We used to play together every summer. Four years older than me, Michael would come to spend the summer with his Great Aunt (my grandmother) so yes, we were cousins. Though not directly. We rode our bikes, went swimming in the lake, sat for hours watching Young and the Restless. (He had this unusual obsession for soaps as a teenage boy.)
One afternoon, we were riding around Invermere, Michael was always way ahead of me. Older, stronger, taller, and he had a BMX bike that he loved to show off with. We reached the bottom of the Athalmere hill and suddenly he stops. When I finally catch up, spitting out my wind whipped hair, I see why he stopped. In his hand he held a thick leather wallet. I'm sure my eyes bulged when I saw just why it was so thick. There had to be at least $500 in there.
I asked him where he'd found it. He pointed to the gravel ditch on the side of the road. Being my adolescent self, I wanted to spend it. I am not proud of this fact, but hey, I was a kid, had never seen that much money at one time. And I think most kids would have thought the same thing. But not Michael. He stuffed the wallet in the belt of his pants and took off back up the hill the way we had come. I pushed my short little legs as fast as they would go, but I couldn't keep up. I could only assume he was going back to my grandma's.
He handed the wallet to my grandmother who instantly phoned the local RCMP to report the wallet. Soon thereafter, a man appeared at the door, to collect the wallet. He was a cab driver. For his honesty, the man gave Michael $20. I wanted to crawl in to a hole. Of course he had done the right thing. And I knew if it had been me that found it, if I had been alone, I never would have reported it. I was going to hell.
One summer before, Michael gave me shit for running over a garter snake with my bike. I hated snakes. I still do. I figured the world was just that much better off with one fewer snake in it. But in retrospect, I suppose running over him once is one thing, but when I turned around and ran over it three, four, five times...okay maybe a little overkill. As payback, while we played at the beach, I got stung by a bee. And yes I hate bees too.
That was the last time he came to Invermere for the summer. But the following year, I went to Prince George with my grandparents to visit him. Michael was now a year older and into sports. He didn't have time for a little kid anymore. I spent most of the time in my room, watching him play catch in the backyard. He was not the same. When they came into the house to get a drink, I made a nasty comment to one of his friends. I don't remember what I said, but I remember how mad he was. He didn't speak to me the remainder of our visit. Where we had once been close, suddenly with one single comment, it all seemed gone.
Over the years we spoke occasionally, but not like we used to. Then when I was in my early 20's he moved to Victoria. I was in Kelowna by this time. During phone calls, he told me about his new girlfriend, his daughter and later a son. I was happy for him, but missed how it used to be. There was a gruffness in his voice that I never recognized before, but I hadn't seen him in over 10 years. Things change. Life does things to you.
At 25 I moved to Calgary. Less than a year after I arrived, I get a call from him announcing that he was finally getting married and he really wanted me to be there. I promised him I would.
He picked me at the ferry. I hardly recognized him. He was gaunt, tired, substantially tatooed. And on a day that he should have been happy, he was anything but. He rambled, and mumbled. We made small talk. It was hard to get back to the comfort level we used to have between us. And then of course in the hubbub of the organizing, I barely saw him.
The reception was when we really connected. But we were both kind of drunk. And he seemed more angry than anything else. Something was wrong, but I didn't know how to broach the subject. How do you sit down and get someone to talk to you who first, is intoxicated, and second, you have been so far removed from this person for so long, that what right do you really have to pry, save for the fact that he is family? So I didn't push. I hardly saw him, and a few days later I was back home.
Over the next 10 years, I never saw him again. We emailed back and forth a few times. He was getting divorced, he moved to Fernie to be with his mom and work. But I never saw him, even though he was now that much closer.
I got word that he was in the hospital. Had no idea what was going on. Was told he had a liver infection. I didn't figure it out. Did not put together what I had sensed, did not see anything. About year later he said he wanted to see me. Wanted to meet Julianne. We kept putting it off.
He was all of sudden in rehab. And oh, it was all coming together now. The pieces started to fall into place. Liver damage, rehab, angry, gaunt. I didn't see it then but suddenly it all made sense.
A year later, 2009, I get a phone call from my dad.
37 years old, could not get a grip on the alcoholism and he was gone. Assisted by his own hands remains unknown. At least to me. I have my suspicions but no one has ever really said either way.
I hated myself for not being more aware. For not going to see him. Even though I also knew there was nothing I would have ever been able to do even if I had, I felt guilt. When he probably felt completely lost and alone I had no idea.
I know it's not my fault. I know I have nothing to feel guilty about. But, we will always ask ourselves what if? What if I had seen him? What if we had remained closer? Short answer, he probably would have dragged me down with him.
But needless to say, he is family. And I still think about him and miss him most days.
And he's happy now.
(and I am totally not sure why I just wrote this, but it is what it is.)