Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Cryin' All the Time"

Last Friday I was enjoying another lovely dinner with a charming fellow, when I began telling him a story.  A friend of mine from college lost her brother just before Christmas.  I was explaining how many parallels there are between her family and mine.  She is the oldest of three, the only girl, there's a bit of an age gap between her and the boys, it was her youngest brother who died.  I don't actually know the specifics of what killed him, but my impression is a life-long (oh, how horrible that terms sounds now) struggle with drugs and alcohol played a role.  At dinner, I wondered aloud if that might add a bit of rage to the grief.  Does one end up feeling like the loved one valued his life and the love of his family and friends so little that he was willing to court death?  Does one end up feeling angry at the loved one, like he acted selfishly? 

I know how addictions work; people addicted to booze, pills or cigarettes are rarely consciously trying to kill themselves.  I know too that suicides are usually a result of a despair so unrelenting and overwhelming that the loved one isn't thinking clearly on any level.  I'm not saying rage would be a reasonable reaction (like so much of this experience is reasonable).  Still, I couldn't help but wonder if I would feel some significant rage at James, had he died this way.  Hell, for a few days after his death, I realized I'd been hoping that we'd learn the driver of the cement truck was being charged with vehicular homicide or some such, as if a conviction for murder would somehow make the loss of my baby brother easier to take.    

Thinking about my friend and her family, about James, about all the people I know who died too young, I got rather worked up.  For the first time in a while I found it hard to talk, or hold back the tears.  For reasons that seemed clear at the time, I launched into a tirade against various players on the world stage. 

"FUCK George Bush," I announced, just a teensy bit too loudly.  "I don't want to hear ONE WORD from him about how much he suffers when soldiers come home in body bags!  And Fuck Al Qaeda too!  Fuck the jihadis!  Fuck ANYONE who holds his own life and the lives of others so cheap he is willing to cause this grief for oil and money and greed and all sorts of bullshit reasons hiding behind words like honor and patriotism and religious devotion and national security.  Fuck them!  Fuck them all!" 

My dinner companion reacted to this disturbing display with admirable grace.  He held my hand, let me take the last of his Pinot Noir, and said the one thing that a raving lunatic like me could handle at that point. 

"All I can do is listen." 

A bit later I went to the bathroom to pull myself together.  This particular restaurant has a music theme, so all the single-seater bathrooms have the names of pop icons on the doors.  I went into the Elvis room, where I found a life-sized mosaic of him on one wall, and his voice playing over a private sound system.  As luck would have it, he was singing In the Ghetto.  It was near the end, right as the child in the story, now an angry and armed young man, is gunned down in the street. 

"And his mama cried." 

"Are you fucking KIDDING ME?" I asked the room at large.  "In the Ghetto?  We couldn't pull out Love Me Tender or Blue Suede Shoes or, I don't know, Viva Las Vegas maybe?  Old swivel-hipped, eye-liner-wearing sexy Elvis, we couldn't have that guy singing for the three fucking minutes I was going to be in this room?  "AND HIS FREAKIN' MAMA CRIED"? 

After a few more minutes of nose-blowing, inarticulate ranting, crying and a bit of (perhaps slightly hysterical) laughing, I calmed down.  I hoped that the thick bathroom door, combined with the (loud) piped Elvis, the different (loud) piped music in the restaurant, and hell, the different soundtracks coming from each of the other bathrooms all had muffled the whack-job in the Elvis room sufficiently.  Of course this is New York City.  People ignore crazy folks all the time.  It's what we do.  I do it almost every day. 

Again to his credit, my mellow dinner companion, bless him, hadn't taken advantage of my absence to make good his escape.  He's a good guy. 

This is the second time my brother has given me the experience of laughing and crying at the same time. It really is an odd sensation.  Before we left the restaurant, I stopped by the bathroom to blow my nose one more time.  Fearing what I might hear in the Dolly, Cher, or Barbra rooms, I went back to Elvis.  I figured the chances were good In the Ghetto wouldn't be back on. 

This time the song was Hound DogMuch better. 


Birdie said...

They catch you unaware, those moments that tear away your armor. Let it happen and let it be. You have a wonderful friend to let you do just that. Hugs to you, sweetie.

Greg said...

I hope you always have such good company (but maybe a better soundtrack) for such moments in the future.

Ellen said...

Oh Patrick. I can so relate. And yes, drugs, alcohol and mental illness all played a role in my brother's death. We believe he did not intend to take his life, but the cause of death was an overdose. When I feel angry, I feel most angry at the way we do heathcare in this country (he didn't have coverage) and especially mental health care. He would have had to have been suicidal to be placed in a treatment program without needing to pay for it. When he went a few years ago to check himself in, he wasn't "suicidal enough" to stay. I'm glad that Hound Dog arrived. Sounds like we were crying at about the same time last night. I'm with you in spirit.

Beth (P.) said...

Thanks for laying it bare, Patrick. So many people in this world won't let go and let people into their grief. You are a brave soul and I do love you so.

tornwordo said...

I've only seen girls (two) cry and laugh at the same time. I hope to be able to one day. Hugs.

Rev. AJB said...

Wow. I'm not sure whether to laugh, cry, or do both right now.

Sadly, I have walked with a few families who have experienced loss due to drug overdose. Once was a good girl who experienced a cheerleading injury. The dick doctor put her on Oxycontin and she became addicted. She found doctors who would barely look at her and write scrips. Her own dad found her shaking and unconscious in the kitchen. He also has a habit of "self-medicating" with alcohol.

I have also known plenty of people with mental illness who use drugs/alcohol to dull their symptoms. Sometimes it goes too far; and the o.d. or take their lives in a moment of dark despair.

And speaking about the prick of a former president; we will have yet another generation of homeless vets in the upcoming decades. Men and women who cannot adjust to being home; who slip through the mental health system. Many of our homeless are just that, people who are mentally ill, and the system just spit them out!

Sadly, there is little families can do for adults who abuse drugs/alcohol. And there is hopelessness and anger when the finality comes true...

I am so grateful for you that James was James up until his last moments. It would have wounded my soul if I had heard that the pubescent boy who spoke a mile a minute I knew had ended up a burnout.

Sadly, given my vocation, I will walk this journey with more families...

Rev. AJB said...

Glad you didn't try your luck with the "One Hit Wonders" bathroom....I'm certain it would have been "Seasons in the Sun."

Jeaux said...

Dang, Patrick, this is a fantastic post. Wowzer... and then some. Where did this come from? One of the best I’ve read anywhere in a long time. Content aside, which is very moving, the piece is a small gem of a narrative. Detailed, pungent, vivid. It’s wrenching and hilarious, and knows when to quit. There’s so much here, I think I counted four scenes, and a commentary, in so little space. Do you feel the same breakthrough quality about it that I do?

Anger is good. Anger is clarifying and protective. But I don’t think we’re angry at the loved one lost. No. We’re angry at the broken nature of the world in which we win and lose, twisted by the face-off between the aspirations of our souls, and the brutality of the material world from which we shield ourselves as best we can, even though we’re in the thick of it and guilty as hell ourselves. We’re angry not because we’re stymied. We’re angry because we do understand, dammit. All too well.

You got to your anger, good. Actually, I find the diffuseness of its expression there a feature of its authenticity. See. Then there’s the celebrity bathrooms. Elvis. I’m howling! So funny. And how like whatever it is out there to rub your nose in it til we "cry until it's funny." I got an e from a friend recently who said “A tiny black cloud has hovered, lingering…insultingly so.” Then she went on to think about Haiti and felt peevish. But we play the hand we’re dealt. The cards are the same for Hearts as they are for War. I suspect a Buddhist would suggest that there is no difference. Life and death are life and death. Only the game changes. One bathroom is Dolly, another is Elvis.

Java said...

"In the Ghetto" makes me cry on a good day. I hate that song.
It's that crazy that makes you so sane, my dear.
Also, I'm in favor of your dinner companion.

Butch said...

It is amazing just how fast a reaction can come to the surface and boil over just when you think you are beyond any more sad emotions about dying and death in general. ( In the ghetto, indeed ) Glad that's behind you.