He Ain't a Heavy Drinker, He's My Brother

With all his complications and darkness, I still really enjoy being with Mike

Photograph by Getty Images
(Getty Images)

He didn't show up for Thanksgiving. He hasn't returned our family's calls in six months. He's drinking again.

I've invested countless hours—years—helping Mike. He won't quit drinking. He recently said through tears, "It's the only thing I know how to do." So, I made mom's beloved mashed potatoes and coleslaw that he's been making since she died 11 years ago.

Mike, 61 years old—4 years older than me—was the brother I thought would be the most successful: the best-looking, with the best personality. His grade-school principal told my parents he had the highest IQ in school history. However, something self-destructive controls him.

When he was 5 years old, he lit his bed on fire then walked downstairs and watched TV with the family. Dad, smelling the fire, put it out, gave Mike a spanking and had him sleep on what remained of his burnt mattress. He never finished college, got married at 20 and became a house painter. With four kids, he was always in financial trouble. His marriage fell apart. In 1992, he went to prison for robbing 16 banks.

Mike's life is riddled with tragedy. Two of his sons died in their 20s. Beaner was killed in a drunk driving accident. Nick, who had been in a 12-step program for several months, slipped, showed up at Mike's drunk. Mike, sober at the time, sent him away. Nick overdosed later that night.

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With all his complications and darkness, I still really enjoy being with Mike. He listens with a warmth and understanding that allows me to open up more than usual. He's very proud that I'm able to make a living as a comedian and comes up with his own very funny jokes. He's fun and quite popular with his nephews and nieces who love his playfulness. With Mom gone, he had taken over most of the cooking during the holidays.

As we cleaned up after Thanksgiving, I thought, why not stop by Mike's tomorrow and give him some leftovers? No one has seen him since July. I went over the next day, heard music upstairs but left the food downstairs with a note saying, "Happy Thanksgiving, the Lyons family." It would be too sad to see him drunk. But I also didn't want to dismiss him just because he was drinking. So, I shouted upstairs and he came down.

His face, which once looked like that of a young John F. Kennedy, is now puffy and reddish like an old Ted Kennedy. And seeing him wasn't as sad as I thought. He was happy to see me. The anger I had towards him for drinking, for not returning our calls, for wasting his life, washed away as I took him in: his sorrow, his struggle and his joy in seeing me. And he cracked me up. When I asked him how he was he said, "Well, I hit my head earlier, but not hard enough to forget that Trump is president."

We heated up the food. "Wow," he said, "that was great. I needed that. Great job with the potatoes and coleslaw. Haven't had a meal like that in a good while." All my years of helping Mike were really about wanting him to change. He resented my righteousness.

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As I left, I asked Mike if he wanted me to pick him up on my way to Dad's on Sunday to watch the Eagles game. He said, "Sure." Dad lit up seeing Mike. The following weekend it snowed and Mike showed up to shovel Dad's sidewalk. He painted the basement and stayed over to watch the Eagles the next day. He's been visiting dad every Sunday since then.

Accepting Mike—where he was at—allowed him to get past some of his shame. For the first time in my life, I was allowing him to be himself. And I saw it's what I always liked about him. He always let me be me. In all those years of thinking I was better off than Mike, that I knew what he needed to do, I see now what he was showing me—how to love.

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