It’s been three years since my oldest brother Justin took his own life during an argument with his girlfriend. His death came exactly one week after the first anniversary of our father’s suicide. He took an already impossible time of year and made it unfathomable, almost comical… almost. In many ways, he died just as he lived: with too much enthusiasm.
Justin was the type of person who dropped everything to drive five hours to visit me in the hospital or who would take a friend to a memorial, but he was also the type of person who would get drunk and start fights. He was the type of person who would protect the smallest and weakest from outside enemies, but he was also the type of person who had four protective orders against him — again, always the overachiever. He was even the type of person who read voraciously but was also the type of person who was adamant that using words like voraciously proved his intelligence. (I remember once, back when he worked security for a music venue in Aspen, he told me: “Yeah, people think I’m stupid, but then I throw a four-syllable word at them.”)
In the years since his death, I’ve struggled so hard to piece together a complete picture of him, and I think that’s largely because he was too busy trying to make himself like our father to make himself his own person. All of the things I hate about who my brother became — the anger, the self-righteousness, the violence, the entitlement — he learned from our dad. But a lot of the things I loved about him — his impulse to protect people, his generosity that bordered on insanity, his desire to succeed — those, too, Justin learned from Dad.
The two things I know that were completely Justin’s, separate from the abuse our father inflicted upon him and the values that abuse instilled, were Justin’s ridiculous sense of humor and his flair for the dramatic. The two fed into each other, oftentimes lending themselves great stories.
Justin had a prosthetic leg. He’d been born with Fibular Hemimelia, a birth defect that meant his right leg didn’t have a fibula. As a result, the bones in his foot had fused and he only had three toes. My parents were faced with an incredibly difficult decision for any parent, let alone first-time parents: limb-lengthening, an excruciating process wherein the bone is purposely broken and then purposely separated by a few millimeters at a time to maybe gain an inch or two of length (though he’d still walk with a pronounced limp and would need a brace or special shoe for his foot), or amputation. They chose to amputate, because the doctors told them he’d learn to walk and run with a prosthetic right when other children would learn to do so with their fibula-laden right legs. And, true to form, Justin started walking and running a month or so early.
As soon as I could form complete thoughts and remember them, I was obsessed with my oldest brother’s perceived superpower. Justin kept all of his past legs, ones he’d outgrown, and I was prone to shoving my “normal” right foot in one and limping around the house. I’d also tell any playground bullies that my brother would take off his hard foot and hit them with it, but much to my disappointment, he never did. He always just talked to them about leaving me alone, like a weirdo.
In many ways, he was my hero. The world kept knocking Justin down, and he got back up every single time. And like any interesting hero, Justin was troubled, haunted, hurting, and hurtful. His athletic achievements and can-do attitude in spite of (or in case of the heavy rotating ankle he got in high school to help his golf game — because of) his leg came at the cost of his spirit, which our father mercilessly beat or ridiculed into hiding. And because he was often our father’s sole — always main — target, Justin both loathed and idolized the man.
Justin never felt that he was different, had never learned from the world to be ashamed or uncomfortable in his prosthetic. This led him to doing things like lending his old legs to neighbors for them to use in their Halloween displays (like the time our neighbors would answer the door and fake chainsaw it off the dad of their house); gluing fake wounds on them to use in science projects demonstrating things like gangrene or leprosy or something; or taking his fake leg off and leaving it in the yard for me and my friends to find during our many, many games of Ghost in The Graveyard.
He was also always the athlete of the family — the only one besides our mom with any innate sense of balance and coordination. The only times his “hard foot” (as my brothers and I called it when we were little) bothered him or held him back was when he pushed the technology too far. His prosthesis wasn’t meant for a star athlete, but he made it work. Or, in the case of his turn as a star soccer player, he put on a show. Once, he went for a corner kick and stepped his right leg into a prairie dog hole. He came up, his footless — that’s what we called his amputated leg, not his stump or his foot-ghost — dangling as he laughed, and the startled ref blew the whistle so my parents could dig out his leg. I think he scored on that kick? He probably did. He was stupid talented like that.
Another time, he kicked a ball and his foot came loose, spinning around and around. My mom kept duct tape in the car for this reason, and soon, his foot was silver instead of beige.
But my favorite incident happened during a seventh or eighth grade game. Justin kicked to clear the ball from his team’s defensive end, and his leg came completely off, matching the arc of the ball and flipping end over end. A kid on the other team screamed and ran away. I don’t think I ever saw Justin laugh as hard as he did then. Certainly, the other team hadn’t seen a whole team and cheering section roar with laughter.
The older he got, the more he did things with his leg and with his body that I could never be sure weren’t jokes. Like his tattoos. Justin had the worst tattoos of anyone I’ve ever met, and I once dated a cisgendered heterosexual white man who stick-and-poked in his own bad handwriting the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. So I’m familiar with the genre.
He got his first tattoo as part of initiation into the fraternity he joined for the one semester he was in college. It was a Celtic trinity, and it was probably his tattoo of highest quality, which says something because it was damned ugly. It was always-wear-sleeves ugly. And besides, it’s not like Justin had any relationship to Celtic anything, but when you’re drinking a ton and want to pay thousands of dollars a year to have friends to drink with and to watch those friends probably slip date-rape drugs to unsuspecting young women, well, you get what your frat brothers tell you to get.
His next tattoo came shortly after and was one he and our brother Chris got together, maybe for Chris’s 18th birthday. I felt left out until I saw it, and then I felt relief. It’s their initials intertwining and it’s in this odd, slightly-effeminate cursive. Above the initials is the word “brotherhood” and below it is “blood is forever.” Chris designed it, and then Chris complained about the pain and said he’d never get another tattoo as long as he lived. Apparently, Chris doesn’t have a pain tolerance, which I found surprising, given how much pain he had inflicted upon himself over the years, from starting a fight club at his high school and breaking his hand on his best friend’s face to drinking a quart of peppermint schnapps a day from around that age until he was thirty.
It wasn’t an auspicious start to a tattoo collection. Sure, tattoos are subjective, but quality isn’t. This is why I will never be sure whether some of them weren’t him just looking at the artist and doing that thing with his face where he grinned madly and stuck his tongue out only to say “ha-HA, this is going to be so fucking funny.”
He got a tribal tattoo with “shading” done at home by a former roommate (in tattoo parlance, that’s called a scratcher) that was just hundreds of tiny, wispy penises. I didn’t know about the penises and the shading until our trip to Maui to scatter Dad’s ashes when Chris pointed it out on the walk back from the beach where we dumped Dad.
“Justin,” I said. “You have tiny penises all over your arm and shoulder!” I laughed loud and long and Justin rolled his eyes.
“I’ve had this tattoo for ten years, Whitney. This isn’t news.”
“Yes — but they’re penises! Lots and lots of penises!”
In retrospect, that’s probably my favorite of Justin’s tattoos. Accidental dicks. It’s so perfect.
The scratcher roommate also scratched in a tattoo of a doodle Justin used to draw in his notes. It looked like garbage, and I think the tribal tattoo was partially to cover that up, or at least distract from it. Maybe to highlight it? I have no idea.
Lots happened before the next tattoo: Justin was arrested for domestic violence, and then was arrested for beating the shit out of his best friend, and then he was offered rehab or prison, and he chose rehab. He got clean. He had two years of probation to look forward to, which included random drug testing for the duration of the sentence. Once he was out of rehab, he started school again. He made the dean’s list. He worked on confronting his internalized racism and did a project on The Black Panther Party where he interviewed our Dad’s brothers, both of whom were Panthers. He became the gregarious, loving, over-the-top goofball that I remembered from before the divorce, and when he earned a year of sobriety, he wanted to mark the occasion with a tattoo.
That made sense, but the tattoo he got made none at all, though it was clearly his most thought-out. I visited him in Carbondale the winter he got it. He lifted his shirt to show off his six-pack and then told me that he had wanted a “montage [sic] of all I’ve left behind.” This was a collage, not a montage, and it was hideous. It was a sickly green color, like an old-timey photograph. It was also not photorealistic, but cartoonish. It was a bottle of alcohol, a pipe with smoke coming out, a line of cocaine, and a cracked-open pill. I guess it was a good mile marker for “look at how hard I used to party” but then, when he was off probation and he started drinking again I think it became more of a shopping list.
When he was sober, I gave him a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, a book I had read to prepare myself for a leadership position my senior year of high school. Justin loved it, and we decided that we’d get a matching tattoo from that book (because I’d be damned if I was going to get one of our initials). We couldn’t agree on the same quote because the book meant different things to both of us, but he decided on the line, “step by step I progressed until I again became a human being,” which was quite beautiful and quite fitting for sober Justin.
The problem was, the artist messed up the word being. He stretched it out, so it looked idiotic. He was so apologetic that he told Justin from then on out, any tattoos Justin wanted would be free.
That was, of course, a terrible offer to accept. But if he wanted his skin to be a comic strip, it was a great offer.
Justin decided then that he would get a “quote sleeve” — all of these different quotes in different fonts overlapping until his arm was illegible, which kind of defeated the purpose, in my opinion.
The next one was an Emerson quote, which he should have abided by a bit more closely: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
Was he aware of the irony? Because that would make it an incredible tattoo and my brother an incredible hipster. Justin always felt he was being persecuted whenever anyone contradicted him. Or suggested that maybe he shouldn’t drink so much. Or hinted that maybe he should go to therapy. Or stated directly that he shouldn’t beat up the people and pets in his life.
Next came a tattoo in Latin that he thought said, “Be careful of what is said, when, and to whom” but really said “Be careful of what is said, for it could be you,” in this weird, Walt Disney-esque font. It was so ugly that when he texted me a picture and asked me what I thought I went, “Yay, new ink!” and left it at that.
The last one he got on his 30th birthday, before Dad died. He told Mom about it on the phone.
“Yeah, it’s not done yet,” he said. “But it’s something Dad used to say. The artist messed it up a little though.”
Mom told me that, so I texted Justin because I wanted a picture I could laugh at. He didn’t send one. He just told me it wasn’t finished.
I asked what the quote was.
It was, “Underestimation is the key, the success.” And one of the words was misspelt. I can’t remember which one.
That’s not even a complete sentence! And it doesn’t make any sense! Did he mean to say, “underestimation is the key to success?” Because I’m pretty sure that isn’t something that Dad just came up with on his own. I’m pretty sure lots of people have said that lots of times. But if it was that bastardized sentence fragment that he got tattooed, maybe that was something our Dad had said. As I sit here writing this, I’m starting to think that maybe my brother was low-key a comedic genius. Because I certainly started underestimating him because of his tattoos, and wasn’t that kind of the point?
The one tattoo that my brother didn’t have the chance to get, that I so desperately wanted him to have, would’ve been the worst one. He wanted to get “REAL” tattooed down the length of his left calf and “FAKE” painted down the metal of his right.
As soon as I had processed Justin’s death — a few hours after my mom had called to tell me — I knew I had to get a tattoo in his honor, and I knew it had to be kind of tasteless in the way that his tattoos were, and I knew it had to encapsulate everything I loved about his sense of humor and his flair for the dramatic. I briefly considered getting just a line of his handwriting from a note he wrote me that said, “I love you so much!” right between my breasts, because if there’s anything I love more than tattoos, it’s pissing off the ghosts of my dead family members. But then I thought about explaining that to sexual partners and realized that I would never get laid again as a result, which would actually probably satisfy my over-protective brother-ghost. That option was out.
It also had to fit into my tattoo aesthetic, which means it somehow had to do with literature. It took me seven long months because I couldn’t think of anything from a book to get in his honor that was ridiculous enough, but one day I knew exactly which memory to bastardize into permanent art, and that I’d have to memorialize it in an essay, so here it is:
On the day of the viewing, the few remaining members of my family and I were in peak joke-cracking form. Almost everything we said had some sort of humor attached, and the poor lady at the funeral home had no idea how to react to our bleak senses of humor. I mean, she laughed, because we are hilarious in times of crises, but it was one of those laughs that was wildly uncomfortable and was the ha-ha form of I shouldn’t laugh but they’re laughing and also, it’s kind of funny even though it’s super fucked-up.
The funeral director asked us what we’d like to do with his fake leg. Would we want to keep it? Would we want it thrown away? Would we want it cremated with him? Would it even be possible to cremate something made out of carbon fiber or steel or titanium or whatever-the-fuck it was made out of?
“We don’t want it,” Mom said for the three of us. She was right. The leg was beaten up, badly, covered in scratches and a botched paint job. The worst part, though, was definitely the smell. Well, probably the smell. I learned very young not to get my face near Justin’s footless. He had to wear this thick gel sock with a screw in the bottom that would pop into place to keep his leg on. The problem was, that sock and his footless smelled terrible because thick gel socks that are then shoved into some sort of metal don’t breathe. The sweat just accumulates. They smelled like hot rotten garbage that’d been sitting in the sun in August for days, or like really expensive Bleu cheese. One time Justin even got an infection because he hadn’t been washing the sock. Imagine that smell. I think we all imagined that his fake leg would smell that way, too.
“I want it,” came a small voice. Justin’s girlfriend, who already was keeping his dog that Mom, Chris, and I had spent more time with than Justin, apparently wanted his leg, too.
I leaned over to Chris , and in the quietest voice I could, said, “What the fuck does she want it for? A vase?”
And that’s what I decided to get tattooed: his fake leg as a vase, complete with beautiful flowers and that line of his handwriting underneath. It was appropriately tasteless and silly. Two weeks before the anniversary, I took an hour-long nap while an artist brought the idea to life on my skin.
I texted Chris a photo of the tattoo once I got home. I didn’t have much hope that he’d respond, because he never responds to my text messages and I send them usually once a week. In fact, I often joke that I’m more likely to get a text from my dead-brother than I am my alive-brother. But these texts are my attempt at letting Chris know I love him and care about him and am here for him, while also absolving me of any guilt if he dies too, because hey man, I tried. But this time he texted me back right away:
And I know in my heart of hearts, that if Justin could see the tattoo, he’d love it, and then probably start using one of his old legs as a vase.