Some Thoughts about Life, Death, and my Brother


Me, my brother and my sister watching "The Odyssey"

I started this blog in 2006 and restarted it in May of 2009 just prior to being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Since I'm still writing in it, suffice to say the cancer thing worked out OK for me. In the intervening years this has been a place to write about losing mountain bike races, wrestling with misbehaving appliances, travels to far away places, and time shared with friends and family, often with a great deal of humor. 

Increasingly, it has also been about loss. 

As the years went by, my posts have grown sadder as the moments of laughter and gratitude have been crowded out by that loss. You hang around life long enough and the numbers catch up with you. The funny posts have been replaced by eulogies for friends and family who died before their times.  I've been writing less because I don't want to write about losses or struggles of people I care about. I've tried going back to appliances and bicycles but it just doesn't seem in keeping with what's been going on around me.

I'm absolutely dreading writing the annual Christmas letter.

Last October I wrote a post about riding through the Fall colors in the mountains at Elm Ridge with my sister and her friend Elizabeth. It was a beautiful day. I wish it could have just kept going.

That was my last post for a year while I sat at home and counted casualties

One month after that bike ride, Carolyn's father Merle passed away alone in a hospital in Utica. He was COVID positive and was suffering from acute respiratory distress but at 97 there were so many things going wrong with him at that point, nobody was going to blame the virus or do much to keep him alive. It was an odd moment to be in a hospital and told those things. 

Carolyn's mother passed in June. It was a much less traumatic end for her. It was her time, in as much as we can say that about anybody. In the months before she passed she lost most of her anger along with her memory. She was happier that way. 

In between those milestones, on or about Tuesday April 6th, my brother Sam departed the world. 

I've hung pictures of him in my office. I've left things around the house to remind me of him. I hold his tools every day. I want to remember him. I want to celebrate him. I want to tell everyone how much I loved him. I want to grieve his loss, but I can't. I'm stuck. 

I have to share a truth about Sam; at least my truth. He meant so many different things to different people and many, maybe most of those people had much more involved, vibrant relationships with him than I did. Now that everything about my brother is consigned to memory, the truth is I didn't know him very well.

His cause of death was cardiac arrest as a result of acute alcoholism. I read somewhere that in the end, everyone dies of cardiac arrest as a result of something. I don't know if that was supposed to be funny or just point out that appending cardiac arrest to a death certificate may not be that helpful. Cardiac arrest as a result of being eaten by a shark. I don't know.

The "something" in Sam's case, the journey from beers with friends in high school to the floor of an unremarkable bathroom in an unremarkable apartment in an unremarkable city in Florida at the age of 56 consumed most of his lifetime. That journey was filled with accomplishments and loss. It was filled with attempts to repair himself and ended, to borrow a line from Kurt Vonnegut, with him "bargaining in good faith with destiny" drinking in Florida until his body threw in the towel.

I had written a long, pretty ugly and sad post about how he ended up the way he did. My sister and I flew down to Florida to clean out his apartment and close up his life there. We saw his physical world stopped in time by his death. We washed his dirty dishes, emptied the vodka bottles, took what we wanted and gave the rest away. It was methodical and dark and I wanted you to know something about what I'm carrying with me; why I'm struggling to grieve and by proxy, what others who loved him are carrying. 

But I can only know my loss and I don't really know it yet. 

I'm mad at him too. I'm mad that he couldn't stay sober. I'm mad about the wringer he put us all through. I'm mad he let everything he had made for himself go. And I'm mad he didn't even realize that's what he'd done in the end. 

I know. I'm pouring a lot of anger out on the page and I think it best if I stop. It was all way more complicated than that. Alcoholism is described as a disease and I wouldn't argue with that though I've taken some solace in understanding it more as a possession. Alcoholism occupies you. You bargain with it. It gives you something in return but takes away everything in the process. It's almost sentient. I have my own tense relationship with alcohol. I know the conversation with it; the bargaining, the belief that you'll drink less tomorrow, or next week. The slow ramp up in volume as you keep putting sobriety off. It's a demon you walk with. Sam's was a strong one.

But it was a disease too. Like most of us who have picked up a life-threatening disease or two, my brother continued to live his life as long as he could.

And what a life it was! Sam's took him around the world building and installing some of the biggest stage productions and theme rides in Vegas, Broadway, Europe and Asia. He was loved by his colleagues. When he would take us around the PRG scene shop, craftspeople would pull Carolyn and me aside and tell us how great he was. He rode a Harley (and gave me his old Honda when he bought it) and scuba dived until a few weeks before his death.

Sam lighting the candles on mom's
birthday cake. Oddly, one of my
favorite pictures of him.

He also had the best medical care you could buy. His employer bent over backwards to support him while he got help. His friends and loved ones were there for as long as he would let them stay. His family loved him and was always there to support him when he was sober and when he wasn't. 

None of it worked. We saw him failing, his body breaking down as he poured more and more alcohol into it. He stayed in Florida after his last stint in rehab because he liked the tropics and we were very far away. He could control his narrative as his health declined. He would call us every day but he wouldn't let anyone visit him. The calls became more incoherent until the last week of his life. I think he sobered up ahead of a doctor's appointment as his health began to crash but by then it was too late. We all talked to him Easter Sunday, a few days later he died. We knew what was coming and we couldn't stop it. Now he's gone.

We spent years forgiving him for not beating his addiction. I can't speak for the others who loved him but I have absolutely no idea how to forgive myself for letting Sam fail.

Sam. My brother's name wasn't Sam, by the way. His given name was Christopher but he was Sam to everyone who knew him from the first year of his life to the last. I never asked him what he thought of that. I wonder what it's like going through life with an assumed name? I know it's foolish to think but would Christopher Pierce have turned out any different? Probably not, but most people don't go through life with their actual identity something of a secret.

In a few months it will be winter. Mallory and I will put our snowshoes on and head back to the Catskills. I find the mountains healing. The climbs focus me and remind me to be grateful. There is so much beauty around us but also risk. Just like life. 

I wish I could go to those haunted hills and find the shades of my loved ones who are gone. My high school friend Daryl Hoffman's ashes are scattered there below the summit of Slide. Last year we stopped at the lookout where we scattered them back in the 1970's. It was as lovely a spot as I remembered but I can't say I felt his presence. It was a long time ago and it's probably asking a lot of the dead to be hanging around a rock outcropping on the off chance you'll come by.

I don't think I'll find Sam there either. He was always more of a tropical ocean kind of guy. 

Maybe I would find Christopher there, but who would that be?

The view from Slide


Unknown said…
Jonathan, I've been so caught up in my own loss that I completely missed this. I'm so sorry for the losses you and Carolyn have suffered, and, most especially, your brother dying far too soon. I think grieving is something that no one really knows how to do, because why would you? It's not something you want to learn until you have to. I'm in year two now which everyone says is worse than the first year. That may be true, because so much of the first year passed in a fog of shock and disbelief. We'll see how it goes. Anyway, sending so much love to both of you. Give Carolyn the biggest hug from me. Take good care of each other, as I know you do.
Riculd said…
J'espère que vous vaincrez la maladie. C'est une période difficile pour vous et votre famille

et je veux être là pour toi. Vous n'êtes pas seul dans ce combat, je suis avec vous à chaque étape du chemin.
Lisa Padovani said…
I met you years ago when Sam and I dated. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen him-it was right before his move to Florida-I put it down to his love of all things Jimmy Buffet. I really had no idea he struggled with alcoholism. I remember him telling me he was diagnosed with something I unfortunately can’t remember. I just saw his picture on FB on a Purchase page(I also went there) and it made me curious about what he was up to and if his illness was cured. I went on his FB page and that’s where I saw the memorial. Thank you for writing this blog. It does break my heart that he died alone in such an anonymous way. He was a very kind, sweet, good man. He loved me with the kind of love I couldn’t reciprocate at the time. But he’s always still been with me.
Lisa Padovani

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