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.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Vatican has had it with the nuns.  You know those sisters, so radical.  They've been spending their time working on behalf of the poor and fighting economic injustice!  An outrage.  Well, now they've been reprimanded.  They were told they've not been sufficiently outspoken against contraception, abortion and gay marriage.

Just when the Catholic Bishops and the Vatican seem like they've done themselves in, they do something even worse than I would've imagined.

They seem to think now is a good idea to come down on the nuns, just when the cases against the priests about sex abuse is ramping up again, and there are more and more outrageous examples of the higher ups covering up, not reporting the abuse to the proper authorities, and generally behaving heinously.  This is the time they've chosen to go after the nuns.

And...  Oh yeah.  Plus the contraception matter!  They're refusing to comply with the health care mandate that requires employers to provide contraception coverage to their employees.  They're saying it's a "religious freedom."  Yes, freedom.  They want the freedom to force their dogma on people who don't want it.

Do they ever wonder why their married, child-bearing-age employees don't have a baby every single year?

I mean, it's actually kind of funny.  It's like a guy who tripped, and then fell on his leg and broke it off, and while in pain and trying to recover, decides to distract people from watching him, so arranges for an anvil to drop on his head.  The Catholic Church as... Bugs Bunny!

Personally, I think they've made a serious miscalculation.

My friends Annie Laurie and Dan at the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked me to do a little ad for them about the contraceptive coverage issue, and I did it on Monday.  When it's put together I'll post it here on my blog.

But enough about that for now.  I'm just about to take off on a two week trip - a week in Spokane, and then a week in Los Angeles, so this is gonna be short....

Let's get onto books and movies for the month of May 2012

I read three books last month.

1.) The Swerve: How The World Became Modern, written by Stephen Goldblatt
2.) State of Wonder, written by Ann Patchett
3.) In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, written by Erik Larson

I loved all three, especially Swerve, which made me want to write a monologue based on the book so I could perform it.  It's all about a poem by Lucretius, who was a follower of Epicurus, and how a medieval antique book hunter came upon it in an out-of-the-way monastery in the 1400s and basically saved it for all humanity.  It really underscores the haphazardness of what was saved and what was not, at the same time that it shows us how much art and wisdom there was and how important it is for us now to hear the voices of the ancients who, while they did not have our scientific information, had great insights into the true nature of life and how it could best be lived.

Bottom line seems to be: let go of superstition...

State of Wonder was a wonder, and I even got to go to a lecture by Ann PAtchett, put on by my local library.  She was articulate, funny, smart, and her talk gave me even more insight into her novel, which manages to be pulpy and high literature all at the same time.

In the Garden was good too - god, I love Erik Larson.  And the story took me to the heart of things when Hitler was just gathering the forces that would come to full frightening fruition in his dictatorship.

Here are the movies I watched last month:

1.) Tiny Furniture, 2010, directed by Lena Dunham
2.) In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011, directed by Angelina Jolie
3.) Love Letters, 1945, directed by William Dieterie
4.) Kind Hearts & Coronets, 1949, directed by Robert Hamer
5.) Humpday, 2009, directed by Lynn Shelton
6.) The Wizard of Oz, 1939, directed by Victor Fleming
7.) My Effortless Brilliance, 2008, directed by Lynn Shelton
8.) Portrait of Jennie, 1948, directed by William Dieterie
9.) Come and Get It, 1936, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler
10.) Ministry of Fear, 1944, directed by Fritz Lang
11.) Lake Tahoe, 2008, directed by Fernando Eimbcke

Wow.  A pretty good month for movies.

Most memorable prize goes to "Come and Get It."  I'd seen it in college, but it was just as good if not better than I remember it.  "Tiny Furniture" caused me to have a more complicated relationship with Lena Dunham's show "Girls" on HBO.  I didn't like it as much and it was weird, like "Tiny Furniture" let me see how the sausage is probably made on "Girls."  Which made me not like "Girls" as much.  I have very mixed feelings about it all. I mostly love the show.  But I kinda wished I hadn't seen "Tiny Furniture."  Odd. I'm still not sure why I feel this way.

Mulan watched "The Wizard of Oz" with me on Mother's Day.  We had a really fun afternoon watching it.

Angelina Jolie's movie also stayed with me a long time - it's grim, very very grim.  She's ambitious as a director and I appreciate that.  The actors are very good.

Oh Lord, I've got to go.  A cab is coming in an hour and I have to pack.  Well, I suppose the summer has really really started now.  Until next month...