Seth Davis Branitz | Longreads | March, 2017 | 16 minutes (4,085 words)
My parents had said it aloud many times, and I had shushed them.
I was guilty of sometimes thinking it.
“Just kill yourself, or get killed quickly, and end all the mayhem.”
My older brother had been barely surviving on a destructive path for so long that sometimes I wished he would just finish it off already.
Really. It just sometimes seemed the easier way for him, and for all of us.
I had no idea how much worse his death would actually make things—how alone his death would leave me, as it hastened the additional deaths that would leave me the only remaining member of my family.
* * *
It was hot as hell on August 1, 2001, the day my brother came to help us move into our new apartment in Long Beach. The day my brother died.
Our building, 25 Franklin Blvd., was between the ocean and the rest of the world, into which we were now inching. There, in just about the most neglected building in the city, we’d met a few friends, rescued a handful of cats, had some parties and taught some cooking classes. I’d also made a record, which I was about to release, tour behind, and promote.
We were moving to a larger, better place on East Broadway, just a block north and two blocks west. There was a pool. I felt sad to leave the ocean. It would be only a short walk away now, but it felt like many miles.
They showed up hours late, and they were useless. My brother, Kim, was 5′ 7”, powder-pale and jumpy. His friend, Angelo, was a giant, 6′ 8″, black and loud. If one didn’t turn heads on the street, together they did.
I’d grown accustomed to seeing my brother as handicapped. That way I was able to keep from screaming at him and hating him for all the shit he was putting my parents through, and all the futile effort I’d put in. Detox. Rehab. Emergency room. Dragging him to meetings. Headlocks and threats. He was weak and spineless and now his once-brilliant conversation was reduced to babbling. He couldn’t make it across the room without wondering why he’d begun.
Kim driving a car scared the hell out of me. He’d lost his job driving a garbage truck. After his infrequent baths (he hated showers) he’d put on the same dirty clothes, so he always smelled. But his and Angelo’s assistance was well intentioned and I treated it as such. I had them follow me with a box or a frame a few times before I began to grow impatient and feel the judgments of neighbors and passers by, their spectacle and discourse too hard to ignore. Although we had hours of work ahead of us, I told them to go grab lunch and check out the boardwalk. We had it covered, I said.
A long while later I assumed that they had just considered themselves dismissed. I ascended the ramp to the boardwalk and scanned the waves. Out in the surf, between the Neptune Boulevard jetty and the surfers, was a strange, fully dressed little man. Straight-faced, chest deep and garnering the attention of sunbathers, there were a few pointing children and a couple of laughing lifeguards.
I jumped down to the sand and walked toward him, flashing visions of him moving to this town, enjoying the beach, behaving himself, getting a life. I had always hoped for his problems to dissolve so that we could enjoy one another as much as we loved one another. He walked to shore and then the boardwalk, and I turned and walked beside him. “When was the last time you were in the ocean?” I asked. He looked straight ahead. “Thirty years.”
I walked him to his car and along the way we found sweaty, overheated Angelo, who had gone wandering as well. The extent of physical exertion these two were accustomed to had long been limited to the balancing act their bodies had to wage against their massive chemical consumption. Their exposure to this heatwave and fresh air concerned me.
Kim opened his trunk to expose an incredible mess. He took out the CD copy of my record, my first, which I had given him the week before at a show he’d come out to (I wished he hadn’t) and pointed to the picture on the back cover. It was me at three or four, posing with my hands and mouth on my brother’s tenor saxophone. The sax is as tall I am, and I’m standing it on the floor and looking like I’m about to wail. My brother, 14 or so, is standing shirtless in the background, hands overhead on the low-hanging chin-up bar, and he’s smiling. There’s a Dylan poster on the door next to him. It’s a beautiful moment. When designing the artwork with my friend, I suggested we make the little kid in the picture more prominent and find a way to slightly obscure the big kid. I just thought it might look cool. So Chris blurred the part of the picture where my brother stood, and it did look cool, and we used it.
My brother pointed to the picture and said, “You don’t blur me out of out of pictures. I’m your big brother and you shouldn’t be ashamed of me. Do you understand?” I began to explain that it was a strictly aesthetic decision and that it actually features him. I told that I meant no disrespect. But the truth was that during the time I had worked on the project, and for years leading up to it, the living, breathing Kim already was obscured. I had been furious with him. I was really done with him, and that had fed my decision. There was a part of me that imagined a world without him, one in which he had already died and in which I was freed from the ugly obligations. I hadn’t considered how he might have felt about this, and at the time I truly hadn’t cared.
But now I cared. “I’m sorry,” I said, promising I’d fix any subsequent printings to include an unobscured picture of him and me. “Ok,” he said. “I love you and I love Jenn and I love the cats.” And, like that, he forgave me. Then we hugged and he left.
My brother had driven a garbage truck for the city. He would tell me about the different sized dumpsters, and the power he felt lifting these immovable giants of urban purging. There was clearly a sense of accomplishment when driving away from a site, having made room for the residents and the businesses to carry on because he had been called. A far cry from his rookie years when he’d clean out South Bronx alleys by rake and hand. There, he had been gashed by broken glass and stuck by hypodermic needles carelessly tossed into plastic trash bags. He once had a crackheads’ box cutter at his throat, just because. The same South Bronx where by night he’d eventually cop dope, engaging the gutters to fool his heart and to numb his conscience.
I am an addict, although I don’t use drugs any more. I stopped getting high at 22. In the challenging months that followed I embarked on a sort of reinvention. I needed to be clean. I needed to do away with any and all of my default thoughts and impulses. They had led me to the edge, where I had teetered since I first got addicted to coke at sixteen. They had only solidified my notions of worthlessness and irreconcilable shame, which had been with me since childhood. So once I got clean, I avoided the places where I’d used and acquired my drugs. I hid from those with whom I’d used. And I tried very hard to brace myself for my very infrequent visits with my family. These were the most consequential of my interactions in my first years among the living. There was the same darkness that drugs had helped me to hide from, except now the pain that I’d attempted to dull for so long was up front and center. On top of the needs my parents imposed on me, my brother’s dysfunction had ramped up to a level of abuse. He abused their space and took from them. They abused him psychologically and verbally. He was hated by them, and he lived in their space, craving connection and desperate for validation, but inadvertently hating them back. There was no hope because everyone felt wronged and everyone was hurt. It was fucking impossible, but I kept trying to save him from them, and them from him.
Until and unless an addict is ready and willing to grow up, we all have to rationalize our wrongs. We blame someone else or we blame our unfortunate lot. We compare ourselves to another, saying, “At least I’m not that bad”. And maybe we’re right. But that won’t save us. My brother’s retainer of decency lay in that truck. It was his power. His one-up on murderers, homeless people, litterbugs and losers. It was also his boyhood Tonka toy, all grown up.
I’d experienced the progression of hard drug use first-hand, beginning in my teens. I’d cried in utter helplessness and lamented the waste of my own gift each and every time I reached for another hit. Every lie hurt. And the pain merely changed at the start of my own recovery. I’d felt it drag me down and leave me bankrupt—emotionally, spiritually, physically—and then watched as friends continued on to their inevitable institutionalizations, incarcerations, and graves. I mourned suicides, homicides, AIDS and unrecognizable victims in shells of daughters and sons who’d once shown promise. And once I’d wiggled free from the noose I wove daily for my entire adolescence and into my 20s, I watched as my brother fell deeper.
I’d accompanied him to shrinks and had dragged him to meetings, and on multiple occasions he asserted that he was going to stop. He wanted to live. He wanted for us to grow old together. Then fucking Nicky or Bill would call and ask for a ride to cop. Dad would stomp on his confidence and no amount of space could quiet the shame. His junk-soaked blood and brain would agonize for more.
“You don’t have to live this way,” I said again and again.
“I like the way I live,” he lied.
“You’re killing Mom and Dad.”
“They killed me a long time ago.”
“Kim, you can be happy again.”
“I’ve NEVER BEEN HAPPY!”
And so in a life absent of happiness, overflowing with grief—in desperate, futile attempts to quiet the bloodied army in his mind—he used more.
Jenn and I went to sleep in our new apartment at 333 E. Broadway that night, drained from the long day of lugging our stuff in the brutal heat. Around midnight, she woke me.
“It’s your mom,” she said “Something’s wrong with Kim.” I had slept right through the phone ringing.
“Seth…,” Mom’s terrified voice rang. They called from the hospital. “Kim’s in the hospital and they won’t tell me anything. They need someone to go there.” I kept cool for her and got the number of the doctor who’d called her.
He was intense and even as he told me, “Yes, you have to come here.”
“What’s wrong,” I asked, and he said he wasn’t allowed to give me any information, that a family member had to come there.
“Can you at least tell me if he’s alive?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you anything. You have have to come to the hospital,” was all he could offer.
Jenn said she would come along and I told her that there was no need for both of us to lose sleep. There was nothing she could do. I’d just call her and let her know once I got there. She squinted at me as if to say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” She put her sneakers on and we headed for the door.
We drove to Lincoln Hospital in The Bronx in virtual silence. The possible scenarios flipped through my mind as I tried to secure some control over what was likely to be a completely hopeless circumstance.
My brother’s junkie friend, Angelo greeted us outside the E.R. and said he was going to get some answers. Kim was fine. I should just sit tight. All under control. He was very warm and big-brotherly. That’s how most of my brother’s friends used to treat me.
I asked for the doctor by name. A nurse came from behind the counter, and we were escorted to a small conference room off of the regular waiting room. As we turned to follow, Jenn whispered, “Shit.” We squeezed our held hands tightly as we walked to the room.
We passed through the doorway and I heard Angelo’s voice and the African accent of the doctor I’d spoken to on the phone. The doctor saying he couldn’t talk with him and Angelo getting loud. Then intense, loud whispers. Then Angelo screaming. A big grieving man scream. “KIMM…..NOOO KIMMMM!!” This is how I found out.
With Angelo crying loudly in the background, and the sound of something pounding—Angelo’s fist? His feet stomping?—the doctor came and explained that the reason that he could not tell me anything on the phone was because my brother was, indeed DEAD.
“I’m very sorry,” he said. We both kept wincing in reaction to Angelo’s fit. This poor young doctor had tears in his eyes. I’d just lost my brother, for good this time, and I was sad for him. What a job. We embraced. I asked the doctor if we could see my brother. A nurse led us through the emergency room, where another nurse made a sassy comment to ours. Our nurse responded with wide open “shut-the-fuck-up” eyes, and the other, now aware of why we were there, shut the fuck up and just kept on walking.
A rolling bed guarded a closed curtain behind which lay my only brother. We stood over him and I said I was sorry and kissed him on his clammy forehead. I loved his face, and ran my hand across his head, breathing in the smell of smoke and sweat. I resisted trying to get a handle on this, my most surreal moment to date. I looked at Jenn. We hugged and we left.
A couple of days later the retirement-age city coroner would tell me that his autopsy showed that any individual quantity of the cocaine, alcohol, and heroin that Kim had ingested that day would have killed him. She said that it was clear that he was a “career addict.”
We left the hospital, in shock, sometime after 3am. After making our first right, glistening in the light of a lamppost, the only sign of life for blocks, was a New York City Department of Sanitation rear-loading garbage truck. It takes a long time to understand that someone has died. I’d had mere minutes to begin assigning meaning to coincidence and began seeing signs everywhere. This truck was a steel and hose barrel-chested angel with wings outstretched and bound for eternity. I wanted to stop the car and board the truck, or to just watch it. Maybe my brother would climb out of the cab and come to our car and I’d cry through tears of relief. Maybe he’d give me a tour of the truck he had bragged about so many times. Maybe he’d let me move the lever and crush something. I wanted to be proud of my brother. I wanted him back. On this block, in this hellhole, my brother hadn’t yet died.
The worst hadn’t come. We drove to through the night to Queens on a mission to tell my parents their child was dead.
When someone who needs help doesn’t accept it, you become infuriated, and then you become resigned. But when the consequences of their trespasses become your consequences and they just lie, ruin and avoid in the face of what has become your sacrifice, then hatred brews.
I hated my brother for sure, but I adored him and would have done anything to bring him peace. To rescue him. I’d recently told him once again that if he’d just go thru detox, stop hanging out with losers, go to meetings, begin doing the things that happy people do, then he could have a nice life.
I’d called the Sanitation Department’s Employee Assistance Unit to get clear on the help that could be available to those who needed it. They could have set him up with paid leave, rehab and outpatient therapy. When I reiterated the promising news to my brother he freaked out. “Are you fucking kidding me? You want me to go to the Employee Assistance Unit…to my job and tell them I’m a drug addict?” He was furious that I’d called on his behalf. I had done so anonymously, of course, but there was no calming his paranoia. Once, when he confided his remorse to me, I saw a window to his humility and told him I would arrange detox and rehab for him and we could go that very day. Through his tears, he asked if they’d let him use heroin there.
Now he was dead. There would be no more of his bullshit. Forget that I, the younger brother, had been the more responsible one for half of our lives together and that he’d been my consuming nightmare. I’d lost my one and only sibling.
The ride to my parents’ apartment in Flushing happened like one of those sleeps that last an entire night but feel like mere seconds has passed. There were blurred store signs, muted police sirens, minimal words, and terror. How were we to compose ourselves for a task like this? What could we do?
There must be a protocol for comforting the dying, as my mother was. Like just being there. Just being a sounding board or holding a space open for them to process their process, while reminding them that sunshine is still lovely and humor still feels good, if only for now. But this new development twisted reality in a most cruel and impossible way.
I was a wet ton as I lifted myself out of the car and walked toward my parents’ building. I’d never wanted to run away more than I did right then. To just drive off into oblivion. I have friends who live hundreds of miles away from the nearest city in New Mexico, and we could just show up and live with them, catch water, make mud bricks and sleep in a tent with dogs who would guard our perimeter from the howling coyotes at night. I wanted so badly to be free.
I felt horrible for dragging Jenn into this, but she took it on as if it were her own family. Her own brother. Her duty. She’d lost her big sister a decade earlier and had a sense of strength here that kept us focused on this thing.
In the elevator there was no more running. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” I asked. She nodded and did not ask me the same question. Of course I wasn’t. We got out, made a right turn and walked the horrible walk to their door, unlocked it and went in.
“How’s Kim?” my mother asked. “Is he ok?” I looked at her blankly. “Is he dead?” I stood there. “DEAD!? Honey! Honey! He’s dead! Kim! Our Kim,” Mom screamed. She would have run around the apartment if her cancer had left her any strength.
Dad slumped into shock. “YOU DID THIS,” Mom yelled at the father who had just lost his son. “You always hated him!”
“It’s no one’s fault, Mom. Please let’s not make it worse.”
In a while, the panic subsided. We commenced our mourning with two hours in my parents’ bedroom. We were going to stay over, or at least I was, but my mom said, “Go home. You should sleep. I’m okay.”
Throughout all their years of neediness, their dependence and the demands of their respective conditions, I had complied, not always willingly. And throughout, they apologized. They’d say things like, “This is too much for you,” or “I’m not sure how you’re doing this.”
I felt used and overextended beyond my limit. I had explained away and advocated for them since I was young and thought I must be cursed to have such a desperate and pathetic family. But I’d say, “It’s no big deal.”. Or “You HAD me….this is nothing.”
The following day I got my crash course in making funeral arrangements. I’d plan two more in the coming months, and through them all, as one-by-one I buried my entire immediate family, I maintained a tense detachment. I called one cousin and asked her to call the others. I asked one of my friends to call whomever they thought should know. I did the same with my mom’s friends. Dad had none to speak of, but I did print up a small sign and posted it between the two elevators in the lobby of their building.
“The funeral for Kim Branitz will be at….”
My dad kept telling me he couldn’t go. My mom kept splitting off into semi cheerful idle talk and then into supreme darkness. Then back. We each dealt with this loss our in own way. The guilt was heaviest for them, as I had shown up as fully as I could have, given my brother’s insufferable unwillingness to be supported in recent years. Our parents had continued to give him shit for everything, yet continued providing room and board regardless of his unwavering trail of destruction. They did this knowing it wouldn’t help, that nothing would help. But they couldn’t bear turning him to the streets where he looked and smelled like he lived. True, my mom was now dying from her cancer. And Dad’s heart was leaking, and there was this test that was going to tell us if the doctor’s suspicion was correct about leukemia. He had been taking mom’s painkillers and some days could barely get out of bed. Their bodies were already a mess, but Kim’s death definitely killed them.
If, on the other hand, Kim had lived, Mom’s death was something he couldn’t have borne. A few months earlier, I attempted to have a conversation with him about accountability and the importance of getting clean and ending the barrage of problems he brought home to our suffering parents. I realized that he didn’t have an understanding of mom’s prognosis and I thought it imperative for him to know. “Kim, Mommy’s dying,” I said. “You do realize that, don’t you?”
He sulked deeply, then exploded. “Fuck you! You’re MEAN!” He couldn’t even look at me. He nearly head butted me as he lashed his second “FUCK YOU,”, delivered through a distorted frown that took over his whole face and his entire body. A few weeks later Mom told me that Kim had been crying inconsolably in bed one day and when she sat with him and rubbed his back and asked what was wrong, he said that I had told him that she was dying. He was angry at me for saying such a thing. He fucking told on me. Imagine dying Mom, consoling her grown son, in denial over her own impending death. And then her bringing it to me. Really fucked up. She wasn’t mad at me, just telling me. She and I were very, very close. My brother was pathetic.
So we mourned. For the few-hours long shiva, in the dark, cluttered apartment my parents shared with him, there were many pictures of Kim in better times. He had been the most beautiful child. I heard myself saying how perfect he was and still cannot bear the tragedy, the waste.
And now I write, not to forget—I’ll never forget—but to maybe put this great expanse of spoiled fortune on a high shelf. Set it aside for small bits of time. To know it’s there and that I can take it out now and then and make a little more sense out of it if I feel up for the challenge. When I feel strong enough to know it won’t kill me.
It didn’t the first time.
* * *
Editor: Sari Botton