Excerpt from Seasoned: A Memoir of Grief and Grace, by Tom Zink
“There’s another bundle out there.”
Those were the last words I heard my brother say.
He spoke them as he walked back into our garage, his hands clutching the wire wrapped around a bundle of newspapers. We were paper boys for the Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s morning daily, published seven days a week. His words were a familiar morning refrain, a no-nonsense reminder to do my share.
I retrieved that last bundle and carried it into the garage. We snipped the wire and dropped the Thursday papers into the metal baskets that straddled the rear fenders of our bikes, like saddle bags you see on cowboys’ horses on television. I grabbed one copy, quick-scanned the headlines, checked the Sports section, and offhandedly noted the date: Thursday, October 19, 1961. Off we rode in opposite directions to bring the news to our waiting customers.
Our house at the time was on a two-lane state highway, fifteen miles west of downtown Cleveland, running north towards Lake Erie and south into the next county. Columbia Road, as it was called, had gravel shoulders, rural mailboxes on posts near the roadway, and thirty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit signs.
Steve’s paper route was on the highway, mine on Rose Road, a quiet side street that intersected Columbia a short distance from our house. It was a morning like hundreds of others in our twenty months as paper boys. But on this day, less than half an hour after we pedaled away from our home, my brother was killed on his bicycle, struck by a car that was trying to pass a slower-moving vehicle on Columbia Road.
I was the first in the family to hear of Steve’s death. When Steve didn’t return home shortly after me, I rode on my own, back along his route, and saw his broken bicycle on the side of the road, which had been closed by police who were still on the scene. After I identified myself, an officer bluntly delivered the news to me that initiated a transformation in my devout Christian family and in myself, one I would not understand for decades. From that moment forward, we all began to let Steve slip away, bit by bit, in the silence that masked our pain.
Within the confines of our German Lutheran heritage, death was perceived as the gateway to eternal life in heaven, a view that gave us comfort but effectively kept a lid on all of our feelings and questions. No one seemed to know how to talk to a teenaged boy whose older brother was dead. So I kept my own counsel and did my best to persevere. I lived by the myth that if I could just act as if nothing had happened, I’d be all right.
Over time, I lost touch with Steve—who I was with him, how we talked to each other, what his voice sounded like. In that brief part of my life when I had been his younger brother, we shared many things—riding bicycles, singing harmony, teasing, farting, telling lame jokes, wrestling, building models, playing basketball, studying, praying. I kept these memories and my pain to myself, mistakenly thinking this meant they mattered less and less. I shoved my initial emotional reactions into a deep freeze, where layers of ice, frost, and snow gradually accumulated to protect me. I learned how to drive a car, went away to college, traveled overseas with the Peace Corps, got married, had children, earned a doctoral degree, and managed, with my dear wife, to adequately provide for our family’s needs.
As the years passed, my memories, my grief, and my love for Steve became encased in layers of impenetrable ice that kept me unaware of the cauldron that simmered below. On rare occasions, a smell, a phrase, or a song evoked a memory of those first fourteen years of my life, when my brother was alive, but I’d quickly retreat from naming the loss, understanding my grief, or facing the pain. An aching fear kept me from wanting to find out what lay beneath.
Grief and Grace
Then, one morning, thirty-nine years after Steve’s death, I found myself in a church service in Ontario on a Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday with my sons, my wife, and her extended family. During the exchange of the peace, I watched my teenaged boys greeting their teenaged cousins, and for the first time was struck by the realization that Steve’s death had snatched away my chance to bond with my own brother as a young adult. In that moment, it was as if a ray of sunlight began to melt its way through the permafrost that locked away my grief and my love. The revelation sent me reeling, and it marked the moment I knew I needed to follow that warm sunlight back into the past and set myself free.
As I began a mission to bring my brother, and my fourteen-year-old self, back to life and to fully embrace how I understood and coped with Steve’s death, I also sensed I had a story to tell. I have discovered that the act of setting my words down in this memoir has become the key to opening myself to all the joy, sadness, laughter, and pain of remembering Steve. Telling the story shines a light into the past and has given me a renewed sense of grace and strength that I wish to share.