My brother, Charles Eric Johnson, was born on August 29, 1978. He died on April 11, 2001, at the age of 22. It's hard to believe that seven years have passed already--especially when I think about how much the world has changed in those seven years. September 11th, and all of the changes that day would bring into our lives, was still five months away. This August, on the third anniversary of Katrina, Charles, had he lived, would have turned 30 years old.
In a weird way, it's always sort of struck me as fitting that Katrina made landfall on Charles' birthday. He was a weather freak, and all of us were convinced for a while that he would become a meteorologist. When a storm was in the Gulf, Charles would go into action mode--tracking the storm on a chart he kept on his bedroom wall, driving around to take pictures of the increased wave action in the Sound. He loved being a witness to a storm and its power.
I think about Charles every day, a fact which, seven years later, sometimes surprises me. I still grieve over his loss--especially when I think about the man he should have become. What would he be like, at 30 years old? Would he be married? Would he have a family? He always loved kids and had a great rapport with them. I wish he were still here.
April 11, 2001, was just an ordinary Wednesday, until the call came from my mother telling me that Charles was gone. I remember every detail of that day--even what I was wearing, an outfit that I never wore again because it had too many memories associated with it. After the phone call, I blindly walked out of my office in shock, knowing that I had to get away. One of my co-workers found me and made me sit in her office until I'd calmed down. Probably a wise move at the time, as I'm sure I wasn't in any state to drive.
Charles and I were nine years apart in age. He moved to Bay St. Louis with my mother and stepfather when he was 7 and I was 16. I stayed behind in Georgia with my father. As a result, we didn't really know each other until I moved to Bay St. Louis a couple of years after graduating from college. I was looking for a change of scenery, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast seemed like just as good a place as any.
We became pretty close after that, and I'll always be grateful to have had that chance to be his big sister. Once he turned 15 and got his learner's permit, we would go out for long drives in my car--an old Jeep Cherokee that he absolutely loved and coveted. He was somewhat shy and awkward in his teens, just as I had been in mine, so I enjoyed talking to him and encouraging him that things would get better after the high school years. In between talking about how to accelerate into a curve, we would talk about movies, girls he was interested in, life in general. I introduced him to Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and other popular music of the day. He became a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, which was funny, because he was also a huge Garth Brooks fan.
The last time I saw Charles was a few months before his death. I had moved on to New Orleans a few years earlier, and we didn't see as much of each other, although we still kept in touch. We took a family trip to San Antonio, and we ended up having a great time together. All of us "kids"--Charles, my sister and our other brother, Andrew, went out barhopping and taking in the sights together each night--it was the first time that Charles had been interested in going out with us rather than staying behind to play video games. He had become an adult. I know that we all had a blast with him--my sister in particular, who lived (and still lives) in Atlanta, and as such, hadn't developed as close a relationship with him. It was the last time the four of us were together.
A couple of nights before Charles' funeral, us three remaining siblings got rip-roaring drunk and then went to the now-defunct Electric Ladyland tattoo parlor on Carrollton. Each one of us got a tattoo with his initials. It was my first tattoo and may be my last (altough I've been toying with the idea of getting another one when I turn 40). I'm glad we did it, as it was our way of honoring our little brother.
You are missed, Charles. See you on the other side.