Kindness of the Gods

In 2010 my brother — a hardcore alcoholic — died. None of his friends or family knew about it until five months afterward. I was devastated, naturally. I’d “cut off” my brother six years earlier when his constant demands for money and his absolute lack of awareness about anything in my life or his daughter’s life was too much. I always hoped that he would want us enough after a while to stop drinking. I have known people who made that choice — family vs. booze. My brother chose booze. And, right now I do not want to hear anything about “it’s a disease; they can’t choose” because the reality is that yes, addiction is a disease BUT the only cure lies in the hands/mind/heart of the addict. There is NO OTHER cure. Simple cure, horrendously difficult to accomplish. If you believe otherwise, you’ve bought into the addict’s con and my prayers go out to you.

When I learned of his death, I contacted one of his friends. We did work to confirm it. I was left, then with finding his body. After some effort it was delivered to me — ashes — by my sweet, friendly and dog-loving postal worker. She had no idea what she was handing me over the fence, but there was my brother.

My brother was my best friend. I loved him with all my heart and soul. So, as it happened, did many others. When the news got out I made a Facebook group for his friends. My brother was an artist and soon photos of his works began to appear on the page. Memories and stories appeared, also. Then, one of his friends from high school — Lois — held a wake for him. I couldn’t go (it was in Colorado and I’m in California). They filmed it as it was going on and I watched it on Facebook and commented — as if, almost, I was there. I saw my brother’s friends, all of whom were from his teens and twenties. I felt I had met them and knew them and loved them, but I only knew a couple of the

Three years later I went to Colorado to give a paper. By then I’d made Facebook relationships with some of my brother’s friends. We planned a small “service” for him and a dispersal of some of his ashes which I shipped ahead in case TSA didn’t like the stuff that looked exactly like gunpowder. I met some of these people for the first time. Others for the first time in more than 40 years. My new/old friend, Lois, and her husband cooked a brunch for everyone who would be coming. We sat in her living room and talked about my brother and about addiction and about each other and where life had brought us all. When the time was right, we took my brother’s ashes up to a place we had all loved as young people, to rocks on which my brother and I used to climb. I put some ashes between a cedar tree and a juniper tree, and one of my brother’s friends tossed some of my brother into the air.

I did not know these people. Many had not seen my brother in decades. ALL of them — all of us — had had some terrible experience with him. They were there to memorialize my brother, but they were also there for me. Never in my life have I experienced anything like that. I felt as if my brother — now in some place where he’s no longer tormented by the demons that pursued him — brought me to his friends. Perhaps he was finally able to see how golden they are. Perhaps  he knew I would love them. In any case, out of it and their kindness, have come friendships that I treasure with all my heart. I almost cannot believe my good fortune awakening from the sorrow and darkness of my brother’s life and my life with him into such a circle of kindness.

Forgive and Forget?

A lot of people have relatives who are addicts. The addict gets a lot of sympathy and the family might get some, but never as much as the “poor” addict. There’s no question that an addict shooting up or drinking him/herself to death is about as sad a story as there is. What I discovered over the years of attempting to help my alcoholic brother is that in the eyes of many of my family members he — because he was a problem and needed to be rescued — was more valuable than I was.

I was not aware that somewhere deep inside of me, I agreed with them.

As happens with drunks (my brother was a drunk) they either stop drinking, they die from drinking or they make the transition into becoming “incorrigible” drunks. My brother took the long way and by the time he died in 2010 he was 57, and I had not spoken with him in five years. I heard about his death accidentally. Someone trying to collect one of his  innumerable debts contacted our aunt with the information that my brother had died. That message made its way to her daughter — my cousin — and then to me.

I was angry and abysmally sad. In order to save myself I had cut off direct contact with him. His persistence (and my trying to help him through various attempts at rehab) had led me to work three jobs. That sacrifice (and it was) was better than losing faith, better than believing his  words, “You don’t understand. I like being drunk. Why are you trying to stop me all the time?” But it took a toll and some of my friends, seeing the effect on me, stepped in, pretty much saying, “If you don’t stop, this will kill you.” They were right.

As the knowledge of his death sank in, I realized that I hated him for dying, for taking from me that burning coal of hope that there would come a day when he would decide that life, his daughter, his sister, his immense talent were worth more to him than being drunk. Now that door was irrevocably closed. I was then stuck with finding out how he had died; of what he had died; where he had died; what had happened to his body; if he’d died alone or in a hospital or? I was stuck with telling the family and facing their castigation, “Why didn’t you take better care of your brother?”

It’s very complicated this addict stuff. I had a lot to sort through and a lot to help my niece sort through. Then one day I saw a little saying somewhere — no idea where — but it said, “Forgiveness is accepting that you cannot change the past.” That was exactly right. I could not change my brother’s decisions in some dim moment thirty or forty years before. I could not change his nature, his childhood, his basic personality, his choices. Just as I’d had to accept that I couldn’t change my brother’s choices while he was alive, I couldn’t re-write the past to make it turn out as I wanted. And yeah; I was angry at him for making the story turn out like that instead of the way I wanted it to.

With that understanding, I began to find my brother again. Not the drunk, but the man and the boy I’d loved, my best friend, but still a person I had always known was not me. I forgave him for taking himself away from me (that was, after all, what I hated him for, for not choosing me over booze).  

Last March, I took some of his ashes to Colorado Springs, our home town, and with his friends made a little pilgrimage to a spot between a cedar and a juniper tree below a formation that we all climbed as teenagers. Some of my brother’s ashes mixed with the sand, some were thrown into the air by his friend. It was a great day; spectacularly beautiful, filled with love, cold-late-winter sunlight, vibrant colors and spontaneous song. One of Kirk’s friends remembered a song Kirk had written and banged out on the piano, singing along.

I still miss him, and though no longer angry or as sad, I still couldn’t quite “get” the puzzle of his choices, but a dream I had recently put it all together. In the dream I was in a hotel in Death Valley. I opened the drapes to the sliding glass door. My brother was outside, lying on the grass, smoking his pipe. I opened the door. 

“Kirk, I thought you were dead!”

“Naw,” he said, jumping up and hugging me. “I just couldn’t handle that reality any more so I left.”

(Based on the daily prompt: