My brother Michael died of a heart attack Sunday, August 29th in Lafayette, Louisiana while Ida banged through the state. He was sixty-six years old. His death was not a surprise, he had been in poor health for the last five years or so. The surprise for me was the depth of my mourning. We had not been close for some forty-five years until he quit drinking over ten years ago.
One of the things I’ve learned the past five or six years is that no one knows what demons other people are battling, why they turn to destructive things to deal with pain. Because that is what almost everyone who drinks, or does drugs, or even smokes are doing. My brothers were handed a raw deal from the start of their lives, long before they had words to protest what fate handed them. They were the last two of five children born to a young couple in the wasteland of post-WWII Germany. The mother abandoned the family soon after Michael’s birth in 1955. The children were removed and placed in an orphanage. My parents adopted them in the summer of 1958 through the Mission Methodist Home in San Antonio, TX.
They now have a name for what my brothers experienced before they were adopted: attachment disorder. Essentially it means that a person’s earliest experiences were lacking in love and nurturing. In turn, as they grow older, they have social issues, trouble bonding with people, and trust issues. One can only imagine the unarticulated pain and anger this causes. The amount of damage in my brothers went by age. Mark, my oldest brother, was profoundly scarred, Michael less so.
Michael was a sweet child, and made friends easily. When he entered his teens, he discovered alcohol. I think alcohol numbed him to the pain he held inside. After he graduated from St. Stanislaus HS (a private school in Biloxi my parents hoped would help him), he joined the army. After that, he was AWOL for years. And so my relationship with him was AWOL, too. He called my parents when he needed help, or when he was feeling sentimental about a family that had gone on without him. Alcohol derailed much of his life, causing all the rifts and problems and health issues you would expect.
And yet, he survived. He worked as a roughneck and married a native Louisiana woman from a large Cajun family. He called occasionally to tell me he loved me and to see how I was doing. I was angry with him for a long time. Oh, I had what I thought were good reasons, but in reality, I can see that they were flimsy, based on my own insecurities and pettiness.
He was an active alcoholic until 2007 or 2008, when a doctor at the VA told him he was one drink away from dying. As far as I know, he never took another drink after that. That’s when he started to call me more often, after over thirty years of absence from my life.
At first it was rough going with Michael. I let my anger and resentment get in the way. Then I decided that I was through being defensive and made a point to always say something positive to Michael, something he had done right. That wasn’t hard. He had quit drinking. He cared for his ill wife for years. He loved his step-grandkids.
Something wonderful happened over the last two years. Michael started getting therapy from the VA. He reached out over and over, showing a vulnerability and willingness to grow. He quit smoking cigarettes when another VA doctor told him he could unclog his veins in his heart and legs, but if he didn’t quit smoking he would die.
In the end, Michael couldn’t outrun his bad habits and genetic predisposition to heart disease (Mark died of a heart attack, too). What sucks is that I was just getting to know him. I think he was just getting to know himself, and to look forward, not backward. He was going to take courses at the community college through an outreach program provided by the VA. He’d faced his demons and he was winning. There was so much good to him when I looked, and an inner strength that I’m not sure he knew he had.
Michael was able to open up to our dad. He asked if he loved him and if he had made him proud. Dad answered yes, that in the past two years he had seen how hard Michael had worked and how many obstacles Michael had overcome. Dad has always felt that he missed the mark when it came to recognizing what Michael’s needs were, and he told him so.
The last time I talked to Michael was Saturday morning. He was nervous about starting school and learning to use a computer. He was thankful that he had the courage to talk to Dad and felt they were close, perhaps for the first time in his adult life. I told him I felt I had a brother again.
It’s going to take me some time to work through this. There were many times I could have done more. Meanwhile, I remember that he introduced me to black music: soul, funk, and blues. He was a rock-solid Cajun cook and made a great jambalaya. He loved working on cars. He loved to fish and sit with friends and shoot the breeze. He always told me he loved me. There were times when I parroted the words back, but lately I meant them.