Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
My brother’s been gone for more than ten years now, but I always think of him during the holidays. Not in a sentimental way, since he sure wasn’t a sentimental guy. Outwardly anyway. He was a hard-ass with a heart of gold.
Joe was born just after Christmas, and just after my dad got out of the hospital, having survived a bad car crash. Bit through his tongue, got his heart bruised and ribs cracked — this in the days before seat belts and airbags. He almost didn’t get to see his third son born. He made it home, though, and Joe came along right on time.
Kennedy was still alive, now that I think about it. For a few more months.
As a little kid, he was like a puppy, in many ways, and so was well-liked. People wanted to grab him, hold him, scrub at his blond head with their knuckles and blow raspberries on his neck and watch him fall away laughing. Dressed in a home-sewn Easter jacket, he looked like a small version of James Cagney, grinning into the sun and defying the constricting clothes with a wide-legged stance and clenched fists. He was ready to tackle whatever might be thrown at him.
There’s a picture from an early Christmas, when Joe would have been three or four and Dad was still in the house. The three boys are posed on the carpeted stairs, Joe in his PJs with feet, and he’s got this enormous shiner like a punch drunk champ, looking like he’s ready for another ten rounds. Moxie in that kid. He was always running into things and wearing his black and blue badges of honor.
The Christmases got a little less festive after Dad left and we had to make do with more modest presents, though Dad always sent a box from California that his dad picked up at the Greyhound station for us. There’d be a book for me, a belt or something for my brother Steve, and a Frisbee, Nerf ball, or something else action-based for Joe. His dishwater hair was growing out so he looked like an adolescent Tarzan, gangly and loose, and to all accounts he was already smoking cigarettes in the woods with older boys, who would soon enough turn him onto pot and booze.
His is a story of bad habits he could never really kick.
One Christmas, though, he was feeling a bit sentimental. He lived right next door to my mom at the time, and it was the first time that my new wife and I were visiting from San Francisco. Joe rented a video camera and was there in the driveway doing some cinéma vérité as we pulled up. “Here comes Kevin and Sue all the way from California,” he narrated. “He’s my big brother and they just got married.”
Joe must have gone through three dozen video cassettes while we were there. He documented every waking moment, even to the point of videotaping us as we all watched TV. In his low, grumbly voice, he’d do the voiceover: “Everybody’s having a pretty good time after dinner, just kickin’ back. It’s nice to have us all here.”
He made me do my lame Jimmy Stewart impression over and over. “Do you want the moon, Mary? I’ll lasso the moooon!” I’m sure those tapes are somewhere in my mom’s box of cherished things, but I’m glad nobody has a VCR anymore to look at them.
Joe was doing AA in those few years, after a rough spell with multiple DUIs and a threat of jail hanging over his head. His girlfriend seemed to be helpful on that front, though she had two kids living with her and Joe and it made for a stressful daily campaign. He got hurt falling down his steps and scored some painkillers, so that wasn’t good news. Couldn’t seem to hold down a job. Called in sick all the time, till the employer would inevitably say sayonara.
Hard times, but he was in the best of spirits during our Christmas visit, so I thought he was coping. He’d pull out his AA prayer book, or whatever the AA people call it, and read a few inspirations. He videotaped us packing up the rental car to leave.
“There go Kevin and Sue, back to California. Been good havin’ ‘em here and we can’t wait to see ‘em again.”
Every time I’d think of Joe, I ran the whole series of images through my mind, the kid with the black eye, the kid with a chunky cast on his foot, the kid with a bandage as thick as a hockey puck on his cheek, where some other kid hit him with a putter, and now the kid with the video camera pasted to his face. I wondered as we left Mom’s in the white December sunlight whether Joe would be able to maintain this new equilibrium he’d put on display for us. Strange, but it felt like he might just manage it.
By the time he died twelve years later he’d been through the mill nine times, but it was only after he died that my sister sent me the several spiral-bound journals Joe had kept over the years. In those I found terrible pain and despair, running in a continuous ribbon from the early ‘80s to beyond that promising Christmas. He’d been miserable for so long that it was his normal.
I’ve never ready anything as powerful as these howls of my brother’s anguish, and I doubt that I ever will. They were real, and private. His journal was his only outlet. Afraid that if we knew his real self we would be done with him. Even so, he’d taken to cutting himself a lot, one night writing, “I feel like cutting myself up real bad. Hospital bad,” then wondered why none of us noticed his wounds. He wanted his private pain acknowledged somehow.
The last picture I have of him is from another Christmas, one I wasn’t there for. He’s wrapped up in a complex arm sling he had to wear after rotator cuff surgery. He’d hurt himself falling down the steps again. I see now in his face, having since read his interior, the gathering of all that pain, and the sling is just a metaphor for the way he was patching himself together on the fly.
He died of a codeine overdose, something they must have given him for pain after the surgery. Of course, he’d been chasing it with generic vodka, but I guess he thought he knew his limits. Or maybe he was just ready to go. He was forty-three.
I don’t know why, but this year I have in my mind a vision of him bursting out of the water in a galvanized swimming pool and posing like a strongman. It’s a way to imagine he had something else in him besides all that pain, so I like to remember him this way when the holidays roll around.