The phone call was the same as every other one from what I could tell. I was eating dinner while I overheard my mother's conversation, she made no attempt to hide who or what she was talking about--she gave that up long ago. I listened in an impervious state, I was more concerned with how much barbecue sauce would be necessary to drown out the dry, bitter taste of the pork chops that my mother had cooked. From the pace of the conversation, it didn’t sound like another jail sentence--maybe he overdosed again.
“What do you mean I have to come there? That’s not going to happen, I have work. Unlike him, some of us are actually doing things with our lives.” Her already frustrated tone got more intense. I got secondhand embarrassment and felt bad for whatever nurse, doctor or rehab therapist was on the other end.
“Can I send his sister instead? What do you mean, no? She’s family that should be good enough, isn’t that what you people want? Look, this isn’t our first rodeo, sweetheart. I already know everything you’re planning on telling me and my idiot son is not going to change anytime soon”
I withheld the urge to groan. Having just passed my license test a couple of months ago, my mother had forced me to run all her errands. Grocery store trips, picking my younger sister up from daycare and handling all her bank deposits were just a couple of my new found ‘responsibilities’. Within a few moments of continued arguing with the person on the other line, my mother hung up bitterly.
“Your brother pulled another one of his stunts” She said, as if I didn’t already know. I continued to ignore her, trying to enjoy the less than savory taste of barbecue-sodden pork chops, as she began her rant. I knew every form of it, the abridged and uncut versions, and could recite it word for word in an accurate impression of her voice.
“He’s an idiot, ruined his whole life and he’s only twenty two...I’ve given him everything and this is how he repays me...He’s just like his father...Good, I hope he does overdose again...He’ll never learn his lesson...He needs to be locked up for the rest of his life, that would do him good.”
Her spiel was really just fragments of other arguments that she had once had with him, it was her way of letting out her frustration, arguing with an imaginary version of him. I was mindful of this and usually let her vent. It was only when she accused me of acting like him that I would become defensive. The endless variations of “You’re acting like your brother” were the worst type of insult to me. While, to my mother, he was the reason for everything that had ever gone wrong in her life, to me, he was a cautionary tale. He had ceased being a person to me long ago; he was just a lesson to learn from now. All the times my friends had tried to goad me into experimenting in the drug realm, ‘just the light stuff, ya know?’, I steered clear. My future would not be washed-up twenty two year old drug addict.
After my mother had finished her rant, she finally got to the dreaded point: “I need you to go handle it.”
There was no point in arguing with her, it was always useless. Hopelessly resigning to my latest assignment, I inquired as to the details of my mission.
“What did he do this time?”
“That’s the thing, they say they won’t tell me over the phone. Probably some stupid, fresh-out-of-college nurse who wants to do everything by the books. Whatever, I don’t have time to put up with his crap. Just go and nod your head at everything they say and then get out of there so they stop calling me. If they end up releasing him or whatever, just make don’t let him come home with you--not after last time. And whatever you do, DO NOT GIVE THEM ANY MONEY. That’s the last thing I need, to get stuck paying off his rehab fees or have out health insurance bills sky rocket because of him...and Mrs.Anderson called, she said she can’t watch Casey past seven, don’t forget to pick her up!”
She quickly handed me a sticky note with the address of wherever I was going on it, and, upon hearing several blaring beeps from her boyfriend’s car, ran out the door to get a ride to work. Giving up on my dinner, I tossed it in the garbage barrel and made my way into the driveway to start my mother’s worn out 1997 Chevy Cavalier. By looking at the digital green numbers, I realized that there was no way I would be able to sort out my brother’s issue and get back in time to pick up my sister; she would have to come with me.
After making the small detour to pick Casey up from our neighbor, we were on the highway. I focused on the open road, trying to ignore the fact of how angry I was. My brother always did this, he had no clue how his actions effected everyone else. He didn’t even realize how much everything he had done had effected me. My eyes darted to the rear-view mirror to see Casey, staring out the window in wonder. I felt worst of all for her. My brother didn’t even care that his youngest sister barely remembered who he even was.
The last time my mother had allowed him to come back to our house was for my sister’s second birthday party. He seemed fine for the first hour or so--but I probably only thought this because I wanted him to be ‘just fine’ more than anything and I would do just about anything to excuse his behavior. It was by the second or third hour that he tried to shoot up with heroin and started a fist fight with my mother’s boyfriend when he was found out. I just watched helplessly as this all happened, holding Casey tight in my arms and trying to distract her with her presents. That was the last time Casey had been around him, maybe it was a good thing that she barely remembered him.
Gripping the steering wheel with rage, I tried to keep the thoughts out of my mind. I told myself long ago that he wasn’t worth an emotional reaction. After only a couple minutes of driving, Casey’s babbling had started growing annoying. I turned the radio up to drown her out. It only took flipping through a couple stations before I heard the intro to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. Flashbacks flooded my memory and I couldn’t help myself from smiling.
When I was ten, I thought I was a great singer but I was inhumanely shy. The only time I would sing in front of other people was when my brother played the guitar, he seemed to be the only one to encourage me. He was sixteen and, after years of playing Guitar Hero on expert level, he decided to pick up the real thing only to realize that he was actually quite talented. He usually only listened to rap and hip-hop, his aspiration in life was always to be a multi-millionaire rapper, but after his Guitar Hero phase, he had an appreciation for rock music. “Sympathy for The Devil” was my favorite song that he knew how to play because it had all these historical references and big words in it and I hoped to one day find out what they all meant. As I drove down the highway, belting out the words causing Casey to giggle, I realized that knowing wasn’t all that great.
The song brought back a hole slew of memories that I had been trying to suppress for several years. There was that one time, my brother must have been about fifteen, when he was smoking a cigarette on the broken picnic table in the backyard. He had been smoking for two or so years by then and my mother had given up trying to get him to stop. She just yelled at him to do it outside. Trying to be funny, I bought a cartoon of candy cigarettes from the dollar store and sat down next to him, pretending to smoke it. He laughed but he also said that if he ever caught me actually smoking, he’d kill me. We sat and talked about life for a while but when Mom came outside and saw me with the fake cigarette dangling out of my mouth, she was irate.
I tried to forget these things ever happened, good and bad. I tried to forget that I even had a brother. I tried to bury him in anger. He made a promise to me, when we were younger, that when he was eighteen, he would take me away from our impossible-to-please mother and he would get a house and I could stay there with him. You can’t buy a house when you spend all your money getting high.
I pulled into the parking lot of the address that my mother had given me. It was a rehabilitation facility. It seemed like he got arrested again and the court had sentenced him to rehab. While I unhooked Casey from her car seat, a knot formed in my stomach. I dreaded the thought of having to talk to him.
My memory brought me back to one Christmas, a couple years ago. My
brother just showed up at our house, we had no idea he was coming. He gave me a hug, I knew something was wrong. He kept fiddling with the sleeves of his shirt, trying to pull it down to cover the obvious, purple needle marks in his forearms. He asked me for money--he knew I had got some because it was Christmas, but I told him no anyways. He got so angry that he punched a hole in the kitchen wall. The look in his eyes was something I’d never forget, they were wild--like an animal being cornered. The thought of my brother--this new brother, not the one who had played the guitar with me and promised to take care of me, was repulsive.
Holding Casey on my hip, I walked across the dull parking lot. The grim, murky sky above us was the only reason that I realized that it gotten pretty late. I smiled down at Casey in my arms, only now had she started asking questions.
“What are we doing, Alex? Where are we going, Alex?”
I struggled with the response. I fumbled with finding an explanation to give a four year old.
“We’re going to see if Carl needs anything”
“Carl?...Carl?...Carly? Carl? Whose Carl?” She sang giggly.
“He’s our brother, sweetie.”
Feeling the gush of wind as I pulled open the door, I was overcome with the feeling of uneasiness once more. This wasn’t the first rehab facility I had come to, and I didn’t think it would be my last, but each gave me the same level of discomfort. Everything was always so bright inside; the walls were always coated in radiant, burning white or irradiated, sickly yellow. I thought these types of places should be comforting, isn’t that what the people inside would need to encourage them to get clean?
There weren’t that many people around, just one other family it seemed like. A middle-aged woman with a tangled mess of black hair was hunched over, broken, weeping excessively. The rest of her family was huddled around her, trying to console her: first timer. I remembered the feeling, as distant as it seemed. Feeling like your whole world was crashing down, asking yourself all these questions about what went wrong and where, blaming yourself for not being there--I shuddered at the memory.
“I’m here about Carl Rodgers. We got a call at my house…” I spoke calmly to the lady at the front window. She looked at me apprehensively, then looked at Casey in my arms.
“l-let me call in his therapist” She stuttered on her words. Sadly, my mother was probably right. She probably was just a fresh-out-of-college employee.
“You can have a seat, she’ll be with you in a moment” the receptionist said, this time with more composure. A seventeen year old girl with a four year old in her arms couldn’t have been the strangest thing she had seen in this place.
I put Casey in the seat next to and gave her my wallet so she would stop getting fussy. She didn’t seem to like this place as much as I did. The presumable mother in the seats on the other side of the room was still sobbing. I tried to keep from staring but I just couldn’t. When Carl first overdosed, he was eighteen. To the extent of my memory, it was Oxycontin but there were so had been so many other drugs over the years that it was hard not to get them confused. The first time he overdosed, he came home right after he got out of the hospital. My mother mercilessly chastised him for weeks, it was brutal to watch. After this, he didn’t last long before he had moved out and started using again. The first in a series of many relapses.
“Is someone here for Carl Rodgers?” a bony, pale woman in a dark sweater inquired. The sobbing mother in the corner of the room quickly darted her tear-stained face out of her hands and then, upon realizing that the therapist was here because of my brother, shoveled her head back into her hands and continued weeping.
“uh, me” I said, awkwardly, raising my hand in response to her question. She seemed intimidating and the sound of Casey jangling my keys filled the room with irritating noise.
“You’re not his mother?”
“No, I’m his sister. My mother’s at work, she couldn’t come.”
The skeletal therapist rolled her cloudy, dark eyes at this. Putting up with the families seemed to be worse than putting up with the junkies for her.
“I really need your mother to come up here. She needs to be the one to handle this. Come back with her.” She spoke in monotone, and quickly turned away from me.
“No offense, miss, but if I leave, no one’s coming back here. My mother couldn’t care less about what’s going on with Carl and if you’re looking for money, you’ll have to drag her to court before she pays a dime.”
This got her attention and she abruptly turned on her heel, this time with less venom in her approach. She seemed to look guilty for giving me the attitude that she had apparently intended on directing at my mother. Her long legs were clothed in dark black pants and they made a subtle swishing noise when she walked back to me.
“Sister? Can I see some ID?”
I pried my wallet out of my sister’s hands, she read it and her face grew even less menacing; she just looked tired at this point.
“Alexandria Rodgers? And you’re seventeen?” She asked, a sense of smooth solemnity in her voice, I nodded in response. She stared at my sister for a moment before speaking to me again.
“The last few group therapy sessions, Carl seemed very distressed. I know he mentioned trying to reach out to you and your mother but he said he felt shut out. He talked about how isolated and weak he felt. There was a lot of self-hate in his voice when he was speaking.”
“That’s probably part of the withdrawals. When did the court sentence him here? He’ll be back at it soon enough, I can imagine-- then he’ll be feeling more like himself.” More like the new Carl, nothing like the old one.
“The court didn’t mandate that Carl be sent here, he committed himself. When he came in, he was determined. He said he wanted to get clean more than anything. He just wasn’t strong enough to do it on his own...”
She furrowed her faint eyebrows, distraught by the fact that I didn’t know Carl committed himself. It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t know. It’s not like this magically got rid of everything he had done in the past five years. It’s not like he wasn’t going to relapse again. I gave up on getting the old Carl back somewhere between the third overdose and when he brought heroin to a four year old’s birthday party.
“So?” I said, defensively, making poor attempts to hide any emotions I might have felt. This was the only way I knew how to handle myself.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this…”
My heart began pounding, jack-hammering, itself in my chest. He finally did it, he finally pushed himself to the limit and now he’s gone. I told myself I didn’t care, but that couldn’t stop the lump in my throat, which felt like invisible hands squeezing gently around my neck, and the tears, filling the wells in my eyes.
“We found him in his room this morning.”
The tears started dribbling out of my eyes. Old Carl or New Carl, it didn’t matter, they were both gone. I looked away from Casey, I didn’t want her to see me like this.
“What did he OD on?” I choked out. The nurse was sympathetic, comforting, everything I needed at that moment.
“He didn’t...He hung himself.”