“I’m not going to, not going to, not going to die,” Baby Brother chanted into the night air. “Other guys, I’ve seen them keep going. I’m going to, too. Keep going.”
He talked in fragments of refusal.
The way he talked the way he lived.
The way he wanted to live.
The way we had all lived.
Main Street in El Cajon, California. My husband found a spot for our rental in front of the Mexican restaurant we had chosen as our meeting place. A blue-collar joint in a blue-collar town, the kind of place my brother’s daughter thought her father would be comfortable in while meeting with his oldest sister again. Baby Brother and I had only seen one another sporadically since the day in 1965 when his father picked him up from our rental in Joplin, Missouri and took him back to La Mesa, California to live with him.
My husband and I got out of the car and stood in the heat on a street from another time. All around us were signs from 50s era storefronts: music venues, taverns, and jujitsu training, fake fights between skinny boys. Good food, good music, and good times, the signs said. Inside the restaurant, we were seated at a big table in a big, loud room decorated with hand-painted Mayan history murals, wrought iron chandeliers, and mariachi instruments.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said. Didn’t know if I could stay and face my Baby Brother. I wanted to jump out of my skin, slide out of my social self and run to the ladies’ room to take a nervous shit, to vomit, to hide.
The last time Baby Brother and I had talked, he’d asked me for money, and I’d said: “No, I won’t give you money for meth. Get clean. Get a job. Go to school.” And then, only then, did he take off the mask. “Stop digging at me, will ya?” he yelled. “All I want is to live the way I want to live. The way I want to. Don’t tell me not to. Don’t tell me anything. I don’t want to get sober. I don’t like those people. Don’t plan to do it so don’t tell me about it. Just give me money. Give me money or I’m outta here for good, outta here, outta here!” He called me a Nazi. Said he wouldn’t go anywhere near a rehab again. Would never ask for help again. All the people who had never helped him only wanted to get him clean and sober. “All I want is money,” he had screamed into the phone that day. “Money is power. And power is good.” His voice was a pressure-hose of anger in my ear. “All I need is money,” he yelled. “To live the way I want to live. The way I want to.”
He was still the boy who screamed as he ran, making things up with his body, not his mind. Still the Baby Brother who went springing up and down on the sidewalk, over and over in a frenzy, flapping his arms as he hopped, yelling, “Eagle, eagle, eagle,” playing at being wild and free, reaching for me, wet-faced and alone, crying, “Let me out, let me out.” Out of the car, out of conscious life. Running wild when the car door finally opened, up a tree or down a dark hole to find his comfort and his escape.
One day. Someday. Somewhere.
At fifty-six Baby Brother was so changed I didn’t recognize him when he arrived with his daughter and her husband. I saw the two of them first. My niece was a lovely green-eyed woman who looked so much like Mama, the grandmother she had never met and would never meet. “Amazing how much pain was caused by one person,” my niece had said when we met a few months before in a bar down the street from this restaurant. Now she walked arm-in-arm with her handsome husband, leading her father, my Baby Brother, into the restaurant where I waited with my own husband.
I squirmed in my seat as I watched them bring Baby Brother over to our table. Utterly altered in body, a thin man jerking like a puppet, head twitchy, shoulders moving this way and that as if controlled by an invisible force. Thin and sunburnt, cap backwards, eyes darting, his once-thick dark hair shorn short and very gray now, like mine.
He didn’t look at me. He sat down immediately, took the seat at the head of the table, one of the largest tables in the restaurant, large enough for a much bigger party. I sat to his right with my husband across from me and Baby Brother’s daughter and her husband beside us, all of us anxious and perplexed, in public together, in a family restaurant, reading menus. Together for the first time in our lives.
It was the first time my husband had met any of my maternal siblings.
Baby Brother and I were the last of the first three of Mama’s nine children, Moody Sister and Mama long dead, Platinum Twin dead, most of the fathers absent.
The waitress came to take our order and I couldn’t speak. I loved Mexican food but in that moment, I could not remember which dishes I liked. Seeing my state, my husband ordered for me.
Baby Brother kept his head down. Didn’t look at the waitress. Just asked for a beer—“the biggest one you got”—and a plate of carne asada. Beef, rare and hot. Grilled in a kitchen and served on a plate. Not shoveled toward him by a jail employee, shoved through the window of a fast food joint, or eaten in the car on the run.
After the waitress left, Baby Brother and I finally looked at one another, knowingly. It was a miracle he and I were still alive and we knew it. Both of us owed so much to his father, my Stepdad, and we knew that too. I praise him, my Stepdad, a father who showed up with so much hope so long ago. So his saved son would thrive away from his bruising mother, so his only child would bring him consolation, so that the goodwill given in child support to children not his own would be of help despite his former wife’s viciousness.
Stepdad lived up the central California coast now, in a retirement village: double-wide trailers wedged in the hillside, ocean in the near distance, a semblance of peace after years of pain and thwarted expectation. I hadn’t seen him or Baby Brother in years when Stepdad phoned to relay the bad news, this time with a finality I still found hard to fathom.
“Hate to bother you with this. Seems he’s been in the hospital. Cancer.”
I turned the volume up on my cell phone that day, hoping I had heard wrong. I felt instantly guilty for everything good in my life: a loving husband at last, a nice house to live in. While my brother lived rough, I had choices, money for good food, health care, and education. When it came to my family of origin, I had the resilience and ruthlessness to cut myself off.
To truly live, when so many of my siblings had not.
“Something about a mass on his liver,” Stepdad explained. “He says he’s okay. I don’t know what to believe. And I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
Inconsolable confusion and pain—I heard it in his voice. Eighty-six years old with an ailing wife to care for, what could Stepdad do for his middle-aged son? Make him take the chemo. Drive his Euro Van down from his retirement village on a hill overlooking the ocean and give it to a meth addict. Park his boy on some vacant lot. Give him a home. Some place to crash.
Some place safe to die.
“Maybe it’s not even true,” Stepdad said. “He didn’t make much sense. I don’t know what to do. I can’t get down there. I just can’t.”
My out-of-luck, impossible brother, so hurt he couldn’t feel, so scorched he couldn’t breathe, so fierce no one would come near.
“I’ll go down and find him,” I said.
“That would be so good of you to do. But I don’t know how you would. I don’t have a phone number for him or an address. Just a location, some spot in Santee next to some bar. I think he lives under a bridge.”
The food and drinks arrived. Baby Brother’s beer came in a goblet almost as big as his head. He downed it in a few long swallows. Picked up his steak with his hands and tore it in half. Pulled the meat apart with what was left of his bite: top teeth and incisors melted by meth, by decades of sleeping rough and fending off assaults, some real and some not. Meat gone, he shoveled guacamole out of the communal bowl with his fingers and threw it into his mouth.
The people at the next table stared. I looked down at the food on my plate: tilapia with tomatillo sauce, a puddle of refried beans gray with lard beside an ice cream scoop of white rice. Jabbed my fork in the sauce-smothered fish and took a bite, then stopped, not hungry. I put down my fork, anxious to know what Baby Brother thought, what he remembered. Watched and waited to see what would happen next, sat beside him waiting and silent. Waited until his beer was almost gone and his plate empty before I pulled out the photographs I had brought to share with him, first the paper prints I’d slid into a cheap drugstore album, small enough to stow in my purse, then digital images uploaded to my iPad and stored in a folder called Roberson: Mama’s maiden name.
The pictures were memory triggers for him as they always were for me.
“Roberson,” he said. “No T? There’s no T?”
“No T, it’s not Robertson. It’s robber, and then son, like son of a robber.”
We both laughed.
The photos of our Moody Sister got the most reaction. Moody Sister was born after me and before Baby Brother.
“She was Mama’s favorite,” he said.
“I was not a favorite,” I responded.
Baby Brother choked on a corn chip. Coughed and laughed until his face turned red. Stood up to walk in frantic circles behind his chair.
“Dad, drink some water,” his daughter suggested.
I pushed my water glass in my brother’s direction.
“You cared,” he said. He sat back down and looked at me. “You cared that she didn’t care. I just thought she was funny.”
“Funny weird, not funny ha-ha.” Was it wrong to remember? How could it be wrong? Did I remember?
“I just couldn’t do nothing with him. Nothing. Take him, I can’t do nothing with him, go on, take him,” Baby Brother yelled into the cavernous restaurant.
Heads turned as he mimicked Mama in a burst of angry phrases, the ones she’d said over and over. The phrases he remembered verbatim were the ones I remembered best too, both of us not her favorite, never her favorite. And it cut. It cut deep. To calm Baby Brother down, I showed him a photo of our grandparents Bom Bom and Pop Pop. My brother smiled. “She said, ‘I’ll never see you again, never see you again!’ And she didn’t.”
“Your dad took you by Bom Bom and Pop Pop’s house that last day?”
Baby Brother nodded.
There was so much I never knew. His perspective was a whole new angle on what it was like to live inside that insanity.
“The dog bit me. Mean old mangy collie dog,” he said. “And Mama told me: You can’t come in. I just cleaned the carpet.”
I didn’t remember that dog or that day.
“Here’s a picture of the house we lived in when you left,” I said. “Remember the shed?”
“I burned it down. Mr. Moffatt the landlord was mad. Kerosene, that’s what I used. Tearing things up. Burning things down. I can’t do anything with him,” he said again.
Mama’s words seared into his brain, carried within for too long: Baby Brother let them out in a wail, then drank the rest of his beer so quickly he lost his grip on the thick glass and it wobbled mid-air and almost fell onto the Mexican-tiled floor.
“Dad,” his daughter cautioned, used to looking out for him.
Other people had helped me quite a bit too. But I’d never had any place to call home that I hadn’t created myself. For most of my life, my body was my home. Driven by a fierce need for justice, an ancient virtue difficult to locate and apply. But I believed in it. And I struggled to tell my story: the story of a girl her mother hated yet depended on. A girl who was a child herself and yet cared for her siblings as if they were her own children, tried to love them the way she wanted to be loved, love them enough to make up for the hopelessness.
A story of fathers who stayed clear of their kids, afraid of their mother, a mother whose anger kept her offspring hostage.
Children used like bank accounts.
A family of half-siblings I wanted to be whole.
The waitress refilled my water glass and Baby Brother ordered another beer the size of his head.
“Maybe I made her crazy,” he whispered to me.
“No, brother. No.”
“You used to like Donovan,” Baby Brother continued. “They call me mellow yellow, dum dum, de dum.”
Surprised by all that my brother remembered, I showed him the photographs I’d brought of our other siblings. First I showed him the twins, whose birth tore our Mama’s and his father’s fragile union apart and made way for all the kids who came after.
“Dad broke the door in with a wood chisel and cut him up with a bottle opener,” Baby Brother stated. “I was there. Eating my Fruit Loops at the kitchen table. Saw him cut that guy up. Face and all, cut him up.”
I’d written about that scary knife fight in the middle of the night. I’d written about all of it. But not in the same way as Baby Brother remembered it, not so exact and vivid, with such specific details. Burned in his brain, a memory outliving the drugs and the illness, proving time is not always a mercy.
What doesn’t change, not what does, the real mystery.
After dinner, on the dark street in front of the restaurant, beers worn off and the novelty of our meeting gone, my brother became agitated. He moved in and out of everyone’s personal space, in and out like a rooster jutting and warning. Ready to burn the world down again. Like the kind of guys you avoid on downtown corners, drive by quickly at intersections, and fear you will meet in parking garages, he tore up the air with his bony hands. Every disappointment, every single one of them melting together on a dark El Cajon sidewalk: the time I called and tried one last time to get him to go to a rehab, the right kind this time, and again, the afternoon the wild collie dog tore his head open and Mama refused to let him in the house.
Every refusal came out of Baby Brother, from everyone who wouldn’t let him in, couldn’t let him into their house or heart for long: the wives and the employers, the friends, the parents, and the siblings. Especially his older sister who only now, after all these years, had come to truly find him, when it was maybe too late, when there was nothing left to do.
Baby Brother and I walked ahead of the rest of our group on the dark street. Cars slowed to look at us, a petite gray-haired woman with her arm around the waist of a wiry man, his hands dancing in the air, trying to explain what he couldn’t give words to.
Talking with his body, not with his mind.
Mile after mile in the backseat of a car, hungry and thirsty and afraid: it alters you. Look at me. Elegantly dressed. Clearly educated. Alive and prosperous, one might even say fine; one might think I made it through. But then a slight, a casual misunderstanding, a remark perceived as criticism, and now you know.
All of Mama’s kids became a little insane, and why not.
We grew up in a car.
For years the driver’s side door of my Saturn stayed broken. I never got it fixed. Just adjusted myself to the brokenness. Opened the passenger door. Got in and crawled across to the driver’s seat. When the engine knocked, I cranked up the volume on the radio until I reached my destination.
“We were looking for you last month,” I said. “All weekend. Why didn’t you call us?”
After Mama died, I had hoped we could all come out of hiding. Come together and try to understand what had made us and what had happened to us. I’d spent an intense weekend in San Diego just the month before, looking for Baby Brother and not finding him. Hoping a bit of my ache would go away if I found him, my first brother, the boy I knew best in the entire world.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was still mad at you.”
“What for?” I asked. But I knew.
He called me whenever he was in jail. Sober and lonely, he wanted to reminisce.
Press one to accept this free call.
“I can’t give you money,” I’d told him, told all of them, Baby Brother and Meanie Lee, the baby sister who used to call me mommy. “I just can’t.”
We don’t mean to be ungrateful, they messaged.
No money, no car, no way to get to work.
They called, texted. Sent silly postcards.
Truly luv U. Lucky to have U as a sister.
Why won’t you, they’d say? We always loved you, truly loved you.
We grew up too quick.
Sometimes I caved and sent a bus ticket or money for a meal, lost in circles of guilt and remorse.
K Thank U, they’d text back.
Can you send me some more? I need cash for a place to stay. Found an apartment but I don’t have the first, last, and security deposit. Can U wire it to me?
Help your sister.
Help your brother.
That wheel kept on turning.
“Why not?” they’d ask again and again. “Why not?”
“Because,” I answered, “I don’t have it.” And I didn’t.
I had nothing to give but caution, the dark past my only real, my only true and tangible possession.
But they never heard. Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe they never would.
“You believe that stuff,” Baby Brother said. “I don’t want to get clean. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t want to live that way. I’m not going to. I’m sorry. I have some trouble. But I want to keep going on the way I want to keep going on. Going on. Going on.” He lowered his head and whispered in my ear, “I didn’t want her to know I was sick.”
Meaning his daughter, behind us chatting with her husband and mine.
The beers had worn off completely, and Baby Brother was struggling to keep it together on the street in public with his long-estranged older sister. Someone who had only spoken to him by phone maybe four times in the last fifteen years: first to let him know Moody Sister, the favorite, had died, then to tell him Mama’s other favorite, Platinum Twin, was gone too, and third to tell him Mama was dead.
“Boom, boom, boom,” Baby Brother said, as if he’d read my mind. “Everybody dies. Hey. I saw you drink a margarita.”
“Sometimes I do. I’m not addicted.” I don’t believe I have an addictive personality. I can leave the glass half full. My brain is not my sister’s brain or my brother’s.
“I know what you say about Mama is true,” Baby Brother said. “But I think of her as just a hillbilly. Like a mob of kangaroos! That’s how we were. Did you know they call a group of kangaroos a mob? ‘I’m gone to get him, get him.’ That’s what she used to say. What was that about?”
“She was sick.”
“Yeah. Yeah, she was and I got some of that too.”
“But you don’t hurt people. You don’t delight in hurting people.”
“Maybe I will go try and stop,” Baby Brother said. “Not forever but hey, I could help people.”
“I thought you hated that stuff.”
“The liars’ club: that’s what I call them. Think they are changing but they don’t. They lie.”
“Some people can turn anything good to shit,” I said. Then I held my breath, trying not to get my hopes up, thinking he’d get clean, take better care of himself, go to the DMV and get an identity card and use that card at the hospital emergency room to get treatment for his cancer.
I wanted more time with him, but I didn’t want to hope.
Too much hope will mess you up.
Still, I felt closest to my real self after seeing my brother again. As if I didn’t belong anywhere in the world if not with him. For once I did not long for anything or anyone. Did not anticipate or reflect.
I was just there on the street with my brother.
When he crawled into the back seat of his daughter’s car, I almost threw up. But I didn’t. I stood on the sidewalk like a sentinel. Didn’t chase after the car as he rode away, like I did when I was thirteen and he was only eight years old and so alone, looking out the back window of his father’s pickup truck at me, his older sister, as I ran down a Missouri road after them, unable to let my Baby Brother go.
He had a small, thin scar on the top of his head, right in the middle of his buzz cut. He’d gotten it from a fall off the shed out back. Even from a distance, I could see the hairless jagged line that interrupted the swirl of his front cowlick.
Even from a distance, I could smile at him and say goodbye.
Rumpus original art by Devin Symons.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.