Friday, June 22, 2012

Bill Sweeney 1961 - 2012




This is my family (my mother must have been taking the picture) circa 1972, having cheese fondu after skiing.  


I'm in the orange, and my brother Bill is in the striped pajamas.  He died on Wednesday.

******


Two weeks ago today, on June 8, my brother Bill and I were downtown in Spokane.  We’d just run an errand and both felt hungry for lunch.  He was feeling weak, and I said I’d grab something quick for us to eat.  He could wait for me in the car.

I noticed a Pita Hut across the street.  Inside, I found that the line was long.  I phoned Bill and asked what he wanted, reading a list of menu items.  “Well, the chicken souvlaki, of course.”  he replied.  We both laughed simultaneously at the memory.

You see, in the summer of 1981 Bill and I spent about three and a half months travelling around Europe backpacking.  We ended up in Greece, where we spent nearly a month on the island Santorini, almost totally broke.  We found a family that would house us for a week if we helped them with their grape harvest.  We worked picking grapes and we even helped them stomp on the grapes – barefoot – on top of a big ancient-seeming pit, with long intertwined twigs underneath us (somehow) and the grape juice flowed into a big vat below.  One night, one of the patriarchs of this family, who had only one arm,  deftly made us scrambled eggs with feta cheese for dinner.   Then he poured ouzo from a big white jug.  Bill was smiling from ear to ear.  We were really far from home. 

Back in Athens for a few days, we decided to take a bus to London that cost $50 a person.  The bus would take over 32 hours of driving.  It was also so packed, there were so many people crowding to get on, some people made bargains with others to stand in the aisle and trade places with a seated person now and again.  

As we were waiting in line for the bus, I looked in my backpack and saw a wrapped food item.  It was some chicken souvlaki I’d bought on the street the day before, or maybe it was even two days before.  I was going to toss it out, but Bill said, “Hey, I’ll eat it.” (Yes, at age 20 & 21 we were both idiots.)

We got on the bus, and began the journey.  First Bill broke out into a sweat.  Then his head started to sway.  Then he leapt up and weaved and bumped his way down the aisle, making it to the one toilet in the back just in time.  He felt sick and extremely queazy for the rest of the trip. 

Of course, I gave Bill my seat and I stood in the aisle.  It was very hot, and with no air-conditioning, inside the bus it was hotter.  A handsome guy was in the seat next to Bill, a guy who eventually insisted that I sit for part of the ride.  It was a very long travel to London, seemingly interminable.  Bill recovered and then flew home to Spokane, our long summer as brother and sister in Europe over.  I stayed in London a few more days with the guy on the bus.

But that’s another story.

Now that Bill is dead, (from excessive alcohol and drugs) I’m flooded with memories of his better times.  Bill at his best.  Many of my happiest memories growing up were with Bill.  When we were young, we skied together almost every weekend in winter – him pushing me to take harder and harder runs.  When we were adults, we went to Aspen together and he forced me down a black diamond run, far above my ability.  I cursed him all the way down, side stepping with my skis for much of the way.  But when he suggested we try it again, I did, and then it all became much less daunting. 

I think of Bill with his six-pack abs, which were sadly eroded from drinking actual six-packs.  But I don’t want to remember that.  I’m remembering him lean and taught as can be, throwing himself onto his bike.  His great long muscular legs, his unique hunch over the handle bars, his smile of enticement, “Come on, Jewels.  Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”  God, his under-bite – those teeth, gleaming.   His ability to persevere physically seemed supernatural.


He rode his bike from Spokane to Seattle several times. He hiked through the Olympic Rainforest.  

I woke up last night remembering Bill waking me up, - so many times - in the wee hours of the morning, having already made a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of hot chocolate and coaxing me out of bed so we could get to the mountain and ski, or go on a hike as early as possible. Or get on a bike.  Bill liked to stay active. He loved the early morning.  He liked to be outside before anyone else.

Sadly, Bill’s downhill run – the one his life was on – didn’t go as well as the ones we conquered on the slopes.  He was really already an alcoholic at age 20.  In his early thirties, he was lifted out of his chaotic vodka-fueled stupor by an amazing woman, Sandy, who he made his wife. 

He had about five good years, and fathered two amazing children, Nick and Katie.  When the kids were young, he began to drink even more heavily than he had before.  He became angry and cold.  Sandy turned him out, and we all knew she was doing the exact right thing.  Bill couldn’t save himself, and if you threw him a life raft, he’d pull you down with him.

Sandy heroically saved a world of hurt from her children, who Bill was not able to emotionally damage as much as if he’d been there.  They’ve grown up into resilient, thriving young adults. 

Like most addicts, Bill felt deeply.  He numbed himself, yes.  But he also imprisoned himself in his emotions, never fully able to get beyond the sting and the heartache.  He couldn't get to a perspective that was measured or thought through.  He never fully moved past Michael’s death – our other brother who died at age 33 – and I could see that the alcohol and other drugs both delivered him from, and kept him inside a nightmare of constant emotional pain.  


He caused an enormous amount of turmoil and sadness for our family.  For his own children, too.


On the other hand he had a deep caring and joyfullness about him that drew people in.  He was eager and interested.  

Weirdly, one of Bill’s best times was when he was in jail.  He was imprisoned several times for driving while drunk.  Fortunately he never hurt anyone, he was just pulled over by the police for swerving all over the road.  After three times, they sentenced him to nearly a year.  

However, in jail, Bill thrived.  He was put in the kitchen and cooked.  Bill needed supervision and regimentation.  I had some of the best conversations with Bill from prison.  While a big part of Bill’s personality was a deep defiance of authority, it seemed like in the prison system – when it was clear there was no way out – he let his resistance relax, he followed the rules, he helped his fellow prisoners.  He was lucid and articulate, and he read constantly: Richard Dawkins, David Quammen, I think Quammen was his favorite. The last book we discussed was one I sent him, “The Great Hunger” by Cecil Woodham-Smith, a book about the Irish famine, actually a book I haven’t yet read.  

In April I was in Spokane and Bill was in the hospital.  He had acquired MRSA, a staph infection that's resistant to most antibiotics.  He had hepatitis C, late stage kidney disease, and cirrhosis.  He’d also broken his wrist (which he did several times over) from falling.  He was lying in a hospital bed, really out of it, only a few teeth, emaciated, orange from the cirrhosis – even his eyes – his stomach enlarged, and strapped down to a hospital bed.  Dying of alcoholism is a grizzly way to go.  He looked at me and said, “Hey Jewels, let’s go on a hike while you’re here.”  I held his gaze.  I blinked away the tears. “Sure,” I replied. 

So unaware, so childlike, so wanting to just be outside.  That was Bill.  I never thought he’d leave the hospital, but he did.  My mother was at the end of her rope.  Bill was out for 12 days before he went back in.  Mulan and I took him back into the hospital for the last time.  


Now, when I think of him in the emergency room, cordoned off with partially pulled beige curtains for a little privacy, the flickering image I have of of Bill -  sliding off his pants and shirt to get into the gown, I think about how that was the last time.  His last time to pull off his pants.  When I think of him sliding himself onto the hospital bed, I think about how that was his last time to slide himself onto a bed.  He had an impish way about him, light on his feet, youthful even.  When he got on the bed, Mulan and I were standing right there.  He looked at up at me, his eyebrows raised, “Well?” he said with a half-shrug. Then he smiled at me with his lips closed.  

He died ten days later.  He was 51 years old.  

Yesterday I was able to say “My brother died yesterday.”  But now time is going to pull me away from him, each day will be a day with our hands farther apart.

I don’t blame Bill.  He couldn’t conquer this demon.  Who knows what kind of fate was written for him in his genes and in his experiences?   Frankly I don’t think he had a choice.  I don’t know why some people are able to change their destructive behaviors and why some people aren’t.  And I don’t think anyone does.  I think we are played rather than players, and Bill played his part as well as anyone who had to play a part as painful and as difficult as his.

He’s going to be buried in the same plot with my brother Mike at Holy Cross Cemetery in Spokane.  When my mother told me that was how it was going to go, I was surprised.  I hadn’t thought of that. 

But of course, Mike and Bill, together in the ground.

In closing, I'll post this pic of Bill holding Mulan sideways at the Spokane airport, some years ago.  Mulan looks about five.  




Here's another one with Mu.

51 comments:

Melissa said...

Julia, this was beautiful and moving and sad. I'm so sorry for your loss--which is a horribly pat phrase but I mean it, and I'm sorry for Bill's struggles, and grateful to you for sharing them. I'm a longtime reader of your blog and appreciate the many ways you give here--things to think about, care about, laugh about, mourn. Warm wishes to you and your family.

Kizz said...

Thank you so much for sharing a bit of him while your hands are still so close. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Michelle said...

I'm sorry, as well. Reading about him and seeing those pictures makes me feel like I'm missing someone I never knew. What you've written is a lovely and beautiful tribute. Thank you.

Kimberly said...

I'm sorry for your loss, and I'm sorry for the hurt you had to go through watching him slide away through the years. Strength and good thoughts to you all, especially your mother.

Lanie Painie said...

Sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing the love with us.

Catherine Twomey said...

I'm so sorry Julia. Please express my condolences (it's never enough) to your mom and the rest of the family. It's such a tragedy. I'll try to call you soon; take care. I'm glad he's with Mike.

Steve Hibbert said...

Dear Julia, I am so sorry to read of Bill's passing. My thoughts are with you and yours... Love, Steve

Spider Lodge said...

So sorry for your loss and sending you an e-hug (if I may be so bold :) to say take care. How lucky you and Bill were to have had each other, and Mike, for the time that you did.
"And we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love" ~WBYeats

Anonymous said...

Julia, words fail me. What a lovely, fitting tribute blog to your brother. So sorry for your loss. Im certain you were a large source of joy for him thoughout his life.

Anonymous said...

<3

Ben said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Julia...thinking of you.

Brian said...

Julia-
Thanks for sharing that. I lost a brother in a car accident back in 1967. He was 16. Me 11.
We both grew up Catholic. Though I never wanted to be a priest, I do miss the ritual sometimes. Sometimes.

Tracy Forehand said...

Julia,
I'm so sorry for your loss. Bill and I dated some in high school and I have wondered for years what had become of him. Thank you for posting this so I don't have to wonder anymore. My ex-husband is an alcoholic and I know how difficult it is for everyone else to watch someone we care about deeply slip away from us.

Jennlm said...

This was so lovely and tragic and sad all at once. I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing with us.

Lost Glove Found said...

It is rare to see such loving acceptance of a heartbreaking reality. Thank you for sharing. You have a great gift of offering up your difficult experiences with a solid humanity.

Matt said...

I grew up just down the street from your home and my wife and I both graduated form Ferris with Bill. We always remember Bill as a nice, polite guy. As my wife puts it Bill was a peach. I only regret I didn't get to know him better. When we saw the obit we wondered what happened. Thank you for your touching, thought provoking blog entry. Please accept our most sincere condolences for you and your family.

glorificus said...

What a profound and vivid account of a complex life. Thank you.

MrsB said...

Thank you for this beautiful testament...and that is what it is...to being siblings - forever, no matter what.

Manuel Royal said...

Julia, I don't believe in an afterlife, but if you're as close to someone as you were to Bill, they're still intertwined in your life after they're gone. I hope soon you'll have just the good memories and no pain. (Still waiting for that myself.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Today is the 8 year anniversary of my mother's death and I stumbled across your blog from another site. Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

I came to you blog to your blog to thank you for the ad you did for FFRF, and found this beautiful, heartbreaking remembrance of your brother. I am so sorry he went through that, so sorry that you and your family have again lost someone you love. Glad you do have happy memories, though, and thank you for sharing those. Take care.

Rainbow Motel said...

Julia-

Here I am...just some person out here in the blogosphere...reading this post and marveling at the feelings it conjures. I've never met any of you...not Bill nor you nor your brother Mike, but having listened to your voice from the many TAM and Audible.com downloads... and having read you these many years gives me the impression that I know you. I know that's stupid, but there it is. Forgive me if it sounds presumptive. I am a sister with siblings and I can project what I think I would feel at a time like this. I wish peace to you and to your family.

Unknown said...

I hadn´t checked in for a while and just found your new post with such sad news. As ¨Rainbow Motel¨ says, I also feel like I know you, in fact just yesterday I picked up one of your book recommendations from the library. I have two brothers and can´t imagine what it would be like to loose either one. It was a beautiful tribute that you wrote about him. Thankyou.

Terri said...

((((Julia & Family))))
I am so very sorry about your brother. This song made me think of him:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qw8aXfObEIg

Terri said...

Im sorry Julia, I hit post to early on this. Not meaning to make you feel worse by suggesting listening to this song...it just reminded me of your brother - as does Mary's 'Mercy Now'. I find her music and songs oddly soothing. I still love your writing - I hope you never stop. You made me feel as if I knew Bill a little bit. Thank you for sharing this.

Joey said...

Julia, how do you feel abput the affordable care act being upheld?! LOVE the blog. desperately trying to keep up with the reading lol

Amanda Rose Adams said...

I'm sorry for your loss but grateful for what you shared. Thank you for offering the depth and beauty that was your life with your brother. From your enormous loss you mined the most beautiful of gems and offered them so humbly.

May you be so blessed all of your days with the kind of love you've found despite or because of the pain you've travailed. You are so transparent that I'm sure both of your brothers knew how much you loved them and loved you in kind measure.

colemak dvorak said...

I am sorry for your loss. It may seem inappropiate, but then most things seem inappropiate at this time. I would like to point out out the undiminished driving power of your words. You really have a gift.

Dave Mecham said...

Julia, I'm so glad I saw this. Thank you for sharing Bill's story... both the good times and the bad.

Dave Mecham said...

Julia, I'm so glad I saw this. Thank you for sharing Bill's story... both the good times and the bad.

Lara said...

Have only happened upon your blog today (a long time fan) and so deeply sorry to hear about your loss. My deepest condolences to you and your family in this difficult time.

papigee3 said...

Hi Julia, Just sent you an email. Thanks for your honest and thoughtful writings. Much love to you and your family....peace...phil gaddy

Anonymous said...

I was touched by your commentary about your brother and his early death. Maybe as time goes on we'll figure out the answers to some of those questions you raised. I often have concluded myself that we just can't figure out why more people can't seem to see the obvious, at least to the other people around them. Or maybe the see it, but can't continually make the changes they need to better manage.

Ed said...

I haven't checked in lately. Sorry to hear about Bill. Lost a brother in law in almost they same way. A wonderful person lost to addictions. Your writing is very touching. Thank you. I'll be checking in much more often.

S.C. Hege said...

Very sorry for your family's loss. I grew up a few blocks away from you guys and was in Meg's class. Nice to read your thoughts on your brother. May you always recall those greats times you had with your brother. Scott H.

Saul Flanner said...

Julia, your writing is as eloquent as always. I'm amazed at your ability to take even the most painful parts of your life and write about them in a way that is beautiful, poignant, funny and uplifting. Thank you. My thoughts are with you. Peace and Love... Saul

Manda said...

So sorry for your loss, Julia. What a touching and honest tribute to your brother. You clearly loved him very much

jerry-mahoney.com said...

My condolences to you and your family. It's almost too much to bear, thinking of all the pain you've gone through (and shared so openly with your fans, like me). What inspires me so much about this post is the love and forgiveness you clearly have for your brother. I admit I've thought in the past that alcoholics need to get their you-know-what together for the sake of the people who love them, if not for themselves. This made me understand and sympathize a bit more. Your brother was lucky to have you in his life. xo

Anonymous said...

I was listening to Letting Go of God last night and thought I would revisit your blog this morning. (haven't checked in in a while). I'm very sorry for your loss. I loved reading your tribute. I'm a sober alcoholic, and your way of capturing his attributes, his damage, and his powerlessness was touching.

Snowbrush said...

I'm so sorry for your loss.

I have a sister, but she and I never got along, and we haven't spoken since 1994. When I hear of someone losing a sibling to whom they felt close, I often wonder if I hadn't rather to have suffered such a loss but to at least have fond memories than to have a living sibling for whom I have never felt much of anything.

I put up a new blog post today in which I recommended "Letting Go of God" as one of five films in which religion plays an important role.

Anonymous said...

I am so very sorry for your loss. We have a brother in a very similar situation. No matter how much we have supported him, he still continues on his destructive path. Thank you for helping me see his journey in a different light.

Darren said...

Julia I dont know if you will ever read this but I will post anyway.First Iam sorry for your loss. Every time I watch SNL I think of you and Bill very weird I know.lol I was at geiger corrections about 14 years ago and met your brother.He was as you said a very caring person it was nice to have someone to talk to while I was there.I never had been to jail before.He had mentioned you a few times and that you were on SNL.Your story truly brought tears and laughter to me. I to have struggled with some of those same demons,Iam sober just a little over 4 years. I always had wondered what happened to him and I googled snl because I was bored and well here I am. lol As I have learned nothing happens by coincidence God works in mysterious ways.This will strengthen my recovery.Again Iam sorry for your loss Im glad he doesnt have to suffer from this ruthless disease anymore.

Anonymous said...

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Rick Clark said...

Julia - I worked with Bill for a short time at Sherwin Williams. I only remember what a nice guy he was. Always smiling, even while everyone there was all stressed out. I remember one day he told me that you were coming into the store and I was so excited!!! But I did deliveries and missed you because I was out driving around. So bummed. I've always been a fan. We love you in Spokane!

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