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My Brother, the Alcoholic


I covered a fatal fire for The Sun last winter. Notebook in hand, I asked the victim's age and identity. The rescue workers said, "He's some old alkie."

The man was 36 -- "old for an alkie," they told me.

I wonder if paramedics treated my brother's death with the same cynical detachment. He died in April after years of alcohol abuse. He too was an alcoholic, aged way beyond his 38 years.

Tony died alone of alcohol poisoning in a room in one of the city's worst neighborhoods.

His landlady called for help, but too late. The last years of his life were a constant unspoken call for help that none of us knew how to answer. Although we loved him dearly, we could not save him from himself. He wouldn't allow us to intervene in his crisis-filled life.

An ambulance carried his body to the Medical Examiner's Office. The landlady left a message on my sister's answering machine. For 10 hours, none of us knew he was dead.

I wonder if rescuers thought no one cared. How could they have known how devastated his family was? How could they have known he had a father and eight siblings who loved him, and a mother whose dying prayers were offered for him?

To them, he was probably "some old alkie" who wasted his life on booze.

For us, the images of the troubled man fade easily to pictures of a smiling little boy with beautiful hands. Those became the hands of a master carpenter who could make anything. Those hands provided our mother with the most compassionate and loving care as he gently eased her through her final illness last year.

Tony frequently distanced himself from us, and only allowed us glimpses into the man he became. A week before he died, he laughed with me about the inner workings of our large family and said he liked us better occasionally than daily.

For hours after I finally heard the terrible news, I tried to figure where I had been and what I had been doing when he died. It was a beautiful spring evening -- one when he usually would be walking along the streets of Baltimore. He walked everywhere and wore out a pair of shoes a month.

As best I can guess, Tony was struggling for life while my husband and I were taking a stroll and chatting with our neighbors. How could I be laughing, when my brother was dying?

Our family has accepted the crushing reality of my brother's death. A memorial service drew many friends and offered us much solace. There remains one final act of love we can do for our brother.

Where do we place his ashes?

In our musings, we wonder if we could retrace his footsteps on the city streets and scatter them there. So often, he walked the miles to my sister's house. There must be traces of him along the way. People would surely remember the man with piercing blue eyes.

Should we spread the ashes on the waters of the bay where he loved to fish and sail? The water's edge always drew him. Often, he would take his nephews to the Inner Harbor and show them his favorite sights.

Maybe a friendly tavern in Fells Point or one of the downtown buildings he helped construct would give his ashes a resting place? Or, should we bury them with our mother, to whom he was so devoted?

We are all certain it matters little to Tony what we do. He cared nothing for ceremony or ritual. The simple memorial service we organized with a few friends and the sharing of fond memories would be all he'd ask.

The only legacy he left us were his tools. We each took one to keep a sense of him with us. They are all so clean and polished -- a sign of the respect he held for his trade.

When my father picked up the ashes from the funeral home, he said he was surprised how heavy the canister was.

I remember seeing Dad carry the child Tony -- a long, thin baby and a tiny toddler who was never heavy.

I remember all of us helping the teen-aged Tony whose leg was broken in a car accident. At 15, he had inches to grow and was easy to move. After the accident, the one leg never caught up with the other, and he walked with a limp the rest of his life.

How could his ashes be heavy? Maybe the cumbersome weight of our grief clouds our ability to measure them.

Tony was able to inject humor into the direst situations and would probably have had something raucous to say about storing ashes in Dad's cupboard.

We can't leave him there.

C7 Mary Gail Hare is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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