to call home. I called from a pay phone. Greg sounded serious, worried, and tired. Jeff wasn't doing well. I should be there. I should come now. I was worried, certainly caught off guard, but he was probably overreacting. He can be a bit dire. Sure, I'll come home. But I was sure it'd be OK.

I changed my plans and flew east instead of south. Jeff was in a hospital in Roseville. My dad picked me up and we went from the airport to Jeff's hospital room. What Greg said on the phone was right, he wasn't doing well. He looked like hell - puffy, pale and rough. His breathing was fast and shallow. I think he was asleep when I first got there. He was clearly having a hard time. I remember nudging him to try and get him to breathe normally. I wondered what they were doing to fix it. To fix him. He'd been having problems with his kidneys for months. Something to do with an illness he'd had several years before plus damage from lots of painkillers after surgery. He'd been on dialysis. There was some talk of a transplant, but it didn't seem very focused. Maybe they were talking more to my parents than me. Or maybe it was confusing and vague for everyone. It started with his kidneys, but now his heart was enlarged and he had water on his lungs. Congestive heart failure, they call this. Which is weird, because heart failure sounds like you're dead, but really it means his heart wasn't working efficiently. Did you know when your heart doesn't work well you start getting fluid on your lungs? Apparently they're related. Also, it's weird how when your heart is weak it gets bigger. You'd think a bigger heart would be all strong and shit like The Hulk but it's more like it's swollen and trying hard but just not doing its thing. He wasn't doing well.

I was having a very hard time processing all this. I was in college, missing classes to be there, but clearly needed to be with my family. I spent the next few days hanging around the hospital, sitting in Jeff's room, talking to him when he was awake. Sometimes just sitting. It was an awkward time for us. We hadn't spent much time together recently, and didn't have a lot to talk about. I was 21, he was 18. I'd been out of the house more than a year, off at school, thinking myself very grown up. I had all these plans. Or visions of plans. I didn't really want to hang out in a hospital with my sick brother. I'd rather hang out with him when he got better and we could do stuff. Like have a beer or go to the river or get high or watch TV. Whatever. Not this. I didn't understand how sick he was.

After a few days, I went back to LA. Back to school. Back to my life. It looked like he was doing better. They'd decided to transfer him to a bigger medical center in Davis. That seemed like a good sign. They were better equipped to help him, and I figured they wouldn't move him if they didn't think he had a good shot at recovering. Before I left I went to Jeff's room and we talked a little. He was sleepy, not saying much. We talked about how I'd see him in a few weeks when I came home for Thanksgiving. We hugged. He held onto me a little longer than I thought was normal. Or maybe I held onto him. Maybe both. I don't know.

I flew back to LA. There was this guy from out of town that I barely knew staying with me. Long story why, doesn't matter. My girlfriend (now wife) was at her parents' place in New York. So it was just me and this guy I didn't know. As I said, my memory of the timeline and series of events is fuzzy, but I think I was home for like 12 hours. I got home, said hi to this guy, went to bed.

The phone rang. Woke me up. It was around 3am. It was my dad. Jeff had passed away. He'd died. He was dead. I should come back.

I went back to LA thinking I was going back to school for a few weeks while Jeff recovered, then going home to visit for Thanksgiving. By then we'd know more about what was going on with him and be able to talk about what was next and make plans. And hang out and have turkey.

I fucking left.

Because of school. And because bad things don't happen to us. Bad things happened on TV and to other people, not to us. People got better. People were OK.

So I went home. Except in November 1995 things didn't get better. They got worse. They got worse fast and they tried to save him and there was nothing they could do and he died. And I think maybe he knew when I left, somehow, that things weren't going to get better. I think maybe that's why he held onto me a little longer than usual. Maybe he knew even though we were saying "see you at Thanksgiving" we were really saying goodbye.

Or maybe he didn't know. But that's what we were saying, whether we knew it or not.

Things start spinning. This guy is in our apartment and my brother just died and I have to buy a plane ticket or maybe my friend Chris did that for me because I think he flew home with me though I'm not really sure and I had to leave pretty much right away so I threw some clothes in a bag and told this guy he probably needed to find another place to stay because I didn't know when I'd be back and it was weird for him to stay there alone and I left and my girlfriend still wasn't there and I remember when we came home after what seemed like years after the funeral there was leftover macaroni and cheese in a pot uncovered in the refrigerator and honestly that bothered Lisa way more than seemed logical but what the hell did logic have to do with anything at that point and he'd just left that there in the refrigerator of these people he barely knows and who the fuck does that?

When Jeff died I called Lisa's parents in New York to tell them what happened. I called her dad at work because I wanted to talk to him before I talked to her. She was there for an audition. That day. So we decided not to tell her right away but make arrangements for her to fly to Sacramento after her audition to be with me. But let her do the audition before telling her. I still think that was the right thing to do, though she was pissed about it. She said we should have told her. She didn't get whatever she was auditioning for so maybe it wouldn't have mattered, but we didn't know that then, and we'd only been dating about a year and who knew we'd get married and have two amazing kids and it didn't seem right to disrupt the whole reason for her trip when there wasn't anything she could do except make plans to come home which we were doing for her.

A lot happened in the next few days. A funeral. Many, many people. More than we expected. More than would show up for my funeral. Jeff was an amazing person. He touched a lot of people. He'd been seriously dating a girl for a while and we listed her in the paper as his fiance. What the hell difference does it make now? Clearly they're not getting married. Listing her as "girlfriend" seemed strange, less than the truth. So we rounded her up. I think her parents were bugged by it but who cares. We created a custom headstone with a guitar on it that was supposed to look like his guitar which was all 90s metal. He loved Metallica. I still have that guitar. It's almost unplayable but I won't get rid of it.

I stayed home for a while - I'm not sure how long - before coming back to school in LA and going back to school. Most people at school knew what had happened and they were cool about it but those first few weeks back in LA were the strangest part of this whole thing. Because my world had a huge hole ripped in it but for everybody else it was the same world it had been a month ago. When we were home for the funeral everything was about Jeff and how awesome he was and how crazy and horrible it was that he was gone. And for me everything was still about that but it wasn't about that for anyone else. Except my girlfriend who was incredible and my close friends who were amazing about all of it. And really everyone was pretty great but there's no right way to be at that point. No right thing to say.

And it's been almost 14 years. Jeff was 18 when he died. The way time is speeding up (it is, you know), in a few blinks he will have been gone longer than he was here. That's crazy. I wanted this post to be not just about his death but about his life. But I guess what I needed to write about first was the end. And maybe that means there will be other posts about his life. I think there will be.

Today is his birthday. Jeffrey William Blanchard was born June 2, 1977 in our house on Hughes Road in Grass Valley, CA under a rainbow my father painted on the wall of our little eat-in kitchen. And today he'd have been 32. And I have no idea what he would have done or who he might have become, but it would have been awesome. I wish I could see it.

Happy birthday, little brother.



  1. I've always had that "Things don't happen to us" thinking. It's scary b/c as you have shared, things DO happen. Happy Birthday to your brother, may he be doing great things in heaven or wherever he is

  2. Laughing and crying over here. You rounded his girlfriend up. That is classic.

    You're right though. We never ever expect this to happen to us or to people we know. It's fucking tragic and its so unfair. What else is there to say really?

    Thank you though, for sharing this with us.

  3. What a beautiful post...You should consider this a lovely birthday present to him, because there's a lot of love written here.

  4. What an incredible tribute. I'm just going to leave it at that, because anything else I'd say would seem way too trite.

  5. Michael,

    Thank you for sharing that. It had to be very hard to write about. But I'll also bet that it was good to get it out as well.

    My dad passed away when I was 16. That is a novel all by itself. But somehow I must've known when I left him that night I'd never see him again, because I looked back at him and said "I love you Daddy." I'm so glad those were my last words to him. But then I left and went home. FF hours later and I get the call from the hospital. He died the next day.

    I guess my point is, I know you didn't say goodbye in the way you would have preferred, but I can tell you, it doesn't make it any easier.

    Happy Birthday Jeff. You have an awesome big brother.

  6. There may have been different tones to your posts, but they were both about love. The very thought of losing a sibling is devestating to me. It must seem as though the world should stop, and it must be so hard and confusing to watch it continue on for those around you. I think it is beautiful that your wife was your girlfriend through that time, and that she understands that piece of you in a way in which she otherwise would not. I look forward to reading about his life when you feel like approaching this again. *hug*

  7. I liked your brother a lot. I went to Europe in 93 with him and the NU choir. He and Mike Cobden were quite the pair, they cracked me up.
    Somehow my mom found out about his death the day it happened and she called and told me, I was also in college. I cried a lot. I remember feeling so sad for all of you. I still think of him often.
    Thanks for sharing the details of that painful day. You're not alone.
    Love, Kristy (Casteel) Walter

  8. happy birthday to jeff. what a beautiful post. really. honest, true, difficult... he would be proud of you, i'm certain.

    cheers to jeff (and you).


  9. Jeff was my best friend for several years. I miss him all the time and I say hi to him every time I come into nevada city. I bet he would have kids by now, lots of them and they would probably be little metalhead badasses. One thing I remember most: We used to make fun of people all the time, and for any reason. Once I made fun of someone's laugh and Jeff got all serious and punched me in the arm, hard. "Don't make fun of people's laughs" he said, "that's fucked up." True indeed, why would I try to discourage one of the only true and free pleasurable acts the human mind and body can have? Making fun of their face? Fair game...

    -Michael Cobden

  10. Happy Birthday Jeff!!! I feel your pain and appreciate you sharing this. It has encouraged me to share some too. I always wonder what my brothers would be doing...I really liked how you said, "And I have no idea what he would have done or who he might have become, but it would have been awesome. I wish I could see it." Me too.
    Great post, thank you.

  11. Thanks for sharing this Michael. These memories can still blindside me at times. Thanks for working through your memories and sharing your love. Dad

  12. what a great post.
    Grief is so surreal sometimes.. The way it makes our world totally stand still while everyone around us just goes on with life - they acknowledge the suffering you're experiencing, but unless they're really involved, they don't really feel it like you do.

    Kinda creepy, I actually lived in that area in 1995. I was living in Orangevale and one of my best friends lived in Roseville. Small world.

  13. I am so sorry for your loss. Of course it still hurts and still haunts you.

    I'm really glad you shared this with us. What a beautiful way to honor him.

  14. I have no words.

    But I am sorry for your loss. You make me think of what my children must think and feel and what they will wonder about when they are grown up and missing their little brother.

    Thank you for that.

  15. That was a beautiful, honorable memorial post for your brother. Thank you for sharing that.

    Happy Birthday Jeff. Thanks to your brother Michael, a lot more people "know" you.

  16. Okay...wow. I'm pretty new here, and I don't know you (or Jeff) but how can you read something like that and not cry? Not feel connected in some way? I'm so very sorry. The way you describe him, I'm sure that whatever he would've done would've been awesome too...Blessings and Light to you.

  17. Beautiful post. Happy Birthday to your little brother.

  18. Happy Birthday to Jeff! I can't imagine having lost my younger brother at that age (or ever, really) and I'm sorry that you had to find out what that was like.

    Jeff sounds like an all-around great guy and it's sad that he's gone. This was a lovely tribute to him and your relationship, both with him and with your family and friends.

  19. That was so incredibly moving. Thanks for telling the whole story, and I am sure it felt good getting it out.

  20. Great post. I lost my dad in 1977. Next year will be 33 years. He was only 33 when he died. I'm turning 39 this month. I totally freaked me out when I became older than he ever was.

    Death. It sucks. It fucking sucks.

    My world was upended by death last week. I wrote about it today and it's helped a little I think.

    On a happier note - I totally love that you "rounded up" your brother's girlfriend. Awesomeness

  21. So glad you wrote this post.

    I had a feeling that in the process of comforting Heather and Mike, lots of us were dealing with or confronting some of our own grief. I commented to Mike about it in one of his posts - I don't remember when.

    I think this healing is one of the most positive aspects of the blogging community (why yes, I AM A MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS).

    Cheers to Jeff!

    Thanks for sharing!

    denise :)

  22. same as what nic said: cheers to you and your brother. thanks for sharing what must be a very difficult time to relive. while we all feel regret and remorse about certain times in our lives, the simple truth is that we never could of known what was to be.

    lots of love and hugs


  23. Thank you Michael for sharing about Jeff and your experience of that time. When Jeff died, he left a life-changing hole in a lot of lives, and brought out the generosity of those who knew him. Don Baggett (high school choir director) volunteered his church for the funeral, because we knew that the chapel at the cemetery would not hold all those who would come to show their love for Jeff. The high school choir (Jeff's friends)sang at the service. Jeff's other musical friends offered their musical tributes to him, as well. His girlfriends church (next-door to the cemetery) offered to organize the reception afterwards, including the food. Jeff was not a member, but his girlfriend was, and he had attended some services because of his love for her. (He did not honor the beliefs of that church, but he did love that girl.)
    I agree that whatever Jeff chose to pursue, he would have been wonderful at. He was smart, perceptive, giving, and compassionate. What more could you want in a human being? I'm so glad that we got to have him in our lives, and that he had you and Jeremy for brothers.
    That's all I can say for now.
    I love you.

  24. What a lovely tribute to your brother. How precious life is and how easily we forget that. This post will bring it to the forefront for all who read it.
    Happy birthday Jeff.

  25. What a heartfelt and honest telling of those days . . . I was not lucky enough to know him well, but I remember hearing the news (small world) and feeling the community grief for his loss. He has inspired so many and will continue to inspire through his family and friends.
    Light and love to you!

  26. To all of you, and especially those I haven't emailed or somehow connected with directly, thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me to share my memories of Jeff, and of this time that was so hard. Your support is amazing. I'm so grateful.

  27. So I finally got around to reading this this afternoon after all of yesterdays buzz. Turns out to be apropos of today for me. Because you're right...we never think it's going to happen to us. Then it does. And nothing is ever the same again.

    My thoughts to you, yesterday, today, always.

  28. You have evoked so many thoughts & feelings with this post - and how it's written - that I don't feel I can do it justice with a crappy little comment.

    I was drawn right in to your mind-set of the time. I have not been in such a situation, but have had enough emotional & intense moments to know how the world moves simultaneously at light-speed and in that dream-like slow-motion. You put me right there.

    Also, the second guessing. That you can't beat yourself up, but constantly do (man, I'd like to get a hold of my 21 year old self and slap her a little silly).

    Dang. All I was going to say was: Thank you for sharing. So, Thanks :-)


  29. This post was so wow.. Thank you for sharing with us. I know you still feel it. I have not lost a sibling but I lost my best friend from leukemia when she was 22. She was almost like my sister I had known her since I was 2..I don't even like to think about it because it still hurts. She never got to meet my kids and that has always made me sad. It's been 8 years... time just speeds up...sigh

    Anyway thank you for sharing and Happy Birthday Jeff.

  30. Thanks for sharing. You're right, life is short. Shorter than I think we all want to acknowledge. It's also a reminder of what really matters.

  31. Michael...thanks for sharing this and putting into words what so many of us will or already have experienced at some point in our lives...

  32. Wow. My stomach was clenched. It is very cool of you to remember his birthday. You are a good big brother.

  33. I read this a few days late, but thought of Jeff that day, and nearly everyday, but especially on his birthday.
    What a tender, funny, gifted person.
    What it is like to not be a trio anymore, just imagining it, cracks my heart. After all this time, I'm sorry for your loss.
    All of the details seem chisseled in my mind, or are cloudy, I can't tell, but a funny one...
    Jeff pulling the earphones off of my sister's ears when he heard some vile language coming from the discman, but still letting her enjoy his metal.
    Yours, Tyson

  34. I only just found your blog. Thank you for sharing this. I think about Jeff all the time. He really did touch a lot of people's lives. Little Seizures was my first real band and all of my first experiences (first show, first recording, etc.) were with Jeff. I will never forget hanging out and making music with him. He was such an amazing guy.


Hi. This blog has moved to http://badassdadblog.com. If you'd like to comment on this post, please do so over there! Thanks.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Clicky Web Analytics