by Mackenzie Davis
Looking back on everything, on our lives, on the family reunions that always ended in arguments and the doors that always slammed, I knew something was wrong. But being almost the youngest of ten cousins, the bottom of the food chain, I was kept from the conversations, the whispered yells and muffled cries. Even before his first drug offense, he was always being yelled at, yelled about. I remember that one Christmas his sister and I stumbled upon our presents in the guest room while we listened to Nick getting yelled at through the wall. I remember my mother crying on the phone.
There is this picture of Nick and I, back when he was my best friend, when he was my protector, on New Year’s Eve, and he’s smiling so big it fills his entire face. People used to say we looked alike.
It was summer, I want to say August because it was so humid you could hardly breathe without feeling like you were drowning, and I was making a water slide on our play set. My mom was about to yell at me for ruining the lawn when the phone rang and I watched her face pale, then turn red with anger. I heard her voice choke with tears as she talked about a missing wedding ring. I thought it had just been misplaced, but he sold it.
Later that fall, right after my eighth birthday (eight was always my lucky number) he chalked a basketball court onto the driveway and taught me how to sink a free throw almost every time. People started noticing how good I was after that. I don’t think I ever thanked him.
I was still in my basketball uniform when I heard that the ring had been found in a pawnshop by the police, fiending for a quick fix. I wish I had put it together then, that I could have put it together then.
I remember sitting at the dinner table waiting for him. It got dark outside and we were still waiting. I must have been in middle school at this point, because he could drive and was driving to our house which is why we were still waiting long after the food had stopped steaming. I had gotten an A on a math test that day, but it was still waiting in my backpack, waiting for him.
He stumbled through the door in the dark. There had been an accident. He said it wasn’t his fault. Promised that it most definitely, absolutely could not have been his fault and I believed him because I didn’t know what stumbling through the door meant and I assumed that it must have been the other driver’s fault. I never got to show him my test that night. I don’t think I ever did.
Nick walked out the door the next day and I learned what bipolar meant from my mom. I don’t think he wanted to know yet. I learned that he wouldn’t be himself for a while, until he decided he could come back. He never really came back, and somehow, that day, I also learned how to hate him.
At fifteen, I took that free throw shot for the last time, and he made the Albany police blotter. I was deemed old enough then to hear the story. There had been a party at Nick’s apartment. Things got out of hand, as they always did, and the cops came. I think it was his girlfriend who called (my parents left that part out). But there were minors there, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds (he was twenty-one), so he spent the night in jail.
I got sat down by my mom the next day and received a lecture on underage drinking, and drugs, and all of the things that I was now suspected of doing because of him, despite my great grades and perfect attendance record.
After that, my mom wanted to bring him to my school to show him what life could be like, and I was mortified by the thought of his strung-out face on my prep school campus, so I said no. She hoped that I would be an adult influence on him, that I would be the one to kick him into shape. It was a last-ditch effort that failed in every sense of the word because it made me hate him even more. I didn’t want to be associated with a bipolar addict, and he ended up in the hospital soon after. My mother dropped everything for maybe not the first, but sure as hell not the last, time. Maybe I was sixteen by then. Sixteen and in love and doing everything that teenagers do, but getting calls that he was in rehab again. My mom kept asking if I wanted to visit him this time. I hoped we would leave him in the center.
I thought he didn’t care about what he was doing to the rest of us.
I was taking the ACT, applying for colleges, crawling through my first heartbreak, pretending to keep it together because he was in the hospital again, heroin this time, I think, I stopped asking. It was my turn to be selfish and I couldn’t because my parents were across the country setting him up in a wilderness rehab facility, apparently an idea that came from my love of nature. I choked on the hate until I couldn’t breathe but said nothing, because I was supposed to be the good one.
For a while after that he got it together, our family got to heal. He went to Boulder, Colorado to be like his aunt. Who was really my mom, but often acted like his mom too. Got a job at Whole Foods, was employee of the month. We didn’t get one of the calls for a long time. But he slipped and fell back into our house. We caught him and enrolled him in classes at the local community college. He wrote a paper on constitutional law and put the A on the fridge. I remembered the math test.
I wished with everything I had that things would stay the way they were. That my mom wouldn’t have to cry on the phone anymore and money would be saved rather than spent on rehab. I wished it so hard I thought that the whole sky must have been filled with my voice.
We took a picture that year, his smile had come back on Christmas Eve and I remembered that people used to say we looked alike and that he taught me to make a free throw in the driveway. There was a split second where I forgot, I forgot the phone calls and panicked drives. Forgot the hate for just a moment.
It didn’t last. We walked into the house one night and the whole place smelled like weed, found his six-month chip on the counter. My heart broke with my parents’ ultimatum to Nick and suddenly he was gone. The phone calls started again.
The next seven months seemed to go by in fast forward. He went back to live with his own mom but kept hurting mine. The calls coming in incessantly, and her face falling even farther with each one as he lost another job, got kicked out of another house. Eventually, he moved in with his dad, but that barely made it through the week before there was a fight so bad it ended at the hospital. The state of New York handed him a court date that would later change our lives.
I went abroad that summer, studied in Spain and forgot about the phone calls and midnight car rides to rehab facilities. I was in Lisbon with my mom that August, one of the few Augusts we were able to breathe. She laughed so much the first few days, and then the call came.
At nineteen I caught my mom in my arms as she heard “he’s dead— again” over the phone. He actually was dead for a few moments, alone in his hotel room. I don’t know who found him, but I know he had been down for a long time.
He managed to alienate everyone in his life that day. His mother had taken two days off of work to drive him to the court house in Albany, New York so that he could hopefully get acquitted for putting his father in the hospital. But they got in a fight and he ran. Ran away from the court date. Ran away from everyone who had devoted their entire lives to saving him and locked himself in a hotel room. He ordered Thai food and put a needle in each arm. Strangled his body with the medicine that was supposed to help, the medicine he was supposed to go on when I was ten.
We put flights on hold and waited. Waited for a phone call that I, for once, didn’t want to come. I wanted him to keep being selfish and stay alive. I thought he might finally care.
Nick woke up, came off of the ventilator, looked his family in the eyes, and lied.
He lied to me. The one who had held everyone else together while he didn’t even try.
And you know what he said? “Wow, that must have been some bad shrimp I ate.”
I actually laughed out loud, I laughed until I couldn’t breathe because what else could have happened in that moment as my mom sobbed and couldn’t stop. He had broken us and didn’t care. Died twice and still couldn’t fucking care.
I wish it ended there.
If only I could write that he left the hospital and got it together. We all got our hopes up again, every single one of them, before he finally did the selfless thing and died. For once in his life, he did the right thing and for some reason I couldn’t stopped crying. I was in my room, just like he had been, scared and alone. I always wonder if he knew what was coming, if he expected to be more prepared or if the end was a shock for him.
I remember thinking that I was okay, I told everyone who asked that I was fine, that I had always hated him. Lied to my parents because I was the strong one, the one with everything together. I wasn’t supposed to be the one who cried, couldn’t tell them that I had already gone through an entire box of tissues. It was the last night of my sophomore year of college and I wanted to go out with my friends. It seemed like I would be able to make it through the night, forget about the funeral I would attend in a few days. I stood at a table playing a game of beer pong (if only it were something more poetic) and as I framed up to take my shot, I froze and wished he were there to show me how.