My tears mirrored the rain from the periwinkle sky as we drove onto the tarmac at Boston’s Airport, following the ground lights that dotted the curved concrete. The terrible pssssssssssheeeeeeeew of planes launching into the air rang repeatedly. Fuel stench sickened my already upset stomach.
We sped up but we weren’t taxiing for takeoff. Our limo pulled up to Gate B24 to meet my Army soldier brother’s dead body.
He had killed himself.
Nicholas Adam Gordon, an intelligence specialist who deployed twice to Afghanistan, shot himself near his base at Fort Bragg, NC. It happened a day before he was to complete his contract with the Army and return to civilian life – August 9, 2016. My little brother became part of the statistic: 20 veterans a day commit suicide as of 2018. He joined our uncle Harris and step-brother Justin in heaven, who also took their own lives, though unrelated to the military.
While I enthusiastically devoted my life to the militaristic world of ballet, Nick enlisted in the Army by default. He couldn’t quite find his way at two different colleges despite getting straight A’s with barely any effort. There wasn’t much he was passionate about besides video games and his bass guitar. And Oreos. He figured the Army would give him some structure and discipline – purpose, perhaps.
PTSD just came along with that.
It surprised my family when he enlisted just as it did when he died. We are not a military family, though my Jewish grandfather served in the Army after medical school in World War II. Why on earth had Nick wanted to join the Army? He was skinny, sensitive, a picky eater…though he was always down for picking a battle with me when we were young. I remember many a hair-pulling fight. One time he accidentally slammed my finger in a bathroom door in his anger. The nail fell off two days later, purple and crumbled.
“Are you glad you went there?” I asked him once after his first tour of duty.
“That is a loaded question,” he replied, dripping in the dry sarcasm we shared. It was a totally inappropriate question to ask a soldier, like asking if he’d ever killed anyone. “I’m glad I got the experience and the chance to prove that I can do it. But I’ve also seen and done some bad things that I could’ve gone without.”
Precisely the kind of textbook answer a brother tells his ballerina sister, who refuses to watch horror movies or see anything bloodier than a paper cut. I guess it shouldn’t have been so surprising that he never hinted to me about his thoughts of suicide.
I wish he had.
His casket was coming home to Massachusetts from Fort Bragg with military honors after a four-day delay because “his uniform was at the dry cleaners.” Are you kidding? It seemed like a sick joke. His clothes were always wrinkled anyway. Couldn’t we just have him back in his black Coke-a-Cola-stained Kamelot t-shirt and baggy jeans?
Now the shock of the wind nearly shoved me back into the leather seat when I opened the door to the airport runway. Outside, the casket team of Reserves soldiers stood stoic in line. I hugged my parents but then chose to stand alone. My emotions were enough – I didn’t want to see theirs. Suddenly three Boston fire trucks pulled up, their red flashers making me squint.
“Seriously?” I whispered to Dad, who wore a salmon shirt and khakis in his own mark of denial.
“Nick wouldn’t have wanted all this,” he said.
His voice was as hollow as when he told me the news a few days before. He was right. Crowds of people lined up inside the terminal, their silhouettes shrouding the windows, pointing to our scene below.
Just like the movies, right? How nice that they have a front row seat to our reality. I rolled my eyes to myself.
Rows of firemen raised their salute as Nick’s United Airlines plane approached. A loud yell. The casket team slowly lifted their right hands to their eyebrows, marching with Rockette precision.
My eyelids shielded my tears, battling to stay inside.
I trembled from head to toe when I saw the red and white stripes of the American flag
peeking out of the underbelly of the plane a few minutes later.
All I could think of was the threaded flag on the back of Dad and Nick’s tandem bike in
Martha’s Vineyard when we were kids. I would zoom past the boys to get in line at the
What was taking them so long? While Dad trudged along with his pre-hip replacement
joints, Nick would sway instead of pedaling behind him, forcing the bike to blow sideways.
“What are you doing?” Dad would yell back to him.
“I wanted to make the flag wave,” said the 6-year-old with his innocent brown eyes and
The flag I saw now was not billowing in the island breeze. It was coating the maple
casket of the sensitive soldier who took his own life.
A conveyor belt slide lined up with the plane, while the two carriers in camouflage
shuffled to get the heavy chest out to deliver it to the hearse. They squatted, walking it
back and forth in the deepest pliés I’ve ever seen. But as he turned the corner, the
back-end soldier fell.
On his butt. Casket in hand, feet straddled in the air. Squished like a bug, as my mom
I let out a giant cry of laughter, unable to resist. It was so funny. Everything had been
serious and quiet the moment before. The airplane noise drowned out. The fuel smell
went away. We cried. And then…splat. I burst into uncomfortable giggles the way only
heightened emotions make you do.
I’m sure Nick made that happen, the little kid poking fun at a serious moment. I thanked him for the comic relief when I visited the casket and kissed a white star on his flag moments later.
“Thank you for your service.”
When someone dies the mourners just sit around and talk. There’s not much else to do, especially when you’re waiting for the Army to deliver the body.
In the days before the epic airport scene I spent hours with Dad in the kitchen, listening to him trying to make sense of their daily phone calls that never implied unhappiness. Then I’d trudge over to my mom and grandmother, where they’d lament the fact that they hadn’t been able to see Nick for two years. When one side of the family exhausted their sadness and temporarily moved on to lighter times, I went to be the rock for the other side. It wasn’t all tears – more talk and wonder and speculation as to why he had done this. But I felt yanked into emotions at every turn.
I had to do something to keep my sanity with all this waiting. I had already set up a Facebook memorial to benefit 22Kill, an organization that raises awareness of veteran suicide. We raised $1000 in the first day and $7,360 overall, but I needed to do something for myself. I took the train into Boston to take an open ballet class at The Dance Complex, because dancing is what I’ve done my whole life – through my parents’ divorce, graduations, breakups, and now death. Dancing has been the only constant.
As my eyes followed my fingertips in the first pliés at the barre, I saw them shake. Every port de bras trembled, but my legs stretched strongly the way they always have. I hoped the teacher didn’t notice. I eyed the other misfit adults taking intermediate ballet on a Saturday morning. I bet none of them had someone die this week.
Seven months later, it was also ballet that brought me to his grave at Arlington National Cemetery
in Washington, DC for the first time.
I was dancing at The Kennedy Center in Misty Copeland’s Ballet Across America program with The
Black Iris Project in April 2017. I visited on a break between tech rehearsals. The weight of my
backpack full of sweaty leotards was nothing compared to the weight I felt in my heart as I walked
the few miles from the theater to the cemetery, quivering with every step.
I don’t want to go. I really don’t want to go here.
It was cloudy and cool for an April afternoon. They cherry blossoms had not quite sprung open.
Everything around me seemed dark.
When I arrived at the black sign that read “Arlington National Cemetery,” I paused. I can’t believe he’s
here. This place. A cemetery. Mom and Gram may never get to visit him here since it’s so far from
home. I guess I should take a picture.
Tourists in their baseball caps and shorts took turns posing in front of the sign. Is this really
something you want to smile in front of? It’s like they had no idea that people actually go here, that
it functions as a real cemetery and not just as a tourist attraction. Anxiety boiled inside me.
Let it go, I told myself. They’re on vacation. How could they know you’re here to visit someone?
A young someone. A someone who took his own life.
I went through security and by the time I hit the lobby of the Welcome Center, the tears were
impossible to hide. My phone was blurry as I pulled up the plot number and directions Dad had
sent me. He told me Nick was buried near the entrance, not too far of a walk, with a view of the
highway. Must be nice.
I would rather have walked a million miles in the pain of pointe shoes than take those 200 or so steps
to his grave.
White headstones dotted the green hills, perfectly aligned like the corps de ballet of Swan Lake.
If the swans multiplied by 10,000.
It’s not easy to navigate Arlington. There are tiny street signs here and there but nothing announcing the number of each section. The only way to know how far you are is to step closer to the graves to check the numbers.
Numbers. Everyone there was a number. A number who died for their country. How many were killed? How many killed? How many killed themselves?
My head was throbbing. I reached section 76…
“He’s near a tree,” Dad had told me. I slowed down.
There was a tree. Decrepit. Leafless. Lifeless.
My heart pounded heavier. I left my backpack on the dry mulch under the branches.
660. 661. 662. Oh no. He’s here soon.
My breath stopped.
Nicholas Adam Gordon. July 23, 1991-August 9, 2016.
Twenty-five years old.
The white marble grave was smaller than I wanted it to be up close, with a dirt square bald of grass in front of it. The soldiers buried next to him had had much more distance between birth and death dates.
“Why are you here? Why did you do this?” I cried aloud to nobody.
“This was a really bad idea, killing yourself,” I told him directly.
My eyes were full. My head was full. But I couldn’t seem to sob. I thought everything inside me
would explode if I did.
“The family loves you. I love you. I wish you hadn’t done this. You should’ve told someone.”
No answer except the hum of trucks passing by on the highway in the distance.
I headed back to the theater for the opening night of the ballet festival. Dancing is hard but it’s is
the kind of struggle I know how to deal with. It’s the way I’ve distracted myself from the reality of
what my brother did, exhausted myself so the nightmares have passed, and focused myself to
continue following my purpose when he no longer could.
The morning after his death, I taught a ballet class at The United Nations. I could barely put the
words together to order my skim latte, but somehow doing barre as normal made sense to me.
The first Christmas without him was spent dancing with the circus in The Philippines. On the
one-year anniversary of his suicide I was preparing for a show in Shanghai, as far as I could get
across the world from the memory of that horrific day. And I’ve danced across several other
countries since then.
“You always get to travel to the nice places,” Nick said to me once. “Not like the places the Army sends me,” he said with a laugh. Maybe I get to dance in great places, but I’d trade it all to have him back.
Now I’m continuing to dance with Exit12 Dance Company, a contemporary ballet company in New York City run by a former U.S. Marine, Roman Baca. I’ve performed with them since 2010 and have been finding my own way of healing through dance and sharing art with the veteran community. The latest in our adventures is a documentary produced by Square. The trailer is above and full film will be released on Veterans Day 2018.
Dancing After Death: A Ballerina Surviving Her Veteran Brother’s Suicide
The morning after my Army soldier brother killed himself, I taught a dance class at the United Nations. I took ballet in Boston after his casket arrived from Fort Bragg. And for the two years following his death, I danced. I danced across ten different countries, as far away as I could physically and emotionally escape to. It’s all I knew how to do to heal. Now I'm part of Exit12 Dance Company, featured in a documentary produced by Square as part of their For Every Dream series. Watch itto the right.