I heard the garage door slam and felt the heavy clunks of his loosely laced, paint-splattered Timberland boots heading towards the kitchen. My brother had been in the garage off and on for days—drilling, sawing, and sanding away on something and leaving a hypnotic cloud of dust that seeped out from underneath the door. I desperately wanted to know what was happening between the screams of the table saw and the high-pitched tinks of the hammer but I had been given strict instructions (in an older brother stern-yet-loving way) to keep out and mind my own business or else.
I sat upstairs, cross-legged at the dining table, leaning over my social studies book, studying the details of the Louisiana Purchase in earnest. My study partner that afternoon was an icy tall glass of dark brown chocolate milk dressed with a red bendy straw. At the bottom of the glass was a thick, syrupy glob of sauce that provided an extra punch of sweet with each tasty sip.
My brother poked his head in the kitchen and flashed a mischievous smirk in my direction.
“What are you doing, fat head?”
“School stuff.” I was visibly annoyed. “Come on. I need to concentrate.”
He slid into the kitchen and was now standing over my shoulder with both arms wrapped around his back. “I made you something.”
“C’mon,” I pleaded. “I’m serious. Leave me alo—”
I stopped mid sentence, awestruck by the beautifully stained amber jewelry armoire he placed on the table in front of me. It stood no more than 12 inches high and a sturdy 8 inches wide, its right hand side comprised of three perfectly square drawers. Each one had a silver glistening knob shaped like a nonpareil and on the inside there was just enough room to fit three felt ring holders. On the face of the swing-door cabinet fastened on the left, he had carved out a perfectly-shaped heart that was less than an inch high. When I looked through it, I could see the chandelier-like necklace hook pirouetting from the top. It was clear that every brush of sandpaper, every layer of amber stain and every golden hinge had been poured over for hours if not days. I knew that he had done this without ever stepping foot in a woodworking class and, more importantly, right after his most recent stint in rehab.
I filled that box with every tacky plastic piece of vending machine jewelry I owned, along with the assumption that this time, my brother was 100% committed to his sobriety. The jewelry box gesture ignited the fire of a grand fantasy wherein he finished high school and launched a business of his own. I’d decided that the beautiful girl with pillow-soft light brown hair who had moved into our neighborhood right after he left for rehab would eventually become his wife. Together they would pop out three of the most perfect children and every Christmas, we would hoist up crystal flute glasses filled with sparkling apple cider and toast to his triumph over the dark days of addiction. Our lives would be back to normal—no, far better than normal: more like utopic.
Of course, I crashed hard when, just a few short months after gifting me the jewelry box, my brother relapsed and was arrested for selling dope. This was not how my fantasy was supposed to end. I felt horribly jilted; he had broken a promise to me that he never even knew he made.
With the gift of time and a lot of Alanon, I’ve surrendered to how dangerous expectations can be—in general but especially in the world of addiction. It’s one thing to expect my shower to spit out hot water in the morning but it’s quite another for me to map out my brother’s life. His recovery was—and still is—his to figure out and it was ridiculous for me to assume that I, in my infinite pre-teen wisdom, knew how it was supposed to unfold.
Not much has changed with my brother since he gave me the jewelry box some 20 years ago. Unfortunately, the drugs are still present and jail has become his home away from home. I haven’t spoken to him in years and this is a reality that I have no choice but to accept. That’s not to say that I haven’t tried to establish a connection with him. I once sent him a card with a majestic salt-and-pepper striped tabby cat on the cover that looked like the one we grew up with. I wrote him a short note letting him know that I believed in him and that I hadn’t forgotten about him. His response—“You bitch, why didn’t you put money in the card?”—was not at all what I was expecting. Guess I wasn’t the only one living in a fantasy.
This post and the photo appeared on After Party Chat