visiting my brother’s grave for the first time

CW: death, graveyard, car accidents (in newspaper photos and headlines)

On the anniversary of Challenger, I visited my brother’s grave for the first time.

Karrie stands behind her brother’s gravestone, her right foot far forward so her legs are in pyramid pose. She holds a red cane in her right hand and drags a pink suitcase behind her with her left hand, red roses blooming from the zipper at the top. Her long skirt is printed with her brother’s mugshot photo and her long red hair blows in the slight breeze. In the distance, a barren tree stands tall. Photo styling & concept by me; photo by Alan Murdock.

If you have read my work, you know this date is significant to me. Two days after the last time I saw my brother, I watched the Challenger disaster on TV. I confuse NASA Public Affairs Officer Steve Nesbitt’s voice with my brother’s.

I’ve made spectrograms comparing them:

spectrogram of Steve Nesbitt saying Obviously a Major Malfunction, his voice in yellow against a green background.
Spectrogram of my brother saying “What secret’s that, honey?”from a phone call recorded by police.  It looks like a denser version of the Nesbitt spectrogram.

I didn’t plan to go to my brother’s grave on the Challenger anniversary. My husband and I traveled to Cedar Rapids for my Aunt Joann’s funeral and my appointment with a geneticist.

We had very little time — only a few minutes — and we had to sneak to the cemetery without telling my family. I needed to be there alone. I needed to process it without the sibs or my father.

Except I can’t go there alone, not really: no buses reach it; I can’t drive. My brother’s grave is unreachable except by car. Even grief rites are inaccessible sometimes.

As we drove toward the cemetery, we passed Prairie High School, and I gasped. “We are in the territory of my brother,” I said. “This is the land of Greg.”

He lived near Prairie High, attended Prairie High. I lived to the north, attended Kennedy. We had different geographies. Sometimes it didn’t feel like we came from the same city.

When we turned onto Highway 30 and passed the ADM plant, I said, “This is the land of my father.” It’s where he worked my whole childhood.

It was the land of Greg, too. “My brother had his first life-changing injury there.”

I have always felt like that factory ate my brother.

“Watch out for the fog. It creeps over the highway and causes accidents. That ethanol factory eats cars.”

headline from the Cedar Rapids Gazette about a 23-car pileup near the ADM plant
Gazette newspaper photo of a car slid under the back end of a school bus, the top of the car crushed. Police stand to the side.The caption says the accident occurred near the ADM plant.
newspaper photo of a car crashed into a semi truck with the headline “Steam cloud blamed in fatal crash”
newspaper photo of person on a stretcher and fire & police officers after an accident. Headline reads: Steam cloud may force road closings. Zero visibility near ADM blamed for second accident

It felt like the ADM plant was standing sentry. Or maybe my father was. I always feel like he is there, at ADM, watching.

When we turned into the cemetery, I found my brother’s grave without even having to wander.

View from down the row of gravestones, with my pink suitcase standing upright next to my brother’s, marking it. This was a test photo that Alan took.

It felt like somehow I had always known where he was.

It was cold–not just any cold, Iowa cold. My hands froze so badly I could not control them at the end of the shoot, when we returned to the car so I could change my skirt and wig to rush to my mother’s apartment. I couldn’t open the wig bag or slide the cap over my head. My fingers refused to grip. I cried. I needed to get that red wig off me. It’s the hair I associate with Greg. It’s a secret. The skirt, too.

My joints hurt. They were all out of place. The pose caused subluxations in my ankles and knees from my newly diagnosed Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. It’s excruciating to stand and balance like that for my ataxia & syringomyelia, too. That’s why I chose the pose: it puts me in Parallel Stress (see my other images in this series at this link).

We had to hurry so nobody would wonder where we were. I didn’t have time to process it. I am still processing it.

Close-up of the gravestone, which reads: Gregory D. Higgins July 12, 1957 to Sept 26, 2008 Son Brother Father, with the Army Airborne logo engraved in the upper left corner. Pink artificial roses & other flowers and a tattered United States flag decorate it. Photo by me.

The last time I saw my brother alive: Challenger.

The first time I saw his grave: Challenger.

That I have to keep my grief secret: obviously a major malfunction.