Even To The Best of Us…
It was my oldest brother’s 58th birthday on Wednesday. He died in 1995, the official cause of which was AIDS. But it was heroin that pushed the spade into the plot of land that became his grave. Gus was a junkie.
Most years, July 16 comes and goes as just another summer day for me. I never talk much about Gus. His struggle with heroin addiction is not a topic I bring up in every day conversation, if you know what I mean. Some things are better left unsaid.
Until now. Last week when I read this story in my local paper and knew that it was time to speak up.
Newsday columnist Joye Brown, did a great job covering this story, giving perspective into Natalie Ciappa’s brief life story, and reminding us that it’s not just the drug user who suffers from its use.
My family suffered along with Gus. I was much too young to remember how he got hooked on heroin. He was already out of high school and in the Air Force before I reached first grade. My earliest recollections are that of a nice, clean-cut teenager, but the person who returned home to our New York apartment in 1972 was someone totally unrecognizable.
He had long hair and a scraggly beard that covered a gaunt pale face. His arms and legs were spindly, and he was constantly running his hands over his face and pinching his nostrils, hiding a look perpetual of drowsiness. These are but a few of the symptoms of heroin use. We didn’t know it, yet, but my brother Gus was high and there was not much we could do to stop him.
At his worst, Gus would take or sell anything he could carry from our home to satiate his jones. Cash, clothes, books and jewelry were easy marks. When I was 19, I caught him walking off with the portable typewriter I got as a birthday present from my parents. “I’m just borrowing it”, he said as he walked out the door. I just let him take it because I was too trusting and too afraid to resist.
When the well ran dry at home, he resorted to petty crime, mugging people on the subways for a few bucks. The law caught up to him in 1985; he was busted for robbing an old woman of her purse. He did 24 months in the Queens County (NY) Correctional Facility for that one.
There was an upside to Gus though. Like Natalie, Gus was a super-smart kid with a talent for anything he put his mind to. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is what my mother-in-law used to call people who spread themselves thin with varied interests. My brother Gus was the exception. He learned to play guitar on his own and took his music seriously, forming a band called The Delivery Boys which once played on the same bill at CBGBs with The Talking Heads back in the late 70s. Painting, too, came naturally to him. He literally picked up some brushes, acrylic paints and some canvases and painted several landscapes, one of which still hangs in my parents’ living room.
But his were wasted gifts. For every moment of lucid brilliance there were three where he was too high to function. I have quite a few vivid memories of those moments. More often than not, I’d find Gus sprawled out on a couch or bed, on his back, eyes half open, with a burning cigarette dangling from his mouth or hand. There was another time when I was playing in front of my apartment building when paramedics showed up with a gurney, only to emerge minutes later carrying Gus out cold with an IV coming out his arm and my parents desperately in tow. How does a 10-year old kid even begin to explain this? Thankfully, I never had to. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the heartache of drug addiction was considered normal.
I can’t begin to tell you what my parents went through with Gus. They did all they could to rescue him. They spoke to doctors and social workers to try and get him help and there were times when it looked like he turned the corner. But helping a junkie stay clean is a 24×7 job. They could not spend every moment of the day with him. They had jobs and bills to pay and six other kids to raise. Unlike some strung out entertainers, they couldn’t afford to put him up at Betty Ford or Phoenix House. So this vicious cycle continued for years — a few months high, a few months sober, a masochistic yo-yo of hope and despair.
My brother Joe suffered much of Gus’s addiction, too. He was probably the closest to Gus because he spent the most time with him. Joe was the front man for the Delivery Boys. He idolized Gus not only because he tapped him to sing in his band, but because he was also our “cool” older brother. After Gus died, I recall talking to Joe about how conflicted he was over his relationship with him. Pure love and hate wrapped in one idea and often expressed in the same breath. It was Joe who took over as Gus’s “guardian” when my parents finally had enough and tossed him from the house. Joe got him help from the Veterans Administration and saw to it that he made his appointments and took his meds, even to the point of dragging him out of abandoned tenements known as shooting galleries. There were lots of them in New York City in 1984, so finding Gus wasn’t always an easy task.
When Gus left jail in 1987, my parents let him come live with us in Queens. He came back to our house in South Richmond Hill with some dire news. He had HIV. No one believed him at first, but he showed my parents the proof, having been tested while he was in jail. He probably caught it from a shared hypodermic needle; a point of probable fact because if there’s anything you should know about heroin junkies, they’ll do anything for a hit.
He was a model citizen after that. After jail, he helped Joe set up a rehearsal studio on Ludlow Street in Manhattan, taking care of the bookings, collecting fees and making sure to open and close it up. I think Joe let him have whatever was left over after paying the rent on the space, which was quite a bit of cash sometimes. Gus had turned the corner. He was going for drug counseling and keeping his doctor’s appointments. He even started writing new music and purchased a new acoustic guitar with the money he made. He smoked quite a bit of pot, too. Strangely enough, the effect it had on him was medicinal because he was eating like a fiend and gaining weight.
By early 1995, having been clean of heroin for nearly 8 years, it all came crashing down again. Gus had missed some doctor’s appointments and he could no longer be counted on to help out with the rehearsal studio. Joe thought it was heroin again and drove him to where my parents were living in New Jersey. I was there the day he drove Gus over. Joe stormed into the house, dropped him off and said “I can’t take this shit anymore” and drove away. As it turns out, Gus wasn’t using at all, but suffering from the dementia associated with the late stages of HIV. He had AIDS.
The end came fairly quickly for Gus. His doctor at the VA checked him into Goldwater Memorial Hospital shortly after the incident at my parents’ house. Six months later his heart gave out. Joe and I were there when it happened. Joe called me at work to ask if I would go to the hospital with him. “Gus had to be revived last night,” he said. “The doctor doesn’t think he’ll last.” We showed up to find him unconscious. The heart rate monitor next to his bed barely registered a pulse. Joe stroked his head and whispered a few kind words in his ears. That’s when the line on the monitor went flat. Gus was gone.
Death offered us little relief. I never saw my brother Joe cry like he did that day. Years of anguish came pouring from him because despite all the shit Gus put us through, he was still our brother. We still loved him. My mother’s reaction was no less visceral. I could hear her wail through the payphone receiver when I told her the bad news. What’s a mother to do?
Me? I didn’t cry much. I was angry in the weeks after his death. But not many tears. Joe gave me Gus’s guitar, which now belongs to my oldest son. Again, I chose to bury it all and not talk of him much.
Until now. When Natalie’s story appeared in the paper, it was as if I was reading an abbreviated version of my own family’s tale. One e-mail sent to Ms. Brown took the calloused view that the Ciappa family got off easy. In a detached sense, that may be true, but I don’t agree. Family is family. It makes no difference whether the cause of death is drugs or nature. It hurts. You miss them all the same.
What I will say to all of you is this. If someone close to you is using heroin or some other powerful opiate, don’t keep it to yourself. The big mistake we made as a family — a mistake repeated by the Ciappas — was seeing a family member’s drug addiction as a point of shame or failure. It’s not. If the recent rise in reported heroin usage is any indication, it should tell you that this could happen even to best of us. Talk to people. Get help. Do research. There really is hope for the hopelessness of heroin.