My sister-in-law posted an old photograph that she had found of my brother on Facebook a few days ago … and it broke my heart. Not a normal reaction, right?
In the picture my brother looked young, happy, carefree. It was my favorite kind of photo: a candid. He wasn’t looking at the camera, I don’t even think he was aware that he was being photographed. He was lost in the moment, smiling, laughing. His long red hair was blowing in the breeze and he was lean and tan and healthy and strong.
This was before he was married, before he was a father of two and before he threw his life all away — with both hands.
Do you know much about it? I didn’t. I still don’t — other than the fact that it has impacted my family in a very real and raw and in-your-face kind of way.
I don’t understand how you can put a chemical above your family. I don’t understand the addiction, the cravings, the desperation, the withdrawals — I don’t understand any of that. But my ignorance on the subject has not saved me (or my family) from being affected.
My brother, right now, is in jail because of heroin. No. Scratch that. My brother, right now, is in jail because of the choices he made in search of (or to pay for) his next fix — of heroin.
And I’m angry.
I’m angry that my little brother is in jail. I’m angry that his kids have a junkie as a father, I’m angry that as his sister I’m supposed to support him in all things — but all I want to do is rip his head off.
I’m angry that when I had my chance to tell him how I felt when I visited him during my vacation in Michigan, I didn’t do any of that and instead all I did was chat with him about Game of Thrones episodes, promise to send him more books and mumble platitudes. I pretended to appreciate his cockiness at jail-life not bothering him when all I wanted to do was reach through that glass window and shake his shoulders shouting “You are not cool! There’s nothing cool about this! You are ruining your family and you’re breaking our mother’s heart!”
But I didn’t say any of that to him.
When I returned to my mom’s house after visiting hours were over, I secluded myself in their pole barn and raided my step-father’s beer fridge. I sat on the bumper of some vehicle he’s fixing up and I downed a couple of brews, trying to settle my nerves and just letting the tears stream down my face.
I said aloud all of the angry words I wanted to (but didn’t) say to him. I re-enacted our visit in my mind, correcting all the things that upset me. I came up with the perfect speech that I should have recited — that he never heard. Because the truth is that I failed my brother — not just during that visit, but a long time ago.
He was a sweet kid. Bookish. Nerdy. And I was cruel. I made fun of him when I should have praised him. I pushed him away when I should have included him. I was a mean older sister.
But I loved him. Didn’t he know that? I thought he did, but now I’m not so sure.
During one of our conversations that night after my visit to the jail my mother burst into tears saying “He’s still your brother!”
I countered with: “No, he’s not. I don’t know who that is.”
I was shocked at the words I had spoken, but couldn’t find it in myself to take them back. As heartless as they sounded, that’s how I felt — but I’m not supposed to talk about it. No one is supposed to talk about it.
When my grandfather died earlier this year, my brother’s absence was explained by telling family that he had “just started a new job” — a lie made even sadder because everyone knew the truth, they were just too nice to say anything. When another family member’s baby was kept in the hospital for weeks after he was born for “health reasons” — again, everyone knew, but no one talked.
I’m tired of not talking about it.
And if this is happening in my family, I know it’s happening in others.
Don’t be silent, don’t be accommodating, don’t do what I did. I was wrong. I should have stood up. I should have said something. I should have been a champion for his wife and kids. I should have been a better sister. I failed.
But I won’t again.
I’m through pretending everything’s OK. I done lying and making excuses as to why my brother is not in the picture. I’m finished with smiling and nodding my way through family engagements. And the next time someone asks me why my brother isn’t involved in (whatever) — I’ll tell them: it’s because a needle in the arm was more important.
But as angry as I am right now, I also have hope for the future. I hope one day I can promise him other things like: When he gets out and stays clean, I promise never to judge him or base his worth on past addictions. I promise to make sure that he knows that he’s important and loved. I promise to never speak ill of him in front of his kids.
And maybe, someday, that carefree kid captured in that photograph will come back. Maybe I’ll get to see him looking lean and tan and healthy and strong one more time. Maybe he’ll grow his hair back out and I’ll get get to see it blowing in the breeze.
I hope so.
Kasie Strickland is a staff writer for The Easley Progress and The Pickens Sentinel and can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.