Because of my second place finish at Taipei Story Slam’s August show, I was invited to tell a story at the Grand Slam last Thursday. The theme was Holidaze. The holiday season is RIPE with experiences that are productive for narrative storytelling. Most of the drama that’s happened in my family has happened around holidays or vacations. But as I was trying to think of what story to tell, one thought kept pulling at me: Chase.
My cousin Chase died January 1st, 2012 and it caused a shift in the way I’ve thought about my family and people in my life. So I figured I’d write the story of my and my family’s attempt to deal with his death.
Leading up to the show, I had a lot of things on my mind. I’m trying to get a podcast of the Taipei Story Slams going despite being very out of my element with regard to all things tech, so I was worried we wouldn’t be able to get a good sound recording. In addition, despite recovering from my cold, I’ve had this lingering cough all week that’s left me hacking sometimes when lecturing during class. Then there’s always the fear of getting up there and totally forgetting what I want to say and bombing completely. Or vomiting from stress. A never-ending possibility of failures. Although, these days, I tend to think this way about anxiety-provoking experience: at best, it will be a good story; at worst, it will be a good story; in between, it will probably be something I forget. So why worry about it?
Colin, the Taipei Story Slam host, picked the order of storytellers at random. First, Charlie told a story of familiar dysfunction on boats. Then Chris, with a story about bringing Christmas to the Peoples’ Republic of China. Then Harrison, who told a story about being high on shrooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Then me. Then Meg, with a story about her guilt associated with guilt-tripping her divorcing parents into buying her a guitar. Next was Amy, who told a story about never being able to satisfy her mother. Lastly, Pat with a story of getting the best present ever: a return to normal after being diagnosed an autoimmune illness.
Before I went on, I thought about Chase. On most days, I think human consciousness is hard-wired into our physical brain and thus, when our brain ends, our consciousness ends. But I still sometimes think (hope?) there’s more. I still sometimes do things that suggest I believe there’s more to it than the physical components.
Before I went on, I thought: Chase, if you’re out there, help me tell your story – the pieces that I know at least. Be here with me.
I’d only told three stories in a live setting before this one, but as I told the story, it felt like it flowed so much better than my previous ones. Quicker, but also more relaxed. This is probably because I I didn’t feel like I was struggling to get to hold of my words. They were ready. At one point, I realized I’d skipped a short section that I wanted to say earlier, but I quickly weaved the points back in. I didn’t cough once. At the end of the night, when the scores were tallied, I’d won by a fraction of a point.
It’s interesting, because I’m proud of this accomplishment. But I thought I would feel better. I’m not sure what this means. Am I starting to overcome the need for external validation, such that external praise doesn’t affect me as much as it should? Do I think that it’s not a big deal to win a competition like this?
One of the things I noticed writing this story and practicing it, is that the way I think about Chase has changed. In the story, I mention how when I would think of him after learning about his addiction, I would think of heroin. I wouldn’t think about the memories I had with him, I would just think about how he died. But that’s changed as of late, within the past few months. I’m remembering more of our actual memories. That’s a nice thing.
You can listen to the live recording here:
You can read the text of my story (slightly different than the recording) below.
It starts January 1st 2012.
I woke up early. I wasn’t hungover, just tired. I wasn’t a big partier. I’d only started drinking my senior year of high school. I’d only smoked slash eaten marijuana maybe three times.
When I woke up, I did what any person of my generation does: I checked my phone. I checked Facebook and scrolled through a newsfeed full of party pictures and drunken status updates. And then I saw one from my cousin Kelly:
Rest In Paradise, Chase… I cannot believe this is real… You are the best brother in the world…
A rock settled in my stomach. You know that rock when you wish something weren’t real, you wish this horrible thing weren’t happening, that it’s a joke or a dream, but you know deep down it isn’t.
That rock pinned me to my bed. I lay there for an indeterminate amount of time until my Dad called to me through the door. I went into my parent’s room and saw my Mom lying in bed, eyes red. Mom said Chase died. How? I thought, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t ask. I wanted to know. Was it a drunk driver? A hidden heart defect? Alcohol poisoning? Karen – my step-grandma – had found him where he’d been staying in my grandpa’s basement apartment.
“Drugs,” my Dad said.
What? What drugs? I thought, but I didn’t say. I had learned in elementary school that you could O.D. on club drugs like cocaine and ecstasy the FIRST TIME you took them. So I decided to assume that that was what happened to Chase. I kept quiet until my parents stopped talking and then I left. The house. I couldn’t stand being in my house. I feared my Mom would explode with misplaced rage. So I made a pot of oolong tea I’d gotten for Christmas, poured it into a travel mug, and went to a 10 AM showing of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. And when that ended, I drove to another theatre and watched another movie and this pattern repeated over and over and over for the rest of winter break.
We never talked about Chase. Or what we should do for Kelly.
My family just doesn’t talk about difficult things.
On January 8th, I was back at Princeton studying for finals. (Princeton has them after break because “tradition”). And Kelly was having Chase’s memorial in a park in Northern California. It felt like every other minute of studying, I would think: why am I doing here? Shouldn’t I be in California? I have two sisters, and if one of them died, I would be wrecked. Chase was all Kelly had…
And on January 1st, he died. On January 8th, Kelly celebrated his life and no one from the extended family flew to California to be there.
But 8 months later, they all flew to Maine for my sister’s wedding.
I wanted so badly to say something to Kelly about how sorry I was that this was happening to her, and how sorry I was for not being there, and how I wanted to be there for her in whatever way possible from now on. But I was too embarrassed.
My family doesn’t talk about difficult things.
So the whole weekend, no one said Chase’s name. Until the last day, when a fight broke out between my Grandpa and Chase’s dad. Scars decades old ripped off as my Uncle effectively blamed Grandpa for Chase’s death. We don’t talk about difficult things in my family. We shout them. We scream then. We cry them.
I cried watching this exchange, and with this rush of emotion, I hugged Kelly and finally said I was sorry. And from that moment of acknowledgement our pain, we grew closer. We began emailing back and forth, something we’d never done before. And it was through those emails I learned Chase had been a heroin addict for over a year before he died.
Heroin didn’t just take my cousin from me. It took my memory of him. Because after learning about his addiction, when I would think of Chase, I would think of heroin.
He didn’t inject it, did he? He probably smoked it. Or snorted it.
Those were my thoughts about Chase. And when I would think of Chase, the mental images I conjured up were not the family vacations on Lake Michigan, or the cross-country road trip through the West. I would see him face down on a mattress in a cold, dark basement, his lips blue, his body still.
When I went to stay with my Grandpa and Karen in California during the summer of 2013, I wanted to ask Karen what had happened when she found him. But I didn’t. Because we don’t talk about difficult things in my family.
Christmas 2013, the whole family gathers in the Florida Keys. And just like at my sister’s wedding, when the whole family gets together, the spark meets the powder keg. Kelly and my Uncle blamed each other for Chase’s death. It was through their screams and the aftermath of the fight talking to Kelly, I learned the details of Chase’s descent into addiction. And listening to all this, I couldn’t help but think: what good does this do me now? What good does this do Chase now? Why didn’t I know before?
The last time I saw him was the Thanksgiving before he died. He looked good. Skinnier than before, but I thought that was puberty finally settling in. He laughed his same old over-powering giggle. He smiled from ear-to-ear. I could tell behind his eyes there were things we were not talking about. There were things weighing on him, there were things weighing on me, there were things weighing on all of us, all the time. And as a result, we kept our conversations light.
Because my family doesn’t talk about difficult things.
I didn’t know he was a heroin addict then, but I wish I had. I don’t know if I could’ve helped him. He could’ve still ended up dead in a basement alone on January 1st, 2012. But maybe if I’d known, I would’ve told him how much he mattered to me. Maybe I would’ve done what I started doing more and more after he died: telling people that are important to me that I care about them.
Maybe my love and support wouldn’t’ve been enough to keep Chase alive. But I like to think if I had told him how much he mattered, he maybe wouldn’t’ve felt so alone.