I Have A Brother

November 17, 2020

It’s one of the first questions people ask when they are getting to know someone new: Do you have any siblings?

For most, it is a simple question answered with little more effort than telling someone your age or hometown. Moments later you’re talking about where you went to school or your favorite vacation spot.

But for me, a lot of calculation goes into answering the sister/brother question. If I answer incorrectly, I could end the conversation—and any potential relationship with the person—in its tracks. Based on a flash assessment of the person asking, my mood, the setting and various other factors, I pick from a list of possible answers (all of which are true).

A closed “Yes” or “No” may leave the questioner wanting more detail but will suffice in structured settings, such as a parent-teacher conference or the second-round job interview where your potential employer makes politically-correct small talk about your personal life.

For the majority of the four decades since my brother Mark died, I’ve usually answered with, “I’m an only child.” It moves the conversation along the most smoothly, and if siblings come up as the relationship progresses, I can defend my answer’s legitimacy—after all, I am an only child now.

But while technically true, in my heart, telling people I’m an only child is a lie.

The pure truth is that I grew up with an adventurous, kind, big brother who took my hand and led me down life’s path.

Everyone who grew up with a sibling (which, according to the 2010 Current Population Survey, is 82 percent of Americans) knows their importance. Yes, parents guide and instruct us, but our siblings are our first partners in life. We scheme, explore, play, fight, make up, and figure out the world together. We confide in, consult with, and comfort each other. We grow with our roots intertwined in a nurturing soil of unconditional love.

My brother and I were close enough for me to know what he would say about the situations and quandaries I’ve encountered in the four decades since he killed himself when he was 15 and I was 12.

But sadly, for more than three of those decades, I couldn’t bear to hear his voice in my head—it was just too painful. Besides, as a journalist I’m a trained skeptic, not prone to believing in any “woo-woo” crap like communicating with the dead.

But in the process of writing about our childhood in my book “At the Top of the Stairs”, I began letting Mark’s voice in. Now that my brother has gotten my attention, I frankly can’t get him to shut up. At first, he was a broken record saying in the impatient rush of a 15-year-old boy, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I tell him, “I know” and that I forgave him long ago. Then the conversation moves on to my life now and I feel like I have a brother again.

He tells me I’m doing a good job with my daughters and that they are finding their way.

He tells me life is too short to worry as much as I do.

Sometimes he tells me to stand up for myself.

He also marvels, as any teenage boy would, that I don’t take more advantage of being an adult.

“Why did you get that boring car? Why not a hot rod?”

“Why are you eating vegetables when you could just have dessert?”

His is the voice in my head that encourages me to take risks. “Ski off the jump—you’ll land it” and “You could get that job, just apply.” He always had more confidence in me than I did in myself.

I remember him saying, “Come on, don’t be a sissy,” as we stood atop the bike ramp he had hastily cobbled together from random scraps of wood he'd found in the carport. And when I say, “I am a sissy—your sissy,” I can hear our laughs bubbling out before joining together and rising into the summer sky.

My brother and I are a package deal. I apologize in advance for how difficult it is to hear about his death, but that’s only one of his stories—of our stories. While his last story is clenched with nearly unbearable pain, there are so many more that are buoyant with love and joy.

What’s that? Mark is saying, “Tell them how I broke my arm on that ramp and didn’t want to get in trouble, so I kept it a secret until dad noticed my arm hanging limply at the dinner table…”

Ok, next time I’ll answer the sibling question with that one.

“This one time when my brother Mark was about ten, he built this bike ramp…”

Good-Bye Newspapers

April 25, 2019

My words were first pressed into newsprint in my column “The Blind Leading the Blind” in my high school paper The Thompson Valley Voice in 1985—I wrote about daring to be different at a time in life when doing so is nothing short of life threatening. This Sunday’s “Around Colorado” column in the Denver Post (April 28, 2019) will likely be the last time my inky words appear in a newspaper—I wrote about flower gardens to visit in Fort Collins.

I’ve written a column for the majority of my 34 years as a journalist. I wrote about surviving high school for The Voice, skiing for Boulder’s Colorado Daily during college, life as a 20-something for Gannett News Service and life as a lesbian for papers across the country including the crowning glory of The Washington Post.

I was also a news correspondent for the Boston Globe at the time and thought my career had pretty much peaked. Then, late in 2011 I got a phone call from Denver Post editor Kyle Wagner asking me to lunch.

Over Italian food at a downtown restaurant, she told me about the new “Out West” section the paper was putting together to launch in the new year.

Her: You would be one of four columnists writing a monthly column to anchor the section.

Me: Really?! What will I be writing about?

Her: Whatever you want. I picked you because of your voice and your roots in this state.

Me: (thankful there was no food in my mouth when it dropped open in shock) No f–king way!

And so it was that in February of 2012 my days as a Denver Post columnist giddily began. I wrote about the importance of imagination in a cookie-cutter world, my efforts to raise independent children in an overprotective era and the healing powers of fishing with my Dad for the first time since my brother died three decades prior. Those were heady days when I frequently heard from readers telling me that I had written about something that was also true for them, although they hadn’t realized it before reading my column.

But then things changed. "Out West" was no longer viable, so we columnists (two of the original four and two newer-comers) were moved to the travel section, where our topic was narrowed to places to visit within the boundaries of our state—which is a dream job too, just for somebody else. This writer’s heart never left the freedom of "Out West."

This final column will be my 87th for the Post. I’ve been at odds with my editors about the content of those columns for the last 50 or so.

Since coming under the ownership of “The Man” aka the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the Post has been turned into a cash cow. They’ve ruthlessly cut the staff (from around 300 down to about 60) and sent the profits from the paper to stockholders instead of re-investing in the paper. Success is measured in web hits, not things that can’t be measured, like storytelling that evokes emotions by connecting us to the commonalities that make us human.

Enter the “listicle.” You may have noticed that most of the articles in the paper’s travel section now start with a number. Seven places to watch the sunset, five places to get a good burger while skiing, three waterparks not to list…one way to end Chryss’ career at the Post.

When you find yourself using your platform, your voice, your tiny slice of real estate in the ever-shrinking landscape of print journalism to write lists that are designed to compete with Yelp, well, it’s time to say good-bye.

So it’s good-bye to newspapers, that have been so good to me and, most importantly, to the people who read them. Sadly, I think I’m just “on trend.”

I know things have been changing dramatically in the newspaper industry the past two decades. I’ve been telling my journalism students all about it. Last month I sat in a student government meeting where the end of the print version of the New York Times on campus was applauded. “We’re saving trees,” the student announced. Because, in theory, the students will all now read it online. But will they? Or will they succumb to the clickbait of the latest on the size of Kim Kardashian’s butt? With some notable exceptions, I’m going to say the latter.

The next chapter for me is actual chapters. I’m finally writing the book my life has set out for me, after decades of resisting it. I’m going to write my brother’s story.

Mark was 15 when he took one of my dad’s shotguns, climbed the foothill behind our house, looked out over the beautiful vista, including the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park surrounding our Loveland home, and ended his life. I still struggle to understand how he could be looking at something so beautiful and still want to close his eyes forever. His 12-year-old sister was watching Saturday morning cartoons, unaware that her childhood had just ended.

Thirty-eight years later my brother’s killer is still out there, stronger than ever. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 10 to 24-year-olds in Colorado. It takes more young people from us than disease or accidents or anything—and we can stop it. The number one, by far, mitigating factor to stop suicide is a trusted adult children can talk to. Join me, be that adult, save lives.

When that is done, I’ll be happy to tell you all the best places to go for a hamburger.