Wingmen forever

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Sean Stoker, Staff Writer @theroyalthey

I come from a mixed family. My parents both had kids from prior marriages before they married each other and had me, rounding our family out with a rambunctious lot of nine kids.

During my mother’s pregnancy with me, my oldest brother Jason was livid that his dad had made a baby with this new woman, Jason’s stepmom.

Though Jason would eventually warm up to her, at that time the prospect of sharing a blood relative with his stepmom seemed somehow unfair in a way only a teenager could justify.

All this changed however when he met me, an eight-pound baby that melted his black, little heart. He took to calling me “Fatboy,” a term of endearment that would last for years.

While I was growing up, we did nearly everything together—he toted me around as his pint-sized wingman. I vividly remember being five-years-old and sitting on his lap as we drove through the neighborhood. He even let me steer.

Around that time I began referring to him as “my favorite brother,” a title he wore as a badge of honor.  As my favoritism was unwittingly offending my other brothers, my parents asked me to refrain from playing favorites, though I would still occasionally whisper in his ear, “Don’t tell anyone, but you’re still my favorite!”

For as long as I could remember, Jason was a smoker. He tried for years to get the nicotine monkey off his back, but eventually just settled on e-cigs, which, while probably a bit better than old-fashioned Camels, was still an addiction.

It wasn’t until my teen years that I found out that cigarettes were just the tip of the iceberg. I learned that when I was younger, Jason had habitually abused prescription drugs, weed, cocaine, heroin and basically whatever he could get his hands on to dull the pain of losing his biological mother and a host of other demons he battled daily.

Luckily, I was assured that he was on the way back, and that tobacco and alcohol were the last two monkeys of the veritable troop that had once hung upon his back.

Near the end of 2011 while snowboarding Jason went over a rise in the hill to find that two men were standing and chatting in the middle of the slope right where they couldn’t be seen until it was too late.

Jason laid down and dug in his board with all his might to keep from hitting the men. Lucky for them, he stopped before plowing the men over.

However, this sudden stop came at great cost. Both of Jason’s legs were shattered, leaving him immobilized at our parents’ house, where I was living at the time.

All of this while he was working on his Master’s thesis. Jason was a genius. No exaggeration, he had an advanced IQ. He was the dumbest smart person I’d ever met.

The weeks he then had to spend with his legs up were bittersweet. Though sad to see my brother in such pain, I rejoiced to have so much time to hang out with him.

I became his chauffeur and, once again, his wingman. We spent hours watching TV and movies together. With the notable exception that I was now sixty pounds heavier and half a foot taller than him, it was much like the old days when we would hit the town together.

We had long, meaningful conversations in which he confided in me that he was really, really trying to do better in all aspects of his life, and that he respected my opinion enough that if he was ever being an ass, he would let me call him out.

Virtually all worries about his addictions and occasional shortcomings evaporated around that time.

However, several months later I was very disappointed to find that he had been stealing his in-laws medications and abusing, landing himself in the hospital. Due to post-traumatic stress from his accident and three decades of bottled-up emotions, he had relapsed.

I felt betrayed. I felt like those sweet conversations we had had months before were a complete sham. Empty words spoken with guile by someone I trusted.

Over the next few months, he struggled to stay completely sober. We locked up our medicine cabinets and hid any and all pills to deter him from abusing them.

It seemed like he was making some headway when suddenly in July 2012 we had a death in the family. Our sister’s husband, Jason’s best friend, committed suicide.

Bottling his emotions up as usual, Jason put on a brave face and tried to make the process a little easier for all of us. The strain of it all was just too much for him.

Try as he might he could not escape the clutches of mind-hijacking substances. I want to stress here that he really was trying hard. Though I outright refuse to believe that it is ever impossible to resist any urge or temptation, from what I’ve seen I now concede that it can be frustratingly, agonizingly, excruciatingly difficult.

Over the next year and a half, Jason rode a roller coaster of improvement and relapse. He received a DUI, losing his license for a year. He tried to improve, attending AA meetings, speaking with a counselor, and nearly anything he could to suppress his addictions.

On January 19, I was sitting in church when my pocket began to buzz. I politely excused myself and stepped outside to answer it. In a somber voice my dad asked, “Sean, where are you?”

“I’m at church,” I said, “Is something wrong?”
“Yes. Jason bought some drugs last night. He’s dead.”
To be perfectly honest, these words didn’t fully register in my brain for weeks, though the initial shock and rage immediately had me in my car, screaming and punching the ceiling, leaving dents in my car and scabs on my knuckles.

My family, all the siblings, their spouses and children gathered together. We held each other. We cried. We laughed.

We did all those things mourners do and more. We shared memories and I was amazed that most of them were positive, citing some crazy thing Jason had done, an example of his wry sense of humor or a kind gesture he had performed.

I was tasked with writing the obituary. It was quite possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write, though it was quite therapeutic, and I feel it captured his essence in a way that resonated with all who knew him.

At the funeral I met more of my family and more of Jason’s friends than I have seen in years. All who spoke did so powerfully, imparting comfort and advice to benefit the living. Under the circumstances I was glad to be there.

Meeting the hearse at the cemetery, I served as a pallbearer. I noticed that what should have been the heaviest load I had ever carried became bearable with the help of my other brothers and Jason’s closest friends.

As the casket was lowered into the earth, we listened to “Amazing Grace” on the loud speaker, first the traditional version, then a punk rock rendition by none other than the Dropkick Murphys—Jason’s special request.

It was comfortingly amusing. One last mark Jason could leave on our collective souls to prove he was here.

Though I would be lying to say I don’t struggle with it from time to time, I am currently at peace with the situation.

Due to issues with stress, I was forced to drop a class, now taking the bare minimum and hoping for the best.

I’m livid that I have to wait such a long time to see him again. But this does not overshadow the positive force he had on my life.

In areas other than addiction, he was my role model, a wonderful, brilliant person I was proud to call my brother.

I hope to emphasize two takeaways. The first is that loss does not mean the end of happiness.

Though this is the hardest experience of my life, I am comforted to know that my brother is no longer in pain, and that there is always room for each of us to improve.

I can learn from this experience and most importantly, I have the ability to be happier than anyone else, because knowing pain means having that much more capacity for joy.

The second takeaway should be obvious. Anyone with even a casual relationship with drug abuse shouldn’t be fooled.

Too often they tell themselves, over and over, that they can quit any time they want and that they still have all the willpower of a sober person.

No matter how many times it’s said, it is still the biggest lie that could be told. Get help. Clean up.

And for the sake of everyone you love, never start.