A Garbage Bag of Bottles

Bag of Bottles

I wrote a draft of this blog post last weekend, while sitting in an apartment in Lakewood, Ohio — the apartment my mom and my Uncle Tim rented. It was a beautiful two floor house with each floor divided into a separate living unit. The layout was surprisingly similar to the one Michelle and I had when we first moved to St. Louis nearly nine years ago. The place felt comfortable, and it felt natural to throw my coat over a chair and sit at the table to write, just like I did when I was starting as a freelance writer.

It was also the apartment my uncle’s corpse was found in, surrounded by empty vodka bottles, the carpet black with his own bloody vomit.

As Mom’s boyfriend, Bill, drove us back to his house from the plane, she told me what had happened. Uncle Tim had come home drunk again. “It’s like he’s two different people,” she said, “and I can’t stand the one that drinks.” She left to spend a few days with Bill, afraid of what she would say or do if she stayed and watched him drink again. By the time she came back, he was dead, face down on his bed. All of the empty bottles of alcohol around him filled a garbage bag by themselves.

Her voice was sad and a little shaken, but mostly she sounded resigned. This is an old story with our family. Uncle Tim once tried to commit suicide with pills while drunk. My Uncle Mike succeeded — the same Uncle Mike who encouraged me when I was very young to make art and follow my dreams. The same Uncle Mike who walked in on his father, my grandfather, after he had drunk himself to death. As my mom tells it, Grandpa picked up a bottle right after Grandma’s funeral, and proceeded to drink for the next two years until he was dead.

Bill’s a nice guy — I really like him, and I think he’s good for my mom. I haven’t seen my mom in years, and as we talked we fell back into old, comfortable rhythms. I’ve missed her, and she’s missed me. But she suggested quietly that I could stay at the apartment if I wanted, and I agreed. I needed some time alone, time to think things through, time to sweep my metaphorical bottles into a garbage bag.

Since I found out what happened last week, I’ve mostly just felt numb. I haven’t seen Uncle Tim in the flesh for 20 years, since I took a train with my mom to visit him in Colorado in 1992. He’s not a total stranger to me, but I have trouble calling his face to mind. I can’t say I feel a loss for something I barely had in my life. But I do remember all the phone calls from my mom over the past few years, all of the frustration and hurt and confusion of watching him drink himself to death. All of the lies about missed bills, all of the failed jobs, all of the fights with bosses and crushed fenders and empty bottles.

Really, I think I’m angry at him, at the men in my family, at the steady parade of death that comes one drink at a time. Three of the men in my family were plunged into depression, gripped by a dark mood that prompted them to kill themselves sip by sip. The Sweeney legacy: a garbage bag of bottles.

All that said, I’m generally at peace right now. I know I’m not them, not held in the same grip as they were. For all the darkness surrounding this, I think things will improve from here, for me and my mom. I certainly have the occasional moment when I’m not sure what to feel, when my mind is a little cloudy and I wonder what I’m really feeling. But all in all, I’m just relieved that my mom doesn’t have to go through any of this ever again.

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