This is where I tell you my brother was a writer, even though he didn’t know it — and he was the best kind of writer; he wrote for himself and nobody else. He’d sketch outlines of people he wanted to remember, he’d scribble lyrics he mis-heard and thought should be the real thing. One Christmas, he announced that he was working on a holiday song that was, in his words, “really mostly pretty good.” We begged him to sing it, which turned into begging him to speak it, which turned into begging him to just show us a page and he could leave the room. We didn’t get any of it. “All I’ll say,” he said, “is I’ve got a rhyme for ‘holly’ that nobody has ever even thought of before.”
I’ve tried to find the notebook about a thousand times, the one with the song or something like a song in it. It’s somewhere, I’m sure, but there’s so much to sort through in my parents’ basement. My brother’s good stuff — his military honors and his running shoes and his rare folk rock cassettes—live upstairs in a bedroom he used to call his own, long before he died. The basement is for stuff that we can’t bare to let go of, but none of us really know why. Old scraps of paper with directions on them. T-shirts from marathons we didn’t run. Burner phones we know were probably used for more than calling home or recording holiday anthems. My brother was a writer, but he didn’t know it, and instead of finding peace in quiet moments of reflection, he was lonely or anxious or desperately afraid of failing to be enough. He was so many wildly complex things — but when he died, he was an addict, which takes precedent over everything else until it doesn’t anymore.
I am a writer — and I know it — which is wonderful and terrible all at once. One of the last real conversations I had with my brother was about knowing the difference between a piece of work that should be shared and a piece of work that shouldn’t. My brother was working as a rehab counselor at the time for a group of firefighters who had a hard time coping with the emotional demands of the job. He was set to give a speech about service, about giving yourself away, about the dangers of letting trauma stay with you after you clock out for the day. He’d been there, too, before he, himself, went to rehab and grad school and corporate job fairs, and he knew how quickly he could go back if he talked himself out of his potential — which he was very good at, even though he didn’t know it. The speech about service was essentially his story, but he struggled with how and why he should get to tell it. That’s how we ended up at the kitchen table one night, maybe 6 or 7 months before he relapsed and we were left to tell his story. I told him I wasn’t a very good person to ask about finished pieces vs. unfinished pieces. “I just share everything,” I said. “Like literally everything, even the bad stuff. Which is probably an issue, I don’t know.” In any other scenario, my brother would’ve laughed alongside me, but, instead, there was a long pause, and then, almost in a whisper, he responded. “That’s why you’re a writer,” he said, all proud and lonesome at once.
This is where I tell you I’ll spend the rest of my life feeling guilty and loved and grateful and wonderful and terrible over that single phrase — and that’s not to say anything about my brother, who was truly the coolest, softest person in any room that has ever room’d. The lifelong conflict that I carry with me says a lot about addiction, if anything — about the way it sucks confidence from your body even when you’re addressing someone else’s issues, the way it undermines you when you’re sharing your own story. I could go off about the complexities of illness and ego and all of the ways in which my brother was robbed by a lifestyle he never actively chose, but that’s for some other speech entirely. Here, he pieced together words until he truly ran out of things to say. He sat with himself until it all sounded right, and if it never sounded right, he didn’t tell a single person a single thing. He believed in people and places and things that never arrived, but seemed to support the notion that somewhere else, life could be better.
For the record, I haven’t written a single holiday song, so maybe I’m actually not a writer, but I can piece together a few words when I need to: about how profoundly important some people are even when they don’t know it. About how critical the stories we tell ourselves (and each other) can be. About how grateful I am to be lucky enough to get up and start again and write and share things, some of which are very dumb, mind you, because someone once told me a story about how being able to do that very thing was the most important thing in the world.
My brother was a writer, even though he didn’t know it.