On New Year’s Eve, 22 years ago, my big brother passed away of a drug overdose. This past year, I experienced a romantic loss…which would normally be fine, but this one hit me like a ton of bricks. Why? I believe my grief from 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. We’re all in this together, and the stakes are never higher than when you take a stand for your own happiness.
If you haven’t yet, please read Part 1 here. And if you read that already, here’s Part 2. I just sold the rights to turn this into animated webisodes (this is a lie, I just wanted to type “webisode”).
Wow. Travel, time, and friends. In the last couple of weeks, I have finally felt like less and less like a grieving widower, and more like my old self again, the person I was before October 8th. Actually, I haven’t felt like my old self. I have spent the last couple of months challenging everything I think I know about me: I conquered a previously debilitating fear. I smoked weed for the first (and second) time in my entire life. I’m going to a gym for the first time in my life (this is a bigger deal than you think), getting on my bike most days. I am suddenly fearless about meeting people and making new friends, inserting myself into social situations. I made the decision to try out another city, one that fosters creativity and is a softer, kinder place for me to be right now than Los Angeles. Yeah, yeah, make all the jokes you want about “midlife crises”. This journey to find Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxxx, the woman who my family (but not me) calls my brother’s “killer”, is changing me, making me stronger. I like what I am turning into.
Don’t get me wrong. There are good days and bad, but the bad are fewer and fewer. No, friend, I still won’t go to see Silver Linings Playbook with you, not quite yet. No, I’m still avoiding watching that episode of Girls (just kidding, I’m not watching it anymore at all…Joe introduced me to it, and all it does is remind me of him now). And I can’t change the station fast enough when fun’s Some Nights, or Mumford’s I Will Wait comes on (haha, I just admitted I LISTEN TO RADIO. This is more embarrassing than anything I’ll ever cop to on this blog). But I am surfacing. I still miss “Joe”, but his ghost is fading. I’m going to be okay.
And then a funny thing happened: I found Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxx.
Or rather, my tenacious, resourceful sister, Linda Hastings-Starnes, did. More about that in a minute.
I talked to Tracy Pittman Ahrens, formerly Tracy LaRue, who was an extremely close friend of my brother’s. She confessed to initially being reluctant to talk to me, but eventually relented when she realized we could trade stories about John, because “who doesn’t want more insights into people they’ve loved?”
She admitted to also losing someone early in life, her father, and reinforced the idea brought up in Part 1 that losing someone early affects how and who you love. Tracy was insightful, too: “we all have losses in our lives, in our pasts, and sometimes circumstances force us to bury those feelings until something triggers them”. She told me early in the conversation that she never met Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxxx, their orbits had never crossed.
Tracy met John in 1981. He was a roadie for the band The Breakers, she was a skater girl, and they became fast friends. Their friendship was always platonic, but they loved the hell out of each other. She remembers meeting me when I was 10 years old, and she even took me to a concert, the Christian rock band Petra (yeah, I was big into Christian Rock. Wanna fight?). But what stood out to her, and the emerging common denominator in all of these interviews, was how much John loved me. He “tried to include me in everything”, she recalls, and she “never met someone who loved their little brother so much.”
At the time, my sister Linda lived in California, and when she and Tracy met, they also became good friends, going on a ski trip and spending time together. Tracy moved out to Palo Alto to live with Linda shortly after. She kept in touch with John via phone all this time, and then moved down to San Diego in 1988. She doesn’t remember any warning signs with John’s drug addiction, which would have started in earnest around this time. She did remember doing coke with John when he would visit her, or when they would meet up in Los Angeles, but “I had no idea he was doing heroin, too. He hid his addiction really well.”
Tracy lived in Boston for a year, in 1990. She flew up to meet John, who was in New York for business. One thing stood out about that trip: John was trying desperately to stay sober. He didn’t drink on that trip, she recalls, and shut down any attempts that Tracy had to even leave the hotel room and explore the city. Tracy laughed, remembering that she ordered one single beer can from room service that night for herself.
That trip ended up being the last time she would see John alive.
It was in the early days of January 1992 that Tracy remembered her friend Eddie called her, somehow tracking her down at work. Once he got her on the phone, he simply said, “John is dead.” Tracy remembers that this was the first friend in her life she ever lost. She had never hurt this much, not even when she lost her father. She was eternally grateful for Eddie and John’s friend Pete for paying for the airline ticket to the funeral in New Mexico. She also heard…a particular rumor about my brother, one that when I heard it, my eyes grew wide. I had heard that rumor too, years ago, and forgotten it. I made a note to follow up later.
Even through her tears, and telling me all of this, Tracy made sure to make sure that I knew John loved me more than anything. After his death, she eventually turned to religion, found solace in faith.
I think that’s a natural instinct for a lot of people, to seek a higher purpose in the face of adversity. I, too, seek purpose in all of this. What was “the point” of losing my brother? What did that contribute to the universe, to his community, to my family? What was the point of even knowing “Joe”? It’s hard to have faith in a universe that doesn’t appear to necessarily have your best interests at heart. I’m sure at some point the lesson will appear. But what do I believe in: a controlling universe? An influencing one? A callous, brutal one? Again, I am starting to feel strong and optimistic, that there is a purpose and a lesson that will reveal itself. I felt this before, recently, but now I know I was in denial for about a month after the friendship with “Joe” ended. And it’s now abundantly clear that I was in a similar, but far angrier, denial when my brother passed away. I think just knowing this is a breakthrough.
On Facebook, I messaged my sister Linda. Happy I talked to Tracy, but frustrated at the lack of progress. This could not have motivated my sister more. She got online, searched and searched, and tried variations of Mxxxxx’s name. And found her. Just like that. My sister rocks.
Then I asked her about the rumor: Did John have HIV when he died?
The answer: yes, most likely. He was in a drug rehab center in Northern New Mexico, and getting tested for HIV was compulsory. In his particular treatment group, they heard there was one person who tested positive. Everyone picked up their results, and shared that they came back negative. Everyone but John. He never picked up his results.
Floored. I recovered, shaking my head. I’d forgotten this rumor I’d heard so long ago. So much I don’t know. How can any of us presume to know anyone, truly? I thought I knew John. Hell, I thought in the short time I knew him that I had “Joe” figured out. I didn’t even scratch the surface.
Sidenote: Quite a few people have expressed curiosity about Joe: who he is, why I felt so strongly. Uh, sorry, there are about half a dozen people in my life who know who he is; let’s keep it at that. It’s not a scavenger hunt. I’m sure he doesn’t read this blog anymore, but his privacy and anonymity are still important to me.
I knew I had found a kindred spirit when Joe confessed an anecdote about “Legends of the Fall”. I was hooked: someone with similar emotional sensitivity to me? Smart as hell, kind, and funny? I thought he was a unicorn. I wish I had asked more questions about where he was, emotionally. I wish I hadn’t thought that him traveling 1,000 miles to Los Angeles to meet me meant something. And I wish I could see what it looks like when he’s healed and whole. I bet he’s even more beautiful than the man I got to know.
So, back to Mxxxxx. Now what? What do I do? It seemed so abstract a couple of months ago when I decided to do this. Now it’s concrete: she is alive. I am staring at a piece of paper with her name on it, with her address and phone number. I still feel the same: I don’t want to confront her, just talk to her. Hell, we don’t even have to talk about John, but I know we will. I need to think. I’m going to give it a couple weeks, and on John’s birthday, post what my next step is.
I am on the precipice. There is a reason I am standing here, the sum of my entire life, and everyone I have loved, behind me. There is a reason I have been nurturing an obsession with bridges lately. I am crossing the most important bridge of my life. I am leaving one chapter, and entering another. Behind me are my friends, both the ones I have known for years and years, and the new ones I have made recently. Over there, nearby, are other people who are reading this, going on this journey with me: people I don’t know yet but maybe will soon. There, closer, is my family. They read these entries and relive the darkest chapters of our family’s history. They are brave, and kind, and beautiful. I love them.
And there, over there, are all my grandparents, no longer alive, but holding each others’ hands. There is John. Rolling his eyes at how dramatic I’m being right now.
And there, too, is Joe. Even if he doesn’t know it, I carry the memory of him with me. Wherever he is, I hope he is happy. I hope he is smiling or laughing, right this very moment.
I take the first step onto the bridge.
Continue to Part 4 here.