Pausing to wipe the dust from my eyes in a dirty storage unit jam-packed with memories and mementos last Saturday, I soon added a few tears to the mix when I was suddenly struck by a sad reality: After more than 78 years of learning, loving, writing and collecting, my mother’s history had come down to three hours.
That’s how much time my sister, Karen, and I had to salvage whatever was important to us when the manager of the storage company where we’d stashed our mom’s belongings after she moved into a care center finally decided she’d had enough of our alcoholic, meth-using brother. Whatever we couldn’t get before closing time, she said, would have to be hauled away to the city dump.
I thought about renting a truck and taking everything to another storage unit, but our mother didn’t want that. I’d planned to get together with my siblings later this spring to sort through everything anyway, in a careful and orderly fashion. Karen and I didn’t have that option last weekend, but we didn’t blame the storage manager. We understood her anger and frustration. If anyone could manage to get evicted from a pre-paid storage unit, it was my brother.
When I received a phone call from the manager, advising me to come and retrieve my mom’s belongings because my brother had broken the expensive lock on their mechanical gate after staying past closing hours and getting locked in — not once, but twice — I have to confess that I wasn’t surprised.
For more than 30 years, I have dealt with my younger brother’s appalling, addiction-fueled behavior, beginning with the time he “bought” my old VW Beetle with the promise to make payments (he didn’t — instead, he sold it and kept the cash) to the time he left a bunch of messages on my home phone threatening to kill me and my husband and blow up city hall (I called the police and he spent two months in jail), to the day just a few months ago when he showed up in a rage at our mother’s care center, high on meth, and came after me.
Although I thought he might actually try to kill me, I stood my ground then and I’m standing my ground now. So much so, in fact, that I’ve decided to write about it, damn the consequences. I know there are countless others who have experienced the same horror and heartache of having an addict in the family, and if I can let them know they’re not alone, it’s worth it to me. Besides, writing has always been my way of working things out. It’s my therapy.
It’s important to note that things weren’t always so bad with my brother. Even now, there are glimpses of the gentle, softhearted person who left a box of chocolate cherries on my doorstep last Christmas Eve when he couldn’t afford them, because our grandfather used to give us each our own box every Christmas. Or the brother who I spotted softly reading “One Writer’s Beginnings” to our mother one night, and the brother who purchased a $2 Goodwill copy of Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” and left it in her room at the care center for my husband last month, so that Russell would know he was thinking about him after his heart surgery.
“My favorite book — thanks for grading my English and being a companion and friend to ‘C,'” he wrote inside the front cover. “Peace, M.”
When I look at the book now on our end table, I want to smile and cry at the same time. I love my brother, but I don’t like him. I miss him, but I can’t bear to be around him when he is drunk or high. I want to help him, but he refuses to acknowledge that he has a serious problem — one that will eventually take his life.
When my mother (aka “Snowy Owl Woman”) suddenly lost her mobility and required a care center in late 2017, it was hard on everyone in my family. As I’ve written before, she nearly died from low potassium when she was sent into hospice with a wrong diagnosis of sepsis. But perhaps nobody struggled more than my brother, the third of we four siblings. My mother had taken him in several years before, knowing full well that he was an alcoholic with a drug problem who couldn’t hold down a regular job and had a long trail of evictions (at least 30) for not paying his rent.
They worked out a deal: he would run errands for her, fix things up around the house and take care of the yard, and she would let him live with her. It would have been fine, except for my brother’s addictions. As it turned out, they enabled each other. And when we had to move our mother’s belongings into storage and put the house up for sale (it cost more than $6,000 for a company to clean up the meth residue), my brother took up residence in the garage and refused to move out until finally, as my mother’s power of attorney, I had to deliver an eviction notice.
I’ll never forget that chilly early spring night, when my husband and I taped a notice to the front door of the house. Suddenly, the garage door opened and there stood my brother, illuminated in the driveway like Freddy Krueger. All he needed was a chainsaw to make my nightmare complete.
But then, something unexpected happened.
“Cathy — I’m sorry. I know that I deserve this. Don’t worry — I’ll be finding an apartment soon.” He hugged me and I burst into tears. “Please, please — get the help you need,” I told him for probably the 20th time. “I’ll go with you to detox and help you to get some counseling. We’ll all help you get through it. But you have to want to do it.”
“Yeah, I know,” he replied. “But I don’t think I need that. I’ll be OK. Don’t worry.” Then he changed the subject. “What a beautiful night — look at that starry sky,” he said as we all tilted our heads back to take it in. “Remember when we were kids and Mom taught us about the constellations? Those were fun times.”
I couldn’t help think of our childhood last Saturday as my sister and I looked through the pieces of our mother’s past, jammed into a 10-by-20 storage unit, along with my brother’s belongings. Evicted from his latest apartment the month before, he’d been spending his days at the storage unit between odd jobs, and his nights in the van I’d signed over to him, knowing that he’d need it. He’d sent me, my sister and my other brother a rambling text and a photo of a dark and snowy landscape a few days afterward, telling us that he was enjoying the night, looking at trees and drinking whiskey at a golf course. He’d parked the van behind a fire station near one of the apartments my mom had rented when we were kids.
“I love fire stations — this is where my life is at now,” he wrote. “I got my philosophies — you got yours. We all need to get together.”
He was lonely. We all knew that. After my mom’s health crisis, I tried to include him in my family’s traditions, making sure that he got Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner and a present or two. But his addictions had worsened. It became difficult to carry on a normal conversation with him about anything. That reality made it even more difficult for me and my sister as we opened one box after another in the storage unit last weekend to quickly sort through the things that meant the most to us and our mother.
Signs of my little brother were everywhere: cigarette butts littered the floor, his sleeping bag, books and CDs were piled in a jumble with the clothes and household items he planned to retrieve after we left; and a small American flag fluttered from a luminary vase that our mother had made from a coffee can. It was the same flag he’d displayed in the garage next to one of his favorite keepsakes — a painting of a young Abe Lincoln that had hung in his bedroom as a child.
It was difficult to put those memories aside as Karen and I worked on deadline to save what we could. We’d already stored our mother’s most important valuables in our homes during the move. But should we keep her collection of sage smudge sticks or toss them? (Karen took a few.) What about the Christmas snow globes that her six grandchildren loved to play with when they were little? (I couldn’t imagine them going to the landfill.) How about her favorite dishes and miniature porcelain boxes? (We each selected several.) We uncovered a few personal treasures as well: Karen came across a silver locket with her baby picture inside, and I found a drawing my son had done when he was 6 of his Grandpa Clint.
After posing for a selfie inside the storage unit, we loaded everything into our cars and fought back tears, knowing that we were leaving so much of our mother’s life — and ours — behind. But as our mom had said before our expedition: “They’re just things. They can be replaced. They don’t matter like memories do.”
So besides some beloved knickknacks, photos and scrapbooks, I drove away with my mother’s UFO book collection; a treasured set of illustrated dictionaries and poetry books that I’d enjoyed thumbing through as a girl; an antique brass bud vase that my mom had used for 60 years; a snowy owl needlepoint that she didn’t finish (I’m hoping she’ll take it up again); piles of mysteries that I know she’ll enjoy rereading; three mint-condition manual typewriters, including the one that my mother took with her into the woods in the 1980s to live in a tent and work on her first novel, and dozens of files filled with typed pages and notes for a second novel that I didn’t know she had written.
“What’s the book about, Mom?” I asked her that night when I visited to report on what we had rescued. My mother’s cheeks flushed, then she smiled.
“It’s about a woman who leaves her boring life in the suburbs to become a telephone sex worker in Las Vegas,” she deadpanned. We laughed and laughed.
Mother! Who knew?
Before I left her that night, she reached for my hand and told me there was something else that she wanted me to do.
“When I pass away,” she said, “I hope you will still include your little brother in your family gatherings and take him out to dinner now and then. I hate to think of him being alone.”
My eyes filled with tears. “It’s hard, Mom,” I replied, “but I’ll try. I promise that I will do what I can, if he’ll let me.”
I don’t like him, but I love him. He’s my brother.