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.
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...