Loving My Brother from a Distance

By Dawn Clancy 09/29/14

I was asked whether or not I wanted his number and without pause, I answered with a very firm, “No.” I felt guilty for a few days after for turning down the opportunity to hear his voice but eventually I came to respect the fact that I’m just not ready.


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I dreamt that I saw my brother standing on a street corner in Center City, Philadelphia. His hair was long, black and clean and his skin looked softer than the fuzz on a summer peach.

At first I didn’t believe that it was him because the last time that I saw my brother, in the flesh, he was strung out and living in a crack house. His hair, at that time, was matted to the back of his neck and the sides of his face. His eyes were drooping out of his head and the skin around them looked tired and curdled. His mouth was one big infected sore. His teeth were black and rotted and some of them had simply melted away.

Right before I woke up from my dream, he spotted me staring at him from across the street. Our eyes met and he smiled, his mouth was full of bleached white teeth. His eyes were clear and wide. He opened his mouth to say something but before he could get it out I blurted, “Oh my God, Are you really sober this time?” And before he could answer I woke up.

As I lay there in bed staring through the dark that fogged over the ceiling, I couldn’t figure out what pissed me off more; the fact that my brother showed up in my dream seemingly sober or that I woke up right before I got to find out if he really was.

I remember being nine years old and making brownies with my brother after school. The first thing we had to do he’d say is pre-heat the oven to 350°. I wasn’t allowed to go near the oven or the stove when my parents weren’t home so my brother, almost a decade my senior, took care of that part. My job was to pull the metal baking dish out from underneath the sink and grease it up with Pam cooking spray, “Make sure you get the corners and the sides real good,” my brother would say as he gathered the ceramic bowl, measuring cup, wooden spoon, eggs and vegetable oil from their respective places and laid them out on the counter. He’d crack open the cardboard box and pull out the thin plastic bag of brownie mix. The mix was more like a dull brown powder that released small puffs of ashy smoke as it landed with a soft thud into the ceramic bowl. I’d add the eggs, he’d add the water and the oil and then stir with the wooden spoon. He was wearing a wife beater, worn blue jeans and a dark blue do-rag, mottled with white swirls around his head. The muscles in his left arm twitched as he pounded the spoon around the bowl. He smelled like Irish Spring soap, musty incense and cigarettes. “Yo, you want to lick the bowl, right?” He asked me from the corner of his mouth. I let out an excited, “Yes!” as I clasped both of my hands under my chin. My shoulders barely cleared the top of the counter so I had to look up at my brother as I tried to stand as close to him as humanly possible. He chuckled and handed me the ceramic bowl, “Here you go goof ball.” I smiled even harder as I plunged my fingers down into the thick, raw globs of brownie batter stuck to the bottom and sides of the bowl; my brother licked the little bits of batter that were left on the wooden spoon.

Although I loved having my brother home, I knew better than to get too comfortable with him being there because he had a habit of disappearing. The pattern would start out with him getting and staying sober for at least six months. During that time he’d score a job laying carpet or landscaping. He’d get back together with his girlfriend, he’d make it home for dinner every night and even start working on getting his GED. But before long, just as I would get comfortable with him being there, he’d start using again, selling drugs, and then my dad would catch him in the kitchen at 9am on a Saturday with beer on his breath. They’d fight, toss around a colorful bunch of four letter words and by noon my brother would be gone. Sometimes he’d leave on his own or my dad would kick him out in a fury of anger. The result though was always the same, either my brother would end up in jail, in the hospital or he’d be living out on the streets completely homeless, in the shadiest part of town. I remember asking my dad once if he knew where my brother was and he said he didn’t. I then asked him if he thought he was dead. My dad barely flinched at my question and instead he pulled a long drag from his cigarette and coolly spoke through the smoke that curled out from his lips. He said, “If your brother dies I’ll find out. Someone will tell me.”

As the years passed and as my brother fell deeper into his addictions and after I had moved away from home, it became even more difficult to keep track of his whereabouts. I reached a point in my 20’s where I just didn’t want to know anymore. It wasn’t that I stopped caring about my brother or ever stopped loving him but I realized at some point that constantly worrying about him and waiting for him to get sober was not only screwing with my peace of mind but it was also breaking my heart. So for my own well being, I decided that I had to be willing to let him and my fantasies of a beautiful reunion go.

While in the midst of my tenth mid-life crisis, about six years ago, I met with an Intuitive Counselor (who by the way is not a psychic) to hopefully gather some insight about what was suffocating my life. Before our appointment, she had me email her a few odd details about myself such as - my birthday, the time of day I was born, where I was born and the hospital that I was born in. We talked about my job, she told me that I needed to work on developing more patience and taming my temper. She told me that I was meant to travel and that I needed to get out of Brooklyn. She also described my now husband flawlessly and told me that I was meant to be a writer and not a musician. Before our time ended, I asked her about my brother. I still wanted to know if he would ever get sober and if he would ever be in my life again. Her answer left me feeling a bit unsettled and angry. She said, “He’ll never be completely sober but you will connect with him. But whether or not that happens will be completely up to you.”

It’s been a decade since I’ve seen or spoken to my brother. The last I heard from a family member, exactly a year ago this August, was that he was out of jail, sober and sleeping on a friend's couch. I was asked whether or not I wanted his number and without pause, I answered with a very firm, “No.” I felt guilty for a few days after for turning down the opportunity to hear his voice but eventually I came to respect the fact that I’m just not ready. And if and when I ever want to make that connection it will be something that I am ready to do regardless of whatever the outcome may be. But no matter what happens or doesn’t happen I know that I love my brother even if I have to do it from a distance. And that’s something that his addiction will never be able to change.

Dawn Clancy is the creator of Growing Up Chaotic, a blog and radio program for those determined to survive and thrive despite growing up in toxicity. Her goal is to create a community hell bent on breaking, cracking and demolishing the cycle of dysfunction.

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Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is growingupchaotic.com.