Why I Never Said Goodbye

What a split-second decision taught me about life, love and relationships

When was the last time you talked to your brother? For me, it’s now been a little over five years.

The last physical interaction I ever had with him was a petty disagreement, mostly motivated by my own insecurities and — frankly — desire to be more like him; and until now, it’s something that I’ve kept to myself.

I was headed out the door of my parents’ house one early Sunday morning in October 2010 to catch my flight from Grand Rapids back to Denver. I had stopped home for the weekend to celebrate my mom’s birthday. My mom looked at me and asked, “don’t you want to say goodbye to your brother?”

In that moment, in an impulsive decision, I shook my head and responded, “No, not really,” still upset from our disagreement the night before.

So I got in the car and headed on my way. By the time I landed back in Denver, I had a text from my brother that read:

“You can never leave without saying goodbye again!”

Unfortunately, he was right. But not in the way either of us would have ever imagined. Less than ten days later, on that Tuesday morning of October 26, 2010, Billy died in his sleep.

In the mysterious and miraculous ways in which God places his hand into our lives, Billy and I resolved our differences less than five hours before he left us. Neither of us could have ever known it’d be the last time we would speak, but we made right, catching up about his upcoming med school interviews and planning a ski trip for a few weeks later.

I can take comfort in knowing that when Billy went that night, nothing was unresolved. But what I can’t take back is the fact that I missed the last opportunity to ever say goodbye. I never saw him that one last time; I never gave him that final hug or let him know what he meant to me. I instead had to do it from the pulpit of Mayflower Church, looking down at his casket hoping somehow he could hear me and wishing there was a way to bring him back. But I know that when my time comes, he’ll be one of the first, greeting me with that giant smile and one of those hugs that would always manage to crush my torso.

It’s taken me five years to talk about this. Some combination of guilt and regret has prevented me from sharing the real story, instead putting on my act and pretending as though the last time we were together was completely normal and, as in a perfect fairytale, we got to tell each other all the things we would have wanted to express.

The reality is, Billy and I were human. We had an entirely normal brotherly relationship, which naturally at times involves tension, and disputes. But beneath that there was always love; the admiration and respect I had for him and all that he was doing and would do, and the way in which he was always looking out for me.

I’ll stop short of offering any sort of advice and I’ll spare you the “act like it’s your last day” cliché, but what I will offer is that I could have done a better job expressing my love and appreciation for my brother, not letting my own insecurity and, at times even, competition with him, get in the way of telling him what he really meant to me.

To this day, I keep Billy’s text on my phone, as a simple reminder to always express appreciation to those who mean so much to me — the incredible friends, family, and role models that God has put in my life; not to let “in the moment” things cloud the bonds that run so much deeper.

If you have a brother, I’d ask you to give him a hug or send him a message tonight, letting him know what he means to you. I sure wish I could.

Billy and me in Jamaica (Spring 2009)