What I Saw When I Really Looked: My Late Brother, Heroin, and Grief

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When the tomatoes were ripe, when my closet was eager with crisp shirts and clean sneakers, when I had jumped off of a high swing and was lying in the grass listening to mourning doves and lawn mowers—that’s when the hot air balloons came.

One of the children on the cul-de-sac would spot it first. He’d point and run from yard to yard as the stripes of orange, yellow, purple, and red silently descended. Fathers turned off their mowers. Mothers snuffed their cooking flames and poured wine. The children sprinted while the grown ups walked through one another’s yards to the place where the wicker basket seemed to lean, and we waited, staring upward and waving.

The balloon dipped gently and clumsily. Sometimes it glided to another neighbor’s yard, and we followed its path—20 of us in cutoffs and summer dresses. Its burners coughed fire, and when the balloon got close, the fire was loud. When it touched down, the fathers ran to it, grabbing hold of the wicker and wires, their weight too light to keep the basket from skidding through the sweet grass.

The balloons came because we had big yards. They came because we were lucky. To the family who owned the yard, the pilot presented a bottle of champagne. Then he tipped the basket on its side, and we watched as the balloon billowed, breathing like a jellyfish, and swooned to the ground.

I like to think this happened often each summer—that there was a hot air balloon season, that they descended as assuredly as summer storms. Maybe it only happened three times in my life. My vision of the event—the abundance, the gauzy repose, the family intact, with mother and father performing their various duties and the children swinging safely in the yard—exposes the particular awe that leavens my memory of suburban childhood. As I remember it, we really were that lucky.

I don’t remember whether my big brother came running with the neighbor boys. Where was he then, and what did he see? Maybe Joe was at the stream behind the houses, studying the antennae of crayfish. Maybe he was melting slugs beneath salt. Maybe he was already 14, on the train tracks with Sam, whose thumb was torn from trying to open a beer bottle on a rock. Maybe he was laughing and scared as his friend bled onto the rails. Or was he looking up, following the bright descent through the evening light?

In literary study, we talk about vision. How does the narrator see the world? we ask. To what does she draw the reader’s eye? To evaluate a text, my professor used to ask, “Do you want to continue seeing the world with this person?”

Joe and I saw the world differently. We diverged in what we noticed, what we remembered, and how we interpreted the images in view. I suspect he wouldn’t have clung to the balloons lilting over the gardens the way I have, for they wouldn’t suit his vision. Conversely, I chose to look away from the images on which he focused—first, the withering slugs; later, the warehouse parties, the needles in his skin.

When he died, one humid afternoon in my mother’s living room, my vision of the world was altered.

“Something is the matter with the sunsets.”

Mary Cabot writes this in her diary in the 1868 epistolary novel The Gates Ajar. One week has passed since she learned that her brother has died at war. “Something is the matter with the sunsets,” she laments; “they come and go and I do not notice them. Something ails the voices of children, snowballing down the street; all the music has gone out of them.”

I read The Gates Ajar after Joe had died, just 32 and overcome in his own quiet war. Written by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Gates was one of the two most widely sold religious novels of the 19th century. It’s the diary of a young woman bereaved three times over: Her mother died when she was a child, and her father died in her adolescence, leaving Mary and her brother Roy to care for one another. Mary is 24 when Roy is killed, and sorrow changes her vision of the world.

“The lazy winds are choking me,” she writes, “Their faint sweetness makes me sick.” “The great maple, just reaching up to tap at the window, blazes and bows under its weight of scarlet blossoms. I cannot bear their perfume.”

Like all of us, Mary possesses a particular vision of the world. She is a person who notices winds and scarlet blossoms. She notices sunsets. As a narrator, she turns our faces so that we see what she sees. She doesn’t point us to steel stacks, or bacon grease, or cadavers, because, though these things may cross her line of sight, they do not stay with her. They do not compose her vision of the world.

After Roy dies, Mary can’t bear the beauty that she once may have loved to behold. She thinks of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem and reflects, “It is easy to understand how Bianca heard ‘The nightingales sing through her head,’ how she could call them ‘Owl-like birds,’ who sang ‘for spite,’ who sang ‘for hate,’ who sang ‘for doom.’”

Browning and Phelps both use a literary device that, early in the next century, T.S. Eliot would popularize with the phrase objective correlative. This is Eliot’s name for the way that a writer can express a character’s emotional state by projecting that emotion onto objects in the character’s view. In the essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot writes, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Are the moonflowers spectral or lustrous? Is the wisteria weeping or in repose? Each tells you something different about the state of mind of the speaker.

Mary Cabot’s diary reads, “I hate the bluebirds flashing in and out of the carmine cloud that the maple makes, and singing, singing everywhere …Most of all I hate the maple.”

In my 20s, my frame of vision held long dinner tables lined with lavender shoots, gifts wrapped in twine, and the glad faces of friends, which I studied as I flipped again and again through photos, reliving the weekend. My vision was filled with living rooms of people singing along to a folk song, and bars where my friends’ band played and the rest of us danced. In my range of view: Philadelphia cobblestone. Nasturtium spilling from window boxes. The glittering face of Lake George in summer. Sunflowers in wedding bouquets, and a dozen faces singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at birthdays over wine-soaked dinners. My temple pressed against my husband’s cheek, my eyelashes tracing his skin like a moth’s wing.

If perception was a camera, I captured what I found beautiful, and shaped a moral understanding of the world based on these scenes. The world I saw was loving and abundant, and surprises were good, coming from the sky like hot air balloons.

Outside of the frame: Philly blocks laden with trash and cracked concrete. Films about drugs: Pulp Fiction and Blow. Dirty politics and foreign wars. I chose not to look at these, and the glimpses that I did see did not penetrate my expectation that overall, things were good, and getting better.

Also outside of the frame: My own brother’s work DJing late-night parties in North Philly warehouses—he invited me now and then and I didn’t go. The art Joe liked: Berlin producers and sinister cartoons. The drugs he used: meth, ecstasy, and the heroin that killed him.

Like most addicts, Joe didn’t want his drug use to be seen. He expertly kept it out of sight. I have come to understand that my seeing it likely wouldn’t have changed its impact. But I wonder: How would our relationship have been different if, while he lived, I had really seen my brother? What if I had welcomed his vision of the world into my own?

“While you were watching Seventh Heaven, Joe was watching the X-Files,” my mother remembers. He was drawn to the extraterrestrial, the apocalyptic, the digital. He loved the game Doom and the late-night History Channel feature Ancient Aliens. His vision was full of scenarios in which people had to protect themselves from impending harm. The moral implication of this vision was that self-preservation was more expedient than love—a conviction he’d insist upon as an adult, in the same breath with which he’d call me sentimental.

Joe’s vision was crowded with scenes like this:

In his early 20s, the yard of his row home backed up to the yard of a church. There was a big freezer in that yard full of frozen turkeys. More than once, he climbed the fence at night to steal those turkeys, rock hard and heavy. He and his roommate thawed the birds and basted their cold, pale skins with oil and Sriracha and threw a Friendsgiving.

With this roommate he spent hours in front of computer screens, his eyes pooling with purple light as he stared at the knobs and columns of production software, beats scattered across the screen like morse code. Then they were out performing the tracks they’d produced, watching the dance floor swell and sigh as the parties exhaled into the fog of morning.

Joe loved to watch the purity of expression on the dance floor. He made music because he was addicted to the technical precision required to make a complex track, but also because his music gave people the freedom to let loose, to move, to hide or to be seen, luminous and transfigured among the other swaying bodies.

The desire for a luminous body, a free body, must have coursed like a drug through his own body, bound and distressed as it was by its vices.

Years before, when we were teenagers in the same house, I noticed that the bathroom often smelled like vomit. I didn’t ask about this; already he’d begun using drugs, and my love was so tightly entwined with my disappointment that I knew my concern would be heard as critique. After he died, I read that most heroin users vomit almost immediately after the drug hits their system, sometimes repeatedly. Also after he died, I found a journal entry my father had written during Joe’s late teenaged years:
Again, I found a little pile of vomit in the basement office, in a Tupperware container in the closet. I’ve found these piles before, on the carpet, or crusted in the grass behind the shed.

What is wrong with my son? What failure along the way rendered him unable to care for himself? His failure? My own?
My father saw what I chose not to see: So often, Joe’s frame of vision was filled with little piles of his own food, eaten and expelled from his thin, pale frame.

When Joe looked in the mirror, he saw rotted teeth. For years, I thought this resulted from the cigarettes he smoked. After he died, I read about meth mouth, caused by the acidity of the drug and the dry mouth, teeth-grinding, and sugar cravings common among users. I winced as I scrolled through a hundred images to see if the mouths pictured looked like Joe’s. Most were more severe, blackened and corroded to nubs. But some looked just like his: yellowed and truncated, as if two millimeters had been razed off the bottoms.

Joe went to rehab when he was 22, and when he finished, he got beautiful new teeth. He had a job in marketing. He had dental insurance. He had a healthy, bright smile which he began to offer more generously, and which I liked to look at. From then on, I thought he was clean of hard drugs. When he relapsed, I didn’t allow his drug use to be part of my vision. When, in the nine years that followed, he presented signs of use—when he was groggy midday, and irritable; when his pupils eclipsed the blue in his eyes—I didn’t ask questions. I was afraid to seem accusing, and to rupture whatever rapport we were developing. I didn’t know enough about the habits of addicts to be sure I was seeing the signs. Perhaps I didn’t want my suspicions proved; what would I do with the truth in view?

The winter before he died, my mother sent me a photo of Joe’s heel. It was swollen up through the ankle, pale and bitten with tiny scabs. “Taking Joe to the ER to have his foot checked,” she wrote. I shuddered and wrote back, “Yikes.” The doctor diagnosed it as cellulitis, a common bacterial infection. After Joe died, my mother and I read that some heroin users shoot up into their feet to hide the marks. Cellulitis is common among addicts who use needles. “That’s when we really started to worry about him,” Joe’s friend told us that summer. “When he started using needles.” Meanwhile, I had been blind, and was blindsided.

“It seems to me as if the world were spinning around in the light and wind and laughter,” writes Mary Cabot, “and God just stretched down His hand one morning and put it out.” Grief has a way of dimming the lights, and draining the sunrise of its color.

“The days usually look so long and blank at the beginning, that I can hardly make up my mind to step out into them,” writes Mary. She sees blank days; she hears “the dull music of the rain.” Where she might have seen abundance, she now sees violence: “a cold wind was bruising the apple-buds.”

According to the logic of the objective correlative, our emotions inform what we see and how we see it: “Something is the matter with the sunsets.” In bereavement, I learned that what I see also informs my emotions, shaping my expectations and my moral understanding of the world. This is vision’s feedback loop. Sometimes it needs to be interrupted.

The morning after Joe died, my cousins brought croissants from our family’s favorite bakery, a French-Vietnamese patisserie in South Philly. When I finally woke and descended the bewildering staircase, I reached into the paper bag and tore a quarter of an almond croissant. It was the perfect croissant—sweet, brittle at the corners and otherwise tender, buttered between layers so that each could be peeled and savored. I took one bite. I knew then that it would be a long time before I could eat food like this, its beauty incongruous with our stark and gruesome loss.

It didn’t make sense to eat croissants. It didn’t make sense to drink summer cocktails, or to wear lace sundresses, or to laugh. Croissants were brittle, cocktails bitter, and lace was full of holes. Laughter was an incision in my gut, foreign and cold. Holding a newborn, touching his puckered chin in the hospital the day after a friend’s labor, only reminded me of all that my mother had lost.

It made sense only to behold my brother. We gathered photographs for his funeral. We folded and unfolded his clothing, studying his style. We listened to his music. We spoke to his friends. They came to my mother’s house or met her downtown for coffee. They told her how they loved his big goofy grin; they told her what they knew about his drug use. We asked them questions, and we read and read and learned all that we could about how to buy heroin, how to use it, its impact on the body. It took 16 weeks for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner to report that heroin, fentanyl, and amphetamines had been in his system when he died. While we waited, Mom and I lined up each piece of evidence to make sense of his death—the vomit on the couch behind his slouched body, the phone log reporting a quick visit to a friend around noon, the empty baggies in his wallet. We watched videos of people using heroin. We read about the opioid crisis in Philly’s Kensington neighborhood, about the needles that littered the sidewalks and stoops. I scrolled four months back in the log of messages from my mother to find the image of Joe’s swollen heel. I winced, and fixed my gaze.

My husband wondered when I’d stop reading addiction memoirs, and when I’d stop the late-night phone calls with Joe’s friends. It was morose to dwell on these stories, he worried. But it was what I needed. To look upon my brother’s life, to see what he saw, was an impulse of love, come too late. It was all I could do to connect with Joe, to understand him, to say “I see you” now that he’d vanished. Looking upon his life and death, I came to see what he may have seen: That surprise can come not like a lit balloon but like a wildfire. That entropy, and not abundance, is physical law.

The Gates Ajar is a book about the slow rise of hope on a bleak horizon. Mary is inconsolable after learning of her brother’s death. Soon, she receives a visit from her Aunt Winifred, a young widow, already gray, who has thought very much about death. At Winifred’s arrival, Mary remarks, “A little arrow of light has just cut the gray gloom of the West.” The women pass hours over a summer talking about Roy, wondering with increasing hope about life after death. As their conversation progresses, Mary is able again to bear the sight and sound and smell of beauty. She hears the chatter of children “chiming down the hall like bells.” The wind, which had choked her, now sweeps “like somebody’s strong arms over the flowers, and gathers up a crowd of perfumes that wander up and down” around her. Not only can she tolerate laughter, she can see it, as Winifred’s daughter laughs out “like the splash of a little wave.”

It is hope in the transfigured body that changes Mary’s vision. At first, she’s terrified that she’ll never see her brother again. But Winifred speaks of heaven in a way Mary’s never heard before. She quotes Saint Paul, saying that the human body, once dead, is “‘raised in incorruption.’ ‘It is raised in glory.’ ‘It is raised in power.’” Rather than picturing an afterlife in which people are unrecognizable wisps of spirit, these women imagine that the dead indwell the very bodies they bore in their lives, only luminous, healed, “free from all the distortion of guilt.” With this vision, Mary believes that one day she will embrace her brother again.

One mystery of transfiguration perplexes Mary: Even in their radiance, these bodies as Winifred imagines them do not lack the scars of their lifetime. Free of pain, their skin remembers pain.

“Why remember it?” Mary wonders.

“Save but to swell the sense of being blest,” Winifred answers. “Besides, forgetfulness of the disagreeable things of this life implies forgetfulness of the pleasant ones. They are all tangled together.”

Two years have passed since I held Joe’s cold hands in my mother’s living room. The dim days of grief have passed. Again, I can laugh. Again, I can peel the buttery layers of a pastry and savor each ribbon on my tongue. But croissants will always remind me of the morning after Joe died. A Negroni with peeled orange curling over the rim will take me to the summer that I couldn’t drink, when drinking was too celebratory a gesture for so solemn a season. I can bear to see beauty, to taste and to smell it, but it’s tangled now with a realistic burden of the pain that my brother bore—that many around me bear still. When Joe died, an old way of seeing needed to be put to death. In time, a new way of seeing would arise, transfigured. Joe’s vision carried within my own, I sense I am closer to the molten center of reality, and already I feel I am being transformed.

Image: Flickr/Rusty Clark