My Brother’s Keeper, My Brother’s Killer, Part 2: Learning To Laugh Again

A rare specimen: a picture of me laughing (photo by Kate Schroeder)

On New Year’s Eve, 22 years ago, my big brother passed away of a drug overdose. This past year, I experienced a staggering personal, romantic loss. I believe the grief with the latter has to do with unresolved issues from the former. This series is an attempt to move past both of these losses, and start healing. The stakes are never higher than when you take a stand for your own happiness (autocorrect almost changed that to “steaks”, and I almost kept it).

If you haven’t yet, please click here and read the first post in this series. Seriously. It’s like a reality show. Sorry, I mean “unscripted drama”. Maybe a telenovela.

So this is what has happened: My sister Linda, who has been an invaluable partner in this search, helped put me in touch with Melecio and Grace De La Garza, parents of Gilda De La Garza, who knew John for about ten years. She was one of his closest friends at the time of his death. I reached Gilda by phone (she lives in Arizona with her family now), and the conversation was a revelation. She described John as being like another brother to her, in addition to her two biological brothers. She mentioned that they think of John often, and have many pictures of him…she described him as a sort of “missing link” of her family, and that his charisma and charm had not only won her and her siblings over, but that her parents were taken with him too. She told me many stories, many associated with good emotions, some with bad.

I mentioned in the previous piece about the promise I made to my brother when he was in the hospital recovering from an overdose one day, the promise that I would never, ever do drugs. What I didn’t mention, what Gilda reminded me, was that he had me make that promise after his worst overdose. He was in the cardiac unit; this was the overdose that damaged his heart permanently. Something I do remember, what I have only told three other people in my entire life, was that while he was writhing in the hospital bed from withdrawal pains, apologizing for me seeing him like that, I was fixated on the heart monitor. It wasn’t changing. It was steady, like a lie detector. And this made me distrust what he was saying, the slurred promises he was making to stay sober this time. I remember this vividly.

This was the time, Gilda recalls, that John’s drug dealer, Simon, dumped him at the hospital. John was also surrounded by a few other unsavory characters in his life then, Bob and Tom, to name a couple. Curiously, within 4 months of John’s passing, Simon would slip on ice and suffer a fatal head injury, and then after that Bob died of a drug overdose. Then Tom put a gun to his own head and killed himself. When I brought up Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxxx to Gilda, she was skeptical about whether she was even alive anymore. “Mxxxxx,” she also mentioned, “liked to be social, she mostly liked to do coke, and that’s why she was dangerous to be around your brother. She didn’t like to be high alone.”

I was walking through my apartment to get some water when Gilda was telling me this, but the next thing she said literally made me stop in my tracks: “Michael, what I also remember was that you were so angry when John died.”

What? This again? This anger I don’t even remember, that my mom reminded me of when we spoke last month?

“Yeah, I remember that well. You didn’t want to be hugged by anyone. You refused to cry. Everyone would try to console you and you literally pushed people away.”

What. The. Fuck. I thought, as I flashed back to my own recent attempt to console Joe, who had burst into tears on our way to the airport, and pushed me away when I tried to reach for him. Damnit. Not that memory again. I thought I was done with that one.

And then there I was, crying in the middle of my living room, holding the phone away from my face so she wouldn’t hear. Missing Joe, the guy who I tried to take it to a romantic level with, and then lost him completely, friendship and all. Yeah, I think often about reaching out to him. But I guess in the end, I care more about him healing with no distractions, than I do my need to be in touch with him. Damnit. This is so fucked up, I thought. After a minute I pulled it together.

I can’t remember just the bad stuff about my brother John. Despite how angry I apparently was when he left my family, I need to try to make myself remember the good. A memory I hold dear is when he and I took a trip to Los Angeles when I was very young. He was in recovery and sober at the time, and I was a kid, leaving New Mexico for the first time. My favorite memory of that trip is tooling down the Melrose strip one night, in the back of our host’s convertible, looking for an ice cream shop that was open. And then it bubbles up to the surface, crashes over me like a dark wave. The worst memory: One of the times he broke into my parent’s home in Albuquerque, looking for things to steal that he could take and sell for heroin. I was home alone, getting a glass of ice water in the kitchen, and was furious and terrified; I knew full well why he was there. In my anger, I ended up emptying the contents of the ice tray I was holding, threw the ice at him in an attempt to drive him out of the house (insert manic laughter that turns into crying here). Nah, the good memories, the ones that make me laugh and smile, so outweigh the bad. I mean, they have to, right?

Gilda remembered John’s circle of friends’ reaction to his death: “We lost control for a while. What the fuck were we going to do with the rest of our lives? Did we even want to survive?” Eventually it was a turning point for many of them, including Gilda, to more sober, happier lives. But she misses him, her whole family does. It was nice to hear that they honor the same days that I do: the day of his death on New Year’s Eve, the day of his birth in late March.

We are all that to somebody. We’re all missed, we’re all loved, by someone. Maybe that’s the lesson I take away from just knowing “Joe” for the short time I did. Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxxx, John’s enabler, is that for someone, too, she is loved. I’m not angry at her, I’m just so curious. What were John, my brother’s, last hours like? Was he happy? Did he talk about his family at all? I want to know about the life Mxxxxx has built after this happened…I mean, she knew him too, she lost him too, and maybe she loved him. How did she process his loss? How did losing him affect the way she loved people in her life after that? I want to ask her so many questions, but honestly, I think the less I “script” the conversation, the better. I want to go into this with no expectations.

But then there’s this: Mxxxxx may not have been the last person John saw before his death after all. One of Gilda’s brothers may have been. She is currently seeing if he would be willing to speak with me for this series. And Gilda also lost track of Mxxxxx, after Mxxxxx was thrown out of Barbados for excessive drug use. Might her brother have a contact, or a lead? Maybe.

This is scary, and gets harder and more emotional the closer I get. I feel like I’m on the cusp of some personal breakthroughs, and I am compelled to forge on, to take action. Is it armchair psychology? Absolutely. But I can’t keep feeling incomplete, and broken. I need to learn to laugh again.

I’ve gone on a couple dates with amazing guys, who I end up inexplicably feeling nothing for. They’re like, “How long have you lived in LA?” and I’m like “DEAD BROTHER.” Then they’re like, “Do you like Italian food?”, and I’m like “ITALIAN FOOD? I CAN’T GET OVER AN ITALIAN GUY I KNEW FOR ONLY THREE MONTHS.” Hah, okay, maybe not. You get the point.

But I can’t keep bursting into tears in the grocery store, or on the subway, or on a sidewalk when I see two guys walking together with their kid. This isn’t working (and it’s damn inconvenient to remember to take sunglasses with you everywhere you go). Sudden loss of someone important to you feels like chaos. I have to let both my brother and my friend go, I need to fix what is broken in me. No one ever warned me that the well of grief has no bottom.

Truly, the stakes are never higher than when you take a stand for your own happiness. I just hope this works. It has to.

To continue to Part 3, click here.

5 thoughts on “My Brother’s Keeper, My Brother’s Killer, Part 2: Learning To Laugh Again”

    1. That’s so great Adriana, thank you. That happens to be the subject of the next BK post: trying to reconcile the “lesson” in the face of loss. Trying to still have faith in a universe that doesn’t seem to always exhibit grace or have our best interests at heart.

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