Wide Awake: Standing By
Watching someone figure it all out

About 15 years ago, I sat with my cousin only a few hours after we buried his father. And that was only a few months after we buried his mother. I had many moments of tremendous sadness that year. Of course, what I felt was nothing compared to what Michael had experienced.

I knew Michael was in a bad place. He had a history of alcohol and drug use that had tormented his mom and dad. But at least when they were alive, he had someone who could help pull him back from the addiction. I worried that without his parents, he would be lost and end up in serious trouble, even dead.

I sat next to him, and he was sobbing. I believed with all my heart that the perfect thing for him to do was to brush himself off, and go start a new, fantastic life. Move away if he had to. Just do whatever it would take to become a new person, one who would make his parents so very proud. I almost was energized at the thought that he could start now to do everything he should have done when his parents were alive. I believed they would see him, so it wasn’t too late. He could still make them happy.

I told him all this as we sat on the floor of his parents’ rowhome in Philly.

I love Michael. He is one of my youngest cousins, so I’ve known him his whole life. Our families vacationed together in the Poconos. Michael was a spry redhead with tons of freckles. He had three older brothers, who loved to wrestle. (I don’t mean the organized sport, I mean jumping on top of your brother while he’s lying on the floor.)

When we were together, it was inevitable that my uncle would come down to the basement and yell at the boys to stop “horsing around.” He would pull them apart, make them sit on the couch and tell them not to move. He’d leave, and soon one elbow would bump another. One knee would bounce off another. And the mayhem would start all over.

I only had one brother, a lot older than me. So this was fascinating entertainment.

I don’t know all the details of Michael’s life as a young adult, but I know he struggled with addiction. I saw him drink way too much at social events. At one wedding, I pulled him aside and said, “Michael, look at everyone. No one else is drinking a lot, and they’re having fun. You don’t have to be drunk to have fun.” He heard me, but he wasn’t really listening.

Over the years, Michael went to support groups and would have months of sobriety. We had so much hope. But then he returned to addiction, and things became worse than before. There were times when we didn’t know where Michael was living, times we would see him but not know how to help. Other times, we were so angry and frustrated, we wouldn’t help.

Usually in a story like this, the end is horrible. But it isn’t here.

Something happened, and I don’t know what. But one day Michael went into a bar and ordered two beers. He drank the first, and told himself that was the last beer he’d ever have. He decided the other was the first beer he’d never have.

That was July 1, 2003.

Today, Michael is 39 and in grad school. After graduating from LaSalle University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, he was accepted into a competitive grad program in counseling psychology, concentrating in student affairs. In September he starts an internship as a student counselor. Over the past few years, he’s travelled to France, London, Ireland and Indonesia. He holds a full-time job, and has bookings in local clubs where he sings and plays guitar almost every weekend.

He made it.

It may have taken a long time, but he eventually listened. He’s living the life we all hoped he would someday find. Imagine how proud his parents must be.

August 2009
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