How Suicide Changes a Family Forever

The Death of My Brother and the Resurrection of The Super Mario Brothers

Sorting through some old boxes, I ran across the blood stained NES that had once belonged to my little brother; The blood, now black after more than 25 years of storage, was still splattered diagonally across the top and side of the gaming system with its heaviest concentration running from the top right side to the back left side.

On October 23, 1989 at approximately 7:20 p.m., an intense pain ran from the right side of my head to the left. I had experience migraines for quite some time, but this was no migraine; I excused myself from the living room where I was watching Monday Night Football [Cleveland 27/Chicago 7] with a few friends and headed to the bathroom when I began to sob uncontrollably.

Minutes later, I received a phone call from my then roommate who let me know that my father was desperately trying to get a hold of me. “I wonder who died,” I said to myself as I was dialing the phone to call home. My father answered and informed me that my youngest brother had just died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head; the bullet entered the right side of his head and he was pronounced dead sometime around 7:20 p.m. the evening of October 23, 1989.

The next week was a blur of questions without answers, a wake and funeral with hundreds of his friends attending, and more food than any human could ever consume in a year. It was an unusually warm fall and I found myself sitting on the sidewalk in front of my parents’ home in the mid afternoon sun drinking endless amounts of alcohol…the Kohner way of coping. Sitting under the tree that over draped the sidewalk, I remembered that in the eyes of everyone else, nothing had changed and this day was just a normal day for the billions of people on Earth that had their own lives to live. Life just moved on.

I woke up the next morning, a Saturday, on the couch with a hangover not knowing what came next, where I should go or whether or not there would be a tomorrow. Although my brother and I weren’t close, a family loss brings uncertainty and questions about the future and a pit of “what ifs” begin to fill the void.

What if I had known him better?
What if I hadn’t moved out of the house so early in life?
What if I had been a better sister?
What if I had reached out to him when I knew he was struggling?
What if, what if, what if?

Most importantly, what if this was my fault? A few years prior to his death, he had witnessed my attempted suicide. What if that stuck in his head as a way out? What if he thought he could survive his like I survived mine? He did survive this, but decisions had to be made, ‘plugs had to be pulled’ within minutes, not years and he could be very well have lived a life on a ventilator for many years to come…or not.

“We need to clean out his apartment,” my mother said to me in a monotone voice sometime around 10:00 A.M. the next morning, “and I’m not going there to do it.” She continued. I knew what was coming and after insisting that we hire someone to clean up the physical mess left behind of a suicide by gun at point-blank range, my mother finally convinced my older brother and me to clean up his apartment and retrieve his things.

God my head hurt, I needed a drink.

We pulled into the parking lot of the beige rundown apartment building at the corner of West 5th and Pelzer with a pickup truck and a trailer. The manager of the place checked our IDs and made it clear that we were not going to get our deposit back. “Are you sure you want to go in here?” he asked. We nodded our heads in silence as he turned the key and swung open the door. “Let me know when you are done,” he said as he walked away down the dark hall.

The gold shag carpet that greeted us at the door turned from a dirty yellow, to a dark red that eventually turned black near the site of the incident. At least an inch deep, the blood, now coagulated and thick from sitting for more than a week, had turned black but was still moist underneath the upper blood skin of the pool. I walked up to the blood line and the carpet liner squished underneath my feet; the blood had seeped under the carpet and began to squeeze through the fabric and stain my shoes.

The splatter pattern was dramatic and prolific, like a can of red paint was thrown at the wall in an attempt to create some sort of art work, only this was far more visceral. Among the blood was hair, skin, skull fragments and chunks of brain matter of almost every size. The wall, TV, floor and furniture was covered in whatever was left of my little brothers head. I began to cry and realized why my little brothers head was shaped like a peanut at the wake…there was nothing left inside of the skull because I was standing in a puddle of it.

My older brother and I spoke very little during that two hour evacuation other than to say “take that, leave this, pack this and don’t worry about that.” During the move I stepped on something outside of the carpet stain; I reached down, looked to see if my brother was watching and picked up the shell casing of the bullet that killed my little brother. I tucked it in my pocket and got back to tossing his belongings around.

In the corner was a fish tank, the water now dirty after more than a week of not being cleaned, had killed its only occupant, a piranha that was floating at the top of the tank. “That’s too big to flush,” I said to my oldest brother so we decided to leave it — among other things — behind for the building manager to deal with. “They were going to have to replace the carpet and repaint the walls anyway, so why not just add a dead fish to the mix,” I thought to myself.

We loaded the truck in record time, tossed the keys to the apartment in the mailbox of the office and sped off towards home. The ride back to my parent’s house was only a few blocks, but it seemed like it took all day to get there in the dead silence of the truck. We pulled into the driveway, I hopped out of the passenger side, ran to the bathroom and vomited.

More than 25 years have passed since that day and now I was holding in my hands the blood splattered NES that I had so carefully packed away in a box that day. There were tears in my eyes as I cleaned up the gaming system and when I had finished, more than an hour had passed. I was sitting in the basement of my suburban home holding a clean NES, 20 game cartridges and my hand drenched in the DNA of a brother who had been dead longer than he was alive.

Next to me was a plastic gallon ice-cream pale of tepid blood water and miscellaneous bits of human brain remnants when the moral dilemma set in. What do I do with the last remaining liquid DNA of a long lost person? Do I keep it in a jar or do I flush it down the toilet – a fate my little brothers dead piranha avoided? My cheeks wet from crying most of the day, I decided to flush it.

Unceremoniously, I went into the bathroom, hesitated for about five minutes and began to pour the slurry mess down into the bowl knowing that in my upstairs closet was my little brothers jacket with the shell casing of the bullet that killed him.

I dried my eyes, went upstairs and found my own children playing Mario Kart 8 on the Wii. “Hey, check this out! Wanna play the first Mario game that we had when we were kids?” I asked. Their little eight and nine year old eyes lit up and they both screamed “YEAH!!” I hooked up the old NES gaming system to the TV, pushed the button and inserted the Super Mario Brothers cartridge into the unit. It worked.

Over the next couple of hours, my children played Super Mario Brothers, Excite Bike, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out while I told them stories of the uncle they would never meet.