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After a Death, a Discovery of the Man the Boy Became


I'd always assumed that death was something the other guy had to deal with--until the phone call came, and I became the other guy.

It was a voice mail message at work, left by my dad in Seattle. "It's your brother, Conrad." There was an awkward pause, as if he was reading off cue cards for the first time. "They found him in his apartment. He's dead. We're going down there now."

I thought it was a joke. Or maybe a case of mistaken identity. Somebody else's brother Conrad had just died, and I had been given the message by mistake.

The details came in slowly. Conrad had been last seen at an office party Thursday night. He hadn't shown up for work Friday, and nobody had seen him over the weekend. When he didn't show up for work on Monday, some co-workers let themselves into his condo and found him lying peacefully in his bed.

He had died of natural causes three weeks shy of his 30th birthday, leaving behind my parents, older brother Chris and his twin brother, Curtis.


I'd had pets die. My grandparents had passed away years earlier after living full lives. A sudden death like this isn't supposed to happen.

I spent the next week at my parents' house trying to sort out my sadness, as well as theirs. The most overwhelming feeling I had, though, wasn't grief. It was emptiness. The initial numbness refused to wear off. Maybe I was just in denial, but the real source of this lack of emotion, perhaps, was that I wanted very much to keep Conrad's memory alive. I had very few memories.

We had never been particularly close growing up. I was five years older, a substantial gap. More importantly, we never had much in common. Even before he could add and subtract, it seemed, he was studying the financial pages; I still can't balance a checkbook.

My favorite book was "Catcher in the Rye." He enjoyed Paul Harvey's autobiography. I once voted for Jesse Jackson. He believed Richard Nixon got a raw deal.


I'd made feeble efforts to stay in touch after I moved off to college, sending the requisite Christmas and birthday cards, but I never received any in return. Since he landed a job at a Seattle accounting firm nearly a decade ago, he and I probably hadn't talked more than a dozen times. And even those conversations weren't exactly illuminating. He'd just stand there, arms crossed tightly over his chest, and utter a sarcastic "yes" or "no" to every question I asked.

As I sat at his memorial service, I heard friends of his--one after another--stand up and tell these wonderful stories about what he was like. They talked about his sensitivity, his generosity, even his ability to make an awesome blueberry coffee cake. Listening to these tales should have made me feel better. Instead, guilt overwhelmed me.

I felt that perhaps I'd never made enough effort to get to know him. My birthday cards should have been birthday calls. Now his life was gone, but I wanted another chance to be a part of it, now that he couldn't resist. And the only way to do that was to listen to the friends who had become his surrogate family.


Six weeks after Conrad's death, the back bedrooms in my parents' house began to look like some sort of warehouse. They'd moved all his belongings out of his condo and into their place, but had yet to decide what to do with it all.

There were boxes piled everywhere, with an odd collection of stuff inside. One was filled with his CDs, another with books and papers he'd collected over the years, including the program from my college graduation with my name circled.

One closet was bursting with his Brooks Brothers suits, London Fog raincoats and camel's hair overcoats. A stack of bills he'd never have to pay sat on one dresser. On another was the one box never to be unpacked. It held his ashes.

I tried picking up some clues about who Conrad was by sifting through his possessions, but the real truth had to come from his friends. At first I felt awkward. I've spent 17 years asking people questions for a living. This was the first time the answers affected me personally.

I learned that two of his favorite movies were "Metropolitan" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." His musical tastes ranged from the Pet Shop Boys to Frank Sinatra. Vodka was his liquor of choice, although he liked to experiment with beers from local microbreweries. Lately, he'd started looking for the perfect cigar. He liked African art and pickled vegetables. And there was a time when his favorite wallet was this ratty, promotional billfold with the Seattle Supersonics logo.

These are the sort of day-to-day details that really describe a person, and they gave me plenty of clues as to who Conrad had become. Because he was such a recluse as a kid, I'd never pictured him out in the world enjoying the same sorts of things I might enjoy.

These small pieces of the Conrad puzzle may seem trivial, but to me they were enlightening clues to a personality I couldn't previously picture.

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