The hardest thing I have ever done ended today with the most difficult phone call I have ever made: telling my niece that her brother, my nephew Alex, died last night of an accidental overdose, at age 27.
Alex’s life was never easy. As an infant, he had a cry that was already raging at the world. I had never heard that kind of cry from a newborn before, and it made a lasting impression on me. So much so, that when he started getting in trouble as a 12-year-old, my partner and I decided to take him into our family to see if we could get him through adolescence in one piece.
Bringing him into our family was hard on everyone. For the entire first year he lived with us, I could not leave him in a room alone with any of my kids for more than five minutes. If I did, someone would be crying, something would be broken, Alex would have hurt someone or completely disrupted the scene. It was like having an infant in distress—a 13-year-old, raging infant in great pain who couldn’t see past himself to think about anyone else. My children suffered a lot so that Alex could have a stable home life for those years.
Raising Alex was where I discovered the greatest coping mantra ever. Much of the time living with him was simply unbearable, and I could not have done it if I’d thought in terms of there being five more years to go, or four more years. Instead I told myself, “It’s only three more months.” Three months was a length of time I could endure, and repeating that every day got me through all six years of his stay with us.
Alex was very bright and could be quite charming—especially if he was the center of attention. He was hyperactive, and we thought about whether to get him tested for ADD. In the end, we thought that with a history of addiction in his family, he would be better off not taking Ritalin as a teenager. Maybe that was the right call, maybe not, but in the end it was the prescription drugs that really kicked him down the stairs.
His middle school principal once told me, “It’s the smart kids that figure it out eventually. The ones who aren’t smart usually don’t make it.” That consoled me for several years, thinking that because Alex was so smart he’d get it together. It turns out that intelligence has very little to do with it, nor does morality. Alex had a very strong sense of right and wrong, but his self-destructive streak was simply stronger, and he didn’t learn to control it in time to really live.
As I finish writing this, it dawns on me that I never sang Alex the song I wrote for him, back when he was 17. In spite of all our struggles, there were times when I felt a deep connection between us, and those moments were like gold. One evening as I returned home late from something or other, the lines of this song came to me in an easy flow. I’d always meant to sing it to Alex when we had a good moment alone together, after he was out of the woods and doing fine. I never did, and now I never will. Here is a recording I made of “Take Wing” four years ago.
Last night’s may have been the last 2 am call from the Sheriff that I will ever get—may it be so. But this is only the beginning of all the days when I will think I see Alex in town, then realize it’s someone else. Every time I see a bright, handsome kid bouncing down the street like he’s got the world in his pocket, it will always look like Alex to me. There is no good reason that he should be dead today. It’s a damn tragedy, and I don’t know how you live through tragedy like this. Maybe by thinking, “It’s only three more months,” then he’ll be back. Yes, that’s the ticket.