I’M NOT SORRY
by Ali Kojak
They say I should write you a letter. As a goodbye, they smile sadly, for closure. They say closure like it’s a literal thing I can touch, can put in my Amazon cart and click, it’s here. Aha! Now you’re closed. But how do you close a life? Maybe it’s like sending guests home after a party. Thank you for living, I say quietly, as you stand in the doorway not looking ready to leave. I gently push the door in your direction, biting my lip to stop from changing my mind. It’s late, and my kids are tired, I plead, so you step back but keep staring—sadly, silently, into the warm house. Now I push hard and fast, heart-pounding, sweaty fingers turning the bolt frantically. As if you might push back. As if it really matters. As if you’re not a ghost. I sink to the floor—back against the door, head in my knees—and sob. Wait, I scream, come back. I’m not ready. You never respected my privacy anyway.
The official cause of death is an overdose of carfentanil, but cocaine metabolites, fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and a positive screen for cannaboids all played a supporting role. I think that means you were high AF, but I also hope it means you were peaceful. I hope you were dreaming of floating on your back in a wide, sleepy river, arms and legs spread generously, sun on your face. A current lazily carrying you downstream, breaths deep and rhythmic, each exhale releasing tension that gets carried away by the ripples. Completely content, at last. Of course, that’s also the guided meditation my new therapist uses to keep fear from hijacking my mind, so, you know, take it for what it’s worth. While you survived the wounds of our childhood by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, I relied on anxiety and perfectionism. It turns out one of those coping mechanisms has higher odds of survival. The unfairness of that threatens to shatter me daily, a sledgehammer of guilt, suspended.
In 2017, the year you died, the U.S. Department of Health and Human services declared a public health emergency to address the national opioid crisis. More than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose that year, and Ohio (where you were cut open at 9:05 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October) was the state with the second-highest rate of drug overdose deaths. The heart of it all, we’d roll our eyes as kids, unimpressed by our pedestrian Midwestern life. A heart stopped by the opioid epidemic, apparently. I know these details because in an attempt to make sense of, or maybe find meaning in, your death, I tried to find its place in some larger narrative. Like a puzzle piece, useless in isolation. Oh, I see, he fits right there, that spot—there’s a pattern to all this dying. It’s okay now. I’m okay now. Right? Unsurprisingly, it all still feels meaningless. Did it feel as meaningless to the medical examiner, I wonder, when she coldly cataloged your clothes?
White adult male received in white short-sleeved V-necked t-shirt, pair of white on black plaid boxer shorts with waistband of black, white and blue checked fabric, pair of white Nike sneakers, and pair of short white socks with gray heels and toes. Did she wonder what happened to your pants? Why you had on shoes but no pants? Why is there a description of the waistband of your boxers but no question as to the location of your pants? Maybe she was too busy noticing how clean your white Nikes were, a fellow shoe aficionado. Or maybe when she documented the cutaneous tattoo of a lion with an axe and crown in the lateral upper right deltoid, she thought of her own ink work and questioned the story behind yours. When she charted that your scalp was brown with scant gray and mild bitemporal hairline recession, there’s a chance she thought of her own husband’s impending baldness. Likely though, she kept her mind blank, focused solely on the medical undertaking, professionalism giving her the distance required to do her job. And yet, I can’t help but feel defensive. Did she describe the kind old man who died of natural causes, surrounded by dozens of friends and family, with the same detached tone? Or when she looked at you, did she only see another dead junkie?
I wish I could show her the pictures of you as a child, the ones I collected for your funeral slideshow, the tow-headed toddler with bright eyes and a disarming smile. Sitting confidently on our mother’s lap, looking curiously at the camera. Look, I’d say, at him here. Before all this. Isn’t it obvious he mattered? Don’t you see who he could have become? I also want to show them to the doctor who saved your life the summer before you died, the one I assume now realizes his effort was wasted. All that time, all my talent, for what? Six months? I imagine him thinking, and I resent him for that illusory judgment. Anger always feels better with a target. But also, I can’t shake that first impression.
That summer it had taken your girlfriend days to find you. She knew something was wrong, a sixth sense, and she tried to get everyone to worry. She called every hospital in Cincinnati (blind optimism ruling out morgues), and finally, there you were. You’d been there for at least a day already, brought in after calling your own ambulance when you realized you couldn’t walk. Confused by the searing pain in your arm and leg, you’d waited until you felt like you actually might die. You were dying, it turns out, rhabdomyolysis setting off a chain reaction of muscle death and kidney failure. It’s hard to imagine the pain you must have been in, how much you suffered in the name of self-sufficiency, or embarrassment, or fear of breaking parole, before finally asking for help. I blew through the drive from Chicago to find our parents already in the ICU (together! at the same time!), hovering helplessly over your cord-entangled body, while staff reminded us you were lucky to be alive. Or maybe I just sensed that, as the beeps and dings and whooshes crashed against the walls, a cacophony of uncertainty. So much support, to keep one heart beating. It seems ironic now.
They’d come suddenly to take you to another surgery, and you’d already had a few, so this one was risky, but without you’d die. Not much of a choice, and anyway, they said after we’d know better whether or not you’d live, and what kind of life that might be. A surgeon spent hours cutting out all the dead tissue and muscle from your body, saving whatever he could, giving you the best chance. Of what, we’ll never know. We spent hours in a massive, impersonal waiting room, getting on each other’s nerves and looking at our cell phones. It was more of a lobby, really, with a fireplace and a front desk and hundreds of chairs. So many chairs. A seat for every memory. I didn’t know it was possible to feel claustrophobic in such an open space, and I thought about that time we got in a fight and you ran away and swallowed an entire bottle of Benadryl. How scared I was trying to visualize what it looked like for a 12-year-old to have their stomach pumped, how mom screamed at me, Now look what you’ve done!
Sometimes, I’m caught in that space, in those hours, still waiting for you, checking in relentlessly with the woman at the information desk. A memory stuck on loop. The doctor knows we’re here, right? I ask, over and over, frustrated by how much time has passed without a single update. Hoping she might sympathize with the agony of spending hours not knowing. Because what if you’re back there, dead, and I’m out here, sipping a latte? Sighing, she repeats the line about the note she put in your chart asking the doctor to come out and brief us. (S.O.S., it probably said.) Please, I implore, shoulders sagging. It’s a long surgery, she finally softens, and my system shows they’re still in there. Eventually, I exhaust every gossip magazine on every table in that cavernous room, worn out by trying to equalize the time I sit near each parent, neither comforted by my presence. I make another approach. Don’t be rude, our dad hisses. Asking for information isn’t rude, I snarl back, before switching to what I hope is my most polite smile. She’s typing before I even ask, your patient number memorized. I’m so sorry, she greets me, eyes wide and apologetic, it actually looks like the surgery is over and the doctor has gone home for the day. What in the actual fuck?
My mind spins, and suddenly the room feels small, options closing in around me. I feel like I’m going to pass out, the effect of three cups of coffee and my inability to control the universe threatening to bring me to my knees. The elevator bings loudly, the noise interrupting my spiral. Two men in white coats get off, and I focus on the details to slow my heart rate. Breathe in: they are talking familiarly, an ordinary end-of-day exchange. Breathe out: white rectangular hospital name tags still attached to their pockets. Wait—it’s your surgeon, I realize, and beeline. Tell me everything, I demand, hoping my anger is more apparent than my terror. He frowns, tilting his head to one side. Unprepared for an ambush at the elevator, he apologizes to his colleague. His father, it turns out—they are both doctors and sometimes work at the same place. It’s sweet actually, but in that moment I hate him for it.
He asks calmly (too damn calmly) what I’m talking about, accustomed to anxious family members insisting on answers. I watch his face as I regurgitate all the details, the girlfriend-couldn’t-find-him, just-got-out-of-his-halfway-house, really-trying-to-get-better-this-time, two-boys-who-need-him, I-asked-the-front-desk-over-and-over, they-said-you’d-talk-to-us details, and finally, I see it register. Oh, she’s talking about the addict. But he says slowly, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize he had family here. And I translate internally, I didn’t realize anyone gave a shit. He does, and we do, and we’re here now. Tell us about the surgery, tell us about my brother, their son, her partner, their father. Tell us about the kid who collected baseball cards and Smurf figurines, a tiny pink-onesie-clad baby Smurfette on all fours his favorite. Tell yourself he’s important. And he does tell us all the details, kindly. It’s not enough to make me like him, though later you tell me he’s pretty nice. Thanks to his skill, you didn’t die then, though I think you might have wanted to.
You lost the use of your right arm and leg, and somehow it fell on me to break the news. You called yourself crippled, and useless, and unlovable, and mourned that you wouldn’t be able to wait tables—one thing you were always good at, one job you could always count on. Tears welled up in your eyes, and you asked, Why does this stuff always happen to me? I felt like the obvious answer was because you keep using, but saying so felt cruel, and I figured you knew that already. But the metaphorical question was one I didn’t (never will) have any answers for, so I mumbled something about how this time would be different, would be okay, you’d get through this, you had to, for your boys, and we both pretended to believe it. Both desperately wanted to. Would the exact right words have made a difference? If I had been able to explain God or the meaning of life, would you still be here? Did I even say I love you?
And then they let you leave, which surprised us all. But healthcare isn’t free, and you don’t get insurance on a server’s paycheck. Or in prison. And I know, I know, you tried. You always tried. I found a letter recently you wrote to dad right before you got out of prison the last time, lamenting over how much you’d missed with your boys. I’m going to use this to make a change and live a whole different life, you optimistically scrawled. I have plenty of time to make it right. It wrecks me still, reading that. And even though I spent most of my life waiting for the inevitable call, I thought you had plenty of time too. It’s ironic, how even though the brain uses hope to protect itself from trauma, that same hope can blind us. When I actually got the news, I refused to believe it. That’s not true, I told dad, I talked to him yesterday. Are you sure, I asked him, because sometimes they are wrong? Remember, this summer they thought he would die. Please, I pleaded, have them check again—too blinded by my own grief in the moment to consider his.
In the day/weeks/months that followed, I wrestled with this constantly. How much grief do I get? What is the allowance, for a sister? I am not your parent, or your partner, or your child. I didn’t know that kind of loss—the parent, partner, child kind—and felt greedy taking more than my share. As if grief were a pie, limited in slices. (Although, as an aside, dad died last spring. Presumably from lung cancer but also, I think, a broken heart.) I googled “sibling death” and “sister grief” and “my brother overdosed,” but only one article offered even the tiniest solace. I found a therapist and begged for homework that would help me get over it. Getting over it seemed like a reasonable goal at the time. She suggested the letter. I left when she couldn’t stop the hurting.
It hurt to talk about it, and it hurt to not talk about it. I blame Joseph Heller, because blaming you might crush me. When you do talk about death, after the pleasantries, the requisite I’m-so-sorrys, people usually ask questions. What happened? Were you close? The shame those questions surfaced surprised me. Well, we talked for a couple of hours the day before he died, I’d stammer, not offering up that despite our shared blood, sometimes it felt like we lived in different universes. You were worried about parole, and rent, and feeding your kids. I was worried about piano lessons, and date night, and Netflix. But we understood each other, always, bound by shared history. That counts for something, right? Telling them you overdosed, that was harder. Was I worried what they’d think of you or of me? He overdosed, I’d say quietly, eyes misting. It was terrible, I’d hurry on, before they might think it wasn’t. He was really trying, you know. A friend stopped me once, told me I was reminding her of a grandmother in her building who’d recently lost her grandson to gang violence. The grandmother was fumbling around for the right words to say about her grandson, and her pain, and how the way he lived was connected to his death. Listen, my friend had said to her, you don’t have to apologize for loving your grandson. I caught my breath at that part of the story, empathetic already. She waited until I looked up to personalize it. You don’t have to apologize for loving your brother. You don’t have to be sorry for your grief. Something cracked open in my soul, and I stood there weeping silently, relieved.
My grief is cyclical, the scab picked open again by a song on the radio or someone else’s tragedy. By our birthdays coming up next month, exactly one week apart. You would have been forty-three. Instead, you are dead. And I’m turning forty, the age you were when you died. My seven-year-old self would have thrown a thousand pennies into the mall fountain to be the same age as my older brother, but my almost forty-year-old self just feels sad. It’s disorienting to realize I’m the same age as you, physically impossible, except that death has frozen you in time. And time, for me, has moved mercilessly on. Mercifully too, of course, as distance softens the edges of hard memories, amplifies the tender ones. Even though we were only three years apart, you always felt so much older. Maybe because you were already here when I was born, and I never knew life without you. When you died, forty still felt so far away, like an age I couldn’t possibly imagine. But now, on the precipice, it seems so young. Too young. Too vulnerable. Too much left to do. It’s not fair, I want to scream into the wind, it wasn’t enough time. Is it ever? It wasn’t enough time for you to beat the odds, to find a sponsor who changed everything or have some meaningful experience that somehow resuscitated your will to live. It wasn’t enough time for the right prescription or right therapist to change the distorted patterns in your brain, for doctors to discover an addiction treatment that actually works. It wasn’t enough time for you to watch your boys grow up, teach them all the important things, leave them a legacy marked by redemption. It wasn’t enough time for a happy ending. Maybe it never would have been. That’s the hard thing about death. It steals the possibility of a plot twist, finishes the story, ready or not. Even if a turnaround is improbable, with life, there is hope. With death, there is nothing. More than anything, I wish your story had a different ending.
But in the beginning, you were my brother. And I loved you.
Ali Kojak is a writer, storyteller, and oversharer who frequently realizes she said too much. After spending nearly two decades as a nomad courtesy of the US Air Force, she and her husband put down roots in Oak Park, Illinois, where they are currently raising three wild children and a naughty French Bulldog. You can connect with her at alikojak.com.