January 8, 2018, 8:55am: “Oh no! I hope this is the right phone number. I think it is you, Co. Anyway, listen, I wanted to see how you’re doing, and yeah…life is fun, ain’t it, at times? But you are too talented, you have so much going for you, and c’mon. You gotta kick ass. You, out of anyone, could kick ass. That’d be you. You’re a smart, talented, pretty lady. Anyway, I just want to tell you that I love you, and you’re always my biggest fan. I think you’re just so gifted, and I’m not just saying this, you have so much talent, you do, and um—I might have a little more. I’m Keith. *laughs* It don’t get better than that. Anyway, I love you, kid, and I’ll talk to you soon, and I just hope you’re doing well. And I love the fact that you’re, you know, doing what you gotta to do and all that. Alright? I love you, kid, hang in there, be tough, be strong—well, that’s what they told me too, but I’m there, and I ain’t being strong. So you gotta hang in there with me, kid, alright? I love you to death, Co. Hang in there. Love you. Bye.”
—Keith’s voicemail to me, the first of three.
Content warning: anorexia, suicide.
I am six years old. I don’t need glasses yet. It’s Thanksgiving. I still like holidays, not because they are vacations but because of the natural novelty of them. I sit on my twin bed and wait for my family to arrive, peering out of my window that looks down on the street. Earlier than called for, I see my uncle’s pickup truck roll by and park by the mailbox. I run outside barefoot.
“Hey, kid!” my uncle Keith says with a toothy grin. He has a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and greets me with the other. He has Timberland boots on (before they were considered fashionable) and cargo pants. He is the coolest person in the world. He lights a Marlboro and tells me to sit on the small retaining wall off of the side of the porch to shield me from the smoke. He tells me funny stories about nothing. Every time he goes out to smoke, I follow him. He tells me that I don’t have to follow him out. I tell him that I want to follow him out. He lets me.
I am fourteen years old. I have short hair, braces, glasses, and a horrendous level of insecurity corresponding to my awkward adolescence. Dad tells me Uncle Keith is coming to live with us for a while. I do not know why this is, but I do not ask questions. He sleeps in the loft upstairs. I like having him around.
“What did you do today?” my mom asks me and my younger brother at dinner.
“Not much. I just did some homework, then I wrote a song,” I reply.
“You wrote a song?!” Keith says. “Can we hear it?”
My insecurity flashes across my entire being, but somehow I end up bringing out my guitar and singing a tune called “Breathless” in the living room to my family. Keith cries. It is then that I realize that I can actually sing, after years of people telling me that I was tone-deaf.
Keith goes back to live in New Jersey on June 3, the day before my fifteenth birthday. It isn’t a memorable birthday at all.
I am twenty years old. It is a Tuesday that happens to be Valentine’s Day. It is my brother’s birthday. Two days pass. During a lecture, I receive a text, “I’m so sorry about your uncle” without knowing which uncle or what happened, but I know it is Keith and I know it is self-inflicted, now aware that the reason that he lived with us when I was fourteen was because of a suicide attempt. I am old enough to know that history repeats itself. I exit the classroom and go home. Keith is in the hospital. I cannot process this loss until he comes home to us in May. He is on crutches and has a scar across the top of his head like headphones. I give him my room at my parents’ house. I spend more time at my apartment near the university. He still wears Timberlands. He is still cool as hell. We sit outside in the backyard. We watch the birds and the sky’s gradient fade into different versions of itself. I tell him about school, friends, music, dates.
“Do you love him?” Keith asks me after I’ve told him about a date with someone I have been seeing for a while.
“I think so.”
Keith smiles. He has a preoccupation with love. He especially likes the songs I write during this time.
I am twenty-one years old. After six months and their challenges, fights, and outbursts, my parents and Keith have decided that it is time for him to move back to New Jersey. My dad says goodbye at the airport. It is Thanksgiving, but I do not run outside barefoot. We are a family of four again, but almost three. I do not eat Thanksgiving dinner beyond vegetables. By the beginning of January, I begin an outpatient treatment program at a hospital in Berkeley. Keith calls me the morning of orientation and leaves a voicemail to tell me that he is happy that I am going. I do not return the call. He calls again on January 10, twice. By then, I have already quit the program. I don’t return those calls either.
Three weeks later, I am Keith’s profile picture on Facebook. In that moment, I know. The photo is a close crop of me at a healthy weight, posted while I am going through intervention-esque treatment for anorexia. He captions it, “My gorgeous niece Cori Hartwig!” I comment and tell him that I love him. He replies, “You’re The Best Co! I Love You! Hope Everything’s going Great over there!” This is our last exchange.
Consumed with my own disappearance, I forget that other people have the ability to disappear as well. By the time I overcome my state of being snow-blind from the flurry of doctors and hospitals and skin and bones, he is lost to me.
I am twenty-one years old. History repeats itself. It is immortalized in police reports, filled and unused prescriptions, receipt paper, license plate numbers, anonymous news headlines, security footage in retail stores. We piece together timelines and stories. There is no note.
Hang in there, be tough, be strong—well, that’s what they told me too, but I’m there, and I ain’t being strong.
There is no note, but there are voicemails and calls left unreturned.
I am twenty-two years old. There is a spider on my wall. I watch it crawl like I watch the memories from the Pennsylvania split-level, from downtown Pleasanton at the coffeehouse (now closed), from our walk to the middle school, from the backyard, from the Pacifica shore, from the boat on Lake Del Valle two birthdays ago. I watch it crawl. It is two in the morning and my eyes grow heavy with sleep, my vision cloudy like cigarette smoke on the porch. I wish there was an easy way to tie everything up, to package it gracefully, to set it aside, and to indulge in these memories without feeling the grit and friction of grief against my consciousness. I wish there was an easy way to know that a soul is okay, an easy way to show a spirit a new song you’ve written, an easy way to share one last conversation, an easy way to return one last phone call, an easy way to turn back time and take away their pain before it could cause collateral suffering to those in their wake, an easy way to bring their presence back to you—even for a split second. Until then, I pray. I pray, I pray, I pray, and I remember.
Rest in peace Keith Hartwig