Remembering Julie Hoerth

A lot of times, when I'm blogging, I'm just whipping up a post in about twenty minutes. My brain moves faster than I can type, and the words never capture all the details I want to include. They are imperfect, like everything else in this life, and that's ok. This post is especially imperfect, because I could never say everything I wanted on this topic. Never in a million words. Sometimes, emotion is just too big to define.

Last week, January 23rd marked what would have been the 37th birthday of Brian.

Brian is the brother of my friend, Kim. Kim and I met in the first grade, and being her friend was a no-brainer. She was sweet and kind and funny. She had huge glasses that I was jealous of and a Barbie dream house that we played with for hours on end. Her mom filled us up with the best after-school snacks, and her older brother Brian let us follow him around and watch Back to the Future with him when we grew bored of singing and dancing with the Mickey Mouse Club. As we got older, Brian taught us how to play pool. We traded in our Barbies for billiard balls and became 12-year-old pool sharks, Kim and I.

One day, when Brian was fifteen, he and three friends went to Door County for the weekend. While swimming in the bay, an undertow made it too difficult for him to return to shore. 

Over the past 23 years, I have revisited the day Brian went missing over and over in my head, more times than I can count. Kim was at my house that August afternoon. We were swimming in the backyard and my mom came outside to tell us that Kim's parents were on their way over and that we should get out of the pool. That was all my mom said, but Kim and I hustled out of the pool and exchanged a glance with each other, silently acknowledging a mutual feeling - something wasn't right. Looking back, as a parent now myself, I don't know how my mother held it together in that moment. Actually, knowing my mom, she'd say it was all God. 

This is the point where I could try my hardest to explain the sadness and despair and helplessness I felt when Brian went missing. Or the shock and heartache I witnessed in Kim and her parents during the five days it took to recover Brian's body from the bay. Or the finality I felt at Brian's funeral - a feeling I had never before experienced. I was only twelve. But trying to describe those things would never do the feelings justice.

When someone dies, countless people are affected, and so many people suffer each loss at different levels. When Brian died, Kim lost her brother. Doug and Renee lost their son. He was a cousin, a nephew, a grandson, a friend, a teammate, a classmate, a student, a coworker, a neighbor. To someone, he was a kid from church, to another, a caddy at the golf course, and to at least one teenage girl - probably more - he was a first crush. The list goes on and on. To me, he was my best friend's brother.

Kim and I could have made an interesting case study. We were lucky kids with great families. The most we had ever worried about at twelve years old was what boy we should call after school or what to wear to the next middle school dance. But then suddenly, this. Devastating loss. Tragedy. Kim - a twelve-year-old girl who lost her brother and very best friend, and me - her twelve-year-old friend trying to understand it all and essentially, make her feel better about something that you just can't fix.
Our friendship changed. Everything did, as we adjusted to a new normal. But thankfully, it made us closer. I still remember the first time Kim slept over at my house after Brian died. We were on the living room floor, sleeping bags pulled up to our chins, probably talking about boys from school, and Kim suddenly said, "I see Brian everywhere." We cried a little, and talked about Brian for hours.

Thank God that old saying rings true: time truly does heal. I think it numbs certain feelings and memories as well, making the sharp, painful parts softer and more tolerable. It enables you to carry on.

Every year on Brian's birthday I revisit some of the memories of knowing Brian, and feelings from the time surrounding his death come flooding back. I also marvel at how far his family has come since that day, and how much of an influence they have had on others. Kim's family did something amazing with their grief. They channeled it into a scholarship foundation in Brian's name, which started out as a one-student scholarship at our high school, but has grown locally, nationally and globally, granting over 575 scholarships around the world.

In the years since Brian's been gone from this world, his life and death have been talked about by many, near and far. Brian definitely left a legacy, helping all of these young people pursue their dreams, and hopefully contribute to a brighter future for all. It is truly, truly amazing that from the tragedy of Brian's death, so many people have been helped. I know that he would be extremely proud of what his family did in his name.

But to me, most days, Brian isn't a legacy. He's still the older brother of my friend, Kim. Handsome, with a shy smile and a quick wit. Waving at me from behind the lawn mower, as I ran up the sidewalk to the front door of Kim's house. Daring us, on freezing cold days, to roll around in the snow then jump into the steaming hot tub. Watching Stand By Me, then spending hours in the basement playing ping pong and teaching us how to shoot pool. Teasing us to leave him alone, but then inviting us into his room with his friends to listen to Guns N' Roses, Use Your Illusion. (Kim, remember those dance moves he and Austin showed us? I sure do.) 

Brian, you are truly missed by so many, each and every day. I'm so grateful to God for having known you. Because of your death, I learned at a young age that death isn't something to be feared, and I have never shied away from those who are grieving. Because of your life, I learned even more, about hard work, about celebrating the journey and especially about living a life of love and kindness. 

PS - When we meet again, you can bet I'll be teasing you about your Guns N' Roses dance moves.

Remembering you on your birthday and always.