Saturday, February 13, 2010
That was my nickname for Ron (Ronnie), my big brother. Step-brother actually. I didn't fully understand what "step-brother" meant until I was about eight or nine.
Ron was eleven years older than me. Born Phillip Ronald Garrett, to my mother's first husband Phil. I never knew Phil, but was told by my parents and by my big sister (step-sister) that phil was a bastard. He drank, was physically abusive, took pills, womanized, the whole nine yards.
Ronnie a.k.a. "Brotherguy" was my hero. When I was a baby we were a poor family just cracking middle class. My father George met my mother Alice on the assembly line, building picture tubes for RCA at a factory in Lancaster, PA. I don't really know how it was that Ron ended up with us and my step-sister stayed with their biological father, but this arrangement had its consequences: I never really got to know my step-sister until my teens. And by the time we did, I was met with harsh words and resentment.
Brotherguy took care of me. I recall times when mom and dad both had to work long hours and Brotherguy would babysit me. I don't recall that many personal or heavy conversations with Ron, but I always felt an incredible closeness to him. And as far back as I can remember he always seemed haunted. I always felt as if Ronnie was carrying a ton of pain in his heart but could never figure out how to discuss it. He fascinated me. In some ways I wanted to be just like him. He turned me onto so much good music that shaped me. His bedroom was next to mine and I'd hear a song like "Destination Unknown" by Missing Persons, or "Fly By Night" by Rush, and I'd nervously step out into the hallway and knock on his door, asking if he'd mind copying that record to cassette for me. He always would. I loved his handwriting, it was jagged and almost looked like japanese calligraphy. Sometimes I couldn't make out what it said. Didn't matter.
Ron got me into dirt bikes. When my father opened his own audio repair shop Ron was his apprentice. Mom and dad sunk loads of money into buying us dirt bikes and three-wheelers. We all had two vehicles. Things felt pretty good. It was the eighties. Too much was never enough. I remember the man hopping across the moon and the Buggles when MTV went on the air. Ron and I would play the Atari 2600 like it was the bomb.
I can't remember when it was that we started seeing less of Ron. More and more we just never saw him. He'd sometimes come home for dinner, but eventually it was just me, mom, and dad. I recall a couple incidents when my mom was upset and screaming that Ronnie had jumped out the window and had run away (this didn't really happen. He was just off at the neighbor's getting stoned).
I'm 16. It's about 3am and I wake to the sound of furniture moving and things being smashed next door. My heart is racing. I jump out of bed and tip-toe to my parents bedroom, confused and scared. I didn't know what was happening but for some reason I had a hunch. I knocked on the door "Mom, Dad, um, I think something's wrong with Ron. I think he might be on drugs or something". My dad jumps out of bed in his underwear and my mom pushes herself up. They get their robes on. I vaguely remember being told to stay back or go to my room or something, but I couldn't. I didn't want anything bad to happen to Brotherguy and I couldn't stand not knowing what was happening.
The door is pushed open. I hear my dad, physically struggling, in a calm voice saying things like "It's okay Ronnie. It's okay honey." But my father was out of breath. My mother was trying to pin him to the bed so he wouldn't hurt himself. At some point mom and dad get Ronnie up on his feet, a sweaty, twitchy, lanky 6' 2", in sweatpants. Greasy, thick, wavy, dark blonde hair, sticking to his cheeks. Mom and dad are walking him to the stairs. Dad, stoic and calm (the world-famous Libran coping mechanism hard at work), says something about calling 911. Ronnie is saying things I can't understand. He turns and looks at me from the top of the stairs. He's smiling like a demon, with big, black, glassy eyes, and he's saying in a voice that doesn't sound at all like his "Lemme go! I can bounce!" He's shaking and buckling his knees, giggling and gagging, insisting that he's a ball and he'll just bounce down the stairs.
My father tries to catch him and they both go tumbling down the stairs. Upon impact Brotherguy goes into a seizure, turning grey, deep reddish-brown bordering his nostrils and eyelids. Eyes rolled back into his head. Yellowish, foamy spit webbing in the corners of his mouth. Mom's in the kitchen on the phone with 911, crying. I'm crying. Dad's crying, sitting at the base of the stairs with 25-year-old Brotherguy, a spitting image of Sam Elliot, draped across his lap. I've got my head to his chest and I just keep saying "Don't you die Ronnie. Don't you die. I love you. You can't die. Please don't die." Mom screams at me to run outside and flag the ambulance. I don't want to leave my brother.
Medics revive him. He's agreed to let mom and dad drive him to the hospital and check him into rehab. While he's laying dazed and exhausted on the couch, he's still high on mainlined coke or perhaps a speedball. I look over at him and tell him I love him. He just stares at me like a wild animal and turns away. Breaks my heart and gives me a chill because I realize, at that moment, the lights are on, but nobody's home.
Who was driving? How can I not remember this detail? I remember riding shotgun. We were in my '56 Chevy Bel Air because it was so big and easy to get into. Good to lay Ron down if need be. Ron kept turning around, paranoid. He kept saying that someone was following him and that they were on roller skates, hanging onto the bumper.
Ron checked himself out of rehab the next day. He came home to a clean kitchen with syringes and other works neatly displayed on the dinner table. A family intervention took place that night. It was the first time I saw Brotherguy cry and it absolutely broke my heart. I wanted him to talk to me about his troubles. Even if I was too young to understand, who cares? I would've at least been a listener.
Ron bounced back and forth over the next couple years. He was going to NA meetings. He was looking better, seemed to put on a little weight, which was good because he was always very muscular, but got very thin when his addiction was at its worst. Brotherguy was a coke addict, well versed on cross-addiction. None of us knew until he was too far down the line. He had his coke friends, and his non-coke friends. They did not cross pollinate.
Tough love put Ron in his own apartment. Meanwhile all the hidden troubles between mom and dad are coming to a head. Me, I'm listening to Bauhaus, setting small fires in my bedroom, painting, shaving my head, cutting up my clothes, playing in a band and getting suspended for drinking Jim Beam in the locker room.
It's June 8th, 1990.
I just finished my junior year. Last day of school ends early. I come home surprised to find Ron relaxing by the pool. This is weird. I rarely see him anymore, and when I do it's never in the middle of the day. What's going on here? I don't remember what we talked about, if anything. A good deal of my time spent with Brotherguy was just being near each other, doing fun things, not really talking. We'd race together, hang out by the pool and listen to music, or watch tv in silence. Now, as I look back, I can be pretty sure that when we went down to Maryland to ride dunes and he would sneak away with Tom into his pickup truck, I'm quite sure they were doing lines in there.
June 10th, 1990.
I wake up with a profound emptiness in my heart. I feel a weird anxiety. can't find the source. Mark, my boyfriend and band mate at the time, takes me to Howie's (our drummer) uncle's place for a BBQ. All the while I feel a deep sadness and am distracted and not having a good time. I know that something is very wrong, that something terrible has happened, but don't know what it is. At some point I asked, or Mark suggested that we leave. As we're coming up 222 south, Willow Street Pike, on this beautiful day, my heart begins to race. I feel slightly sick to my stomach. As we pull into the driveway I see Dad standing on the sidewalk and that was it. I knew. I get out of the car preparing for the news, which is confirmed in my mind when I see my mother sitting in a chair on the patio weeping.
"How w ww was the barbecue, Honey?" Dad stutters, trying to fight tears.
Dad, it's Ron, right?
He squeezes me tightly and whispers "Yes honey. Ronnie's gone honey. I'm so sorry. Ronnie's gone."
My heart drops down into my boots and I feel like I'm going to faint. And yet, I knew when I woke up. I had a feeling I had lost him.
My brother was found dead in a hotel room, Holiday Inn, Reading, PA. He had bruises all over his body and cuts on his fists which the mortuary couldn't successfully cover with make-up. My mother was convinced that he was murdered, and went on a long investigation of her own to get to the bottom of what happened. Back then, in Lancaster, if you were an addict you were garbage that no one wanted anything to do with. Cops wouldn't help us. Ron's friends wouldn't help us, other than carrying his casket. Eventually I saw the autopsy report. He died from acute cocaine poisoning, or so they say. But I don't know more than that. I wonder how much it matters.
(I recently found out that a bag of cocaine was stuffed down my brother's throat. The main suspect was a fellow by the name of Randy Teiderman. His dealer. Damn you to hell Randy, however you were involved. You did nothing to help my brother. I need not seek revenge. You will carry this with you to your grave. And when your kids stumble upon my blog, best of luck to you in explaining how you contributed to the destruction of my family.)
A couple years ago Ronnie's biological father committed suicide on Christmas eve. He shot himself in the head after a long, painful battle with cancer. My step sister found him in his bathroom. This only exacerbated the fight my sister continues to have with her own demons. I couldn't get a read on my mother at all.
Love your family. Love them with all your heart. Never take them for granted.
My brother was a junkie and I loved, and still love him, more than anything in the world.
The first time I heard "in Spite Of Me" I thought "Man, Ron would've loved Morphine's music. He would've loved Queens Of The Stone Age." We all have various ways of torturing ourselves. Mine is imagining my brother alive, older, with kids. Sam Elliot, in Levi's and a cowboy hat, thick mustache. I wish I could've experienced a QOTSA concert with my brother. I wish I could've sat in a bar and drank beer with him. I wish I could've shown him Boston. I wish he could've come to one of my gigs. I wish I could've been the goofy aunt to his children. I wish he could've been the cool, motorcycle-riding uncle if I ever had my own.