I loved him, but I was tired.
Tired of worrying about where he was, when or if he was coming back. I was tired of checking pawnshop records for the family VCR, tired of sleeping with my house and car keys tucked under my pillow, tired of negotiating with drug dealers to buy my own car back. I was tired of scrounging up bail money, lending him bus fare and watching him casually take the last drag off my last cigarette.
My brother Donnie was an addict.
He was neither a world-class athlete nor a reality television star, and you’ll never hear his name in the news. But like Lamar Odom, he was somebody’s son, somebody’s husband and somebody’s father. From the day I was born, when he was 9 years old, until the day he died in 2005, my brother loved me in full. And, no matter how tired I got, I never stopped trying to save his life.
I would not, could not let him go.
Donnie was the eldest of my siblings. He taught me how to drive a car, press my jeans and even how to shoot dice. When I was getting pushed around in school, he taught me how to fight. Good-hearted and generous when he wasn’t hopped up on something, Donnie was despondent and sometimes inconsolable when he had a belly full of liquor. He talked a lot about pain and fear when he was high. He tearfully recalled the years that my father beat him mercilessly with an extension cord or punched him so hard that his tiny chest caved in. Functionally illiterate, he sometimes lamented the effects of the lead poisoning that stole his ability to get an education.
If only for a little while, the drugs made everything OK. A cold beer on Sunday always led to something else. Marijuana was his therapist and crack cocaine was his psychologist.
For him, there was never a fancy rehabilitation center or even court-ordered counseling. Never having worked a full-time job for more than a few months at a time, and never earning any more than minimum wage, Donnie never had health insurance. Mama’s sofa was his only safety net. Every so often, desperate for the next hit, the next high, Donnie would invariably land himself in a county lock-up.
In 1995, the morning after Thanksgiving, he stole my car and, for the first time, I pressed charges. After six months or so in jail, he came home clean, sober, and ready to start anew. Upon release, he was ordered to pay restitution. I got ten dollars in the mail from the State of Georgia when he was working and nothing when he was not. We believe he contracted HIV while in jail. Donnie was diagnosed a year after his release when he submitted to court-ordered blood and urine tests.
When he died, alone in a hospice bed 10 years later, I watched it all break our mother down in ways that I cannot fully number and name. I could hear her say, without words, that she had not been enough. I remember now the terror in her eyes the day he flipped the family car a few doors down from our house. Bloodied from head-to-toe, he stumbled along the street until he dropped to his knees on the front lawn. It was a fear that never seemed to leave her.
Loving an addict means always being scared and tired. There were days when I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t leave him. I could not stop loving him. No matter how tired I was, no matter how scared, I could not stop fighting for him—even when he refused to fight for himself.
Even so, I know now that I blamed Donnie. I blamed him for our mother’s pain, for the disease that ravaged his body, for the nights I spent searching the streets for my car. I blamed him when Mama was forced to pawn her wedding rings to get him out of jail. I blamed his nose-dive into the deep, watery culture of casual sex and easy drugs, the never-ending struggle to keep a minimum wage job for more than a few weeks at a time, the not so infrequent thievery.
As I stood to give my brother’s eulogy, I decided to tell them about the man who had a knack for laughter, but who until he was in his last days had failed to remember birthdays. I told the congregation of the first and only gift he had ever given to me, the first and only time he ever wished me a happy birthday. In July 2005, before he fell ill for the last time, he begged me to come home from a business trip and presented me with a modest diamond ring. I suppose he knew he was going to die. There came a time, shortly after my birthday, when he seemed indifferent to that fate.
“Give me some sugar,” he whispered one morning.
My brother had never once kissed me in my entire life. Along the drive to work, I realized the gravity of the request and turned the car around. By the time I got back to the hospice, he was gone.