From the Writings of Danica Vance on JJ (2008):

J.J.
It was about 9:30pm, and I had just arrived home from a late basketball practice. I was tired, sweaty, and not looking forward to the numerous homework assignments I had to do. As I walked up the stairs to my room, I saw my older brother lying on the couch in our family room. He was lying on his side, with his buzzed head buried against the pillow and his toes curled into the couch. He had been out sick the past few days with an upset stomach and headache. Without even opening his eyes, he sensed my presence and asked how my practice had gone. He loved sports more than me, and had basically taught me everything I knew.
"It was good I guess, we worked on a couple plays, but the best part was the scrimmage, I had 8 points, couldn't miss." I could tell that made him happy. He didn't say anything back, but he turned his head and I could see his face turn into a slight grin. I continued walking up the stairs, thinking our conversation was over when he said, "Hey can you do me a favor, can you go to the kitchen and grab me a couple of pickles to snack on?"
My brother and I had always been pickle fans. When we were younger my mom would always pick us up from after-school and take us over to a local organic deli called Fowler's. Fowler's had a superior wine section and sold everything from rare Indian spices to top-notch kitchen ware. It was not the quick store run, but instead a place to converse about the days events, or stroll down each aisle admiring their contents. In the far back of the store was a large meat deli. It is here that we spent most of our time. The head butcher was a short, stocky man named Frank, who slightly reminded me of Mario from the famous Nintendo game. Through daily "what to make for dinner" conversations, my family developed a strong friendship with him. He especially loved my brother and to this day my family still talks to him. In his deli he always had a large glass jar of whole kosher pickles. Everyday my brother and I would run in the store, rush through the candy aisle, pass the chip section and head straight to the back where the glass jars of pickles were held. Frank usually would have them ready, the two biggest pickles in the jar, wrapped in a napkin, set for us to eat. I miss those pickles.
I was already half-way up the stairs, and going to the kitchen required me to retrace my steps…well actually there is no good excuse for how I replied to him, "No, come on J.J., I just got out of practice, go get the pickles yourself." To this day, I do not know why I did not get the pickles for him. He only wanted two lousy pickles. It would have taken me less then thirty seconds, less then half a minute out of my whole life, to get my only brother two pickles. And to think, that was the last real conversation I had with my brother.
My brother's sudden death on December 12, 1998 from sinus venous thrombosis, a syndrome that causes blood clots all over your body, was the most devastating and significant event in my life. Even during the short two weeks he was sick, I never thought he was going to die. Death never crossed my mind once. It wasn't an option. How could it? I was only 12 years old at the time. My life was filled with sports, sleepovers and MTV. At that time, breaking up with a boyfriend was the most unsetting event that I could imagine. It was impossible for me to comprehend the loss of my brother. To me, my brother was a given, similar to the 200 hundred dollars you receive in monopoly when you pass "GO". I figured I would always have him with me, always have him to lean on, look up to, and turn to.
My brother was two years older than me. He was born in January of 1984, and I was born in April of 1986. Although I would never admit it when I was younger, J.J was my best friend. Living alone in my apartment, I appreciate now how nice it was to have my brother there everyday. Every morning, I only had to walk down the wooden stairs to find him sprawled out on the couch, head as close to the T.V. as possible, watching SportsCenter, playing Nintendo, or reading his latest book. He was always there to hang-out, and willing to spend time with me, no matter how annoying I was. Like other brothers and sisters, we fought and argued a lot, it was usually my fault. I would purposely annoy him and he would eventually retaliate. I would tattle to my parents and he would get yelled at.
In second grade, we had to write about something we either loved or hated. I wrote about how much I hated my brother. I wrote how he would bully me, making myself out to be the perfect angel. . It was fair to say I slightly exaggerated in the essay. To me, it was innocent, but it caused my teachers to worry about the relationship with my brother. My teachers called my parents in for a conference. It turned out my parents were not too fond of the essay either. I re-did the essay and this time wrote about how much I loved my brother. On top of that I was grounded for two weeks. Truthfully, I didn't hate my brother, I envied him. He was better than me in everything. No matter what we did, what we played, he always won. School grades were the only thing I surpassed him in, but that didn't matter to me because I knew I wasn't smarter than him. My brother inherited my dad's ability to know everything about anything. He was a walking encyclopedia.
He could place any country geographically on a map, and could read a 400 page novel in one day, neither of which I can do. That doesn't mean I didn't try. My brother was a huge fan of a series of novels called, Redwall. They were about a mystical world governed by rodents, and were always at least 400 pages long. My brother loved them, so of course I had to love them. Often, while he was out with his friends, I would walk down the hall and sneak into his bedroom. I'd lounge on his couch, while above me, on the room's only slanted wall, hung various Duke Basketball posters that he had collected over the years. I had seen them all before, and I even owned a couple of them; yet, each time my eyes wondered through them like it was their first, carefully studying the face of each player. I would glance through his desk drawers, intrigued by almost anything of his, but at the same time careful not to mess anything up. I'd end my journey at his lopsided wooden bookshelf that he built with my dad. The top shelf was filled with the entire Redwall series. I would examine the novels and take one that I could tell he had already read. I would keep the book with me, strategically taking it out to read whenever he was around. I ended up only reading the first one in the whole series, but it did not matter as long as my brother thought I was reading them, I was happy.
No matter what it was, if JJ did it, I chased. One afternoon, we were riding in the YMCA van on the way to after-school. There were usually five children on the van; my brother, me and the "three musketeers." The "three musketeers" were three boys a year younger than my brother. They were best friends who lived in our neighborhood and went to elementary school with us. You would hardly find one without the other two, hence their nickname. During this time there was a player on the Duke Basketball team who, according to my brother, had the last name, "Asshole". My brother and Clay, one of the three musketeers, sat in the third row debating the issue. Out of nowhere my brother began chanting, "His name's Ass-hole, Ass-hole, Ass-hole…!" Now, I honestly had no idea what the player's real last name was, but this minor detail was beside the point. All that mattered was that my brother was screaming asshole and so I had to join in. "Asshole, Asshole", we chanted in unison. The driver swerved the van off to the right and shifted the gear to park. He turned around, hiding his slight amusement with a disappointed look. We were scolded and told to be quiet the rest of the way.
We ended up getting into a lot of trouble. The YMCA decided that a child-parent conference was necessary. We were placed in a small conference office until my parents arrived. Outside, the counselors, who despite the situation were quite found of us, debated on which parent would pick us up today. Inside, the office was white and plain with a simple wooden desk, and two metal folding chairs. The desk was covered with a large calendar placemat that inevitably was blank. Hung on the wall were two inspirational YMCA posters from the ‘80s. One poster consisted of a mustard yellow baseball team high-fiving each other after a close victory. In italics at the bottom read "There is no I in team." The other poster was of a climber struggling to conquer his mountain. Under him in bold was the saying, "Never give up." I moved around in the metal chair next to my brother, crying. I was scared. My brother sensed this and turning to me, placed his arm on the back of the chair and sighed "Huuh..look, stop crying, Dad's gonna come in here and be pretty mad, but it's going to be ok, he'll blame it mostly on me anyways, you'll be fine."
At the time, those words were less then encouraging. Today, I would do almost anything to have my brother turn to me, place his arm around my back and tell me "you'll be fine" again. J.J. was right, my dad was pretty mad. When he asked me why I chanted it; I simply said "because J.J. did." I have always loved sports; I grew up competitively playing soccer, basketball and volleyball. I seem to always fall romantically for athletes, and my dream for the future is to be a sports medicine doctor. I have been in three state championships, one national championship, and have had numerous conference and tournament titles. Besides the natural talent I inherited from my dad, I must blame my brother for my love of sports.
My brother was an outstanding soccer goalie. He trained with the goalie for the US National Team. Growing up we played everything and anything constantly. No matter if it was basketball, football or foosball; if my brother was playing it, I wanted in. He never took it easy on me, and he always won. It did not matter if I was coming off the court or the field; I was walking in the house with scrapes, bruises and a big fat "L". I used to get mad when he roughed me up. In my old house we usually entered through the garage door. The door was heavy and squeaky, and if slammed hard enough, could shake the surrounding walls. After a loss I ran up the garage stairs, kicked over any object in my path on the way, swung open the door and purposely slammed it as hard as I could. The walls vibrated as jackets that were hung outside the hallway closet lost their grip and fell to the hard-wood floor. Framed prints of van Gogh's Sunflowers and Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit followed, all to my satisfaction. Around the corner, I entered the kitchen with a pout on my face, where I could smell my mom's gourmet meal savoring on the stove. I showed her my scrapes or bruises and swore I would never play J.J. again in anything. My mom halfway listened. It was not that she did not care, but she already knew that it would not even be an hour before I was back outside battling with J.J. again.
Besides being my best friend and my mentor, my brother was also my protector. If I ever had a problem, he was the first one I ran to tell. I never understood this, considering every time I found something out about him I would run and tell my parents, snitching on him just to get him in trouble. One day while I was playing basketball at the YMCA, a boy named Kenny started making fun of me for being a girl and liking sports. Kenny was in no position to make fun of me. He was older than me but he was too scrawny and untalented to play on the second basketball court with the other kids his age. Kenny's criticism continued. Every time I shot the ball, he screamed some random slur, "you suck" while grabbing my ball and throwing it down the court. At one point I was the victim of an "Indian rub." An Indian rub is the twisting of your forearm until it turns red. I refused to cry, so instead I did the next best thing, I ran and told my big brother, J.J. J.J. was on the other side of the dividing mesh curtain playing basketball with the older kids. I approached him, my eyes watery as I fought back the tears. He could tell something was wrong and he quickly stopped the game to talk to me. As I went to speak to him, I burst into tears, "J.J....." I couldn't even get the words out, but it really didn't matter. It didn't matter to J.J. what I said. I could have told him someone had accidentally stepped on my toe and it wouldn't have made a difference. All that mattered was that someone had hurt his baby sister, someone had made her cry. He glared at me with a stern look in his eye. Immediately, J.J. crossed the court, pushed aside the mesh curtain and began roughing Kenny up. "Don't mess with my sister," J.J. demanded as he laid Kenny with fist after fist. The counselors ran over to pull them apart, or rather pull J.J. off Kenny. J.J. got in major trouble. My parents were called in and he was scolded for losing his temper and fighting.
I was too young then to appreciate what my brother had done for me. I was probably even slightly happy about the situation. My parents mad at him only meant that I was on their good side. Fortunately, I have a completely different perspective now. Through the years I have come to realize that there are very few people who really truly care about me. Besides my parents and my uncle it is hard to think of anyone who would undoubtedly sacrifice themselves for me. This is not saying anything bad about my friends; it is just simply a statement about the world we live in. Our society believes in the "bettering of oneself", and helping others usually takes the backburner, but with J.J. it was different. With J.J, I knew I did not even have to ask. He was always there for me.
Although J.J. stood up for me because I was his sister, J.J. was a champion for everyone. After his death, my family received numerous letters and stories about the kind things that J.J. had done for others. One story in particular will always stand out in my mind. During his 8th grade year, our school had a Japanese exchange student. The student hardly spoke any English and didn't know anyone. Every day at lunch he sat at a table by himself, at least until J.J. saw it. The story goes that every day my brother would go and sit with him during lunch, chatting as much as they could, keeping him company. J.J.'s friends joked with him about this, but it did not matter to him. J.J. sat at lunch with the boy not because he had to, nor did he do it because he had nowhere else to sit, he did it because this was just the kind of guy my brother was. My brother's kindness and guidance had transcended our sibling relationship to reach all those whose paths he crossed.
Since my brother's death, I have often thought about how my life would be different if he had lived. When I was a junior in high school many of my friends had siblings J.J.'s age in college. They would go visit them for the weekend and come back with hilarious and exciting stories. I would get so angry. It wasn't fair. I knew I should be the one traveling. I should be the one going to visit my brother, staying at his college dorm, meeting his friends. Sometimes when I have guy trouble I sit looking at my phone, wishing I could talk to him. I try to imagine calling J.J. The phone rings twice and he picks up, always. He sounds happy, and has just come in from working out. No matter the situation, J.J. informs me that the guy is a jerk, that I am better than him and that if the guy ever disrespects me, even one bit, just to let him know. Other times I get scared. I feel like I can't remember his voice, or even his face. I counter this by keeping pictures of him everywhere, on the mantle, next to my bed, in the book I'm reading. I even had his name tattooed on my ankle. I get worried that in thirty years I will hardly remember him.

But then, I think about who I have become, and what I have accomplished and realize that I could never forget him. I realize that so much of who I am is because of who my brother was. Everything I love; sports, animals, science, have somehow been influenced by him. My aggressiveness, my competitiveness, the desire never to give up, can all be attributed to him. The everyday qualities that have helped me in every area of life, from sports to academics, would have been lost without J.J. The lists could go forever: The fact that I prefer to lounge around in basketball shorts and a t-shirt, and watch football on Sundays than go shopping or out to lunch, my admiration and respect for others, and specifically, the enjoyment I feel as I unscrew the lid of the tightly sealed green jar, dip my fingers into the spiced vinegar, grab the biggest one and take the first bite, I owe to J.J. Here are two pickles for you J.J, just like you asked.

-Danica Vance

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