My brother died today.
To put it bluntly, Jim drank himself to death.
It’s cliche, at times like this, to say that he died after a long battle with alcoholism. But that wouldn’t be true. He didn’t battle it so much as sink into it like a warm bath.
He hid it, at least from family, until his first heart attack and hospitalization revealed it to the world; refused to go to rehab, and continued drinking; had a stroke which cost him the use of one arm and severely hobbled him; and still continued drinking. His constant heavy consumption of cheap rum destroyed his vascular system, leaving him in pain, and he used the pain to guilt family members into not interfering with his drinking.
If this sounds like I’m angry at him, you’re damn right I am.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t love him and haven’t just had a piece of my heart torn out by his passing, by seeing him dead on the basement floor, naked but for underpants, a plastic tube down his throat and the center of his chest caved in by resuscitation efforts, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling, and holding his cold limp hand as I spoke to him for the last time, by watching the funeral home workers drag the (tastefully appointed) body bag up the steps and across the floor, Jim’s bare feet just peeking out of the bottom. (Jim was 6’2″ and 200+ pounds, a lot of weight to move — “difficult to the end”, as our mom quipped with black humor that he would have appreciated.)
I like a drink or two or three now and again, though I’m careful to set limits and “beware of the god” even as I Hail Dionysus. And I’m always skeptical of efforts to hector and nag people into better behavior. But right now, in this present moment of pain and anger and frustration I’m tempted to consider whether putting unglamorous photos of dead alcoholics up on liquor store walls might help restrain excess. I wish that I could flash seeing my brother’s final fate into the brains of those struggling with sobriety, for motivation, a “Please Don’t Let This Happen To You” public service announcement.
“If you want to have great love,” Pete Seeger wrote, “you got to have great anger”. He was talking about the anger of “see[ing] innocent folks shot down”, the oppression of one person or group by another. But it also applies where a person becomes their own oppressor, where judgment becomes deranged by outside pressures or internal disease or some combination and steers a course of self-destruction.
But, Seeger also sang, “if you want to hit the target square, you better not have blind anger / Or else it’ll be just one more time / The correction creates another crime.” And so I wonder, did I let my anger get the better of me? Did I set the right boundary? Did I fail to be my brother’s keeper?
Hell, I think I encouraged him nipping from our parent’s liquor shelf when we were kids, did I help set him on this road? I think about my failures as an older brother and wonder if something I did or failed to do years ago determined the outcome.
Then I wonder if that isn’t damned egotistical to think I had that much influence over his life.
After his body had been taken away, I cleaned up the room a little. On the table I found a multitool I had given Jim years ago, before we were estranged by his drinking; the knife open, showing that he had been using it. I don’t know if it meant anything to him, if it was just a tool of convenience or if it had some sentimental value. There’s no opportunity to find out now.
Death leaves us with many questions, unanswerable from our mortal, time-bound perspective. We do the best we can, and muddle through.