I wasn’t sure I would ever want to write about Chris. Not that I don’t have feelings about him and for him, because I do. It’s just that his story is… sad. This Saturday will mark the 5th anniversary of his death. Apparently, I’m ready after all.
Born on June 13, 1968, Chris is my younger brother by six years, two months and seven days. He was the baby of the family and the only son born to my parents. He had some innate gifts that were squandered when he died: he was a self taught musician, he was smart and he was the funniest person I’ve ever met. There were times when he combined all 3, and when he hit his personal trifecta, there was no one else in the room who could compete with his wit and presence. He was a memorable person. Ask anyone I know.
He had other talents as well: he was interested in other cultures, he was color blind to other races and belief systems, he loved the beach and he loved skiing. He was interesting, and he was an artist. He was a gifted wall paper hanger, and his customers loved his work. His client list was impressive and included sports figures and politicians in the DC area. He was a son, grandson, brother, husband, father, cousin and friend. Had he loved himself as much as his family and friends did, he might still be alive today.
Talking about him makes my heart hurt. You would think after 5 years, the hole there would have closed up. Despite some of the blessings in the final outcome–which I will definitely discuss below–his life and death just make me feel depressed.
Being 6 and 4 years older than our brother, yeah, Barb and I teased him. We got away with a whopper of a lie for a long time, which came back to bite us in the ass later on. Although he started out as “Barb’s baby”, he wound up being scared she would beat him up (with legitimate cause) and found himself becoming my ally. To be fair, Barb was in the Navy and left home for good at the age of 18, so proximity had a lot do with it. I lived in Virginia until 1988. Even then, he stayed close to me, was in my wedding, and found another brother in Kevin when we married. He was a really good uncle to my little girls.
Bar none, one of our biggest and funniest family stories include Chris, New Year’s Day, Wendy’s, skiing at Breckenridge and surprisingly, coffee (instead of alcohol). I can’t think about those times with him without a smile and a tear. My tears are for what could have been and should have been. In spite of the horrible choices he made, he was loved and is missed. My only consolation is that he died with a lot of my other loved ones within an 18 month span, and they are undoubtedly with each other now. Without question, 2014 and 2015 were the two worst years of my family’s life. I hope they’re having fun while the rest of us are here living and missing them. The holidays seem to make those sad feelings creep up to the surface.
Chris was a heroin addict. There. I said it.
His addiction stole everything from him. He destroyed relationships with the people he loved the most. He created hurtful drama, spun a master web of lies, and obliterated everything good in his path. He would have short periods of staying clean in between very long periods of going off the rails. I’m not here to tell you all the awful stories, and truth be told, there are way too many to elaborate. They are painful and they get in the way of the forgiveness process. You’ll just have to take my word for what it’s worth. Having a loved one who has a substance abuse addiction is a living hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s a soul sucker.
It wasn’t too difficult for me to forgive him for the general destruction he caused. I had plenty of time to expect his death as an outcome. The part that is my sticky wicket is that he never, ever made a real honest attempt to claw his way to sobriety. I never thought he should do that for us. I thought he should have tried for himself and for his daughters. Five years later, forgiving him for not trying for them is still my work in progress.
Yet, so much good has happened after his death. We all now have a good relationship with his ex-wife (which could have never happened while he was alive). My parents are close to his daughters, and they hold on to family a little bit tighter because they lost their son. At the luncheon after his funeral and burial, we all agreed to have a do-over. If you don’t believe in God’s grace, I’m here to tell you that it exists in spades. Once the profound grief passed, we were able to discuss the past with a newfound understanding. It truly was a blessing in disguise, and an unexpected happy surprise.
Actually, his death was peaceful and much kinder than what might have been. He died in a hospital surrounded by loved ones, rather than being found deceased in an alley in the District. Adriana (my sister-in-law) was the first one to verbalize how grateful she was for that. She said aloud what the rest of us were thinking.
A few things about him that I miss the most still make me feel like someone pierced my heart with an arrow. I honestly don’t know how long it will take for that feeling to lessen. Apparently, more than 5 years. Chris had a calling card with me. He would leave me voicemails that were funny and often crude or profane. I wish I had kept the last one he left for me, but it was so awful and disgusting that I just couldn’t keep it. It was one of the rare times Victoria checked voicemail when we got home and said with a deadpan expression, “Mom, it’s for you. It’s Uncle Chris.” I’ll just say that I called him back and yelled at him, reminding him I had a teenage daughter. Sheepishly, he genuinely apologized. We had a falling out the year before he died, and I never got another one of those messages. Fortunately, I did make up with him in person the week before he went into a coma in the hospital. I’m forever grateful for that opportunity. I might have been able to be with him when he died, but Val and I missed our train in Newark. I’m still sad about that. I got the call from my parents when we were barely out of New Jersey.
Chris and I shared a mutual love for hard rock. Sometimes really hard rock. When he taught himself how to play his Gibson, he would come in and play guitar riffs for me from some of our favorite bands: AC/DC (our mutual fave), Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Van Halen. I could go on. My college friends and I took him and his best friend to their first concert in 1981: AC/DC at the Capital Centre. I can’t listen to them without thinking of him, and those thoughts are always accompanied by a smile.
His funeral on December 13th was memorable. Mom chose the readings and asked me to be the lector. She also let me choose the arrangement for Psalm 23. Victoria knows I want it played at my own funeral, and that is Shepherd Me, O God. I cried the whole way through it and could barely read the second reading. After communion, Adriana sang Ave Maria, and not one person left the church with a dry eye. She is a very gifted singer with the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.
The following day after his funeral, my parents decided to drop by the cemetery on the way to driving me to the airport. It was a cold December afternoon, and Mom wanted to put something Christmasy to mark his grave. It’s actually our family plot; it was not adorned or marked because he was the first to occupy it. At some point, Mom, Dad, Val and I will join him. Anyway, Mom decided to walk around to visit her friends already there, and Dad and I just stood in front of his burial spot. I told him, “You know, Chris was grimacing at all those church songs yesterday. I’m going to play something just for him.” I set my phone down on top of the dirt, turned on the speaker, and played Highway to Hell. For the first time in awhile, Dad doubled over with laughter. I told Chris to get the party started until the rest of us could get there, and that he could plan on me kicking his ass for an eternity. That’s no threat… it’s a promise!