I promised myself his death will not be in vain. I promised myself I will not follow the path that so many people follow, that of a shame that has no place amidst a tragedy and and a disease. So, here goes the story …
Nine years ago this week I was celebrating my father’s birthday, together with my mom, grandma, my son, one of my siblings and my niece. It was around one in the afternoon and we had had lunch, when my eleven year old niece mentioned she is getting some weird calls on her cell phone. We looked. It was an international number, Italy. Her father Alex, one of my younger brothers, had been working there for a few years so we figured that it must be him. So we called back. My mom did. She was in the other room and I kept hearing her try to persuade someone to tell her why they called. I stood up from the table and went into the room to see what that was about. It sounded like she was trying to get something out of the person at the other end of the line and they were not telling her. I took the phone from her and the person asked who I was and said I was her daughter. He said he did not want to talk to mom because he was worried she was alone in the house. That he was a friend of my brother’s. It took another several minutes for him to tell me. By this time he was crying, for some reason he kept saying he was sorry … he said “Ma’am, I am Alex’s friend. I don’t know how to tell you this. I am so sorry. He … he is dead. We found him in his apartment…. he had not shown up for work.”
I knew it when I picked up the phone from mom. Alex had been addicted to heroin at this point for two decades. For twenty years we had all walked the rollercoaster of off the wagon – on the wagon, he is probably going to die soon – he might just be ok in the end. And … at some point the rollercoaster stopped. He was found dead – probably had been dead for a while – in the apartment he rented in Italy. It took two weeks to bring him home, in a sealed casket, we never saw him again. My father, my niece – Alex’ daughter …. they still wonder if maybe it was him in there and make up Elvis like stories about him living incognito somewhere in the world. The story of repatriating his body is one for another day … .
If I dig really deep into my memory, as children, Alex, one of twins, and one of four children, was “the monkey” – this is actually what we called him. Always with a cheeky smile on his face, always up to something, a joker, energetic and funny. Troubled too. And I guess at some point, his troubles got so big that he could not handle them anymore. Or maybe he just … tried once and couldn’t stop – I will never know.
We discovered Alex was a heroin addict the year I got married: 1999. At that point we were still naive enough to think that it was no big deal, that locking him in the house, switching him to pain killers for a week to numb the excruciation of withdrawal and pumping vitamins into him will get him back to his “monkeiness” . The doctor he saw then said to his face, very matter-of-factly, if you don’t quit now you will not see your 30s birthday. He was 33 when he died. I guess … he outlived the prediction. If you can call what he lived a life … .
He started dying the moment he smoked his first marijuana joint. Uneducated and troubled, eager to be “in the circle”, to look and sound “cool”, Alex was the perfect prey. One joint and … all of a sudden those feelings he could not understand and that were bringing such pain went away and he was different. Maybe it made him feel important. Maybe it made him feel loved. Maybe it made him feel numb to everything. I have no idea but what I do know is that, at that point in his life and in those times in our development as a generation, any of these would be enough to get him addicted.
There are various lies that the world of the addicted puts out there to keep “the industry” going. You can quit any time. One more dose won’t get you back to the black hole. You can control this. The truth is so much different and bleaker!
Alongside my parents and siblings I tried to save my brother for two decades before I understood he was not ours to save. I lost count of the times he was admitted to the mental hospital and we spoon fed him because he was so tranquillised he could not even speak. I still remember guarding him so he does not leave home and him begging for pills because he was in so much pain (and I have a hunch physical pain was not the worst of it). I remember trusting him so many times, only to discover he was off the wagon again. I read books that I ordered from the States, signed up to NA families through States chapter only to understand that the fight was not mine and all I could do and should do is let go. Looking back now, I realize he had no chance, anyway.
Stopping drug addiction in any civilised country is tough and few people are able to do it. In Romania, it is even harder. There are no real recovery programs and the ones that exist and work are overcrowded and you have to bribe your way in. The mental hospital ward everyone is admitted to for “detox” is a joke. Alex used to leave the hospital at will or get drugs in the hospital because dealers have no scruples. When focus should really be on prevention there is NO education in schools that tells our children the truth: drugs kill. From. The. First. Dose. There is no truth that tells them “just a joint” or “just this glass” are gateways to a syringe or a line of powder up the nose and then their soul is sold to a devil that gives nothing in return but pain, pain and more pain.
In my last conversation with Alex, he was sad. I was too. I was in the middle of a divorce, I was upending my life and I was trying to tell him I was scared and worried and he said “it’s going to be ok. come on.” I said “I feel so alone”. He said, laughing bitterly “tell me about it, I invented loneliness.” I hear his voice still. It still drills a painful wound in my heart that none of us ever were able to reach him before it was too late.
I remember the day we learned of his death like it was yesterday. Were I stood when I heard, how my dad started wailing so loudly that you could hear him from the street, how mom got eerily quiet, how my grandma kept asking what, what and said her heart is racing and I said hold on, don’t die, we have to bury someone else. I still remember the ride to the cemetery in the car with his coffin and the sound of the dirt thrown on the casket when he was laid to rest. But what I remember most of all and never got myself to say it until now is the relief I felt. Yes, relief. When I dug deep through the immense pain, when the two weeks of the adventure of bringing him home and putting him to rest had gone, when his funeral was over, after a day of spring rain, a beautiful rainbow appeared. I knew my brother was at peace, for the first time in two decades.
Personal archive photo: last photo with Alex, a few months before he passed away