Monday, April 18, 2011

Thicker Than Water

I miss my brother Chuck.

Four years younger than me, he died in 2005 from complications of alcoholism which included a ruined liver, failed kidneys and finally gangrene settling into his wounded legs. His death was ugly and painful and tore up everyone who knew him, because he was well-loved by many. I was especially slaughtered over his passing since just a couple of years earlier we had forged a long-overdue truce and became closer than we’d ever been. Dad still grieves over the loss of his second son. Thus is how it always seems to be for the families of alcoholics.

That being said, I find my memories of Chuck are mostly good ones, even great ones, spread across time and space. Years we spent first as childhood antagonists, then as distant adult siblings, and finally as seasoned brothers-in-arms, united against the stupidization of America. In his final years, we would have long phone conversations about politics, auto racing, music, family, business, women, pot, sports, television, our mutual and separate pasts… the subject matter always changed, but the best part was that we were, you know... talking.

It wasn’t always that way. The bloody internecine battles we humans wage can be a lifelong struggle for dominance, often at the expense of those we love most. My wife and I laugh often about the fact that honestly, every family is dysfunctional to one extent or another. No one is exempt from the petty silliness that can come between siblings, mates, extended family members. It usually blows up after years of quiet tolerance, clenched jaws and strained neck muscles, yearning for release and revenge. The revenge part is the most devastating and satisfying… as one sage commented, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’

Chuck was a force of nature, as smart as a whip, yet he never graduated from high school. He read several newspapers each day, absorbing information that would be filed away in his cerebral hard drive, ready for withdrawal at a moment’s notice. He could talk at length about complex social and political issues with certainty and a great eye for the absurd. He was the funniest guy I ever knew, coming up with quips and comments and observations that would put me on the floor. He bore a complicated soul, with internal demons that most certainly lead to excessive drinking as his way of dealing with them.

In 1995, while our Mom was unconscious in a hospital intensive care ward due to alcohol poisoning (yeah, her too), I convinced Chuck to fly down and see her because I wasn’t sure she was gonna make it. He was silent during the very brief visit, holding her hand and just looking at her lying there, with a feeding tube down her nose and IV's stuck in both arms. On the way home from the hospital, he asked if we could make a stop. At a liquor store. Yeah. He came out with a bottle of Hornitos tequila and a six-pack of Dos Equis. I was stunned.

Me: "DUUUDE... how can you even THINK of pounding down so much booze after seeing Mom in the hospital, pickled and comatose on cheap vodka?"

Him: “Don’t worry, I’m a big boy, I know what I’m doing”.

He flew home the next day.

It was the last time he ever saw Mom. In early 2005, she was languishing in a nursing home with another feeding tube stuck in her belly (see my previous essay titled ‘The Long Pink Tube’). I drove up to where he lived in Northern Cali to try and drag him down to see her before she died, but no dice, he refused to go. I soon learned that he too was extremely ill, liver failing and stomach ulcerated and weight shedding from his frame. He couldn’t bring himself to see her in the final throes of her life, because it would have been a cruel mirror, reflecting his own pending demise. Mom died in April, Chuck seven months later in November. I reckon his actions made sense to him, but I didn’t understand it then. I certainly do now.

But guess what? As stupid and cruel and pointless as Chuck’s self-destructive behavior was, it pales in comparison to the incredible goodness of his heart, the way he ALWAYS put the needs of others above his own, how those he cared about were the center of his attention, often to his own detriment. His loyalty and friendship and love wasn’t in vain, as demonstrated by the hundreds of people in attendance at his memorial service, a standing-room-only affair that was filled with laughter and tears and a really great soundtrack. Six years gone now, I recall someone had suggested that his mini-truck be parked out front of the chapel, windows down with the stereo blasting Metallica, as if he had just stopped in for a minute. Did that happen? Can’t remember… was in too much pain… but if it did, it RULED.

Chuck was a music freak like me, and he was the one who turned me on to bands like Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple… rock stalwarts of the early 1970’s. For some reason, it took his early-adopter musical taste to get me hooked, and that hook is still set deep and strong. The really funny thing is that he absolutely LOVED The Jackson Five (5ive?) during their heyday, a fact that he was loathe to admit as an adult. Yep… a total J5 fanboy. T-shirts, posters, every album and 45 they released. He knew every word to every song and played them incessantly on his crappy little record player, their vinyl banned from my badass (ha!) turntable.

To burnish his musical fanaticism, he attended literally hundreds of concerts in his lifetime, surely more than anyone I’ve ever known. He collected souvenir t-shirts from those shows, and although I don’t know what happened to them once he’d passed, I know his closet was filled with concert t-shirts on hangars. He wanted to be able to grab one with precision if the subject came up and could tell you the date, place and level of inebriation he attained during the event. Although he was always what I would consider a heavy-metal/hard-rocker type, his tastes began to range widely in later years. During my last few visits to his home, I found music by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Los Lonely Boys, stuff like that. His last musical crush was on songstress Diana Krall, whom he’d seen once in concert and became obsessed with her look, her sound, her style.

You know, I don’t want this whole thing to sound maudlin, but the more I think about Chuck, the more I keep getting images of him in my head, memories both banal and special. Weird. Chuck was a big guy, owing to the gene pool from Mom’s side of the family. When I say he was big, I don’t mean he was a fat slob or anything like that. He was mebbe 6’3” or thereabouts and somewhere North of 250 lbs. at his best fighting weight, but he’d fluctuate and began to shrink as he grew ill. For most of his life, he was a big, burly mammoth dude with a full beard and semi-long wavy hair… I always likened him to a Mexican Steve Reeves. At family campouts and gatherings, Chuck was ‘The Enforcer’ and used his imposing hulk as a warning to outsiders looking to crash the festivities. In reality, he was an extremely kind and gentle soul, only showing aggression when he was drunk.

What really drove me towards this subject was the darker side of Chuck’s life, the internal struggles and torment that gave him the rationale for his downfall. I think it really started when he was only about 14 years old and got kicked out of Dad’s house after lots terrible behavior and trouble. He stayed with friends for a while, then crashed at my apartment and used it has his party central. I’d come home at 1AM from my swing shift job and find him and a bunch of his friends, all wasted and sprawled on the living room couch and floor, the refrigerator emptied and a heavy cloud of pot smoke filling the room.

I never found out if he could have gone back to Dad’s on his own accord, but once Dad moved to Northern Cali, that option was eliminated. Methinks Chuck took the ousting as a serious rejection, one he never got over. Eventually he moved to Northern Cali and worked in Dad’s restaurant, but the jagged little pill of rejection had grown into a massive spinning carbuncle of razor blades, shredding his insides so badly that only copious amounts of booze and pot could numb the pain.

There’s more to the story… much more than I want to delve into now. Suffice it to say that Chuck was slaying demons his entire life, both real and imagined, and he was only partially successful. During that horrible summer of 2005, after Mom died and before he followed suit, my wife and I were sitting in his living room, talking and laughing and working hard to be upbeat. He was jaundiced and ill and had bright yellow eyeballs and his skin was only slightly less yellow. With her typically direct manner, wife asks “So… Chuck… knowing your health situation and all, was it all worth it? All the booze and drugs and partying… was it worth it?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “HELL YES it was worth it. I’ve spent my life partying and working and going to concerts and being with my friends and having fun. If my life is over, so be it. At least I’ve had a great time while I was here.” I remember thinking he was speaking with a bravado that masked his fear of death, but that was him to a tee. He rarely lifted the curtain on his secret personal life, always giving off the air of confidence and self-assuredness. He wanted others to view him with respect and admiration, regardless of the truth he held closest to his soul.

I would only see him alive once more, lying in a hospital bed after yet another bout of alcohol poisoning, boasting that he’d be able to get a liver transplant and would beat the odds by getting sober once and for all. Didn’t happen. Sucks.

Here’s the really funny part of all this: I UNDERSTAND. The whole arc of Chuck’s life makes perfect sense to me, all of it, start to finish. I sit and think of him and remember flashes and images and scenes. The summer vacation road trip when, as a 9-year-old, he held the map the whole time and calculated the mileage between each of our stops, dead-nuts every time. The half-hearted attempts to get him interested in the Indian dancing activities that our Boy Scout troop excelled at, which he HATED. The rare vinyl records I had stashed in my apartment closet which he snagged and sold to buy more weed and beer. The glasses of milk and half-eaten bologna sandwiches he’d stash under his bed for days until the stench got Dad’s attention. The washed-out Polaroid image of him and me, aged around 5 and 9, wearing scratchy new sweaters, Mom in her Red dress, all standing in our Grandma’s driveway in East LA, beaming on a Sunday morning.

The apartment neighbors from Oklahoma who were convinced the baggie of oregano he’d sold them was Class-A weed.

The ’71 Chevelle he and his friends painted Flat Black with spray cans, a car that barely ran but sure looked BAD-ASS rumbling down the street.

The video of my in-car racing driver school sessions he constantly ran in his restaurant, telling his friends ”DUDE… THAT’S MY BROTHER!”

The way he looked on his wedding day, decked out in a light Blue tux with tails, wearing white sneakers.

All of it. His incredibly loud laugh, the same one I let loose out of my own big pie hole. His goofy smile and angry scowl and the passive stoney stare when he HAD you, man. OK, now it’s getting to me, so I think I’ll stop before I go all gooey and start to weep like a little girl. Yep, there will never be another one like him, and I dunno if that’s good or bad, but it doesn’t matter. Like all those who I’ve loved that are now gone, he is with me right now, telling me to get bent, blowing smoke in my face and laughing that laugh.

Each of the songs I've posted in this essay were played at Chuck's memorial, and whatever they meant to me before, they now bring him closer to me each time I hear them. He did that to people, weaseling his way into their hearts and souls until they NEEDED him in there, man. Like a junkie needs a fix.

I miss him. Dammit.

'Samba Pa Ti' by Santana, 'Temptation' by Diana Krall, 'In My Life' by The Beatles, 'I'll Be Around' by Joan Osborn... todos muchismas gracias de YouTube. La Puente scout image, muchismas gracias de Manuel Macias.


  1. Thank you for opening the door long enough to share your brother. He was like a comet, and who can judge how it flies? My sympathy is for you, and for your dad. Some people leave a hole in our lives when they go and it's there forever, a hollow place where they used to be. We have to learn to live around that abyss without falling into it.

    1. Gracias, Amiga! Even though I wrote this a few years ago, the sentiment is still REALLY STRONG. I think of Chuck every single day, and know Mi Papa is still dealing with raw emotions, does so every year on this day. So it goes.