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Death and a Complicated Relationship

Last week I wrote about the death of my Dad and some of the things that came along with his passing that I wasn't prepared for and, to be honest, that I'm still working through. This week I'm going to talk about something similar, but also a little different: the passing of my brother Rick.

On March 15 of 2012 I was having lunch with my friend Kellie at Olive Garden. She was taking her lunch break and we both had our phones on the table to keep track of time. Then mine started ringing. It was my brother Brad. That was odd because 1) he should be at work and 2) because he's at work he never calls during the day. I clicked 'Decline' and kept chatting with my friend. I'm not a fan of answering the phone during meals - this was Kellie time. He called back. I clicked decline again. He called back again.

This time I answered and said, "I'm at lunch with a friend! Can I call you back in 20 minutes?" He said, "Your brother's dead." Now, I have two other brothers besides the one I'm speaking with, so I need a little more clarification here. But also: who says that?! Brad. Brad says that. My tough as nails Marine Corps middle brother that is actually a big softie on the inside. I also realize now that he was (and probably still is) dealing with the same complications of grief as I am. Except his relationship with Rick was much longer and deeper than mine.

I hung up the phone, looked at Kellie and calmly said, "My brother Rick died. I have to go." She looked shocked, of course, and she said, "I'll get the check". I gathered my things, walked out the door, got to my car, and LOST IT. I mean, heaving, sobbing, lost it. That lasted a few minutes (enough for Kellie to get outside) and then I was calm. She asked if I was ok to drive home, I said yes, feeling super calm, and I went home.

A few days later we had my brother's wake. I was standing in line with my Mom on one side and a sister in law at my other. Every person that came through said something like, "He was such a good guy. He was always so kind to us."

And that made me ANGRY.

Here's the thing: my brother Rick was a bi-polar alcoholic for as long as I knew him. He was 20 years older than me (my half-brother from my Dad) and just with the age difference you can imagine our relationship was different than a normal sibling relationship. Throw the bipolar alcoholic in the mix and you have a very confused little sister.

When my brother drank, he was an angry drunk. For most of my life this was the only version of him that I knew. As a young child, I would hear things from him like, "You're going to take all of Dad's money" and "You're so spoiled. You get anything you want." It's not just the things he said, but the way they were said that resonate so clearly in my mind. There was so much spite and what felt like hate behind it. As an adult, I can tell myself and see that it was not so much my brother saying these things as it was the mental battles and diseases saying them. But 5-year-old me didn't know that. And as with all identities, that's the me that still lives inside: the 5-year-old girl who can't figure out why her brother hates her so much. There are many things that were said to me by him growing up that I have just recently (in the past two years or so) uncovered that I have carried with me and let drive my life. This is how all beliefs are formed. Identity is solidified by age 8. Beliefs are formed from Identity. So, you may very well imagine I have some beliefs and triggers around entitlement and privilege: being yelled at, scolded, berated for things I had zero concept or control of. Worthiness. Selfishness. There are more but that's a topic for a whole different blog - I digress.

When the people at the wake said that he was always kind to them I was jealous. How come they got that treatment but I never did? I know that we tend to show our worst to the people closest to us, but generally they get to see the good too.

I saw the good twice.

And sometimes I wish I hadn't seen it at all.

I was a freshman in college the first time I interacted with my sober brother. Yup, I was 18. I had come home for the weekend and as I walked in the door I heard my Dad say, "Here, talk to your sister" and he handed me the phone. I pleaded with him, shaking my head no, and my Dad insisted shoving the phone into my hand.

This had happened so many times before. My poor Dad. He did everything he could as a parent with a child battling addiction. I think that's why I loved "Beautiful Boy" so much. It truly painted the pain of addiction from both sides: the addicted and the family of the addicted. There's a battle of reason, of enablement and support, of fear and boundaries, of love. At what point do you say 'enough is enough' and I can't continue to help you in this way because it's not helping? I still don't know. But I know that the first time I saw my Dad cry (out of 3) was hanging up the phone after that 'I love you, son, but I can't help you anymore because it's not helping' call. My brother had a horrible habit of getting drunk and calling the house to yell and berate whoever answered the phone. We were late to the caller ID game so answering the phone was always roulette. I assumed this was one of those calls. Until this point the track record was 100%.

This time was different. My Dad wasn't drained from this call. Instead he had this glint in his eye. Excitement. I grabbed the phone and begrudgingly said, "Hello."

"Hey Linds! Dad said you've been working on a show at college."

I looked at my Dad so confused and shocked. He smiled and nodded his head yes.

This was the first time in my life that my brother showed any interest about anything in my life. We lived in the same town but he never attended a single play, volleyball game, dance recital, softball game, basketball game, swim meet, chorus concert, band concert, nothing. Not. A. Single. Thing. Not even 8th grade graduation. He came to high school because my middle brother Brad held him ransom and made him come.

And here he was, asking about a show I was working on. I told him about it, he asked more questions, there was a genuine give and take conversation. I was shocked. And confused. And scared. Because my history had told me that this wouldn't last long.

And I was correct. It didn't last long. He relapsed. I don't even feel like relapse is the correct word. He went back to his normal ways.

A little over a year later we had another good run. This one lasted quite a while. Almost 2.5 years. It was Father's Day 2004 (right before the year from hell began!) and we had picked Rick up to go to dinner with Dad. He and I sat in the back of the car together (which normally wouldn't have happened because I was so nervous and scared of him) and I clearly remember that dinner. I'm literally crying thinking of it because it was such a good night. We were cracking jokes, and playing off each other, and high giving across the table. It was so fun. And it's so heartbreaking because it only happened that one time.

I think that's why those comments at the wake upset me so much. It feels like a "Flowers For Algernon" thing for me: I was blissfully unaware of what I was missing and after that moment I couldn't go back. Everyone always said that Rick was 'such a good guy' but he had his demons. He was a Jekyll and Hyde. Until the fall of 2002 I only knew one version. I was so confused when people would say, "He's such a good guy". Then I experienced it. Then I became painfully aware of what I was missing.

I do have to give my brother credit though: he remained sober for two of the most difficult things anyone could ever go through. He was sober when my Dad died and we really thought/feared he would spiral. He did not. He also remained sober when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. It had developed as a softball size tumor in his neck and wrapped around his jugular and carotid arteries. The doctors told him that given the size of the tumor and the type it was (I can't think of it off the top of my head) that it was likely spread throughout his body because it normally doesn't present in this way. They also said this type of cancer was likely caused by his drinking and smoking. Again, we thought that would send him over the edge. It did not. He received intense chemo - we're talking a port and living in the hospital during treatment. He flat lined once. They shrank the tumor, removed it, and then did a scan to check the rest of his body. There was nothing to be found. To this day, I deem that a miracle.

The irony is that after getting the 'holy crap' all clear my brother panicked and started drinking again. It's almost like the terror got him through and then the overwhelm of it all got to him.

My brother did not die from cancer.

My brother did not die from alcohol or drugs (directly).

My brother was drunk, fell, broke his wrist and had surgery.

He was on pain pills.

My brother did not overdose - which if I'm being honest we thought was the case. The autopsy proved us wrong.

My brother died from heart issues due to complications of alcohol abuse. He was 48.

I still have anger from all of it. I'm angry at him for his choices. I'm angry that he wasn't able to stay sober. I'm angry that he was ever in that situation in the first place. I'm angry that these chemical imbalances exist and people find themselves battling these addictions and diseases every day. I'm angry at myself for not 'doing more to help' even though I know I wasn't capable of doing so. I'm angry that other people got to experience the real Rick and I barely did. I'm also angry that I did experience it those couple of times.

I'm also so happy and so proud that he was aware of the way he treated other people.

His neighbors said he was always willing to lend a hand and often did.

His neighbors said he always put a smile on their face.

His neighbors said he was always so kind and friendly.

I know my Dad would be happy to know that's how he treated other people.

This grief I feel when it comes to my brother is complicated. There's a lot of anger. There's a lot of resentment. There's a lot of guilt. And there's a lot of 'meh'. Which brings more guilt. I often have to look up the date of when my brother died. I looked up the year. My Dad's anniversary, my Aunt Carol's, my Uncle Ike's, those are seared in my brain. My brother's I don't remember. I only remember March. I have zero concept of it being 8 years now. I almost grieve the fact that there's little grief. There's a lot of anger, but little grief.

But I have to say: my experience with my brother has given me many great lessons.

Next week I'm sharing those along with other lessons I've learned from grief.

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