Little Sweet Johnny

Johnny died today, eleven years ago. Well, it was probably today. He was found sitting peacefully against a tree by some hikers. They thought he was sleeping until they came back hours later and noticed he had not moved and had a needle in his arm. He had overdosed on an eightball- crack cocaine and methamphetamines.

I like to think he was smiling, that he had his most euphoric, happiest memories at the last moment and all the beauty flashed before his eyes, none of the ugly. I like to think he thought about how much I loved him, how he was my best friend and that he remembered before the drugs when he loved me too.

I don’t want to think that he remembered our last words: a fight on the phone a week prior. When he called he asked if he could go to our family cabin in Alaska and I said no. I told myself it was because I was worried he’d get in trouble there again. He had already been in prison for armed robbery that occurred when he was there last. It was another user and Johnny’s desperate attempt for meth money. I was scared of him traveling from Arizona to Alaska.

The last time I saw him, he drove up in a beat up old car with candles on the dash for defrost because it didn’t have a working heater. He had a girlfriend with a two year old son in tow and they spent a week sleeping on our living room floor, only getting up to eat chips and hot dogs, while I cared for the baby who had burned both hands on our propane stove right away while under their supervision. The poor little guy was miserable with gauze wrapped hands and diaper rash. He melted onto me in need of affection and love. He wanted me to hold him constantly, even when his mom was awake. I knew they had been on drugs and were crashing. My husband and I frantically thought of a way to keep the baby. We had already blown our grocery budget and were struggling. Then they were asking for gas money to leave and I was honestly relieved, although terrified for their safety. I regret that I didn’t save that baby. Or my little brother. I didn’t know what to do. I was in denial then. I stuffed the guilt away.

When he was found, I was on a fabulous, all expenses paid, 3 day wine tour with my coworkers and friends, our bosses, and our wine rep. We wined and dined, visited wineries and grape fields, had lessons from expert growers and were drinking expensive, beautiful wines from 8am until the bars closed. I was having a great time. On the long trip home in the rental van, I recounted the story of how Johnny and I had recently talked on the phone and it ended with him angrily shouting “Forget you ever had a brother, you fucking cunt!” then slamming the phone down. I told them that I felt so guilty because he had been living on park benches or in shelters in Phoenix and he hated it there, and called it the armpit of America. They all agreed that I’d done the right thing, forbidding him from the cabin. Little did I know what I was about to walk into.

As soon as I got home, I was so excited to see my family and give my little girls their presents. As we were hugging, I sat their dad’s gift of a few nice bottles on the table, noticed an alarming look on his face, then turned around with instant foreboding. Right in front of me on the counter was a scratch pad with the words Maricopa County homicide detective, a name and phone number. The last thing I remember was an inhuman howl coming out of me and falling to the kitchen floor. Later, I recall few moments of lucidity as I was in a sedated state in bed for some time. I saw my babies’ scared faces as they cuddled me in bed and gave me so much love. They took such good care of me.

Eventually I came back to life for my family’s sake. But inside, in the darkest place, I was hating myself. Our last words were vile and I realized that the reason I said no to Johnny about the cabin was because I was afraid he would steal everything and sell it. He had done that already when my grandma and dad were alive and had not been in their wills as a result, which is why he was asking my permission to go up there. I became aware of my ugliness, my selfishness. And I started to hate myself in earnest. This awareness started a downward spiral for me. I did anything I could to numb my feelings. I started to think my life would be better if I got a divorce and my husband was willing to support whatever I needed. So I looked at apartments and got really scared. Then cheated on my husband. I hated him then, unfairly. I turned everything that was miserable about my life into his fault. But I stayed and after awhile of hating myself and my husband, we reconciled..without ever discussing what had happened, although he clearly knew. I think he pitied me so much that he allowed all of my bad behavior. He took care of me and the kids when I was hungover in the mornings. I slowly returned to a stable place, but it was short lived.

It took a long time and a lot of struggles to get to where I am now. He’s been gone for eleven years. I can say that I’m happy that he’s not hurting anymore and I believe he is somewhere that’s better than here. I think he has that infectious smile on his face and giggles all the time.

When he died he was thirty-five and only 2 years younger than me. Emotionally and mentally, he was like a teenager, which is when he first started using anything he could to numb his feelings. There was no substance he would not eagerly and repeatedly use. From cough syrup to meth. I picked him up once at a crack house in Portland’s notorious Columbia Villa, a 1942 housing barracks for shipbuilders in WWII turned gang ridden ghetto to some 400 households, where drive by shootings were common, and I was terrified. When I parked my car and went into the dilapidated apartment, several people including Johnny were smoking crack on a sofa.They passed the pipe to me and I refused. The air was thick with smoke and I got him out of there as fast as possible, took him to inpatient treatment, and he soon ran away. There were so many of these incidents with Johnny, and they broke my heart over and over again. He abused my boundaries time after time, stole from me, and conned me in every way. But I still loved my brother fiercely. As much as when I hid him in a drawer to save him as a baby. As much as I do today.

I have forgiven myself because I could not save him. It was never in my power. I still feel ashamed that I didn’t do something for the toddler he brought to my home because I was ignorant and afraid to make Johnny hate me. I have forgiven myself for how I reacted to his death, for how I wronged my family. I accepted that my feelings of selfishness for preserving what was left from our ancestors were real, but forgivable, and that it was my great responsibility to protect the land they left. I have forgiven Johnny for leaving me alone. I know he was not meant for this earth. He was too sweet, loving, and hurt. He could never seem to hold onto a wallet or identification, but he always carried a picture of me. He would show it to his friends and say “You want to see the most beautiful girl in the world? My sister”. I know he loved me as much as I loved him. And I know he’ll be waiting for me one day. And we’ll build forts and climb trees, and it will be worth our time apart.


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