I Watched ‘Donnie Darko’ the Night My Brother Died

Melissa Toldy
Apr 2 · 4 min read

There’s something inherently surreal about death. Someone can tell you, “So-and-so died,” but it may take a while for reality to sink in. In 2004, when I was 20 years old, I found out my brother died, and the way I found out was pretty weird. My little sister sent me an instant message.

These days, I learn about people dying via text message. When my brother-in-law died in 2018, my older sister sent out a group text, to let everyone know. Back in 2004, I doubt many people were sharing this information over IMs. Most people would have called. But my little sister was scared. She was upstairs at my parents’ house. She heard the police officers downstairs, giving my mother the news. My little sister typed the message into her computer, and I saw it on my computer. But first, my roommate saw the message. He didn’t have a computer, so he was borrowing mine. I came back from using the restroom, and he said, “Hey, there’s a message for you.”

I drove alone to my parents’ house, and on the way, my older sister called me. To let me know what I already knew. When I arrived, I saw my father lying outstretched on the couch. It was a strange sight because he never lay on the couch. He would usually fall asleep, sitting upright, in a different chair. He was also crying. Another strange sight.

When I think back on that day, I remember the shape of my bedroom where I read the message, and I remember the shape of my parents’ living room where we all gathered, and strangely, I have a visual of my brother’s car accident. I was familiar with the winding road where he crashed, and I knew what an 18 wheeler looked like, and I knew what my brother looked like, alive, and my mind created a portrait similar to memory recall. The image is like a dream no one wants to have, or I guess, just a terrible nightmare that actually happened.

My twin sister was still living with my parents back then, and after everyone went to sleep, we smoked some pot and watched Donnie Darko. We had seen the film before, but because I was a little high, and because (well, why do I need a reason?), anyway, I laughed. There’s a scene in the beginning where Donnie Darko’s dad is using a leaf blower on the front lawn, and Donnie Darko’s sister walks by. The father turns the leaf blower on his daughter, her hair flying up. The daughter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, laughs, and that’s when I laughed, too.

Following this brief moment of laughter, I felt utter guilt. I was not supposed to laugh. Laughing was wrong on the day your brother died. I tried to blame the pot, but that didn’t satisfy me. And this wouldn’t be the first time I grieved in the “wrong” way. The next day, I went to a pizza place with my twin sister. I wanted to order some chocolate cake, but my sister thought the idea was grotesque. How could I eat cake at a time like this? In those days, I ate dessert automatically, out of habit. It was something my then-boyfriend had influenced me to do. Again, I wanted to push away the blame, but it wasn’t enough. I felt guilty for not grieving properly.

I now know there’s no proper way to grieve. And really, the grieving never ends. I still grieve for my brother. I dream about him, and sometimes, I still cry when I remember him. In my dreams, he often tells me that he’s been on a long trip. He says, “Oh, yeah. I’m not really dead. I’ve just been traveling.” Sometimes he wears leather sandals, but I don’t remember him ever wearing leather sandals when he was alive.

Donnie Darko was a good movie choice, though. It’s a surreal film, and it’s one you can watch over and over again. The titular character reminds me of my brother — a brooding, serious boy with a maniacal sense of humor. I like how Jake Gyllenhaal and Maggie Gyllenhaal, real-life brother and sister, play the roles of brother and sister in the film. I can’t remember if my brother ever watched the movie, but I’m pretty sure he would have liked it.


Stories connected by personal experience

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