My brother Sam overdosed about a week and a half before his 28th birthday, meaning he’s technically in the “27 Club” like Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, and Kurt Cobain. I internally roll my eyes every time I have to repeat the age he died, because that number feels like a cliché only people who own blacklight posters reference, and it infuses his passing with a minor wash of “gone too soon” glamour. Specifically, his heart stopped—thanks to a mix of prescription pills and sleep apnea—while he was sleeping on the sofa in his grimy apartment in St. Paul, with his two cats next to him. He lived alone and never had a full-time job, so nobody found his body for a day or two; I don’t know the exact timing, and I don’t want to. The cats are fine, don’t worry.
And yes, I’m aware that I use humor and sarcasm as a coping mechanism.
It worked well enough when I broke my nose as a kid after falling face-first onto a tricycle, and laughed hysterically while blood poured onto my chest, so I can’t think of one good reason why I shouldn’t employ it now, too.
My depiction of Sam’s death makes it sound pretty benign, and it’s the version I tell when I don’t care enough about someone to elaborate further. But it was preceded, and likely caused by, years and years of addict stuff that’s too classic to even be noteworthy: dabbling in oxy at college, getting introduced to heroin, stealing coke money from my mom’s purse, manic rage-filled outbursts, recuperation, relapse.
You get the point, I don’t need to type the whole thing out.
His death has made me emotionally canonize so many mundane artifacts that deserve no fanfare at all: The spin-class song “Everybody Talks,” by Neon Trees, because Sam and I sang along to it in the car one night outside Minneapolis where I was visiting him in rehab. And the things we quoted, like the ancient web video “Stupid Fucking Cat” and the movie MacGruber. The blandiose seafood restaurant Live Bait on 23rd, where Sam once nodded out over his fried-cod sandwich during our lunch underneath the giant faux-vintage clock and fiberglass swordfish mounted on the wall. There’s a milquetoast Justin Bieber hit that reminds me so much of Sam that if I hear it in a clothing store it feels like someone put a heated fireplace poker through my torso.
I cringe when I see people enjoying time with their siblings—posing on Instagram with their goon-faced real-estate agent brother at some family lakeside cabin, sisters on a “self-care!” spa excursion. I avoid Instagram on the made-up “Sibling Day” and get mental hives at being prompted to wish people happy birthday on Facebook, because why do they deserve another year? Why is Gary Busey still alive? Why am I?
Whenever I take a turbulence-Xanax on the plane and mix it with a small, shitty bottle of chardonnay, there’s always a moment when I panic that my heart might suddenly give up the ghost, too. And I can’t permit that to happen, because then who’d keep the conversation going on holidays after someone bursts into tears over a ceramic bowl of stuffing? Who’ll brush my mom’s hair in the nursing home?
I used to imagine a future where Sam got clean and we reconnected—our relationship over the last several years of his life was “strained,” to use the accepted adjective—but there’s a giant period where that ellipsis used to be.
Now people see me as some kind of wounded, shattered archetype, which I guess is partially true. But I got demoted into this role against my will. I was somebody’s sister and then I became some tragic, statistic-adjacent griever. I once had a brother who I’d help bathe when he was little, and then I’d pull Batman-themed pajamas onto his damp, clean legs and sit with him while he fell asleep in his race-car bed. Then he became a crass, hilarious, gentle-voiced young man, and then he wasn’t anything at all aside from a box of ashes on my mom’s dresser sitting next to a stack of bracelets.
I blame myself because clearly I wasn’t empathetic enough to Houdini him out of his addiction. I’ve collected each memory of a time I was surly or dismissive to him throughout his entire life, and I replay them regularly as proof that my rotten attitude was what made him want to obliterate himself. “I should have been kinder,” was the phrase I coughed out through sobs over and over the day after I found out, sprawled on my friend’s floor almost unable to breathe.
Not wanting to explain things to my coworkers—for a dozen asinine reasons that made sense at the time—I took one day off then went immediately back to the office without elaborating. For weeks, I took regular breaks to sit on the toilet and scream into wads of toilet paper. Sometimes my knees would buckle on the way into the building so I blasted my ears with electronic music to propel me up the stairs.
His death hung over my life for years, and when it finally hit the ground I was still as shocked as if I’d been dropped in a dunk tank.
Four years later I still don’t know how to process it, let alone feel about it. I talked to a therapist one time, but she was a demented lady with empty fast-food bags all over her office and I will not unburden myself to someone who can’t maintain basic garbage habits. There’s the sarcasm again, but I truly don’t know where I go from here, and religion won’t help. I’m mad at everyone, I don’t believe in God, and I want my fucking brother back. I hate that I’m yoked to this bleak overdose horror for the rest of my life, and sometimes I hate other people for not understanding the contours of that.
Every time a stranger asks how many siblings I have, I repeat an edited version: I had a sibling and I don’t anymore, and now this stranger’s face is falling and I feel unreasonably guilty for torpedoing our conversation, even though it’s 100 percent their fault for asking in the first place.
My brother’s death is a sad-sack story with a non-ending you can’t take any meaning from. And I’m still telling it right now.
Molly Simms is a writer and editor at O, The Oprah Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @themollysimms.
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