Years ago, when the seriousness of Swenny’s alcoholism finally struck me, I canceled his birthday dinner on short notice and called his father and my parents to tell them why: Swenny was an alcoholic and I wasn’t in the mood for company.
When I think back to their responses, it strikes me how different they were. Helpful in their own way, his father told him to pull it together, my mother told me to look out for myself, and my dad said, “We love him, and we will do anything we can to help him.”
Until this week, I didn’t understand the reason for his full and unwavering support: He lost his younger brother to drugs.
The memories I have of my uncle are few, but they take place during family gatherings filled with laughter. It was the 1970s, and he was different from anyone else we knew. He was carefree, wore his hair long and played with my sister and me like a kid.
One day during my dad’s final years, I visited him in the hospital. I made small talk to pass the time. Looking out the window, I said, “You can see all the way to the lake from here.”
His response? “I can see the building where I identified my brother’s body.” My grandfather could not do it, so my dad absorbed the pain for both of them.
While I was always keenly aware of the hole left in our family by my uncle’s death, we rarely if ever spoke of it. I only saw my grandmother and mom cry immediately after the call to our home. After hearing the news, my dad hung up the phone, turned to us and said, “Donny is dead.”
Perhaps my call years later returned my dad to the day his brother died. Instead of wondering what he could have done, he was going to do whatever he could.
I know I need to do the same.