Redemption in Appalachia: A tale of hope, opioids and leaving it behind

Older sisters. . .

I am one.

We can be a lot of dictators, can't we?

Our siblings can be seen as just that: "ours."

Maybe it isn't the same when you are born next, after.

I remember that mine were "mine," and that meant they were obligations and friends from the first.

I tried to be a mama to them from the moment they arrived. The weight and worry of them was  heavy. Mine even, I thought, before they were our mother's or father's.

Growing up here in rural Appalachia, children of a wealthy, mercantile baron and a dreaming, blonde gal 40 years younger than Daddy, we never saw things like the rest of folks. How could we?

The five of us arrived after 9 or 10 children had already been borne to a Daddy who was already a grandfather many times over. Arrived we had, without hope of ever fitting into a family he'd already created. Dropped into a situation that would never make sense, we were a start over for our father and a first for our mother who spoiled us in some ways and wandered about looking for her purpose like gypsy in others where we trailed without a solid sense of purpose way behind.

We could not be sure about anything in particular except we had one another. Daddy was ready to "go onto heaven and get out of this world," as he often told us growing up, and my mother was sure she wasn't long for West Virginia.

Time and chance comes in, though. We were an interesting, pretty lot of kids. And before I knew it, three of them had flickered in and out of my life so quickly, as I sit here, I feel a time pressing on me where they are nothing but slight echos.

The truth is, these days, I remember having no one more than having anyone.

While I could tell you all about the youngest three before they were gone in a 2007 January fire where they huddled, trapped in an apartment kitchen under blankets holding a Bible and a kitten, who wants to remember that? Today, that is not the story. This one is not finite, like the other. It is not finished in a pile of ashes and memories.

After the fire, I still had one brother left who probably needs to forget as much and more than I.

That one was my shadow in a quiet, meek way when we were children. I was a boss of all sorts: Loud and overbearing. As best I can recall, which isn't as well as I wish, he never spoke to me in a way that wasn't a whisper as a little boy. He mostly called after me:




Where was I heading? What was I saying? What did I want, need, expect?

The more finer version of me,  he was, with darker hair and more striking features. . .but without my loud confidence. And I will always look back and think, If I had been less, could he have been seen more? Would that have changed things, had he not been hidden by me, my force and will?

I moved away when he was still growing. . .away to do whatever teenagers do when they think something else is better. I left him behind. It was not as if I had anything to give at 18. I've found when you leave things behind in a rush, you may come to regret it.

Life was lonely and broken in the behind, though, and he was there in it. Quiet and following. . .following no one that made sense. . . or maybe no one at all.

Oxycontin was there then, doing what it does. It looked like whatever it needed to, which I believe was like anything other than what was. But how do I know? I wasn't there. Regardless, he found it or it him, like it found all of the people in West Virginia then. . .while everyone sat silent and it spread and devoured.

Oh, you may say, "it didn't find me!" But dear, it did. . .by finding someone you loved. It got you, too, and please do not let misguided pride beg you say otherwise.

I came home some years later with a one year old son, a George Foreman rotisserie, a big TV and little else.

I tried to find the brother I'd known before, and I could not. In hindsight, I ask, "Tinia, did you look hard enough?" I will ask that forever. Perhaps, if I had looked more, he'd not have slipped further away. Perhaps not matter how hard I looked, things would have been the same.

The not knowing is a hard thing, isn't it?

I dreamed once after the younger brothers and sister died that  we had all made a silly error! They could easily come back to life, after all. How silly we all had been. Their batteries just needed to be replaced! In this dream, I ran around looking until, in the old house, I found new sets. I replaced them. The kids were all restored. I fell down when they spoke to me again, in tears, saying how sorry I was that I had not realized our mistake. We could have saved so much agony and time, if we had known. I had to wake up to realize that batteries would not bring them back. They were gone from here forever. And recently, I think of how, after this dream, with my remaining brother wandering around lost, I still didn't look for new batteries or an answer for him because it seems, then, so hopeless.

Early on and for many years, I could not understand or, better yet, withstand what addiction meant or was. Addiction can kill and destroy everyone around it, and way back in 2003, I had no concept of where to even begin such a fight.

16 years ago. If we tell the truth, how could anyone have known what type of savage decimation was in store for this region, though? If we had known, what might we have tried?

The not knowing. . .is a hard thing, isn't it?

We parted ways when I could not bear all that weight or risk any longer. Could not, as I remember it. He probably remembers it another way. He felt gone to me, but in a few years, I was going to really learn what being gone forever really means. How it really feels.

Two long and short years passed, and a fire came. I remember, in the hours after flames had been put out by rain, in my mamaw's kitchen with a group of well meaning friends and family I did not want there, I said, on someone's random shoulder that I have never looked to since, "Oh, Why. . .why wasn't it John or me? Not them. Never them." Because it felt as if I'd lost him a long time before, and the loss of them was too new, too raw. Let the one my heart already buried go on.

For almost 12 years in the aftermath of a nightmare that never ends, this brother's existence was awash in rumors, tales, arrests, mug shots and a slow fade.

For the most part, I could not do anything but pretend he was as gone as all of the others. But he was not. . .quite gone.

That was, at times, harder than the finality of the others. Their fates here on Earth were settled. His was left open.

The not knowing. . .still.

A few times, I let him stay with me awhile. He always left the moment a chance came about, but hee stayed long enough to remind me of the somebody I used to know.

I never dared believe and hope for much when I saw him. What I know now is people need someone to believe they will, even when they will not. Believing gives hope, and without hope, people perish.

Hope was too painful for me for so many years. I'd lost all I could, and I had, I admit, already let him go except this tendril of a thread.

Open a door, try new batteries?

So much death was already behind me, but I finally had to say, "Tinia, there is still life."

Because broken as it was, It was still.

This last summer, He sent me a message that read:

"I need someone to help me and I have no one... I am drowning. I am on the verge of collapsing in every form and just don't know what to do. I have been outside for two days
I have no where to go," he said to me in a Facebook message.

I somewhere grabbed something I thought had burnt out, which wasn't quite hope, but something and said, "Do you want me to come to get you?'

He said, "Yes."

After almost twenty years of addiction, lies, deception and sadness, on my drive to get him, I knew something was different. The why was neither here nor there.

He asked me to come to help him. He had never before reached out to ask for help. He'd asked for things, but not just help and for me to come.

Before heading to him, I turned to my oldest son:

"Would you have me bring him home? It will be hard and our little house isn't made for more people, especially someone detoxing from this type of drug addiction. You need to think this is right because you live there, too."

"Go get him," Christian responded, "If it were one of my brothers, I would go."

Down the winding, pothole covered roads of Route 10 into Lincoln County, WV, my oldest and I went several days later. My only remaining "real" brother in the world was on the roadside next to a little convenience store, his sternum broken in half from a catastrophic car accident as a passenger, his lungs were mostly collapsed with pneumonia and he was in withdrawals from decades of addiction. Christian and I took the 160 lb, 6' 2'' frame an hour drive back to the ER.

Huntington - the epicenter of the opioid crisis. It felt like the wrong place to bring him, but that is where I am. I could do nothing else.

The staff came in. One of the women looked at him and said, "You realize he shouldn't be alive? A grown man of his size taking an impact sufficient to completely break his sternum into should have made his organs rupture."

"Well," I thought but didn't say out loud," he's lived through worse, honestly."

What I did say was rather like, "Well, since he lived, I reckon he will have to do better."

That night, because they could not give him, as an addict, much for pain, and because he had not had anything to combat the withdrawals in too long, we did not sleep. Not him. Not me.

I wondered the whole night what in God's name I had done. How could this ever be okay? How could he? How could this have been the right thing? How could I hope? What if the kids woke up? No one should have to see or live like or through this.

Not him. Or Me. Not anyone.

This story, in some ways, is not mine to tell, but he is mine. My brother. His story and life are woven together, even though we both went in opposite directions for most of our time. And what his life has done to me, and what things we could not control have done to us both, make it "Our" story.

He never asked for me to take him back to where I'd picked him up from in the months that followed.

Days went on. Little by little, that thing I felt in the beginning turned to hope. Not just mine, but his. I know it had to be. Why now? I have no idea. We had both already been crushed in trillions of piece with years of disappointment, failures and hopelessness, so why believe and try now?

And a girl he'd met along the stumbling he'd been doing through life decided he was trying to turn his life around and gave him one more shot.

And who knows the why, but felt like we all were believing this time.

So she wanted to believe, too. Things can happen when people all believe, don't they? When no one believes. . .I've seen what takes place then.

A few months ago, he messaged me to ask where we were, and I said we were having dinner at a local restaurant. He said he was going to stop by. He came in, ordered and as we all finished up, the bill came. He put the amount of money his meal and tip would be on the table from job he found on his own.

It seems a small thing. But it was not. It was when my hope turned to confidence.

And confidence is a game changer for a life like nothing else.

I thought about my Daddy, my littlest brothers and my sister, and I wanted to tell him what they never knew for sure. . ."He will be okay."

I have to explain how afraid I have been to write this until now. . .because at the core of my soul, there was fear. . . the part I keep tucked away because it can only take so many sad things. I have been far too scared to just say I believe my brother will make it now and beat the past. Whatever the future brings, even if it brings failures, the darkest part is over.

I do not think until this year, I realized what a weight pulling so much through death and destruction around has been to me.

I have lost almost all of the people I loved as a child, and lost them in ways that eclipse all words, though we know how I try to share it, and while I cannot get those back, the feelings when one you thought was gone forever actually comes back, very much alive. . .well, folks, that is a once in a lifetime thing.

I have been working on writing this for so many, many weeks, and in the end, it said much less than I intended and much more, in other ways.

It seems fitting I find a way to tie it up and let it out there on his Birthday, so Happy 35th Birthday.

Go do all the things I believed you would do when we were kids and things were new. They can still be new, brother John.