Two years ago today, my brother Steve died of acute myelogenous leukemia at age 52. Three days shy of getting his 90-Day sobriety chip. While the cause of death officially was cancer, in actuality it was alcoholism. The alcohol killed him just as surely as it had killed my older brother eleven months before, who died of cirrhosis at age 56. You see, Steve had mouth cancer. In addition to being an alcoholic, he was a smoker. He quit smoking when he got cancer. The link between smoking and cancer was clear to him. The link between oral cancer and alcohol was not as compelling. He quit drinking for a year, but then started again. The cancer came back. More rounds of chemo and radiation. Removal of lymph nodes in his neck was disfiguring. He was sick, and depressed. In October 2012, six months after our older brother had died of cirrhosis, our father died of complications from Alzheimer’s. I had had enough of death. I set up an intervention a few days after Christmas 2012. Steve agreed to go to rehab and I rode in the back seat with him while the interventionist drove us to the facility. His adult children met us there with his things, and I helped him fill out forms at check-in. The last time I saw him was when the staff escorted him from the waiting room into the facility. He did well in rehab and was released. He was committed to sobriety, attending daily AA meetings, keeping in close contact with his sponsor, and doing physical therapy to recover from the ravages of alcoholism and cancer treatment. We stayed in touch by phone during those weeks. But I hadn’t made the trip to Houston to see him again. I was waiting until he was firmly in a routine. Trying to allow him some independence. Encouraging my mother to do the same. He visited with his children a lot during his recovery. For that, I am grateful.
The last time I spoke with Steve before he died, we talked about Sophie, the stray cat who had appeared shortly after my father died, who had finally allowed me to woo her indoors. Although frightened and shy when she first came in from the cold, Steve predicted she’d prove to be scrappy. And he was right. After he died, I thought of changing her name from Sophie to Stevie. But I thought it might be too self-indulgent. Too maudlin. Still, I call her that sometimes. In the weeks and months after my brother died, I held everything together. I completed my duties as executor of my dad’s estate, I managed my mom’s finances and helped with my dad’s business from afar, doing my best to help things stay afloat to ensure my mother had a source of income in addition to social security. Shortly after my brother died, my mother’s health deteriorated and she moved into assisted living in July 2013. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And still, I held it together.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t hold it together. But I couldn’t see that until now.
My drinking increased in the days and months following my brother’s death. Ironic, I know. Despite clear insight, I devolved, rather than evolved. I went from having wine on the weekends, and occasionally a night or two during the week, to drinking most days. I began drinking gin after work during the week. Gin and tonics were like lemonade. They went down so easy. And I never seemed to get a buzz from them. I even googled it: “Can’t get a buzz from gin.” Smart, educated woman who I am, it never occurred to me it was a tolerance issue. I just thought I had some rare gin immunity. There was a part of me that was aware of what was happening. After all, I’d monitored my drinking closely for most of my adult life. I was determined to ensure it would never happen to me. But toward the end, I think it had begun happening. Rather than engage in that debate any longer, I decided to shut down the conversation.
After all, the easiest way to ensure you don’t become an alcoholic is to not drink.
So here we are, two years after my brother’s death. As I lie in bed last night thinking about his life, it occurred to me that I stopped drinking nearly two years to the day after his intervention: his last drink, December 28, 2012; my last drink, January 2, 2015. My brother died on March 25, 2013, Day 87, three days before he would have received his 90-day chip. Today is my Day 82. Eight days to 90. This one’s for you, Steve.