One of my three younger brothers, Michael, passed away of a drug overdose two years ago. He was 28. I miss him every day.
Of the four of us, he was the one most likely to be labeled a “black sheep.” Despite the standard Midwestern, suburban, quasi-dysfunctional angst, our upbringing was really quite easy. My other brothers and I were able to color inside the lines, breeze through school, and land in relatively profitable careers.
It wasn’t so easy for Michael. He was smart in a way that schools and, frankly, his family couldn’t recognize. He didn’t fit in the box that his siblings had, inadvertently and unconsciously, created. So he confronted authority at every turn. And he sought out the brand of people the rest of us didn’t encounter in our sheltered lives. Was he looking for a group in which he could be “the smart guy?” Possibly. He wasn’t book smart. He was cunning.
My family went through a lot. We tried to help him in the only way we knew how – by introducing him to our not-so-brazen conformity and the comforts that it provided. But Michael continually wreaked havoc for reasons none of us could understand – and at the cost of our patience and companionship.
I’m angry at him. I’m angry at what his special brand of self-destructive behavior cost all of us – but mostly what it ultimately cost him.
I believe that he had truly extraordinary potential and we couldn’t see it. I believe that there are ways to excel in life that don’t fit the standard ideals of the American dream. I believe that my family and I missed the boat.
At the time of Michael’s death, we were slathered with platitudes like “He’s in a better place.”
My personal religious opinions aside, I believe that he could have found a better place in this existence. On paper he was a troublemaker, written off by everyone from school administrators, emergency room doctors and, yes, brothers. But why do we as a society feel the need to write off people who differ from the norm? Why do we marginalize them as malfeasants and misfits? Why couldn’t Michael … be Michael?
My brother left behind a son – my nephew – who is now two and a half years old. I know he loved him dearly, but it’s possible that my brother felt that he couldn’t provide his son with the tools to survive among the “normals” and that contributed to his fatally flawed decision making.
Right now the kid is at the age of fascination with barnyard animals and four-wheeled vehicles of every kind. Who knows what he will be when he grows up? Like anyone who is lucky enough to watch a child grow and learn, I believe that my nephew has to potential to be great. And although my brother is gone, I believe there is still much that we – his parents, his brothers, and his son – can learn from him.
I believe my brother was smart and was special. And I can’t believe I didn’t see it while he was still alive.
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