His brother was killed by a lion, Solomon tells me. We are standing twelve feet away from a cheetah inside the Karongwe Preserve in South Africa. Black markings streak down from the inside corners of his eyes to the start of his whiskers. The white fluff of his chin is dotted with blood. His paws are wrapped around a half-eaten impala
I am still shaking. Solomon did not tell me we when he asked me to get out of the jeep and follow him off the road into a wooded area that we would be peeking through the curtains of a cheetah's dining room. Every step seemed close enough to me, but Solomon kept motioning me closer, repeating that we were safe. I looked at him like he was crazy, but he was my safari guide and I had to trust him. The cheetah eyed us cautiously while tearing away strips of meat from the impala's rib cage. When we had stepped too close, he jumped to his feet. Taking two steps forward, his eyes found mine and I turned away, ready to run.
Don't run, Solomon said. Just take pictures.
The camera shook in my hand. I had been clicking this whole time, looking at the cheetah through the fingernail-sized glass of the viewfinder and then back with my own eyes. I could hear him smacking his lips.
I didn't run, not that I would have stood a chance. The moment I turned around, my sweater snagged on a prickly bush and I am embarrassed now to think how even my death by cheetah would have been totally graceless. But I didn't run and he didn't chase me. After assessing that I was neither a threat nor as tasty as an impala, he sat back down and got back to his meal. I took more pictures.
His brother was killed by a lion, Solomon says. A few months ago. They used to hunt all the time together. But now he is alone.
His brother? I asked.
When my brother died, my world fell apart. Then, I got my dream job.
When the e-mail came, I called every one of my family members to tell them I got it. And when they had all congratulated me, said goodbye, and hung up, I stared at my phone and cried. There was only one person left in the world to tell and I could not. I would never be able to tell him anything again.
Since Nick died, every happiness in my life is followed by the sadness that I can never share it with him. During the worst year of my life, I was showered in great news. I got the job, I would be allowed to travel, and I was going on a safari in South Africa for work. My life fell into a pattern. Get good news. Call everyone. Then, find a quiet place to cry. He would never know how happy I was and how quickly I would trade it all away to have him back.
Since losing my brother, I have scoured bookstores and blogs looking for my own story. I looked through grief books and fiction, searching for stories that matched my specific situation. Nothing was good enough. It didn't count if a sister lost her younger brother. It didn't count if the brother died of a long illness. It had to be my story: a twenty-something-year old girl losing her oldest brother to a drug she never even knew he took. As you might have expected, I didn't find very much.
But as I watched the cheetah dig his fangs into the corpse of the impala,I finally felt what I had been looking to feel in those books. This creature was nothing like me, but we shared a common wound. He would never be able to share his kill with his brother, but he was content. He finished his meal and leaned back into the grass, falling asleep in the sun.
A lion had killed his brother and something equally vicious had killed mine, but there we were. Him, taking a rest after finishing a big meal and me, having one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
He began to snore and I knew that we were both going to be okay.