On Monday, I got the call I've been simultaneously dreading and anticipating for more than two decades. My brother was found dead of a heroin overdose. He was 44. He died alone in his car outside a 7-11 in Colorado.
We were not close as adults, and my feelings toward him were complicated, vacillating from intense love to anger to bitterness. I watched helplessly as the boy who was so full of life that he filled a room with brightness and personality turned into a man who was a slave to addiction, first to alcohol and then to cocaine and heroin. At the time of his death, I hadn't spoken to him in nearly three years, in large part because I didn't know how to get ahold of him and for also self-preservation. But he consumed my thoughts with such force that it often pressed tears out of my eyes. How does a person with such potential fall so low? How did my brother, who had every advantage, end up homeless, at times incarcerated, and addicted to drugs? How did I escape the same fate? After all, we have the genetics of siblings. We grew up in the same home with the same alcoholic father, who abandoned us as teens. I have such guilt that it isn't me, succumbed to his fate. What right do I have to live a life free of such things in a suburban bubble? How did I get lucky and he did not?
When we were kids, we played in our neighborhood, pretending to be superheroes and football stars and Masters of the Universe. We helped each other cross the treacherous creek in the woods at the end of our neighborhood, never once letting the other fall into the perilous depths rushing beneath the log bridge. I once made him wear a dress and pretend to be Laura Ingalls to my Mary during my Little House on the Prairie obsession. He cried - he didn't want to be a boy in a dress - but he went along with it for me. A favorite game was pulling either end of my Stretch Armstrong doll, just waiting for the other to let go, sending the one who waited too long tumbling head over feet across the grass. He was an excellent athlete, good-looking, and collected friends as easily as giant snowflakes falling from the sky. Everyone fell under his spell.
A story my mother told everyone who would listen - almost as a mantra to prove to herself that her drug-addicted son could overcome all his demons - was the time when he walked forward, tugging my Pop by the hand, at a Billy Graham convention to accept the Lord into his life. "He walked forward at Billy Graham," she said. "He walked forward." As the years went on, her voice sometimes faltered during this story, but she remained steadfast in her support and belief that he would hear and remember and return to being that earnest boy proclaiming his faith in front of thousands.
At the lowest moments, I screamed at him just to stop. Just don't call the drug dealer. Just don't jab that needle into yourself. Just. Don't. I saw it as a choice he was making, not as the all-consuming need that I now understand addiction to be. Society will see his death as just another criminal junkie gone, and good riddance. They don't know that he was a son loved fiercely by a mother. That he made such an impression on people that they remember him 25 years after high school and seek me out to ask how he is and tell me stories of what he got up to as a kid. That the impact of his choices affected all of them, too. That he was a talented chef who once cooked for former president Barack Obama when he was chosen to cater the DNC National Convention in Denver. That when he was clean he made an indelible stamp on the world and on the hearts of everyone he touched. That he loved dogs and the wide open sky of the west. That "criminal junkie" did not define all of who he was.
And yet that part of him defined how everyone around him behaved. We loved and feared and pitied and cursed him. Breath caught in our throats every time the phone rang, waiting for news of him, good or bad. He spent as much time in rehab as he did incarcerated, and always went back, finding and using the drugs that must have, for poached moments, given him relief from the inner turmoil that ruled him and his behavior.
His death devastates me in a way I did not anticipate. I expected, when this call inevitably came, that I would react with tight-lipped stoic resignation and carry on. Instead, I curl up and weep for the loss of his life. For the loss of his talent, charisma, and my own hope that he would someday recover. May you rest in peace, my brother.
Today, I had my first book signing at a fantastic bookstore in Indianapolis, Indy Reads Books on Mass Ave. Go there, if you haven't, and support a local business!
Anyway, as I set up my little books and all my fun promotional items, my inherent insecurity kicked in. Was I too fat to entice anyone to buy my books? (the photos say YES) Are my books actually a little dumb? What if nobody came? I found myself feeling the need to apologize, pack up, and run.
Then, they started coming. Friendly faces of people I love and who were there to support me and my big dreams of being an internationally recognized author (is that really so much to ask?). Former and current coworkers came. Fellow Dance Moms came. My BFF and old high school friends came. They did not scoff. They did not laugh. They did not seem to mind my girth. They forked over their hard-earned cash to purchase the Cate books and proudly carried them away in my special Cate-emblazoned bags. They asked for selfies. They cheerily chose a favorite Flair pen color for me to use to sign the novels. For two hours, there was a steady stream of people who went out of their way on a Saturday to see me and give a hug and words of encouragement.
Then I thought about how very lucky I am to have these people, this tribe. They overlook my flaws and focus on my strengths. I can learn a lot from them all. I tend to be abrasive and was told recently that I'm negative much of the time. My answer to her was that I'm positive that I don't like most people. It was a joke, of course, but then I realized I don't often go out of my way to support people like friends did for me today. I stay in my bubble and focus on my perceived imperfections. After today, I'm going to make a concerted effort to go out of that zone and help others feel as important as I did today.
And the best part? Ron Swanson came for a visit (courtesy of dear Julie). He approves of the books and thinks you should help me in my quest for the domination of the independent book world!
Visit the "Cate Books" page on this site if you want to be on the cutting edge of the Catevolution!
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and teacher of gifted middle school students. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.