A Dish to Remember My Brother on Christmas

An essay with food.

December 21, 2018
Photo by Ty Mecham

My little brother Forrester and I were both born around Christmas almost exactly 12 years apart. Capricorn babies. When I tell people that, they automatically assume that because we weren’t close in age, we weren’t close. Maybe I wasn’t his parent, but I changed my fair share of diapers, picked him up from daycare every day, and read Goodnight Moon to him so many times that now, 30 years later, I still know most of that book by heart. I cheered him on during his first milestones and prepared his meals when my parents worked late. Even when I moved out of the house, I'd still pick him up from school and catch the occasional Little League game, or take him to the movies.

As we got older, we shared similar interests: music, art, travel, tattoos, the Lakers. We were always in contact, texting back and forth about a game, or a new album or song, or shows we were excited about. In many ways he was my mini-me. He was always there to pick me up from the airport when I came into town. We’d hang out, grab burritos, and go sit on the beach at the Carlsbad Inn.

12 years didn’t mean a thing.

When he was 17, he briefly came to live with me in Seattle. He was struggling at home and needed a break. In that time there were several conversations about “adulting,” and I made it a point to teach him some basic kitchen skills in case he decided someday to move out like me and live on his own. I showed him how to make spaghetti and meat sauce, which he'd later recreate for his girlfriend, Shedel, on Valentine's Day.

It seemed he'd go off soon to live and grow and become his own person out in the world, as one does. It never once crossed my mind that he wouldn't.

It was a Friday morning when I got the feeling. I was working at an architectural firm in downtown Seattle as a receptionist, and suddenly found myself overcome with a deep sense of panic. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach: Something bad was going to happen to someone I loved. I immediately called my husband to check on him and our daughters.

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“A beautiful article. Merry Christmas and your brother is still with you because you keep his memory alive. ”
— marianne

"Everything is fine," he said. "Nothing to worry about."

"OK." I hung up and went about my day.

That evening, we went out for Mexican food with the kids. It was a joyful meal, the perfect end to the week. Everything was normal.

Until the next morning, when I heard the sound of my daughter Anastasia’s footsteps coming down the stairs. She opened the door to my bedroom and said, “Mom, answer your phone. Papa’s trying to call you.” I sat up and saw all the missed calls. I called my father back.

“Amy, I need you listen to me," he said. "Forrester and Shedel were driving to San Francisco...accident...bad...”

“What hospital?" I asked, looking for my keys.

"He’s not in the hospital... He‘s dead. They’re both dead.”

My brother was only 22. You say a lot of things at this stage of grief, when you’re just trying to make sense of the shock and accept reality. You say things like, “I wish I had known this was going to happen.”

"But you did," my husband reminded me. "You called me yesterday from work, saying you had a feeling."

The next day, we flew to Southern California to help my parents plan the funeral. Their grief incapacitated them, but as my coping mechanism is to do things, I was able to throw myself head first into the funeral planning and preparations. The service ended up being beautiful, a true testament to who my brother was and how many loved him. Hundreds came and spoke on his behalf, remembering what a great and fun friend he was.

His friends organized a sunset paddle out. They brought a bodyboard and covered it in leis and flowers, swam out into a circle, and splashed and cheered and cried and pushed the flower-laden board into the sunset. People on the beach observed, holding each other and crying. The love in the air was palpable. Forrester was loved because he loved.

The waves glowed iridescently that week.

Two years after the accident, I enrolled in culinary school and moved to New York. We uprooted our children, sold the Seattle house, and used it to fund our move.

My brother's death made it abundantly clear to me that life wasn't just precious; it was something to be demanded. I started to examine my own life, asking questions like: If I died tomorrow, would I have lived the life I wanted to live? Would I have had the career I wanted to have? Would I have been the person I wanted to be in the world? And what did it even mean to be the person I wanted to be in the world?

Becoming a chef was something I had always wanted to do. But I often wonder if I would have ever made such a crazy move had my brother not died. Would I have felt the same urgency? I consider this sense of urgency as one of the twisted gifts his death gave to me. A new perspective on who I wanted to be in the world: someone who never wasted time on the what-ifs, and just did.

After culinary school, I went on a personal mission to learn more about Filipino food. I wanted to share it with my children, because food was the only way I knew to bring them into the fold of their culture. Our family is mostly alone here on the East Coast, so it's been up to me to create new traditions in our home of four.

One of those traditions is "Filipino Christmas." Every Christmas Eve, I make a big batch of pancit, adobo, and roast pork belly with very crispy chicharon, adapted from an Angela Dimayuga recipe. Christmas morning is for leftovers: I take any remaining pork and make sisig with it, alongside garlic fried rice and eggs. It's the best breakfast ever, and a reminder of the fish sauce–laden dishes Forrester and I grew up eating.

And I know it isn’t traditional sisig, per se. Traditional sisig is made with pork face and ears and chicken liver that's boiled, grilled, then cooked with aromatics. This is not that sisig. This is the Filipino-American version I make for my family every Christmas to celebrate our new life here in New York.

My brother and me. Photo by Amelia Rampe

I often wonder what Forrester would have thought of all this. I wonder if he would have wanted to move here too? In a way I feel that he’s always been here guiding me along, but at the same time I'm sad because he’s missing out. Missing out on my girls, missing out on love, missing out on everything life has to offer.

Some days are better than others. But when Grief enters your life, chances are you'll be companions for life. It's always here with me, even on my most joyous days. I find myself tapping into those feelings, often unknowingly, like when a certain song comes on or when my thoughts drift, or when I see a lei of flowers, and then all of a sudden I'm on a crowded train holding back tears.

I miss him every day, but especially around Christmas. I always envisioned us growing old and spending the holidays together. Now I can only envision what could have been: Him, sleeping in my NYC apartment, my youngest daughter Simone jumping on him to wake up and open presents. The girls in the living room playing with their new toys, my brother and I hanging out in the kitchen as I teach him how to make my "almost" sisig. How you're supposed to cut the pork into small pieces so it crisps up just right. How you need to nestle a spoon into the pan to make room for four eggs, one for each portion.

The kitchen would fill with the smell of pork and fish sauce. We'd be cooking and laughing, drinking our coffees—two Capricorn babies, almost exactly 12 years apart.

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linda T. January 1, 2019
Thank you for the shared memory. Most of us have a memory that is difficult to retrieve, much less share with the world but it is important that we try. Again, thank you.
Jaimee T. December 24, 2018
My nephew, James, died suddenly last year and the pain is unbelievable, not only in missing him but in watching how grief is taking its toll on his my brother and his wife, and his sister. When he was a child and young adult he would always ask me to make French Fries for him whenever his family was coming for dinner not matter what the occasion. I am so happy now that I always made the fries for our beloved James
Stephen M. December 23, 2018
Really touching story. Beautiful memory of your brother.
Jenny December 21, 2018
Thank you for these beautiful thoughts about your brother
Kaitlin B. December 21, 2018
<3 <3 <3
Mama K. December 21, 2018
Brought me to tears. Beautiful~
Eric K. December 21, 2018
Amelia, you're so brave for sharing your brother's story. What a lovely tribute to his memory. Thank you from me, as well, and Happy Holidays.
marianne December 21, 2018
A beautiful article. Merry Christmas and your brother is still with you because you keep his memory alive.
Blue O. December 21, 2018
Thank you.