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Authentic Eagles: On Loss

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our  truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Lia Wickerham, CSON ’14

In the days following the tragic and sudden death of my father, my mind was flooded with impressions of what life would be like as a sixteen year old growing up without her dad. As a girl who loved playing with dolls, dressing up, and who dreamed of fairytale endings, I realized I wouldn’t have my father to walk me down the aisle and to hand me off to Prince Charming. Without hesitation, though, I knew that the next best person suited to hold my hand and walk by my side at my wedding was my best friend—my younger brother, Will. However, four and half years later my reconstructed fairytale was shattered. My brother lost control driving around a curve in a road, struck a tree, and was killed instantly.

While in many ways I grew up living a fairytale, I was no princess. As anyone who has a sibling close in age to him or her knows, it’s not about you; it’s about both of you. Growing up with a brother meant compromising, bargaining, cooperating, sacrificing, and sharing absolutely everything: parents, turns, toys, and so much more. Because we were best friends and always wanted to play together, we found ways to combine both of our interests; Barbie dolls cruised around in Tonka trucks and little Lego men invaded the Polly Pocket dollhouse. At the time I never realized or appreciated how having a sibling shaped me, or the values it instilled in me. As I reflect back now, I realize how so much of who I am is because of growing up side-by-side with a brother.

So, when asked by an innocent stranger trying to make small-talk in a waiting room only a few days after my brother’s death, “Do you have any siblings?” the simple question elicited no words. I had none. Do I say no? Should I no longer consider myself a sister? My logic stemmed from the notion that I kind of am an only child now… Would answering yes only lead to more questions, perpetuating discussion about Will as if he were living? But, the thing is, I don’t feel like an only child. I wasn’t brought up alone. I was raised growing and playing side-by-side with Will, who was almost the identical male version of me. His blonde hair was just as long as mine, and admittedly his eyes sparkled blue even more than my own. It’s crazy how a simple question turned into such a complex answer, and one that I could not even put into words.

In many ways, as a big sister, it was inevitable that Will would be trying to keep up with me, but in reality, so much of being his sister was keeping up with him. He challenged me, pushed me to do things out of my comfort zone and made the sweet, doll-loving, girly girl into a tough cookie who could hold her own with all the boys. As little kids, I can remember so many summer nights racing down our driveway on our ‘Little Tykes’ toys. Will flashed like lightning down the driveway with his neon yellow helmet and plastic motorcycle. I was at a slight disadvantage with my green tractor, but still, I always tried to keep up with him.  (Although when he decided to upgrade from riding inside the “cozy coupe” car to belly surfing on the top of it, I drew my line.) We only liked tubing when we could be on it together, and Will, with his need for speed, always gave the two thumbs up to go faster. While many times that speed literally caused my bathing suit bottoms to fly off, I never wanted to be the chicken that said, “No, lets go slow.” Competition between siblings can be disastrous, but with Will and I, it was what strengthened our relationship and is what made us both better people.

So much about my childhood that shaped me to be the person I am today is because of my brother pushing me beyond my comfort zone and encouraging me to be a little bit more daring, more adventurous and more carefree. At Will’s memorial service, his best friend ended his eulogy by saying that we all need to learn to “Live like Will.” That mentality and Will’s persuasive voice saying “Come on, Lia, just do it!” run through my mind everyday, propelling me to go beyond my expectations of myself.

Weeks after his death I was water-skiing and decided I wanted to learn to slalom. After many failed attempts of face-first nosedives into the water and back slapping falls, I was tired, frustrated and done. The moment I decided to swim back to the boat and call it quits, I thought of Will. He wouldn’t have let me stop trying. He would have made me feel weak for giving up and would have encouraged me to give it another shot. Despite a nose full of lake water, weak knees and blisters on my hands, I gave it another go. And wouldn’t you know it, I finally did it and flew across the lake on one ski!

To this day I don’t even remember what I said to that man in that waiting room. I do remember that I felt like a person frozen inside an ice cube, unable to move or speak. All the while, I had thoughts swirling, kicking and bouncing around my mind. Taking a step back, reflecting on the question now, the tension in my mind has quieted. I know that no matter what, I will always be a sister. If I could go back to that moment, with that same man, I could now self-assuredly respond to his question with a very confident, yes. “Do I have any siblings?” Yes, I have a younger brother, Will.

While it is surely not that same as it was, I am still influenced and propelled to be more because of my brother. Just because he isn’t here in the way he once was doesn’t mean he is gone or unable to affect who I am. The way he impacts me has just changed. He still is motivating me and inspiring me to be more. So much of what I do today is because of him and I am pushed to try a little harder and be a little larger in life everyday because of him. So of course, I have a sibling. I have an inspiring younger brother that instigates me, has faith in me, and encourages me to be more than I think I can be.

In Cinderella’s fairytale, it is a glass slipper that turned her life from rags to riches. In my fairytale, it is pennies. Everyday, pennies turn my tears of sadness into a smile up to Heaven. Before my father’s death my best friend shared with me that anytime you find a penny, it is a sign from someone in Heaven letting you know they love you. My father knew I loved that story, and the occasional time I saw a penny I’d take it as a sign from my grandparents that they were still here with us. Following my father’s passing, I have found more pennies than anyone could imagine. I find them at times I’ve needed them most: on graduations, whilst making tough decisions, while celebrating birthdays, during instants of sadness, before taking exams, and even when I least expect it. Whenever it is, finding pennies make me smile knowing he is right by my side. The penny stories are endless.

A month before Will died, he and I found a penny together as we were walking down a street. We both smiled and said “Dad’s right here with us.” As many of my friends and family know, Will and my father shared a bond that was truly remarkable; they shared a love for each other that I’ve never seen between another parent and child. They are what they referred to themselves as, pals. Their parallel hobbies, love for life and each other, and the happiness they shared together fueled a relationship that’s altered state crushed my brother when my father unexpectedly passed. So for my mom and I, we find peace and comfort in knowing that the two pals, the other half to our family, are back together, up in Heaven and jamming as they once were on Earth. And while to the surprise of many, but to no shock of my own, my mother and I now not only find even more pennies every day, but the pennies come in pairs of two.

In many ways I consider myself emotional, delicate and sensitive. But, just as it was when I was growing up, I choose to be that Barbie doll cruising through life in a Tonka truck. There will always be mud, unexpected dips of sadness, and hills of happiness that come our way in life, and there’s just no making it through those challenges in a pink shiny convertible. Life is about adjusting to the changes, switching gears and accepting the boulders in the path without letting them derail you from your destination.

So, while the magical image of a perfect life that I fantasized about as a little girl will no longer be my reality, I am still living and pursuing my fairytale. I have a father and a brother, two beautiful angels, who inspire me everyday, and who I know are always with me. Without a doubt, I know they will both be on each side of me on that day that I walk down the aisle, whenever it comes. And, hey, perhaps there won’t be flower girls scattering flowers at my wedding, but rather penny girls that sprinkle sparkling gold coins down the aisle as I make my way to the front. It is certainly not as I initially imagined, however no enchanted fairytale is all sunshine and happiness.  A quote I once read stated, “Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on to the path to the best things that will ever happen to us.” And that is how I choose to hold my past and look forward to my future.

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