Goodbye Brother

My brother Anthony and me shortly before his passing

Brotherly Love

You have to have a brother to truly understand the bond between brothers. My brother Anthony was a royal pain in the ass. He was confused, angry, reckless, often the victim, funny, loving, and he was my brother. Although not diagnosed as such, we are fairly certain he was bipolar and clinically depressed. We lost Anthony over twenty years ago (June ’99) and the “what ifs” and “if I’d known” still creep into my conscious mind quite often.

I don’t want this to be a eulogy or a lesson in dealing with loss. I don’t want it to be about what was or might have been. I certainly don’t want it to be about me. I want this to be about human failure and where it takes us. How do you learn to forgive another and yourself for just being human and why is that so difficult.

Anthony died of a drug overdose. He had been clean for a long time prior, however, a major life setback sent him out on the streets to purchase a lethal dose of heroine. My sister Grace found him lifeless, needle in arm. Nobody saw it coming.

Seven years prior we were walking on the beach in Puerto Rico; a conversation that shook me to my core resurfaces periodically. My brother was about to become a father. He had been clean for a number of years and he was very much in love with his wife. He was hopeful, excited, and cautious. Toward the end of our walk he asked me to make sure that his child was well taken care of if anything happened to him. I was a bit angry that he would even suggest that his passing was a possibility. He had worked so hard to stay clean and he was my best friend. In retrospect, I can’t help but think that Anthony knew he would not live to be 40. I was dismissive, but agreeable; never thinking I would have to honor that pact seven years later.

What a Brother Knows

Your brother knows what’s in your head better than just about anyone. I’m not sure I can fully explain it. It’s a combination of sharing the same history, the same space, the same biology, similar thoughts, and love; most of all love.

My brother played by his own rules. He was always in some sort of battle — with himself and everyone else. We were as different as night and day, but we understood one another. There was a good deal of chaos and pain around us at home and we processed it differently. I shared my feelings and frustrations and Anthony kept it all in. I would say the wall is blue and Anthony would say it was green and then we would fight about it until we were too exhausted to keep fighting. I was two years older with strong opinions and most of the family on my side (or at least I thought). Anthony was probably stronger physically, however, his respect for me outweighed his strength. When he got angry, things were destroyed. We shared a bedroom up until our teenage years; the damage from his rage could be seen throughout the room. My mother seemingly ignored it and my father paid little to no attention.

Sibling Rivalry

Anthony and I were competitive in different ways. I was determined to do well academically and Anthony loved sports; he lived for it. Not only did he excel, but he was the envy of most boys we grew up with. Everyone wanted Anthony on their team and no one wanted me. My brother was aware of the bullying I was subjected to. He would fight my battles when I was out of sight. I later learned that he did not want to embarrass me because he was younger and smaller. Fortunately, I learned this early on and I could express my gratitude and appreciation while he was alive. The older brother is the one who should be doing the protecting.

Seeing Yourself

Looking at your brother, is like looking into a mirror. In Anthony, I saw my own distorted self-esteem and misguided rage. One cannot help but see similarities in the way information is processed and although you see differences as well, strong character traits have an overshadowing effect.

How can you not be shaped by the traumatic death of a sibling? One moment you are laughing and sharing life’s secrets and the next moment they’re gone. You can examine your sibling’s life and find meaning in their choices, their successes and failures, their laughter and their pain, and their love. You can learn from them and love more deeply by fully embracing their faults and failures — you are a better for having shared space on earth with them. Your brother can help you to see who you are and accept your own humanity; even after they’re gone.

Lessons Learned

Losing my brother taught me more about my own life than just about anything else I have ever experienced. Mortality is a huge slap in the face. You can temporarily ignore it, however, in the long run, you are forced to examine it. You ask yourself the big questions like: why I am still alive, does fate play a role in my future, what did he leave behind that I can learn from, and can I be a better person in his memory?

They say a parent should never have to experience the death of a child. My mother was a strong woman; drama and hyperbole were her go to responses to just about everything. She used my brother’s death as another way of getting attention. It would have been easy for me to call her on it and push her away, but cruelty is not one of my personality traits. I was patient and attentive, hopeful that the impact of his passing would ease. She eventually came to accept my brother’s death; however, the self-blame and remorse never ended and followed her to her death. She lost my sister Grace a few years after Anthony passed, but for some reason, she saw that death as a merciful one. As one can expect, losing two children made her paranoid about losing other children. I had to constantly reassure her that I was not using drugs and being safe. I was very much aware of the fact that my own death would kill her. As it is, she was a young 78 when she died and I was certain she hastened her own death in order to gain some peace.

My brother Leo and I became closer as a result of Anthony’s death. We have scolded one another for reckless behavior a number of times. Neither one of us wants to lose another brother. Our shared love of Anthony and his memory, have forged an unbreakable bond. We can never fill the void Anthony left in our lives, but we can try our best to love and enjoy our lives as a way of honoring his memory.

Anthony left behind a seven year old daughter. She is now a woman with children of her own. It would be unfair to comment on the impact her father’s death had on her life. As her Godfather, I hope life provides the answers she needs in order to understand the hows and whys that allow us to move on.

My Brother’s Presence

A number of years ago I was riding a mountain bike in a Mexican forrest. At one point as I picked up speed and became lost in the moment, I felt my brother’s arms around my waist. His strength fueled my momentum and bathed me in hope and joy. I know it was only moments, but it felt longer. That was the embrace of a soul I was fortunate to know and love. Anthony was with me that day and has been with me since the day I meet him in his bassinet 59 years ago. It is a brotherly bond that can never be severed and I am a better man for it.

Anthony to my right and below that, Anthony to the left of Leo.

Loss of Son  Sympathy Gift Father Brother or Friend  image 0

The Afternoon I Went to Bed Certain I Would Not Wake Up

Many have shared their personal drug experiences, however, mine is particular to me. This piece is not 100% inclusive. The two I haven chosen to share are my first and my worst experiences. My hope is that my readers will recognize and heed the dangers of certain types of drug use. You may have to stay with me a bit before I get to the lead; my apologies, I’ll get there eventually.

shallow focus photography of cannabis plant
Photo by Michael Fischer on Pexels.com

 

I was that rare college freshman that didn’t smoke cigarettes or pot, didn’t drink alcohol, and had never tried illegal substances. If someone had shown me marijuana, I’m not sure I could have identified what it was. It had nothing to do with religion or parenting, in truth, as a child, I had never been exposed to marijuana or any other non-prescription drug. I had no idea how sheltered from “real” life I had been and then I moved into a dormitory (residence hall is the proper nomenclature).

There was so much pot in my dorm, I’m certain that I must of had a residual high fairly often. I was somewhat idealistic back then; convinced that if I smoked pot on Friday night, I would be taking acid trips by Sunday. I chose to stay away from drugs altogether, that is until I met Kim and Nancy. Kim and Nancy were Nursing students in their senior year at UNCC. They had posted an ad looking for a third roommate and by my sophomore year, I hated living in a dorm. I liked Kim and Nancy and they were offering the largest of three bedrooms in an apartment complex that had an outdoor pool. Certain that I had struck gold, I moved in. I have very fond memories of sitting around in the evening in front of the television watching silly comedies; reliving Kim and Nancy’s dating stories and horrors. They often rolled a joint or two and I would always take a pass when they offered.

This went on for months, but I was a bit curious about what it might feel like to be high. You never forget the first time and the first time was quite the event. I was pretty sick with the flu one night during an evening in front of the television. Nancy was practicing her nursing skills on me and frankly, I was happy to give in to her mothering. I was curled up in a quilt feeling achy and coughing my brains out. Kim was not quite as maternal; however, she was famous for claiming that pot was the remedy for just about any illness. She must have offered to roll me a joint six or seven times that night, before I finally caved. I figured that I was mature enough not to allow a couple of tokes to lead to drug addiction. Minutes later I was hallucinating. I’m still not sure whether it was the high fever or the pot, but I imagined two guys living behind my eyeballs conversing with one another about what was happening in my brain. It was surreal, strange and scary; I didn’t go near that shit again for years.

Fast forward to me in my early thirties. I was living in Manhattan, newly divorced from my wife, completely out of the closet, and fairly tired of my ho-hum existence. A new friend told me about a beach house rental share on Fire Island outside of New York City. I finally had some money in my pocket and the desire to live a little . . . perhaps live a lot. It was there that I made a friend whom I will not name. He was not like anyone I had ever met:  he was a little more than 10 years older than me, he was smart, creative, and we really hit it off.

Our friendship led me to one of the wildest nights of my life; hence the title of this piece (I told you I’d eventually get to it). We would sit around at the beach house talking about the old Saint parties in Manhattan’s disco heyday. I was living in North Carolina when these parties took place, but they were legendary. Apparently, there was lots of drugs and other illegal activities. I learned that although the Saint no longer existed, Saint-at-large parties were scheduled several times throughout the year. My interest in experiencing one of these parties peaked and this was the friend who would make it happen for me. I was assured that my drug intake would be minimal and that he would be by my side the entire evening and for the most part, he was. The plan was to get a good night sleep and go to Roseland — the club where the party happened — at 4:00 a.m.

I’m not sure I can convey my excitement. I didn’t eat for a month so that I would be lean, I visited the gym more often than usual, and I shopped for dancing clothes; tight jeans and a muscle-tee. By the time the party came around I was primed and ready for the night of my life. My newfound freedom and sense of adventure had me thinking that anything was possible. I remember trying to take a disco nap, but I was way too excited to sleep. I was showered shaved and dressed by 1:00 a.m. and I had to sit in my apartment on the upper East side and just wait for 3:30 a.m. to come. I took a taxi to the club because I wasn’t sure what the subways would be like at that hour. When I arrived, I saw my friend standing by the club entrance. We embraced and we verbally and physically expressed our anticipated wild night.

I recall a long line at the coat check counter. I believe most people were retrieving their coats, as opposed to checking them. While we were on the line, my friend whispered that he had lost the drugs which were stuffed in his socks. My heart skipped three beats. My dream of dancing the night away was about to be shattered. We retraced our steps in this large, very dark lobby and there they were, on the floor, in the middle of this massive open space. I still can’t believe they were just sitting there in a small see-through plastic bag, for all the world to see. My friend grabbed the bag, high-fived me and we joyfully checked our coats. The plan was to take a tour of the club, purchase some bottled water and take the first of the party drugs in our stash. I had always believed in the importance of having mentors; people in your life who hold your hand and show you the way. Early on, I was very naive and afraid of many things — mostly because I didn’t know much about this world others experienced while most of us slept.

We toured the club with wide eyes. There were multiple levels, several different types of party music, a VIP lounge you could only peek into, and lots of half-naked men. I can still recall a short blast of chilly air each time the front and back doors opened. It was as if I was having the most vivid dream of my life; it was surreal and sublime and scary, all at the same time and I was loving every minute of it. At some point toward the end of our walkabout, my friend turned to me, handed me water and a small white pill and said,

“Take this baby cakes, and drink. Remember to hydrate throughout the night.”

I know for some, this is sounding enticing, but trust me, the worst of it is still to come.

This next part is a bit blurry, but I’ll attempt to lay it out for you. The ecstasy I had taken kicked in at some point and I was feeling pretty happy.  While I was dancing, I saw someone I knew about 20 feet away on the dance floor. I told my friend that I’d be back and he said,

“I’m not leaving this spot. Come right back; I’ll be waiting.”

I found myself dancing with this friend and his friends and it was a blast. I noticed them passing a small vial and holding it up to their noses. One of them put it under my nose and motioned me to take it in; I was curious and stupid and did as I was told. I assumed it was coke, but at that point I was very high and didn’t care. Minutes later I found myself in the middle of this massive dance floor — honestly if was half a football field — and I did not recognize anyone around me. I asked someone where the restroom was and he pointed. Hoping to soon reunite with my friend, I joined a long line of men and several women, thinking that if I didn’t get to a urinal soon, I as going to wet my pants.

It took awhile, but I was finally standing in front of a urinal and to my surprise, it spoke to me. I can’t remember what the urinal said, but I can tell you it frightened me. It may sound funny, but trust me it was not. I later learned that I had done crystal meth, a very dangerous drug. It’s actually a tranquilizer used as a sedative for horses; strong to say the least. I glanced in the mirror on my way out of the restroom and my face looked distorted — I was paranoid and terrified. I went back to the dance floor to find my friend, but he was not to be found. It felt like I was going in circles; I kept seeing the same faces on the dance floor. I began to panic and moments later, my friend grabbed my arm and pulled me out onto the floor. He gave me water and rubbed my shoulders. He told me to keep moving. I quickly calmed down; I closed my eyes and just felt the music move through my body.

The club was dark and the music was extremely loud and time appeared to be at a standstill, except of course that it wasn’t. At some point I looked over and my friend was dancing by himself and the dance floor around him was empty. I walked over and asked where all the people had gone. He replied, “Dear one, it’s 11:00 a.m.; they’ve all gone home.” We decided not to close the club down and headed for the coat check. My legs felt like they were weighted down with dumbbells and my mouth was extremely dry. I purchased water on the way out and drank an entire bottle before we got to the exit. The doors opened and daylight flooded in. I’m not sure why, but I was shocked that morning had come; the bright sunlight hurt my eyes.

I was glad to find my sunglasses in my coat pocket and although it was very cold outside, I was warm and fairly alert. We headed toward the subway and parted at the station; I was headed to the upper east side and my friend lived on the upper west side. I could not remove my sunglasses on the subway because the light was too bright for my eyes and I did not want to be seen. I sat in the corner of the subway car, slouched and paranoid, vowing that I would never do this again.

When I arrived home to my apartment I realized that my heart was beating rapidly and my mind was racing. I had an overwhelming feeling that I was going to die. I had never felt this way before and I was pretty sure I was overdosing. I was resigned to my fate. I started to clean the apartment so that when I was found, my apartment would be spotless. It’s difficult to understand why cleanliness mattered, but in fact, it was my reality at the time. I must have cleaned for several hours, thinking that at some point I would just collapse. I looked at the clock and it was 4:00 p.m. and it had been over 30 hours since I had any sleep. I showered, put on a tee-shirt and my underwear and crawled into bed. Before closing my eyes my last thought was this:  my life has been full and I have been fortunate. I will not wake from this sleep, but that’s okay, I have lived a good life — I swear this is true.

I did not die that day. I did, however, learn a valuable life lesson about the taking of unknown drugs. I was one of the lucky ones. Many, many have been in a similar situation and perished. I don’t believe I am being overly dramatic. I knowingly took a drug without knowing what it was. The friend I bumped into on the dance floor must have thought I knew what I was doing; he was not to blame.

Something like this never happened again and I plan to keep it that way.