My older brother Ken dropped out of high school and was married to a lovely girl at the age of 19. After 2 years of marriage, they got a divorce. He never had any kids. I had always been relieved about that.
He continued to live on a shoestring budget, getting high, playing in bands and taking odd jobs, like driving a van for a dry cleaner, until he got in an accident in the van and totaled it. He also fell asleep once while driving at night and totaled his car. It was a miracle he wasn’t badly hurt.
After a few years, I mostly saw Ken only at Christmastime, both at my mom’s house and my dad’s house. He was stoned a lot and would show up at my mom’s for an hour or so on Christmas Eve. My mom would scurry around for hours beforehand, cleaning and making appetizers. She was nervous and excited to see all of her kids in the same room again. Once my older brother and sister showed up, she would wait on them like a servant. When she’d go in the kitchen they’d moan about how fake she was and expressed an “I can barely tolerate this” the whole time they were there. It was always a heart break for me. One year I told them that she was trying really hard to make things nice for them, and they were being jerks. They just looked at me with disdain.
I always gave each of them a gift at Christmas and cards on birthdays, even though it was never reciprocated. I had a hope that some day Ken would emerge into the person I knew he had the potential of being. I knew that beneath that dark exterior there was something very special. He was an excellent musician – he played in a rock band that was well-known in Milwaukee. He shined when he was on stage. I never saw anyone smile as much as he did when he was performing. He was magnetic. He played bass, sang harmonies and took the lead once in a while. I found out the band was playing at a bar in the town I was going to college my freshmen year. (In Wisconsin, the drinking age was 18 when I was a kid.) I got my friends together and we filled the dance floor. He was really surprised that I came out and brought people to see him. (It just occurred to me that maybe he forgot that I was going to school there – and that’s why he was so surprised!) I was really proud of him. I knew it was his dream to be a musician, and he was living it. They had recorded an album and it was selling well locally. But after being in this band for several years, he got fired. They got tired of him not showing up (and who knows what else). The final straw happened when the band called him and said, “Ken, where are you? We’re all here at the gig waiting on you.”
“We’re not playing there until Wednesday,” he responded.
“Ken, it is Wednesday.”
That was the end of his dream job. He had played with them for several years. It wasn’t long after that, that things started to go downhill for him.
My older brother’s story ended tragically, but not as bad as I had feared. At some point in his young adult life, he became soft spoken, probably because he was stoned most of the time. But there was an edge to him underneath the surface. Any time I was with him, I felt that at any point he might explode into a rage. I had never seen him do that, but I felt the current of anger quietly raging underneath the calm and sweet exterior. I entrusted my fears to my sister one day. She still hung out with him from time and time and stayed in close contact with him. I told her I was afraid of him.
“Afraid of Ken?” she replied.
“Yes. Promise me you won’t tell him.”
“I’m afraid one day he’s going to show up at mom’s house with a gun, and go on a shooting rampage, killing everyone.”
“He would never do that,” she said with confidence. “If anything, he would kill himself, but he wouldn’t hurt anyone else.”
I didn’t believe her. I trusted my intuition.
At the next Christmas gathering, when we were saying our goodbyes, Ken came over to give me a hug. He leaned in and whispered in my ear in a quiet, creepy voice, “I heard you’re afraid of me.”
“What?” I repeated, as if I didn’t hear him because what he said had no importance. I was trying to buy myself a little time to navigate this exchange and gain composure. Inside, I was freaking out.
“Leslie told me you’re afraid of me.” He looked at me and smiled as he continued to whisper. “You don’t need to be afraid of me, I’m your brother. We’re blood – you know, family – blood is thicker than water, you know. Like for example, if I needed to borrow some money or something, you’d loan it to me.”
Money?! I thought to myself. What the heck... Who was this guy? Certainly not “family” the way I define family. I decided my best bet was to focus on the money comment.
“Money isn’t all that important. After all, you can’t take it with you.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Was he really this dumb?” I thought.
“You know – money – when you die, you can’t take it with you,” trying to infuse him with the knowledge that money isn’t everything.
His whole demeanor changed. He went from threatening me, to his own little world, contemplating. Then he looked at me with a hint of respect. “Wow,” he said a little bit louder and firmer. “That’s a really good one.” He kept nodding his head up and down, thinking out loud, “I never thought of that before. Thanks, Julie.”
I was dumbfounded. I never met anyone who had never heard that expression before, but it was as if a light went on in his head. It was strange to see him go from menacing and threatening, to pure thought and distraction. I breathed a sigh of relief, and told myself to never reveal any other fears or thoughts that were close to my heart to my sister. I knew she wasn’t to be trusted, but this was the worst infraction so far.
At that time he had an apartment that was less than ½ a mile from my mom’s house. (I don’t know the history of how he ended up there. It was where our step-grandmother lived, and I think he took the apartment over when she passed away. He didn’t stay there for long.) That night, Leslie went to his apartment with him after our Christmas gathering. He got really drunk and beat the crap out of her, leaving many bruises. Apparently it had happened before, but this was the first time I heard about it. My intuition of the underlying rage had been confirmed.
Ken had moved back to Milwaukee, about 35 minutes from my mom’s house. That’s when he eventually lost his job playing with the band and barely had a thing to his name. He had started working at a factory to make ends meet. In the last 3 months or so of his life, Ken started calling my mom in the middle of the night, screaming at her, telling her what a horrible mother she had been. It made her heart sick and it increased my concerns. She would hang up on him and he would call back. She would leave the phone off the hook for the rest of the night, but had to hear the distant verbal abuse in the background until the phone disconnected. She didn’t think to unplug the phone – part of her wanted to stay connected in case there was an emergency. (At least that’s what she told me.) There was so much anger and venom in his phone calls, I was truly concerned for her safety. I expressed my concerns, but she seemed to have more sadness and grief than fear for her life.
On July 3rd, my brother was discovered dead in his car in his garage. He thought it would be a great conceptual idea to be discovered on July 4th – Independence Day – thinking he was really going to find freedom. He took enough pills and booze to kill a person, but he wanted to be sure, so he ran the car in the closed garage to make sure it would be final. He was listening to music in the car while he slowly faded away. He was one month shy of his 40th birthday.
The funeral was a few days later. I think it was the landlord who discovered him, but I’m not sure. My sister, who had a moving business with her boyfriend, immediately went to his place and loaded everything up in the moving truck and locked it up “before our other brother could steal anything.” I don’t think he had many possessions, but what he did have, she kept. I know that she gave our mom his acoustic guitar, which was a basic guitar. My mom theorized that he sold his better musical instruments for drugs. I don’t know what happened to everything else.
The funeral was surreal. After an hour or so, my sister showed up drunk with her arms full, shouting, “It’s not your fault, mom. It’s not your fault!” Then she gave mom and I cassette copies of the music he was listening to as he was dying in the car, even though we both told her it was not the time for that. She was loud and abrasive. Then my other brother showed up even later in a t-shirt with cut-off sleeves and shorts – straight from the hospital after being up all night, with the birth of his baby (to a woman he never married.) He brought congratulation cigars and dragged in a big TV and VCR so he could show a video recording of one of Ken’s last days alive, sitting around a living room stoned, playing guitar. He wanted it to be part of the service. Fortunately, the funeral director convinced him that it would be better if others could watch it in another room, where it would be more intimate. It was unbelievable. Rusty said it was like being in a Fellini movie.
After the chaos of my sister and brother’s entrance, I was sitting quietly, when a young man came up to me and introduced himself as one of Ken’s friends. He looked a little rough, but I was delighted to know that Ken had a friend and told him it was nice to meet him. He started telling me about working with Ken in the factory, and what a nice guy he was. After a few minutes he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “You know, this is your fault. This is you and your family’s fault. Ken was so lonely. He didn’t have anybody. Where were you? You’re family. You’re supposed to be there for each other!”
He was angry and decided to lay it all on me. There have been a few moments in my life when I felt the powerful warrior within me decide that enough is enough. It was a strong, deliberate, energy that poured within every cell of my body. I slowly stood up from my seat and took a step forward, gazing at him with sheer intent. “How dare you,” I said firmly, but softly enough to not make a scene. “You have no idea what you’re saying.”
“In the 3 months that I’ve known him, you never called him or saw him. Not once.”
He needed hard evidence. I went basic on him.
“You have no idea how many Christmas gifts and birthday cards that I’ve given him over the years with no response, no reciprocation.” I saw his face fall. His perfect friend was becoming less of a hero to him. “You don’t know anything about this family.” I stared in his eyes, and within seconds I flooded my thoughts with 100s of memories, with the intent of giving him my perspective. I watched him begin to wilt. “You’ve known him for 3 months. You know nothing. You’re wrong and it’s not my fault.”
He broke down. Tears flooded his face. “I’m sorry,” he looked down to the ground. “You’re right, I don’t know. Really, I’m sorry.” He turned and slowly walked away.
I don’t know if Rusty was with me at that moment or not. I don’t remember him being there. But shortly after that, he came up to me and said, “Julie, you have to come with me.”
“What now?!” I thought. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, I just need you to come with me. NOW.” He was firm. He could see that I was hesitant and didn’t want to go anywhere. He took my hand and led me through the funeral home, out of the main room, down a hallway toward a side door that I didn’t know existed. I felt like I was in a daze.
He opened the door and walked me out into the parking lot. The afternoon sunlight was blinding compared to the windowless funeral home. There weren’t many cars on this side of the building, so it was pretty open. He walked me out to the middle of it and stopped. “Look up,” he said.
I looked up.
“I want you to notice the blue sky. Feel the sun on your face. Breathe in the fresh air. This is real, Julie. What’s going on in there, is not real. Come back to reality.”
The world went from grey and empty to light and life. My breath grew deeper, calmer, and peace began to wash over me. It was as if he woke me up from a very bad dream.
He saw me come back to the real world and gave me a big hug. He told me he loved me, and gratitude washed over me. He enfolded me in a love that engulfed me and sustained me for the rest of the day.
“Now we can go back in. I just needed you to know that this reality exists. What’s going on in there is insanity.”
Ken’s death surprised me but it didn’t bring me sadness. I was relieved to know that he couldn’t hurt my mom anymore – at least not in the physical sense. And I knew he couldn’t hurt anyone else anymore – no more beating up my sister or brother, no more potential for killing someone else while he was driving drunk. After his death whenever I visited my mom, she would ask me to visit his grave, which was only one or two miles from her house. She always wondered why I wouldn’t. She didn’t understand me. She wasn’t paying attention when I was a child, so she didn’t see all the terrible moments I endured with Ken. As far as I’m concerned, he wasted his life, and hurt a lot of people while living it. It’s a sad, sad story.
There are many things that shape a person’s life – the parents, the environment, the body’s chemistry, the social network, the spiritual aspects – we are all faced with different limitations, advantages and challenges. For those who know my family history, they wonder how I was the only one who “turned out ok.” I pondered that same question for years, and decided that there were a couple of big factors that made the difference for me. One factor is that I had the least amount of interaction with my parents – especially at a young age, so their influence on me was very limiting. Another factor - being the youngest, I was in a great position to watch and observe what works, what doesn’t. For instance, I learned that getting married before the age of 25 is a mistake – the odds of the marriage ending in divorce are incredibly high. People change a lot between the ages of 18 and 25. I also believe in reincarnation, and I believe I had already tried the drug and alcohol route and it ruined me in a past life. I came into this lifetime with strong predetermined ideas – absolutely no recreational drugs. My brother John reinforced it for me by his whisper that I never had to do drugs, but I believe that that was something I had a very strong conviction about already. And after watching my family members destroy their lives with their life choices of drugs and alcohol, my belief became unshakeable. I also feel that I came in with the knowledge of God. Not only a knowledge, but a relationship, and that steady stream of knowing that someone higher than these humans that were supposed to be parents, gave me peace of mind. It also gave me a solid foundation of Love – the unconditional kind; that no matter what, I would be taken care of. Maybe not always in the ways I would have liked, but always in a way that resulted in peace of mind, stronger faith, and better lasting outcomes that led me to a higher, better version of myself.
And even though we all have different conditions growing up, in the end, it’s up to each individual to create the best and highest version of ourselves. No matter what happened in the beginning, we all have the opportunity to make it a happy ending.