My earliest memory of my oldest brother growing up involves a flaccid rubber chicken that my mom brought home from her restaurant job. The chicken had yellow pocked skin, its eyes were closed and its beak was stuck wide open as if it had died mid-cluck. As a four-year-old, that chicken, with its gnarled red feet and thin, wobbly neck scared the shit out of me. My 14-year-old brother knew it and used my reactions for his personal entertainment.
When I fell asleep at night, my brother would creep into my room and tuck the rubber chicken under my arm or he’d tie it up by its neck and hang it from my bedpost. Sometimes I’d find the chicken floating belly up in the bathtub or propped up against a box of tissues on the back shelf of the toilet. Sometimes it would be laid out long and flat on its stomach on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator so it would be the first thing I’d see when I’d opened the door. My reaction to the chicken was always the same: I’d see it, cry, scream, run and my brother would be there bent over at the waist, laughing hysterically until he to was in tears.
Somewhere between the rubber chicken and incessant teasing, my brother started to really fuck up. He dropped out of high school, became hopelessly devoted to speed, fathered a child, racked up a hefty criminal record, got kicked out of the house and completely disappeared from my life.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that my brother, who swore he was clean, was allowed to move back into the house. I remember the night that he showed up at our front door with an army green duffle bag between his feet and a wiry, banged up acoustic guitar swung across his shoulder. He took one look at me and said, “Dude. You’re like a person now. Like you’re all grown and stuff.” What I wanted to say to him was, “Well if you weren’t so busy fucking up for the last 12 years then maybe you would be, too.” But instead all that came out was a stringent and snotty, “Dude? Did you just call me dude? Don’t do that again.”
My brother and I talked a lot about music during his stay. He told me the Pearl Jam concerts he’d been to and how he’d stand right in front of the speakers and let the sound blast out his eardrums. “When you listen to music,” he preached, “you gotta listen to it loud.” He played Guns and Roses’ “Mr. Brownstone” on his guitar for me. He let me read the poetry he wrote while in jail. He talked about getting clean and finding his Higher Power. But he never talked about how long he was planning to stick around or what his warrants were for. He didn’t talk about where he’d been for the last decade and I never brought up how incredibly angry I was with him for disappearing, for being an addict, for showing up out of nowhere and for pretending that everything was okay between us when we both knew it wasn’t.
Six months after he came home, my brother pawned his guitar and used the money to buy a one-way bus ticket to California. Apparently, he had a girlfriend out there and was looking to start a band with some guys he knew. But in reality he was dodging warrants and looking to hide the fact that he was still using, very heavily.
Before he disappeared, my brother pulled me aside and said, “You know, I think it was good that I wasn’t around while you were growing up. I could’ve, you know, influenced you in a bad way.”
I just looked at him and pretended that what he said wasn’t just some cheap attempt to assuage his guilt over being a shitty brother. “You know what?” I said. “You’re probably right.”
After he bolted for the West Coast, I didn’t hear from my brother for 10 years. And when I finally did hear from him, it appeared that he was, surprisingly, in a good place. So I accepted his invitation to fly me out to stay with him in California for a week. One night, after an AA meeting, over coffee, he put his ninth step to work and made amends to me. He acknowledged that he couldn’t change the past but he promised me that going forward, he would show up and be my brother. “Our relationship means the world to me,” he said. And I happily believed him.
For an entire year, we talked on the phone once a week. We sent each other birthday and Christmas cards. He gave me guy advice. We swapped horror stories about our parents and agreed that our step-mother was a nut case. He shared with me some of his most embarrassing moments as a homeless addict and I cheered on his sobriety as often as I could. We were doing so well that I hardly noticed that he was starting to slip. Soon our weekly phone calls turned into every two weeks and then three. And then at one point I couldn’t call him because he’d lost his phone, or someone stole it or he couldn’t afford to pay the bill. Eventually he came clean and told me that he’d been laid off, his roommate had kicked him out and that he’d moved in with some girl that had recently relapsed. During one of our conversations I asked him if he was using again and he adamantly replied, “Hell no!” But I wasn’t convinced. So before we hung up, I asked again.
“Can you just tell me straight up, are you using?” I asked. “I mean, are you using anything at all? Beer, liquor, pot?”
“Well, I’m not drinking or doing nothing hard,” he said. “Maybe some pot though.”
“What do you mean maybe?”
A woman’s muffled voice slipped through the commotion brewing on his end. I heard the stubble on my brother’s cheek scratch against the receiver as he turned his head. “Yo, yo…listen,” he said. “I gotta go. This ain’t my phone and all and…anyway, I’ll call you soon. Okay?”
“Yeah okay, whatever.”
“No, Dawn seriously, I’m gonna call you, promise.”
“All right then,” was all I had left to say.
A year later, I was standing in the comedy aisle of Hollywood Video on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn with a family-sized pack of Twizzlers squeezed under my arm when my phone buzzed.
“Yo, dude,” a voice said and I cringed. “It’s me.”
I huffed into the phone hard. “So, how are you?”
“Listen. I know I screwed up but there’s been a lot going on with me.”
“A lot going on with you?” I asked. “Seriously?”
“I know, I know.” His voice went limp. “But…”
“No!” I shouted. “I’ve had it with this disappearing shit you do. When you get yourself together, then you call me. Okay?” I didn’t even wait for him to answer before I hung up. I haven’t heard from him since and much like all of the other lengthy gaps in my relationship with my brother, that was also 10 years ago.
Today, I’m not afraid to admit that even after all of these years, I’m still pissed at him. But I am ashamed to admit that I’ve yet to figure out how to forgive him. I’ve followed Marianne Williamson’s advice and prayed for him. I’ve done as Louise Hay suggested and worked on my willingness to forgive with mantras. I’ve journaled, overdosed on The Serenity Prayer, pictured him as a helpless, diaper-wrapped baby and searched for the life-altering spiritual lessons that Oprah speaks so eloquently about. But instead of finding forgiveness, I’ve found nothing but frustration. So I’ve decided to embrace a less ethereal approach and accept that, for right now, I’m just not ready to forgive. Maybe that makes me an asshole. Or maybe it means that I’m not comfortable pretending that forgiveness is easy or that it can be mastered in 8 simple steps. Or maybe it means I’m afraid to admit that underneath all of my defenses and despite his warrants, the lies, the countless relapses and hollow promises, I really just miss my brother.