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, and made some pretty old, ugly personal demons surface. Why? I think my reaction to the latter has to do with unresolved abandonment 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’re new and just joining this journey with me, you should probably start at Part 1. If you’ve read some of this already, you can join me at Part 2 or Part 3. If you only want to read this entry, I really don’t understand you. We probably can’t hang. Major spoilers ahead, boo.
John Hastings would have been 49 years old today. Happy Birthday, big brother.
The last few weeks have felt even better. I’m stronger and happier. My life doesn’t feel like I’m wandering through a Lars Von Trier film anymore. I’m nearing the end of this journey to find Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxxx, the person my family has held responsible for my brother’s death. It feels like perfect timing. Not only personally, but professionally: I don’t want the search to take over my life, or be the focus of this blog (“BLCKSMTH? Oh, you mean the Dead Brother Blog?”), even though the point of BLCKSMTH is to tell the story of people’s paths, however difficult, to lives they love, and were probably meant for all along.
One thing that has helped me heal is
vast amounts of boxed wine working on my set design for the stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It’s a dream project of mine, combining Mr. Gaiman’s storytelling while aesthetically being inspired by a favorite artist of mine, Lee Bontecou. Most days, for almost two weeks, I have been at my theater from 10 am to 10 pm. I am exhausted, my hands look like hamburger meat, and I think I might permanently smell like metalworking/welding fumes. But I am so happy working on this project, making art again, and it’s so gratifying to see members of my “extended family” at Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles come by and help out. There are some pretty talented and generous people executing this project.
This week, I broke away from the set build for a couple of hours to talk to Mark De La Garza, Gilda De La Garza’s brother. Mark was probably the last person to see John alive, and the conversation solidified my decision on what to do with the new information I have now (that my resourceful sister Linda found), about where Mxxxxx Bxxxxxxxx lives. Mark started the conversation by saying he had read the pieces and enjoyed them. This always makes me breathe a sigh of relief; the reactions to this project have varied wildly. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I often second-guess my decision to share this publicly. I think I’m starting to gauge people’s emotional intelligence by whether this series makes them uncomfortable or not. On the one hand, people have pulled me aside, or emailed or messaged me privately, to tell me how the loss of a loved one affected them, and how the series is helping them. On the other hand, there are reactions like the guy I went on a date with a month ago:
Him (sincere, serious, no irony or humor): So yeah, I read your blog. Do you think you’re damaged goods?
Me (fork full of food, halfway to my mouth, stops and stays suspended there): …
Him: Yeah, I mean, it’s cool you’re looking for that woman and stuff, but like you’re really damaged goods.
Me (eyes get wide, speechless): …
Him: I mean, you probably shouldn’t tell someone you’re dating about your blog. Not for a while at least. Makes you seem like damaged goods.
Me (one of my eyes may or may not be twitching): Do you know when you repeat yourself that many times you sound like my mom?
Verbatim. Oh, and me and the guy are now engaged. *Swoon*
So anyway, Mark: couldn’t be more effusive about John. He met him a few months after his sister Gilda did, in Albuquerque. Mark described John as “one of the sweetest, kindhearted, most wonderful people” he had ever known. This is a common denominator, this generous description of my brother. I finally heard it.
What I mean is, there are so many bad memories associated with my brother towards the end of his life. Those memories took over the good ones. I was a kid then, and I think that maybe the bad stuff, his addiction and several overdoses, colored my entire memory of him. He wasn’t a bad person. He made bad choices. Choices that hurt me deeply, and hurt my family, but what choices have I made in my past that have hurt others? Plenty. I wonder, and this seems pretty important, if because I was so angry at John, I never blamed Mxxxxx for his death. I put the blame solely on him. No, I don’t expect a thunderclap, puff of smoke, and the dark clouds to lift from my poor head, but this epiphany, however simple and obvious, was pretty great. It felt like I stepped out of myself for a moment and saw my 18 year old self, scared and confused. I don’t know what I would say to 18 year old Mike.
Mark recalled an anecdote about a time when he, and John, and other friends were absolutely trashed. John was driving, and ran a stop sign…in front of a cop, of course. They were pulled over, but what happened next was a miracle: John, who was “charismatic beyond belief”, as Mark put it, actually talked the cop into letting them go with just a warning.
Mark mentioned (just like Tracy did in Part 3) that John hid his addiction really well until it was too late. One time, he visited the De La Garza family in Arizona, and he showed up looking pretty rough: face beaten, black eyes, shoulder of his suit ripped. Grace De La Garza, Mark and Gilda’s (and Anthony’s) mother, listened patiently as John explained he had gotten mugged while at a gas station pumping gas. It was later that John, while Mark pressed him for details, confessed that he had been trying to buy heroin, the deal went south, and John was beaten within an inch of his life.
Another common denominator: Mark realized in retrospect that there were probably always clues there, always warning signs, that either people chose to ignore, or just didn’t see in time. And when I brought Mxxxxx up, the first words out of Mark’s mouth were “She’s alive?”
Mark remembered another time John visited the family in Arizona: Mxxxxx wasn’t there, but John’s friend Bob was. Eager to reconnect with John, Mark remembers being crestfallen when John decided to stay with his friend Bob instead of the De La Garza family. While the details are fuzzy after 22 years, Mark remembers an argument, a heated fight. And the next thing Mark remembered clearly was John’s funeral…the argument was the last time Mark saw John alive.
Something that he said stuck with me, though, and I asked him to elaborate: John had a difficult relationship with his biological father. Mark remembers clearly that John felt slighted in some way by his dad, John Hastings Sr, and that he carried it for the rest of his life, never let it go.
I pursued this line a little more: this was new information, and maybe got to the root of things. Talking to my mom on the phone, I asked her to give me a little more background. John was 8 years old when my mom, and his dad, got divorced. After that, she remembers John being a little bit obsessed with a TV show, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”, a show which idealized the relationship between a father and his son. John always longed for that relationship between him and his biological father, no matter how great a dad Jim, my biological father, was to him.
Around 15, the questions about John Sr got more frequent, so my mom found his family, got back in touch, and took John to see him. John had raised expectations for the visit, but could not have been more disappointed: John Sr was awkward and obscure, and at one point even offered 15-year-old John some weed! That damaged John a little bit, my mom recalls. Pressing, I asked about John Sr; what if I got in contact with him? I’d love to talk to him on the phone and ask him about John. No, that wasn’t possible, my mom said. John Sr died a few months ago, about the time I started this series.
Hanging up the phone after talking to my mom, I sat on my bed, looked around my room. I got up, put on a sweater, went for a walk. I walked and walked through the streets of Los Angeles. I thought about my decision to confront this pain, punch it in the goddamn face instead of hiding from it, or burying it again. Of course I thought about “Joe” again. Wondered how he was doing, hoped he was happy and healing. I thought about the conversations we had when I talked about how we become the love we have known. It’s no big secret that our relationship with our parents forms who we are, how we love, and how we process loss of people we love.
If I saw my 18 year old self, I would tell him it’s going to be okay. To feel whatever he needs to feel to get through his brother’s passing. That maybe it was okay to put these feelings away for awhile, maybe for a really long time, until he met someone who would change his life, stir feelings he didn’t even know he was capable of. I would tell him that he would lose this guy too, and that would be okay too, after a while. And then I would give 18 year old Mike a hug, which he would hate, because I used to hate being hugged when I was a kid.
You know, I half-expected Mxxxxx to be in Los Angeles. She’s not, she lives in a city I’ve never been to before. A city I’m a little scared to go to.
I turned, walked back to my apartment, got online, and started looking at flights to Mxxxxx’s city.
Update: Time passed after this post was written. Life happened, I moved to Portland, started a new job. Eventually I met up with Joe in Seattle for dinner and drinks. I thought it was a date, I thought I was ready. Indeed, it was not, and I wasn’t. Joe, once again, exited my life. I finally healed from it. Sometimes I miss the guy and wish we could have stayed in touch. Goodbye, friend.
Continue to Part 5 of 5.