As soon as my brother bursts through the front door, his wife Yuriko leaps up to serve him. She takes the shoes he slips off his feet and lines them up neatly in the entryway. There is no how was your day, dear? There is no greeting between father and sons.
Matthew settles his bloated body into an empty chair and glances around the room, his breath labored from walking up the stairs to their second-floor apartment. The two youngest boys catapult themselves off the couch while their older brother completes his homework at the kitchen table. They’ve already gobbled up the stir fry I made for dinner. Matthew expels an impatient sigh and runs a hand through his receding hair—a nervous habit.
“Dad’s a dick,” he announces. “A real prick.”
Our father is the one who purchased their two-bedroom home. He pays the property taxes and HOA fees along with their health insurance premiums. He’s even set up college funds for the kids. If he hadn’t moved my brother’s family to this condominium complex north of Washington, DC, near excellent public schools and playgrounds, it’s likely they would have become homeless.
Matthew continues his tirade while Yuriko clears the dishes. I’ve grown accustomed to my brother’s rants as well as his delusions of grandeur. In five years he’ll own ten properties! He’ll become a millionaire! His obsession with money is matched only by his impulsivity. Two months before high school graduation, he had an epiphany: all he ever wanted, he realized, was love. He decided to follow his heart and at the sound of the bell he walked out. He got his GED and began a software consulting business. Then he threw his computer against the wall. After he finally transferred to a four-year college, Matthew dropped out to recruit on campus for his church. Now, if he doesn’t get fired from one low-wage job or another, he quits and spends any cash on beer, or coffee. Meanwhile, his income plummets below the poverty line. I ignore him and turn my attention to the kids.
“This is so much fun!” shrieks six-year-old Thomas as he skips around the living room. Eight-year-old Ethan shows me the Captain Underpants comic he’s created. Daniel retrieves his sixth-grade report card, which he shares each time I cross the country from California: all As, including in advanced math.
“I can’t wait to play my hockey video game,” he says.
“No way!” Matthew bellows. “You’re addicted to that.” He takes no notice of his son’s stricken face.
“You’re the only addict here,” I could say to my brother. But I do not speak. Sometimes it feels safer to keep quiet.
I want to say to these boys: this father of yours, I knew him before. Before the puffed skin, that befuddled gaze, the grimace pulled tight. My big brother secured a seatbelt across my lap during family car trips to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, when we packed matching suitcases with Mad Libs and stuffed animals we affectionately called “the guys.” He stopped his ballgame at summer camp to put a protective arm around me when I made no friends. Once, when I told our mother that I spit out my gum before bed and awoke to find it stuck to my nightgown, it was Matthew who scrubbed at my shoulder with a nailbrush so I wouldn’t get into trouble for lying.
Rarely do I find a remnant of that boy buried below the wreckage. This ravaged man before us is a ghost of the child once beloved.
My eldest nephew disappears in silent defiance under the blankets of the bunk bed he shares with his brothers. “Come on, Daniel. Papa’s sorry,” pleads Matthew. He sits on the edge of the mattress while I watch from the doorway.
I understand that turned back with its weight of burdens and betrayals. I know this hiding place and its consequences. I once took cover to muffle the sound as our mother unleashed upon Matthew. He always ignited her anger most. Maybe it was the time he came home in a police car after stealing candy from the corner store, or when the neighbors across the street caught him building cinderblock stairs outside his window. Whatever crime he committed, it didn’t matter. Do you want me to whip your legs with a telephone cord the way my parents did to me? our mother yelled. Do you? How I wanted to be brave and tell her to stop. Instead, I stifled my cries against the wet butterfly wings of my pillowcase.
“Heavenly Father,” Matthew prays, “I know I’m not perfect. I have so much fallen nature. I cry tears of repentance that I cannot be a better daddy to Daniel. Our young star is on his way to becoming a true man of God. Or Harvard! He is a man of the people, a better man than I am. Please help me to love with a kinder, more patient, heart.”
When I was around seven years old and Matthew about ten, a repetitious bang jarred me from sleep. I opened his bedroom door and flipped on the light to find Matthew kneeling, naked, on the floor. His fists clutched the knobs of his shuttered closet and rattled the doors. Upon seeing my face, he smiled with relief. At breakfast the next morning he told us of his nightmare: there were monsters in the closet that he needed to release.
After his remorseful interlude, Matthew takes off with the family’s only cell phone, so Yuriko has no way to reach him. With a basic proficiency in English she managed to get her driver’s license at the age of forty-four, but he takes the car, too.
“My husband acts so strange lately,” she confides. She tells me about Matthew’s drunken rages: he throws things. He calls her and the boys stupid. He accuses them of things they didn’t do. My brother’s volatility, with its name-calling and blame, mimics our mother’s irrepressible rage—the pattern repeated from her own parents. A few years before, following DUI charges, Matthew attended court-mandated AA. He denied being an alcoholic for the first three meetings. Then he got drunk again, and admitted recovery might be worthwhile. Like most things, he couldn’t see it through.
“Oh, big anger problem,” she tells me. But he insists she is the crazy one.
Yuriko presses one hand to her mouth to stifle a cry. “Okay for me, not them,” she says, waving toward the children’s room. On cue, the little ones race down the hallway. Ethan sidles up close for her to scratch his back and Thomas nuzzles against her other side. They gather to her like baby chicks under the wing.
From the moment I held Daniel in his powder-blue onesie, I ached for this infant—my brother’s firstborn. Three years later, I cradled his little brother under a quilt my mother helped me stitch for his crib. Then the last boy came along, his jowly cheeks impossible to keep from kissing. After each was born I whispered into his soft skull my promise to watch over them.
After their first apartment, a basement in the city, my brother rented a room in a neglected mansion their church owned. The family of five slept together on a mattress on the floor. Half a dozen other families—immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Ghana—occupied the makeshift apartments; my brother was the only American-born and white resident. They all shared the crowded kitchen downstairs, its refrigerator packed tight with plastic bags of produce. Only two burners functioned on the stove, so Yuriko cooked on a hot plate in their room or microwaved the packaged dinners Matthew brought home from the convenience store where he worked. Most things in that house needed repair—stuck doors, broken tile floors, and a rickety bannister the children climbed, unsupervised. Matthew painted the walls of their room a pale blue and the carpet, at least, was clean. Later, tests revealed the baby had lead in his blood, probably from chipped paint on the windowsills.
I search for Daniel and find him in the empty bathtub, sitting with his head bowed to his knees. When he was five and fell off a trampoline while doing back flips, he repeated, I’m okay, I’m okay, and blinked back the tears he didn’t want me to see. Now he wraps his slender arms tighter around the bare legs protruding from his basketball shorts.
“Hey, I know things aren’t easy for you guys,” I say, taking a seat on the bathmat.
“My dad’s always like this,” he mumbles. “He always yells at me.”
“Your dad’s drinking and problems with mental illness make it hard for him to control his anger,” I explain. “Sometimes it can feel like your fault. But it isn’t.”
My words feel awkward and inadequate. There is no way to atone for Matthew’s violence and the silence that condones it. I put my arm around Daniel and tell him what a wonderful boy he is. His body loosens its grip and shakes as he sobs without sound.
Since they can’t afford to come out west, I make semiannual trips east. I provide boxes of flea market clothes and used books. I call speech therapists, attend parent-teacher conferences, and take the kids to the dentist to get baby teeth filled. I try to retrain them: tell me about your feelings; look both ways before crossing the street. I convince myself it’s possible to push against the grain of their conditioning. I refuse to admit the futility of forging their destiny.
The following day, Ethan answers the door with brooding eyes. I make the mistake of mirroring his expression. “You’re mean!” he says with arms crossed, then marches to the couch.
“Mmm. Ethan cry already. Three times this morning,” Yuriko reports.
Daniel joins his brother, lying by his side. “Happy face,” Daniel says, their foreheads almost touching. “Now sad face.” He continues the sequence—happy, sad, happy—until Ethan’s frown turns into a smile. Thomas, who often pretends he is a kitten, meows for affection and leaps up to snuggle at their feet.
The boys, banded together, lean on sibling bonds still strong. I try to imagine who they will grow up to become. Sometimes I catch traces of their father in their faces, and I wonder: which one could turn into an addict or abuser? For decades I waited for my older brother to be delivered back. Now I sometimes ponder what relief his early demise might bring. Following a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, Matthew’s heart misfires with arrhythmia, putting him at greater risk for heart failure or stroke. Despite medication and several outpatient procedures to restore normal rhythm, he says his heart still hurts.
There is no finality to this grief. Only a series of losses, compounded.
In the backyard of our childhood house in Phoenix, Matthew climbed steps nailed at a crooked angle to a citrus tree. I handed him tools to fix our treehouse, a wood plank covered with a torn piece of carpet. From our corner of the yard we spied on the neighbors and punched Morse code into our walkie-talkies. We scribbled in a notebook labeled Top Secret, illustrated the cover with skull and crossbones, then buried it deep inside a hole Matthew dug in the dirt. We talked about things. I told him I missed a boy in California, missed chasing him at recess to kiss his hand. Matthew called it puppy love. “You don’t know what true love is,” he said, and smashed the flat-backed bugs with his hammer to keep them from crawling up close to me. Yes, I told him, yes I did know.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.
Author’s note: names have been changed to protect identities.
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