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 brother’s 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.
My brother is the kid sitting on the ground, a walking stick across his knee and a beer in his hand.
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.”