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Lit Up

Remnants of Ruined Vacations

(The Uncle Tommy Stories)

Remembering a Deceased Uncle and One of My Most Shameful Moments

Before I begin, let it be understood that I am not glamorizing nor am I particularly proud of any of the following events. With that being said, they all happened and I am therefore willing to own up to them today. It would be hard to regret any of them considering they’ve collectively gotten me here and are responsible for the person I am today.

Growing up, my Uncle Tommy was always the fun Uncle. One of my fondest childhood memories was him letting my cousins and I play inside his brand new 94’ Mercury Cougar, as it was one of the first years automatic locks were introduced to the world — at least our world.

We’d spent what felt like hours on end during our annual summer family vacation just locking & unlocking the car with the click of a button and popping the trunk in the same fashion. It was the simple things back then. Little did I know that Uncle Tommy and his Mercury Cougar would become infamously memorable parts of not only my summer vacations but my teenage years as a whole, a few short years later.

Over the years, Uncle Tommy began drinking more and more. To be completely honest it’d be really hard for me to say if his drinking got worse or I just got older and became more aware of it. Regardless, by the time I was about 12, it was pretty obvious to most of the family that he had a drug and alcohol problem. By all outside appearances he was fine, as he showed up for his Bell Telephone job everyday and had helped my Grandparents pay off the house where the three of them lived. However as time went on, his behavior got increasingly aggressive and strange and he became more secluded. He stopped coming down from his bedroom for family gatherings on holidays and was always visibly intoxicated when he did. Sometimes combative but usually just not very coherent.

It was also at this time at the unfortunately young age of 12 or 13 that I started drinking and randomly experimenting with various drugs myself. It’s just what kids in my neighborhood did. At least the ones I liked. You always hear drugs being an escape for people but for me it was always less about escaping pain and more about chasing excitement. At least in the beginning.

If I was looking to escape something, it was monotony.

Point being is even at age twelve, it was clear my brain did not operate like your average child’s, Nothing about my life was really on course with your average twelve year old’s. Things seemed to just keep getting more difficult and I seemed to react by making them even more difficult.

One summer afternoon on family vacation, as fate would have it, Uncle Tommy & I were left with only each others company and supervision while the rest of the family was over at the other house we had rented for the week — as I come from a large family and two houses were needed to accommodate everyone.

I remember being slightly concerned from the jump just at that fact alone. It wasn’t that I was scared of him or that I had a real reason to be, at least not yet. It was just the unpredictability factor that instilled a generalized anxiety in me about the situation as a whole. On top of that I was starving, and Uncle Tommy was known to be many things, but a cook wasn’t one of them.

At some point he asked me to grab him a beer from the cooler and insisted I grab myself one as well. I was reluctant at first, being as he was my Dad’s brother after all and still therefore somewhat of an authority figure. The authority figure thing worked against itself being he was the one suggesting rather vigorously that I grab one.

As Uncle Tommy and I shared a beer together, he began revealing classic tales of him getting drunk and passing out on neighborhood lawns growing up. There was also mentions of parading around with hookers and smoking “pot that would have me doing cartwheels”.

All of the storytelling and the one beer being slowly ingested by my 12 year old biological system slowly began to put me more at ease with the situation. Before long, the phone rang and we were called over to the other house with the rest of the family for dinner. I was relieved and we began making our way towards the rocky driveway out towards his brand new 2001 Mercury Cougar. The feeling of relief immediately turned back into anxiety when Uncle Tommy threw me the car key and suggested I would be the one driving because he was “too fucked up to see let alone drive”.

I informed him I was thirteen and didn’t have a license.

He informed me he didn’t care and that mountain roads were a great place to learn to drive.

Neither of my parents drove and the most experience I had behind a wheel was playing around in his 94’ Mercury cougar seven years earlier as a child.

It was clear he wasn’t taking no for an answer so we made our way to dinner, with me behind the wheel. I remember being extremely nervous as well as excited. The other house was only a few minutes away and he was actually right about the mountain road thing as it was far more quiet than the city traffic we were accustomed to. However the roads were also a little more curvy than your average city roads. I remember being proud of how well I was doing. Until I made the amateur, thirteen year old non license having mistake of turning my head to look at my passenger and turning my hands which were still on the wheel when I went to do so. We immediately spun towards the side of the road and in the direction of countless trees. By the grace of God, at the last second I instinctively whipped the wheel back in the opposite direction and made a stuntman like stop on the side of the road that would have made Paul Walker proud.

Uncle Tommy and I just stopped and looked at each other for a minute. He kind of just shrugged, laughed it off and we continued on. Imagine the rest of the family’s thoughts as we pulled into the driveway and I got out of the driver’s seat at thirteen years old, with no license or driving experience to speak of and he fell out of the passenger seat visibly intoxicated.

I tell that story in part to paint a picture of the relationship I had with my Uncle Tommy and in part to reflect on a pleasant memory that brings a smile to my face — of a loved one that was taken from me and everyone else far too soon. In its own unique way I guess it kind of leads up to these next stories too

Uncle Tommy knocks Uncle ‘Jimmy’ down the steps and it results in me getting a new printer, recliner & roommate

One afternoon I arrived home from school to shortly thereafter find a guest at my door. Knocks at my door weren’t uncommon at the time as I was a teenager and nobody really had cell phones. To say I was surprised when I found my Uncle Tommy standing there when I opened the door would be an understatement. Our family was somewhat close knit but we didn’t really make a habit of showing up at each others doors unannounced. With that being said I figured it was important.

After letting him in he told me how my Grandparents whom both he and my Uncle Jim lived in the same house with at the time were returning home from their Florida vacation the following day. He also stated how this troubled him particularly because he just knocked my Uncle Jim down the steps during a fist fight that apparently ensued after one vacuumed and the other knocked over a flower pot on purpose and noted how the other had missed a spot vacuuming. I felt like he had casually worked in the fact that he had just knocked another family member down a flight of steps and asked if we should call an ambulance for Uncle Jim. He indicated we should not and that Uncle Jim had a black eye and a few bruised bones but he’d be just fine. I was in no real position to argue so I took his word for it.

He went on to say that this was all going to be a major problem for him upon my Grandparents return, as a few household items were broken along with a few of Uncle Jimmy’s bones. It was clear he was asking for a place to stay for a day or two until it all got sorted out. It just wasn’t clear why he picked the home of the brother who he didn’t get along with to begin with, whose only son he essentially forced to drive at thirteen years old because he was too drunk to.

Uncle Tom & my Dad never got along, they just never saw eye to eye as kids and as time went on it got worse instead of better. That didn’t stop my Dad from helping a brother in need that was asking for help. He told him he could stay a night or two but that was it.

I know I stayed home from school the following day I just don’t remember if it was because I faked being sick due to all the excitement or if it was just because of all the excitement in general.

Regardless, the next day after my dad left for work, with me and Uncle Tommy left to once again supervise each other since it worked out so swimmingly the previous time, Uncle Tommy decided he wanted to do something nice for my Dad for granting him asylum for the night. He asked me what we needed and I told him I was fourteen and didn’t know. He gathered that we had just recently gotten a new computer and asked what he could buy for it and at some point decided we were going to go buy a new printer for the computer. We did exactly that. Uncle Tommy being the kindhearted eccentric he was decided that was not enough of a thank you and ended up buying a heated, massaging recliner that I sit in writing this at this very moment.

As I stated, both of these were just lighthearted reflections of an Uncle that I wish was still around. There are no real climaxes or crazy endings to those stories. No real lessons to be learned. Just me looking back on moments that shaped me. Moments that your average thirteen and fourteen year old probably didn’t experience. Memories worth talking about.

The second half of stories involving my Uncle Tommy are far less lighthearted but they are still things I need to talk about because they are still apart of my story. I’ve done so many things in my life I’m beyond mortified of but there’s nothing I hide from today because I know the kid who carried out so many of the acts I’m deeply ashamed of is so far from the man I am today. I’ve paid for my trespasses time and time again, karma always saw to it. I’ve paid in pain, heartache and loss — exponential to that of which I ever caused.

A Family Vacation, Too Many Valiums and Some Missing Top Papers

My family and I went on an annual Pocono vacation every summer. As I’ve stated by the time I was 12 or 13 I was already doing things no 12 year old should be. Again, I feel the need to clarify that I’m not proud of any of it. I’m just willing to own it today. There’s nothing in my past I’m not willing to face or stand next to. I spent too long avoiding doing so.

Many details of this story are unclear even to me for a number of reasons.

I don’t remember what year it was specifically. It would have had to been in the summer of 2002 or 2003 though.

I remember it being a Friday night and being down the basement of the mountain house where Uncle Tommy’s bedroom was. I remember playing video games, bored to tears and Uncle Tommy coming out of his room half out of it and then going back to his room and passing back out. I remember walking by his room and seeing weed laying on his bureau and getting the bright idea of taking a bud and brightening up my dull Friday. I remember thinking “he wouldn’t mind, in fact I’ll ask him”. I tried waking him for several minutes, which in retrospect was probably a terrible idea in itself. He wouldn’t budge but was snoring abnormally loud. It was clear he was out of it. I figured fuck it, I’ll take a bud. No harm no foul. I did exactly that and then it hit me that I had nothing to smoke it out of. I opened his top drawer figuring he probably had a pack of papers somewhere nearby. I was right, in the top drawer was a pack of papers — along with a sandwich bag filled with enough Valium to sedate a rhino. I remember taking two and two top papers and exiting the room quickly, ecstatic about my findings.

The rest of the story is essentially nothing more than a demonstration of what prescription drugs do to people as well as how an addict’s brain works, even at such a young age. My last actual memory is starting to feel the effects of the Valium and deciding I should probably go grab one for each remaining day I had on vacation. That is how an addict’s brain works.

My next memory is being woken up, hastily, by none other than Uncle Tommy. He wanted to know where his papers were. I had no idea, even though I knew I was probably responsible for the fact that they weren’t where he left them. I scurried to my feet and began looking.

It was at this point that he made it clear that he knew what I took from him but that his only concern at that moment was finding those papers. After a few moments of looking for them — unsuccessfully — Uncle Tommy lost his temper.

I recall him grabbing me in an unapologetic fashion by my shoulder and leading me behind the vacant rental property across the way.

Keep in mind at this point, it was more likely than not that I had not only gone back into his room and took my “week’s supply” of Valium but that I also had probably taken all of them before I passed out and found myself being woken up to deal with the consequences of my terrible decisions.

It didn’t hit me until it felt too late that my unstable Uncle who I had just stole from had dragged me behind a vacant house. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking clearly due to the amount of Valium I had taken but I remember thinking there was a good chance that he was going to end my life right then and there and bury me right where we stood.

That may have been his intention, I really don’t know. Before he was given a chance My Uncle Joe called out our names from the porch, in a concerned tone.

Without hesitation I hurried back towards him and the house.

That was really my last lucid memory of that week.

Again, this story was not about a climax. There is no real conclusion. I spent the next week out of it, disgracing and embarrassing a family who for sure raised me better.

That is how an addict’s brain works.

A Good Heart & A Tragic Ending To A Painful Life

Many stories involving my Uncle Tommy take place on family vacation mainly because that was one of the few times a year I saw him. There is not one single story I could tell that could paint an accurate picture of just how generous or big of a heart he had, nor how sick and alone his alcohol and drug use slowly but surely left him. Who he had become when he passed was not the fun loving Uncle that would have done anything in his power to see his nieces, nephews and parents smile.

Drugs and alcohol slowly transformed him into an angry and isolated lost soul who others preferred not to be around and vice versa. There was multiple incidents after the previously told stories of him instigating fights with other family members, storming home from vacation drunk and crashing the aforementioned brand new cougar that I managed to somehow not crash.

In the summer of 2004 our family once again found ourselves up the mountains. Uncle Tommy did not come with us on this particular year, he remained home at the house he and my grandparents resided in together.

I remember being on the phone with my girlfriend at the time and seeing my Dad come up the steps with a look on his face that I had never seen on him before. I couldn’t pinpoint the look but knew it was serious. He told me to get off the phone and I did exactly that. In a very pained yet plainly straight forward, fact based fashion my Dad informed me that Uncle Tommy was dead. He had taken his own life with a shotgun on the front steps of my Grandparents house. The mailman found him and called the police, who found an address book and called the family to inform us.

There’s no accurate words to describe what I felt or what I thought. I do however believe that this is one of the first things that began to slowly turn me numb and cold. It wasn’t just his death that hurt but how he died is what really pained me. I had so many questions and no answers. I felt the hurt of my entire family. I felt my dad’s pain for a brother that was gone, that he never saw eye to eye with. I saw the same pain in all of my Uncles and Aunts that day. The pain of losing a brother they were never able to reach and now would never again have the chance to try to.

I saw anger, frustration, confusion and pain in it’s purest form on that afternoon. The look on both of my Grandparents faces has not left me to this day and I don’t think it ever will. The pain on a parent’s face after they’ve lost a child has a tendency to stay with you even when you wish it wouldn’t. I remember one of my Uncles stating how selfish it was of Uncle Tommy to take his own life and also how it was typical of Tommy to do something of the sort. I remember walking away furious at his comment.

What I had failed to see at that moment was that was a Vietnam veteran’s way of grieving for a brother that he didn’t quite know how to be sad for. It was the initial reaction of a brother that was trying to find a way to mourn for his brother who had just taken his own life.

Before he passed, Tommy was asked to quietly retire early from his, what was now Verizon Communications, job. He had served Bell Telephone proudly for 30 some years and even though he was probably showing up to work visibly intoxicated everyday in the end, there was very little the union could do to get rid of him except offer him a half decent early retirement package. Uncle Tommy negotiated his way into a retirement package worth a few hundred thousand dollars and another hundred thousand or so in stock options.

The majority of that money and all of those stock options were left untouched at the time of his passing. It was left with instructions that the money be left in a trust fund that would allow any of his nieces and nephews that wanted to, to attend college. That is who my Uncle Tommy was.

Afterthought

I’m left with a collection of bittersweet memories of my Uncle Tommy. More importantly I’m left with lessons he taught me both directly and indirectly and I’m now able to try and convey them to all of you.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are both a deadly disease that need to be addressed and treated the same way any other disease would. With that being said, so is depression and the list of other mental illnesses that lead to people like my Uncle taking their own lives.

Prescription pain and anxiety medications have the potential to ruin lives and turn good and decent people into lifeless former shells of who they once were.

If you have someone close to you that you think may have a drug or alcohol problem, confront them. Speak honestly and openly. An uncomfortable conversation could save your loved one’s life or simply save you years of watching them destroy everyone and everything around them — including themselves. Do for your loved one what my family and I were not able to do for my Uncle Tommy. People tell themselves they are doing the politically correct or polite thing by not confronting those they love that have an apparent drug or alcohol problem. That could not be further from the truth. You are doing the convenient and easy thing by not saying anything. I’ve learned the hard way on more than one occasion that trying to avoid the problem only creates a more significant one. One that usually ends in tragedy.

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Welcome to Lit Up -The Land of Little Tales. Here you can read and submit short stories, flash fiction, poetry - in brief, your own legend. We're starting little. But that's how all big stories begin.

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Brian Brewington

Brian Brewington

Writing About the Human Condition, via My Thoughts, Observations, Experiences, and Opinions — Founder of Journal of Journeys and BRB INC ©

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