What I’ll tell my kids some day about the drug-addicted uncle they never knew
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I visit this place in my dreams.
The air is hot and stale. The light — what little there is — is muddied by the filth. I am in a maze, dirt beneath my feet, the walls built of broken, twisted things.
I need a guide to lead me to what I have come to see. When I reach it, my breath catches in my throat, and tears well.
I have been to this place. It was September 2014, and my guide was a Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer. My companion was my brother’s girlfriend. We had left my mother back at the hotel. She didn’t want to see the crumpled pickup truck.
My brother’s girlfriend squeezed in to the cab to retrieve his cellphone. I was thankful there was no blood.
Empty beer cans littered the floor. But we knew the real culprit was heroin. It had been my brother James’ drug of choice before he died here. He was 28 years old.
I try to remember as precisely as I can the visit to that warehouse. I keep a snapshot of the pickup. One day, when they are old enough, I will tell my sons — who are now just 6 and 1 — about James and how he died.
His death has become a preoccupation.
My mind flinches at the thought, but my deepest fear is that drugs might one day take one of my sons.
My grandfather lost his only son in 1986 in a drowning. I have long suspected drugs played a part. Once, when I was 18, my uncle offered me cocaine. I said no.
These are things that one day I will tell my sons:
A Facebook message from one of James’ ex-girlfriends arrived in my inbox at 5:07 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2014. It said: “Please call me ASAP. It’s very important. I need to talk to you about James. … And I need to speak to your mom.”
I made that call. Then, I called my mother in Washington state. It remains the single most difficult thing I have ever done.
We flew to Tulsa, where my brother had gone to work and to escape his drug-using pals.
Neither my mother nor I had ever been to Tulsa. We don’t plan to ever again.
I remember the downtown, a palette of beige and tarnished steel — except for the surreal shimmer of an Indian wedding celebration a few blocks from the hotel where we were staying.
Oddly, the same police officer who led me through the wrecking yard also was in charge of security for the wedding.
James’ service wasn’t in Tulsa. It was at a storefront church in a strip mall 20 miles south of there. His girlfriend and three dozen or so of his friends came. James was a sweet kid. He made friends easily.
Before the service, I spoke to a lean young man who avoided making eye contact. We talked briefly about James’ problems. “Well, we all have our demons,” he said. He was 19 years old.
The pastor was a shaggy-haired man in his 30s who said he’d used drugs before he found God. He’d never met James. He asked us to imagine what was going through my brother’s mind in the seconds before he took a curve too fast and slammed into a concrete embankment. James might not have believed in God, the pastor said, but he surely called out his name in those final moments.
My mother stood and made her way to the front. She is not a natural public speaker. When her mother died, I gave the eulogy. But there was never any question she would speak for James.
“He was my son, and I loved him,” she said, trembling.
And then she said something I will never forget. She scanned the gathering of young people, paused and said: “Get a life.”
They knew what she meant. James’ girlfriend, sobbing, walked out. So did others.
Afterwards, as we picked at snacks for which we had no appetite, some of the older people who were there thanked my mother for saying what others had been too afraid to say.
My mother and I went back to our lives — hers in Washington state, mine in Chicago.
I will tell my sons these things. I will tell them how I loved James, how I wonder whether I might have done more to help him. I will tell them how I curse him still for the pain he caused and for not being here to help me, years from now, when it’s time to grieve our mother’s loss.
And I will tell them how, because of drugs, he never knew them, never hugged them, never understood the joys of being a father.
FATHERHOOD: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES
This is one of an occasional series on fatherhood by Sun-Times staff reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two young sons.