I’ve been meaning to talk about my brother, Ian, for a long time.
It’s not an easy topic. And I’m sorry this is really long.
Let’s start with the end. Suicide. Cremation. His ashes interred with a rubber Bullwinkle; “Eeek!” he’d have said, “A moose!”
That’s the easy part of the story. For the rest I have to reach back to my earliest childhood, and to a time I’ve blocked completely from my memory as children will with tragedy.
My brother was born in ’64 – two years my junior. He was an angelic boy, blond curls, sky-blue eyes, pale skin. He laughed constantly and, when he was little, people always wanted to pick him up and hug him.
His life should have been easy. He should have been the one who floated through life easily; or so you’d have thought. Who can tell how how much of what happened to him was genetic, how much was fallout from later events.
I don’t know how old he was when he was burned. He was a baby, old enough to stand, maybe walk a little, but less than one I’m sure. It was one of those events that a parent will always look back on with guilt, but at the time, how could they have known?
He was in the bath. This was before we had so many safety rules; no car seats, no baby gates, no electrical outlet plugs, no cabinet locks. No turning the hot water heater to lukewarm.
My mother walked away for one minute. I assume to check on me, though I’ve never been sure.
Ian tried to pull himself up to a standing position using the hot water spigot. You can imagine what happened. I can imagine what happened; I don’t know for sure because that’s where the hole in my memory is. I remember the house; I remember before he was born, when he was little, and then a year or more is gone.
He was burned over most of his torso; chest, arms, head. Not so much on his face but water collected under his chin and left a scar there that looked like a slice of spam pasted to his skin. It didn’t really fade until he was in his teens, flattening out and fading to a normal skin tone.
I don’t know, now, how long he was in the hospital or how close to death he was. I know it was a long time, and I know my mother was never the same afterwards. I wish, now, that I could ask my father about this time, but he’s seven years in the grave now, in that same cemetery plot where Ian’s ashes and that Bullwinkle lie.
There was a time, growing up, when I loved that little boy as much as I’ve ever loved anyone. He had the curls, a Shirley Temple mop of golden-blond ringlets, the blue eyes, the smile and laughter. The scars didn’t mean a lot to me, they were part of his face. Other kids would ask about them or poke fun, and Ian would go shy; I’d step in and back them down, a big, intense child. All my protective instincts up when strangers would say “What’s that on your chin, kid?” I’d have gotten in fights to protect him if I’d needed to. To this day I have a list of maybe five people that I’ve ever loved that way, felt protective of that way.
Somewhere that changed. I’m not sure why, how, when.
Argument, as I’ve said before, was in the blood. It was our nature, and our family game. I look at my children now, and when I start to say “Why the hell do you have to argue with me about everything I say”, the little voice in my head says ‘because they’re like me’. And so they are. Dad taught debate and argumentation and logic. We were steeped in it. Ian and I made our parents insane with it; imagine kids seven and nine who are smart as hell and know how to debate and argue the way a college debate student would. All the immature attitude, plus all the skills. We were horrific.
But Ian could never, ever turn it off. Not for a second. He never knew when he was losing. He never knew when he was making people angry. He never knew when he was in trouble. He’d go on and on and on.
Now the physical details; I was big for my age. Tall, strong. But I was fat. All power like a little weight lifter, but I was slow. Ian and I looked completely unrelated; different coloring, different build. He was lean and long-legged, pale to my ruddy. I had reddish-brown hair and big shoulders and a barrel chest, he looked anemic and people always wanted to feed him. My first girlfriend thought our parents were room-mates or that we were a brady-bunch style blended family.
So I was strong, he was fast. He learned to use this. We’d be in the midst of a fight, and it would get ready to go physical. He’s take a poke at me and take to his heels. I’d chase, because I’m like that, predator nature. He’d bee-line to put folks and say “He’s trying to kill me!” And I’d get punished.
He used this over and over – using my own rage and violence against me. And using my parents over-protectiveness against me.
I understand it now. They almost lost him. You don’t get over that. But I didn’t understand it then, and each time it happened, I’d get angrier and more violent. But he knew it was a weapon he could use against me. He knew I was stronger, older, and that I could hurt him, and he knew that I would always let loose the berserker rage when he hit the right trigger.
Eventually I learned not to react. It’s one of the things that saved me, maybe saved my life, certainly saved my ability to maintain relationships. I learned I had control over my own reactions. It took a lot of years.
We got along. We fought constantly. You have to be siblings to understand this. We shared interests. We liked the same cartoons, the same tv shows. We started collecting comics together, in the middle of the classic marvel 70′s comics era when Conan the Barbarian was new and the ‘New X-men’ were new. We read sci fi and fantasy books. We shared a room, bunk beds. A little later we started getting stoned together, hiking, hanging out at school. But there was always an edge, a hostility ready to boil over.
By this time, I don’t know if I loved him. I know if asked I’d have said no. Though I know I’d have protected him.
It came to a head, as you’d expect, over a girl.
We went to a small school. By the time we were in high-school, it was only boys; about eight or ten of us. So when a couple of female students started the year I was — hmm, sixteen I guess — they were fresh meat and we were hyenas. Though of course none of us had any social skills to speak of so none of us knew how to act with girls.
He and his best buddy, David, both attached themselves to a new girl. I liked her well enough, she was between my age and theirs, but the three of them were paling around, hiking and stuff.
Only a little later, she decided she liked the big boys more than the little boys. And I did what I do and we hooked up.
Ian never quite got over it. He always after felt like she was his girl. So the hostility took an uglier turn.
There were a couple flash points; one when I visited the place where his garage band was rehearsing, we tangled and I punched him hard enough to break his glasses and tear open my hand; another when he insulted my girlfriend and I picked him up by the throat and tried to kill him; they had to tear me off him, my dad had to physically stop me. From there our relationship was basically fucked, though there were a few points where we found common ground after.
We found different routes. He went to school, focused on grades. I went to work; a lot of different jobs, a lot of different industries. I moved out, he stayed home. I had money, a car, he had school and a skateboard.
It was a strange relationship after that. I tried to be proud of him, of his successes. I tried to be supportive of his choices. His band, his school, his limited social circle, mostly our common highschool friends and a few college buddies. But his ego seemed to be based on tearing mine down, or trying to. Every conversation included his grade point average and a disdainful comment about my education, or lack thereof. Never mind that I read constantly and could keep up with him on any subject he could think of; he had high score and wanted to wave it under my nose.
Distance grew. He hung out with a set of people prone to neurosis and self-pity; my aunt, her younger daughter, other friends. Good people, but the kind of circle who tend to re-enforce each other’s worst qualities. And of course, when I was around, I made things worse.
I’m argumentative. Now, I’ve mellowed a lot; then, my late teens and early twenties, I was a walking argument. I would argue about anything, anytime, with no care for being right or making sense. And the trouble was, I was good at it. I was better at it than my brother, even than my father, who taught it and had a PHD. I won arguments where I was wrong; where I made up ‘facts’. Where I was switching positions mid-argument. I always won. I never stopped never let up.
So to fuck with Ian, I’d choose positions I knew he’d hate. Politics; I’d claim to be republican. I’d go at him about politics until he was frothing; and then I’d laugh and tell him the truth, that I was making it all up as I went. But somehow he stored away the lies and forgot the truth, that we were both just argumentative bastards and that’s the whole story.
He died, I think, still thinking I was someone I put on just to annoy him.
After a while, we lost touch, mostly. He went to UC Berkeley, majored in entomology and then later switched to biology. I got married and dove into my career, proving that you don’t need a degree to be a success in Silicon Valley; that the counter-culture can make money and still not sell out. We talked once in a while, and every time it seemed to surprise him that I liked good music, that I read books he liked, that I understood what he was talking about.
For a while it seemed like, maybe, just maybe, we’d find common ground. We’d be thirty, and able to put our teen battles behind us and be friends again, like when we were young.
I don’t know exactly when his life went to hell. I wasn’t close enough in to see it.
Ian was never healthy. He got sick twice as much as anyone else I knew. He got every cold. He stayed sick longer than I did, and seemed more miserable. I’m sure his immune system wasn’t strong, and I’m reasonably sure it had some connection to the childhood injury.
Sometime after he started at Berkeley, though, it seemed to get worse. He started dropping classes, and then dropping semesters. He’d be home at my folks house for a month or two at a time, and then back to school and getting good grades again.
Nerves, I thought. It’s just nerves.
He seemed happy in between though. He had a small but loyal group of friends. He found a passion for funk music and collected vinyl; he made brilliant funk mix tapes. He eventually found himself a girlfriend, and experimented with bisexuality. He lived in a crazy alternative hippy dorm called Barrington House, and experimented with drugs. Never enough to worry about, but certainly enough; it was the eighties after all.
But his health continued a slow downward spiral. He graduated eventually, a four year degree in eight years. But more and more, he’d be at my parents house, checked out and unhappy.
One of the last meetings we had, before his final slide, was a typical scene. He and his girlfriend were at my ‘rents house, and I stopped by to visit. He was reasonably civil, trying to be cool in front of his woman.
His woman took an instant liking to me; I felt the attraction on first sight. We hit it off in such a way that I could have seen asking her out in different circumstances. “You’re nothing like he claims” she said; “I thought you’d be a conservative uptight asshole“. Me; weird hair, tattoos all over, fuck-the-world attitude.
It burned him up. I could tell. All the teenage hate back.
I don’t think I saw him again until near the end. The dates blur; I had one child, changed jobs, built an adult social circle of people he’d have liked if he’d ever tried; artists, musicians, writers. His health got worse.
He started to call it chronic fatigue. No one’s sure what it really was; I’m not. No doctor ever really could find anything wrong with him other than gastric troubles.
It was clear a huge part of the trouble was mental. He was monumentally depressed. But he refused to address it, or even talk about it, angry that people would call him crazy and not “respect his pain”.
Eventually he took to his bed; weaker and weaker, eyes sensitive to light, joints inflamed, chronic gastric trouble, headaches. He tried insane, desperate measures, doctors in mexico, treatments with some sort of electro-stimulator boxes, herbs, crazy diets. It all did nothing, or weakened him further, it’s hard to tell.
He tried everything except treating the mental illness. And make no mistake; he was mentally ill. It’s hard to tell if the emotional instability of his childhood just got worse and worse, or if it was a symptom of whatever other ailment he had. But he refused to even acknowledge it, claiming right up to the very last conversation we had that his brain was fine, it was just a disease and they would find a cure.
But the disease – a lot of it – was a severe emotional problem. His doctor knew it, we talked after Ian’s death. His doctor, who had to stop treating Ian because Ian’s mental problems were so severe that he was almost physically abuse to said doctor. If he’s listening now, Ian will be cursing me for saying it, but it was obvious to almost everyone, he was, more and more, out of his mind.
It was an ugly place, my parents house. He ruled it, a sick, depressed lord Fauntleroy. He controlled where they want, what they cooked, who could come over, even when they could answer the phone. He kept me away, kept my baby daughter from knowing her grandparents, kept my parents from even talking to me.
He forbade them telling me abut my Aunt Penny’s funeral; he was too sick to go, so didn’t want me there. So they didn’t tell me.
My father died in there somewhere. Spring of ’96 I think. He was having panic attacks and trouble breathing, waking up in the night with his chest hurting. He was drinking all the time, smoking. A man with a history of heart trouble. He dropped dead walking the dog one morning. I was in Germany at the time, and it took them two days to track me down and tell me. One of the very, very few times in my adult life I ever cried. Ian forbade having any sort of funeral, so there was a simple interment and no headstone; we’ve only this year gotten a stone in place.
Ian and I talked a little before the end. He wanted to talk about sci-fi, about comics. The things we loved as kids. We had a few good phone calls.
And then he started calling me asking for help with suicide. He wanted a gun. Was angry with me for not feeling his pain when I said no. My parents told me that they’d sold Dad’s guns after finding Ian sitting in the hole in the back yard where they threw dog shit, with my father’s winchester pointed at his forehead.
Mom admitted, after a while, that he was addicted to pills. Pain meds, and then sleeping pills, I don’t know what all. But she was having to drive out of the county to find pharmacies that would fill prescriptions without checking for the ‘banned’ list.
There came a point when I looked forward and saw two choices. I had to step in, or I could wait for my mother to die without knowing her two grandchildren, and then I’d have to step in anyway and Ian would be my problem.
I put it off for a long time. But eventually – and a few of you may recall the conversations about this – we decided we had to do something. There were talks with doctors, with county med, about getting him into a medical program and getting him clean, about getting him into an institution for the mentally ill.
We told him, and Mom, finally, that were were going to have him committed against his will. We had the conversation friday; we were calling monday. I was ready to have to have my mother declared incompetent if I had to, to save both of them.
Saturday night, he took an OD of sleeping pills. He then filled a plastic bag with Nitrous Oxide, rubber banded it over his head. He left notes to my mother, his friends, and his girlfriend. Nothing to me.
My mother, I assume, knew what he was doing. She drank and drank and drank, and then, eventually, called me after it was too late for anyone to do anything.
People, afterwards, expressed sorrow. It was hard to say, to most of them, that what I really felt was “why the fuck didn’t he do it before he killed my father and took away my kids grandfather?” No one wants to hear that; but it’s what I felt. Anger, and frustration. And numbness. No sorrow; not for him. I felt as if he’d been dead for five years, and all he’d done that night was lifted the burden he left behind.
It was months before I missed him. But I miss him now. I miss the jokes he’d understand that no one else, ever, will get. I miss the loony sense of humor. I miss the kid who knew all the same monty python routines by heart; the kid who could debate all goddamned night about what makes a submarine sandwich a submarine sandwich. The kid who could make the simplest thing silly. I miss watching football games with him and arguing about Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino. I miss arguing about the Talking Heads vs. XTC and is David Byrne was a better song writer than Andy Partridge.
But that kid was dead a long time before the suicide. And that is what makes me angry. Because I don’t know what killed him. And it makes me angry because I think he didn’t have to die, illness aside. He should be here now, to know his nieces; my older daughter is so much like him sometimes that I call her, or think of her as ‘Ian.’ They draw the same sorts of pictures, they cartoon the same way. She’s gifted as a cartoonist, and so was he. They should have been friends, and she never had that chance.
The sorrow, still, is mixed with anger. I hope the anger is gone someday; I would like to look at his grave someday with only sorrow. I cannot; not yet.
He was cremated. His ashes divided in two. Half, scattered somewhere by his friend David, someplace Ian loved to hike. The other portion was interred in the same vault with my father, in a beautiful wooden cigar box, which we did simply because it would have pissed Ian off; he loathed smoking and smokers. We put a rubber Bullwinkle action figure in the grave with him. It’s hard to explain why; the joke came from somewhere, the ‘Eeek, a Moose!’ joke. Penny knew the joke, my friend Lewis knew it. Lewis might be able to supply the whole tale. But Ian’s last days were filled with elaborate fantasies acted out by action figurers around his sickbed, with Bullwinkle being a key figure. When we put his ashes in that hole in the ground, it seemed right.
I’m not happy with the stone my mother chose, finally. It didn’t capture how I felt about my brother, or my father. But it will do. Someday, I suppose, it will bear her name as well, and at that point, it’s only there for my and my kids. Maybe then, I’ll be able to choose a stone that says how I feel without any bitterness. Or so I hope.