Since the days they were born, I have felt an immense sense of responsibility for my brothers. I assume most oldest siblings do to some extent, as it seems to be something parents indoctrinate the moment the stick turns pink. I think parents do this to make the older child feel included and important when in reality, they're about to be demoted from precious only child to someone else's sibling. "You're the big sister now" is really code for, "You will no longer receive my undivided attention so here's a stupid BIG SISTER t-shirt now please, go play." But no parent expects their oldest child to literally care for their younger brothers and sisters. Sure, hand your dad the box of baby wipes every once in a while in the name of "helping", or fetch the new baby's pacifier when your mom's hands are full and she looks to be on the brink of tears because she has two kids under two and hasn't had a proper night's sleep or a haircut in years. But actual, physical, emotional, necessary-to-life, care? That is better left to adults. But I took everything more seriously than other kids my age. From our choreographed dance to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song to marching band to baseball, everything meant everything to me all of the time. It was, and still is, an exhausting way to live. It is also how I approached being an oldest sibling.
I obviously don't remember Alex being born, as I wasn't even two years old yet, but I do remember the doting that started from a very early age. There is a home video our dad took of us, wherein a two-year old Alex had just stuck his finger into a light socket and my four-year-old self is simultaneously examining his finger while reprimanding him not to do such things. When my youngest brother saw this particular clip, he asked why our dad didn't install those child-safe outlet covers. "It was the 80's," I shrugged. "We hardly wore seatbelts." On Alex's first day of kindergarten, he told his young teacher (who was also experiencing her very first day teaching, it turned out), that he was going to blow up the school, then promptly locked himself in the bathroom. While the teacher called my mother, who responded to her concern for Alex's threat with, "Damn, I told him to leave his dynamite at home," (again, it was the 80's), I was called in from my second grade classroom to talk him down. When I finally coaxed him from the bathroom, his face was red and tear-streaked. Once, when we were in high school, he issued another threat. He had climbed out onto the widow's walk on the roof of our ancient farmhouse, and said he was going to jump. While my parents scrambled after him, pleading and crying and yelling, trying to reach him, trying so hard to reach him, I grabbed eight-year-old Andy, buckled him into my car, and tore down the driveway. I knew that if Alex did jump, he wouldn't want Andy to see it. After several silent minutes in the car, Andy asked where we were going. I didn't know. I told him we were just giving Alex some space, because everybody needs a little space sometimes. How did ice cream sound?
Everything Alex has every done has made me feel guilty, but nothing more so than his death. I know, intellectually, that I did not put those drugs in his hands. I know that one person cannot undo years of that kind of abuse. I know I am not so powerful a force that I could have changed the cycle of incarceration, release, and reoffending he was sucked into. I know that I am just one person, one mediocre, fussy, pessimistic, completely average person, who is much smaller than the entirety of addiction. I know that Alex's death is not my fault. But I feel like it is, which makes all those things I know as worthless as a Beanie Baby collection post 1999 (which sounds like an especially flippant simile, but we worked really, really hard on that collection). Perhaps that's why I started this project in the first place. To have a place to put my guilt. To make up for not being there, for not saving him. I don't know. I just know that nothing anyone has said to assure me has helped. Until, that is, I edited today's pages. In the scene where Alex's character is about to try crystal meth for the first time, his friend asks him if the line of powder he's laid out is enough. “More." the character, "Alan," says. "If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. Full blast for me, please.”
If he was going to do it, he was going to do it. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten how much stronger his impulse to self-destruct was than my ability to fix things. I could talk him out of a bathroom and put cartooned band aids on fingers, I could defend him from bigger kids and help him bury his dead pet snake, I could watch over him during band practice from my drum major's podium, I could keep what I found in his closet to myself, I could send him letters while he was in prison, I could wire him money when he wasn't. I could lecture and listen, I could make phone calls and arrangements. I could do the tangible things with the resources I had. But I was never going to stop him from going "full blast." I see that now. Like Alex's fresh-faced, well-meaning kindergarten teacher against a Ninja Turtle backpack full of imaginary TNT, I never stood a chance.
I regret calling you "turtle" when the steroid you were on for your asthma made you retain water and look all round and bloated.
I regret making fun of the asthma camp you went to all those summers.
I regret those years when I was bigger than you when I would hold you down during a fight and tell you I was going to bite your nose off like the Penguin in Batman Returns.
I regret acting like a brat on your 8th birthday.
I'm regret telling the neighborhood kids you had worms when you got ringworm.
I regret telling on you.
I regret not telling on you.
I regret not dropping everything to move back to Columbus to make you live with me.
I regret that one time I covered your bed in ketchup.
I regret that you had to fight your school bus bully instead of doing it for you. He was my age, after all.
I regret not getting a better paying job so I could support you.
I regret trying to keep you out of my room when I had friends over.
I regret not teaching you how to properly throw a baseball. Jesus, you were so, so bad. It was embarrassing to watch. Painful, even. I, ugh, I can't think about it now without cringing.
I regret not being more encouraging of the things you did well.
I regret making you feel bad for being allergic to cats and being the reason I couldn't have one.
I regret not pushing Mom and Dad to send you to military school when you begged to go.
I regret rolling my eyes at you in the hall at school when you went through that hair gel phase.
I regret not just giving you the goddamned Chumbuwumba CD.
I regret all those times I just brushed you off as a pain in the ass instead of really talking to you.
I regret that year we didn't talk after our huge Christmas Day fight.
I regret not being a kinder, more sensitive person you may have felt more comfortable confiding in when you first started getting into trouble.
I regret judging instead of listening.
I regret being so hard on you to change.
I regret not being hard enough.
I regret that the last time I saw you, I brought a six pack of beer. What was I thinking? I know what I was thinking. I was thinking, wouldn't it be nice to have a beer with my brother, like normal people do? And then you drank four of them so fast, and would have drank a fifth but I pretended to want another so you wouldn't. I'm sorry I was so stupid. I'm sorry I put wanting to be "normal" with you above what was best for you. I'm sorry I gave up trying to fix you. I just didn't want you to be mad at me anymore.
I am sorry that I'm the one editing your book. But so far, I don't regret it.
I edited a few pages of Alex's book yesterday, but I couldn't write afterward. It was too hard, reading about his first encounter with the drug that would eventually take his life. Last night I dreamt of him. In the dream, we were driving around in the middle of nowhere, like we used to do, and I started looking through his backpack. In his pack I found a rubber tube, a glass vase, whippets, white powder, and a lighter, just like in his story. I immediately pulled the car over and confronted him, and he got so instantly enraged and defensive. I started throwing the objects into this field, I think we were by the fairgrounds near our old house. It was nighttime, and unlike Alex, I can actually throw, so there would be no way he would find everything. I kept throwing his drugs and various accessories until they were all gone. Furious, he started after me. I jumped back into the car and peeled out, leaving him there, screaming at me. When I looked back in the rear view mirror, he was searching frantically through the dark, combing the tall, damp grass for his high.
Then I woke up.
A few years ago, throwing out his drugs at the risk of him lashing out at me is absolutely something I would have done. It's something I have done, in fact, and one of the first things I did after he died. Going through the room he sometimes stayed in at my father's house, I went through all the places I knew he might stash something, gathered the incriminating objects, and got rid of them. At the time I told myself I was doing this for my parents' sake, that I didn't want them to find these things and get upset. But it was also to protect him from himself. Not that that made any sense anymore. He was dead. Still, I felt the need to give him a clean slate. "If you're going to do this, I'm going to make it as hard for you as possible," I thought, as I moved furniture and lifted floor boards, dumped out vases and emptied drawers. I combed his mattress with my hands, feeling for places he may have cut a hole. I went through every trinket box, every shoe, every shelf, every book, every cushion, every bag, every last inch of his room until I was sweaty, covered in dust, and certain I would uncover nothing more. I saved a particular place for last. Years ago, when Alex was just a boy, my grandfather made him a dresser. It has several drawers on the bottom and two square cabinets on the top, perfect for storing binders of basketball cards, plastic fake vomit, pictures of crushes, the important things every boy has. I opened the right door. It was lined in cedar and still smelled good. The inside was empty, but I knew better. In every piece my grandfather made for us, he built in a "secret." A hidden compartment only we knew about, where we would hide our most precious things. I had a set of tiny drawers that came out of a wall in my dollhouse where I stashed my precious two dollar bill Alex was constantly trying to steal. I knocked along the inner walls of the cabinet until one spot sounded more hollow then the rest. I pushed on it, and the side of the cabinet sprung open, revealing a small, spring loaded door with equally small shelves. I got out my flashlight. There was nothing inside but an inscription written in pencil on the wood.
a special boy
At first I thought I was being overly sentimental. This is a real fear I have; showing too much emotion, feeling too much emotion. Maybe it's because every time I expressed a feeling a member of my family would call me, "dramatic." I always thought that was so unfair and so funny, me being the "dramatic" one. I mean, have you read Alex's book? The criticism stuck though, and now every time I feel something I question its legitimacy. But I've been to a half-dozen ball games since my brother died, and I'm starting to notice a trend: I feel uncomfortable everywhere that is not my house with the exception of Wrigley Field.
I've been trying to go out, to accept invitations and make myself rejoin the world, to give myself a reason to get dressed up and say more than the handful of words I exchange with the clerks at Whole Foods. I go through the motions of getting ready, meeting friends, ordering drinks, blah blah blah, in hopes that it'll eventually feel normal again. It does, sometimes, but more often than not I feel like a fish in a bowl, the glass distorting the view as I look out onto a world that's familiar, but out of reach. I feel disconnected from people, and every time someone asks, "How was your summer?" I retreat back into myself a little more. I don't want to tell acquaintances or someone I just met that my brother died a couple months ago, but as they stand there and tell me some boring story about their work or a recent vacation, I find myself wishing they knew so they'd shut the fuck up about their bitchin' camping trip already.
That's not fair of me, I know. Other people's lives don't stop just because mine did. It is no one's fault my wires frayed, leaving me unable to plug in to casual conversation with the ease I used to. I just currently have nothing in common with anyone who isn't in this weird grieving limbo, with people who have never lost someone so close to them, who have never experienced outer space-sized sadness, wherein you're floating in never-ending blackness that's not painful, really, but constant, and the silence in this space is deafening.
I spend most of my time feeling this way, until I enter the ballpark. Then, it's like things snap into focus. What was black and white is now vibrant color. People no longer sound like they're speaking Klingon. Everything makes sense. I know where everything is, I know who these people are, and we all have a common goal. I sit in my favorite seats and put in my earbuds so I can listen to the radio broadcast while I watch the game. I fill out my scorecard the way my grandfather taught me to. I can joke with the people sitting next to me, and ask the lady behind the counter for extra cheese for my nachos. At Wrigley Field, I am a functioning human being again. I don't know why I only feel this way there. Maybe it's because I know everyone is there to watch the Cubs and not ask my how my summer was. Maybe it's because baseball has been a part of my life for so long that it's now more of a security blanket than a hobby. Maybe it's because Alex never really got into baseball the way I did, and it's a place I can be free of his memory for a while. Or maybe it's because Wrigley Field is a place where people know how to wait for the good days to come, a place where people believe that tomorrow could be better, even if tomorrow takes 108 years to get here.
The woman Alex wrote about in the previous pages- the one with whom he had a tumultuous and destructive relationship- is the woman he brought as his date to my wedding. I got married in August of 2010, when Alex had just started using heavily and had yet to master the art of hiding it. He was a member of my wedding party, a "bridesman." I wanted him to stand up with me, being the person who knew me the best and longest. He showed up right before the ceremony, sweaty, jittery, and especially pale for summer. After our brief vows he vanished again, missing most of the pictures. Later that evening at the reception, his girlfriend, the girl he wrote about, approached me in a panic, saying that Alex had taken her phone and had been gone for hours and could I do something, could I go find him? This sent my father into a rage, both the fact that Alex had left to do what we all knew he was doing but wouldn't say, and that his girlfriend, who my father hated, was making a scene. They started screaming at each other just off the dance floor, complete with insults and hand gestures. Just as I ran over to break them up, Alex came down the stairs where the DJ was set up. "Let's dance, sissy!" He exclaimed, taking my hand just as the obnoxious opening notes of Surfin Bird poured out of the speakers. It was a typical Alex request, a song that's both hilarious and egregious, offensive to the ears but inarguably classic, and I couldn't help but follow him out to the dance floor, where we spun and spazzed and laughed until our stomachs hurt and sweat poured down our faces.
Our youngest brother, Andy, gets married in less than a month. Alex was really looking forward to the wedding. He spoke a lot of how happy he was for Andy, of what he would wear, of what songs he would insist we spaz out to on the dance floor. Every time he talked about it, though, I worried. I didn't want Andy to have to deal with his disappearing act. I didn't want him to show up high, or use during the reception, or bring someone who would cause a scene. Throughout my life, I have had to consciously cherry pick the moments with Alex I to hang onto. When I think of my wedding, I choose to think about that moment on the dance floor, and not all the other moments that led up to it. I was scared that Andy would have to make that kind of choice, too. He doesn't have to now, and I'm not sure which is worse. That is the never-ending question the family of an addict asks themselves: is it better they go on living and continue to inflict this pain onto themselves and everyone who loves them, or to not live at all? Sometimes I am able to let myself feel glad he isn't suffering anymore, but right now I'd let him ruin all the weddings in the world for one more dance.
When people find out about this project, they often say that it must be very hard for me to read and edit his book, to go back in time and relive those hard years through his eyes. Parts of this process are hard, certainly. I hate editing sex scenes that star my brother and [insert name of female headcase here] and I hate editing the parts where he lies (which is often). But I think what makes me the most uncomfortable is when I'm editing a scene wherein he is behaving in a way that is so familiar and true not just to who he was, but to who I am as well.
Alex and I were just shy of two years apart. We shared not just the same parents, houses, schools, fashion trends, favorite TV shows, and for one tumultuous week, a Chumbawumba CD, but also the way we experienced those things. I didn't notice how similar we acted until Mike started pointing it out when Alex came home from prison the last time. The way we hunched our shoulders, as if apologizing for being tall, our constant need to fill a space with a joke, the way we get lost in a task, be it reading, writing, or organizing our pog collections. When he grew his hair long, we even looked the same from the back. We had the same crazy, wavy hair. But today's pages highlighted a similarity I'm not as fond of. In this scene, he levels his ex girlfriend with a paragraph-long speech that's so mean and hurtful even I felt bad for this woman, and I never even liked her. Sure, what she did to Alex's character was frustrating, but it didn't warrant the venomous verbal lashing he released. This is the other thing we do that's just alike, and it makes me sick to my stomach.
I'm not certain exactly when or why we gained the ability to string together words so hurtful they could physically change the way a person's face looked, as if we'd actually punched them. I have an inkling is has something to do with having a father who fights with teenagers like a teenager. As we grew and it became harder and harder for our father to control us, he would lose control over his own emotions and lash out, which perhaps he meant to be intimidating, but really only diminished his role as an authority figure in our eyes. How can you respect an adult who kicks down your bedroom door because he thinks your boyfriend is in bed with you, the very boyfriend who went home four hours earlier? Or who dumps a salad on your head at dinner when you flip a forkful of spaghetti at your sister? You can't. Our dad was like having another sibling, only this brother could take things away and was three times our size. Since you can't hit your father with a vacuum cleaner the same as you would your brother, the easiest way to level him was with words. There is this joke by comedian John Mulaney that explains this well. He says, "...8th graders will make fun of you, but in an accurate way. They will get to the thing that you don't like about you." Alex and I had this "gift," and as lanky dorks with glasses, it was the single weapon we had to protect ourselves. Our fists were bony and breakable, but we were both good with words, and it turned out that right combination of sentences could floor a person as efficiently as one good punch. You could see it drove our father nuts, our ability to outwit and out-insult him. He was a shark, but we were piranhas. He couldn't win, because at the end of the day, no matter what we said, if you're an adult fighting with a teenager, you are the loser. This is a fact we figured out long before he did.
While being a linguistic gladiator had its benefits in terms of protecting one's privacy, personal space, and autonomy in a house that was determined to rid us of those things, that "skill" has only caused problems for me, and I assume Alex as well, once I left my parent's house. To this day, when someone insults me, I feel a spark ignite in my chest that makes my hair stand on end and my eyelid twitch. It's like the way the air feels just before a tornado touches down; everything is electric. Letters and words and turns of phrase start swirling around in my brain while I analyze my victim. I pick words out of the swirling storm clouds in my mind and organize them by rhythm and sound. To have proper impact, you can't just choose the right words, you have to compose them, you have to make them sound right, so it sticks in the person's brain like a song they can't stop whistling. Sometimes I make the mistake of opening my mouth, of dropping this word tornado right onto someone's house. It is always, always more than the person deserves. I know I'm going overboard when I say the things I say. It's on purpose. I go so far so I can guarantee they can't follow me back. When you drop the atomic word bomb, you destroy everything, which includes your opponent, yes, but also your dignity, your trustworthiness, and any notion you were a stable, good person. You take out the enemy, but you take out yourself, too. It's a suicide mission, only instead of taking your life, it just takes the people that make your life worth living.
I have, over the years, gotten better at controlling this urge to get people away from me with words. Before, when I was younger, I never saw or cared how they could hurt people. I needed them to help myself, to help myself stand up to bullies. But I don't have regular bullies in my life anymore. I've been so lucky, in my adulthood, to have been given the chance to pick a group of friends and family members I don't need to protect myself from. People I trust and love, people who wouldn't hurt me intentionally, people I would never want to hurt myself. I wish Alex had had the chance to find a circle of friends in which he could feel safe. I wish we had the chance to retire our figurative swords together, to cast them in stone, leaving that terrible burden, the burden of constantly having to protect yourself, for someone else.
The other day while running, I was listening to a running podcast called Human Race. This particular episode was an old one I hadn't heard before, about elite middle-distance runner Brandon Hudgins and his battle with vasculitis; an incurable disease that inflames and destroys the blood vessels. He went from one of the fastest 1500 meter runners in the country, to barely being able to get out of bed. When he is able to run during a flare up, he is so slow his 70 year old neighbor passes him on the street. Sometimes the disease subsides, and he somehow manages to climb his way back to the top. But after every comeback he seems to have another setback. Every forward step he takes seems to be followed by two steps back. Now, I've heard lots of inspiring stories on this podcast as well as others I listen to. Usually the stories belong to someone with an upbeat demeanor and a seemingly endless positive attitude, so I have a hard time relating to them. I've always rolled my eyes at words and phrases like, "faith," "good vibes," "positive energy," "prayers," and "hope." Ugh. Hope. I hate hope. I've always hated hope. I hated it all those times I hoped to get a puppy and didn't. I hated when I hoped a cute boy would talk to me and was ignored. I hated the movie, Hope Floats starring Sandra Bullock and her terrible southern accent. I hated Obama's HOPE slogan. Hey, Barrack? I love you and all, but can we do better than just "hope?" Like, can we actually do stuff to prevent the angry men with faces like rumpled old gym socks from playing Battleship with [INSERT DICTATOR HERE] instead of just hoping they don't the second you leave? Because expecting and desiring a change in and of itself does not actually make that thing happen, and that is actually the definition of hope. It is an intangible feeling tangled up with tangible expectations. Hope is trying to feel something into existence, and as everyone who as ever lost someone and wished them back knows firsthand, you cannot feel something into existence.
This is why I liked this Hudgins story so much. During the interview, Hudgins' tattoos came up, and the interviewer focused on one in particular. It's across his chest, in a cursive script between two red roses that reads, "ALL HOPE IS GONE." Most people would find that pretty depressing, especially for a guy with an incurable, debilitating disease, but Hudgins sees it quite the opposite, and I agree. To quote him from his own blog post about this very topic, he says, "I think that hope can be misplaced and often causes people to fall harder when that wish or yearning isn't fulfilled. It wasn't until I realized that all the hoping and yearning in the world wasn't going to change my outcome, so why not find a more useful place for that energy."When I heard him say that on the podcast, I thought of my grandfather and a conversation we had over dinner a couple months before Alex died. The topic of Alex's current state came up, of course, and my grandfather said something along the lines of, "that boy is completely hopeless." I defended my brother like I always did, and insisted that not all hope was lost. But maybe my grandfather was right. And maybe Alex knew it, too. Maybe he was without hope, without expectations for himself, without the ability to even desire a change. By the definition of the word, he was indeed hopeless. But he didn't need hope, anyway. He needed rehabilitation. He needed counseling. He needed medication. He needed a roof over his head. He needed money. He needed a better group of friends, a better family. Ultimately, maybe what he really needed was an escape.
I hate hope the most for letting me down all those years I hoped my brother would get better, when even he knew better than to hope that for himself.
(TM t-shirt coming soon.)
Sometimes while editing this book, it gets really hard to not totally hate my brother. And I do mean, "hate." I've always felt like siblings can bring out some of our strongest emotions, and Alex made me feel them all like no one else.
In today's pages he wrote this little moment where, after locking himself out of and then breaking back into his own apartment, he stops and makes himself a drink before walking outside to let the woman he is with back in, even though it's the middle of February and she's freezing. This is exactly the kind of selfish, senseless stuff Alex did all of the time. He'd unplug the computer when I was using it just because he wanted a turn. He once broke my bike because I wouldn't give it to his girlfriend (why would I give my own bike away?). He constantly stole my car and drove out all the gasoline I had just put in, without refilling the tank, of course. He did so many infuriating things, both minor and major, that I used to lay awake at night after our epic fights and imagine all the ways I could kill him.
Oh, don't give me that. If you've never pictured punching your sibling in the face so hard he flies back 10 feet into the air and cracks the wall behind him with his big, stupid head, or imagined him stranded on a deserted island, surviving on a diet of raw sea cucumbers while you cruise by in a fancy yacht and give him a wave between bites of deep dish pizza, or fantasized about the day the hospital finally realizes the mistake they made all those years ago and delivers your real, wonderful brother, who then beats up the imposter who made your life miserable for all those years, you were either lucky, or an only child (so again, lucky). Most siblings have yelled, "I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!" to each other at one point or another (if not several times in a day), and while I think it's mostly chalked up as an angry exaggeration by adults; a childish exclamation over petty slights, thefts, and betrayals, I have to wonder how many siblings actually would kill each other if we lived in a Game of Thrones type of world. I mean, hell, if there were no real laws, no school, and my only job was survival, I'd put up with some snot-nosed brother stealing my share of the food I grew myself for about five minutes before I'd sic my pet wolf on him (in this world I have a pet wolf who obeys all my commands and is my very best and loyal friend).
Alex wasn't always so goddamn rage inducing, though. That didn't start until we were teenagers. When we were kids, he was annoying, sure, but also really funny, sweet, weird, and nerdy. He used to get just as excited for my birthday as he did for his. He raised tadpoles and let them go in the creek behind our house so they could be free and "meet girl frogs." He'd let our baby brother mess up his entire room and not get mad. He finished every swimming race he ever swam with a smile on his face, even though he always finished dead last. He was a pain in the ass, sure, but he was a pain-in-the-ass I liked having around. When I remember that Alex, that snaggle-toothed dweeb in a Shaq jersey who always had something gross like lice or ringworm, I soften. Even during our tumultuous teen years, I'd see a flash of eight year old Alex in sixteen year old Alex's face, and I'd put down the vacuum cleaner I was about to pummel him with. No matter how much I wanted him to pay for everything he stole from me as a adult, I knew that somewhere deep down was the boy who gave me everything as a kid.
Lice and ringworm included.
About a month ago, my friend’s grandfather died. He was in his eighties and had been ill, so his end was not a surprise, but she was sti...