By Joe Cunningham
Sometimes I walk the creekwalk to the mall. It runs from Downtown Syracuse, by The Soundgarden - the best little music store you’ve ever been to, to Destiny USA, which is as much of a big deal as it is a misnomer. I only go there now when I really need to vent, which is simultaneous with a long catching-up session with my brother.
Andrew is 20 some-odd years old (I’ve gotten to the point where I stop keeping track of the ages of my seven siblings, though I remember all their birthdays without fail or Facebook), taller than I, and has kind of an old soul. He didn’t always though; no he did not always.
We slowly stroll the two or three miles there and the same distance back. In the summer it used to smell like shit when you got to the water. Onondaga Lake will always be the once “dirtiest lake in the world” for our generation. I think my grandkids, if I ever have those, will know it differently. I ran the path a hundred times when I trained for the Marines. That was a long time ago. The wiff of shit would hit you after Franklin Square, perhaps one of the nicest places to be in Syracuse.
I love that trail.
Drew and I would always walk it together. Neither of us liked to sit still, call it A. D. D. or whatever the fuck they say these days. The conversation would usually go something like this: I’d say something about how my lack of a good relationship was going or not going; he’d listen. I’d ask him about how he was doing and he’d wax on about it for a short time and then, I’d say I understood or give him some random, passionate advice. Then we’d recall some moment from our family’s past and laugh; and laugh again. And then I’d bring it back to my current ex-relationship. It kind of always happened like that; and repeated.
The subtext of it all was “good to see you” and something like we both cared about each other in a way only brothers can; and not the “you’re my brother” way that gets added as you make close friends, I mean brothers.
I’m writing this now from the Starbucks - very cliche, I know - where he worked some time ago. I can’t put my finger on the date right now. Half the staff remembers him: quiet, “a great guy, the best” I hear often. I’m still “Drew’s brother” here: part of the reason I like coming back. He is: a great guy. And better if only they knew the other half.
I had to turn on “What’s Goin On” on Spotify. The music just got too lame all of a sudden; or I just noticed.
“Who are they to judge us, simply ‘cause our hair is long?” My hair’s not that long; it’s just a great song.
I remember Drew. I remember my Mom telling the story over and over again about my second-best friend Drew Julian being so excited in Kindergarten when he was born as if my parents had “named him after me!” I remember babysitting my younger siblings. Lucy, the eldest and the only older than me, must have been out with my parents to some thing - I can’t remember that side of the memory. I just remember this moment when I tucked my brother in, Andrew then. It’s clear as day, that part. He was the cutest kid when he was a little tike. Me and Kevin (two years older than Drew, four years younger than I) would lay on the carpet with him and laugh as we imitated him blowing bubbles or whatever.
I remember tucking him in that night. He must have been three or four. I tucked the blanket around him like a kid likes to be tucked (I knew, I had been one or was), and I kissed him on the forehead. It was the kind of kiss you give a young sibling. I closed the door and said goodnight, big smile on both our faces. Somehow - and I remember this clearly - I knew it would be the last time I would ever kiss him.
You just don’t do that shit when you get older.
We loved Drew. I remember the girls in his class did too. I was always the awkward type, couldn’t tell if a girl was hitting on me at twelve better than at 29. They were always all over Drew when I came to walk him to the bus or something like that. They are all hot now, those girls [laughs].
|Little Andrew "Rockadoodle"|
He was fun and funny from a young age. I remember it really taking off when he was a teenager. We all would silently look forward to any family dinner with Drew. He always had the most random, hilarious comments to add, choke-on-your-food laughing anecdotes, and the best sarcastic face reactions to whatever anyone else was saying, especially when it was bullshit.
My sisters' boyfriends’ especially.
[I’ve got this song on repeat; how I roll.] “Don’t punish me, with brutality.”
Did I mention he was a drummer? It was after many months of my Mother going crazy from his incessant tapping around his desk (we were all homeschooled after ‘98, don’t ask) that he somehow managed to get a drum set, in the garage. He’d be out there night and day if he could’ve been. And he was in a number of bands with his pothead friends from highschool (they all went to a small Catholic highschool in Auburn after I left for the seminary; I know right - all of the above?).
|Llaz, Ben, Drew, Dres|
He was good; Drew was a natural. He didn’t think he was that great either, which in my mind makes someone better: both in character and in the pursuit of excellence.
And then there was Margaret. McAloon. She was - for lack of a better explanation - the mother my Mom never had. After my great-grandmother died and my great-grandfather had been wrongfully accused of keeping his children in the pigeon cages he -
Starbucks is closed. I was the last one, minus someone’s boyfriend. Sometimes I can’t tell if being a regular there is a good thing from a barista’s standpoint. I’ll have to ask Drew. It’s right around the corner from my house [apartment] and the coffee is good, despite the “always buy local” Chris Fowler in my conscience, on my shoulder, what have you. My ex-wife was a barista. That’s the long addiction story short.
I plugged in the Christmas tree, by accident really. It’s on the power strip I have my laptop plugged into. My son likes that he’s taller than it (he’s almost 3, but tall), and I don’t like dealing with the full-size ones: not now, not as a single dad and not without a house. It’s proportional to this semi-acceptable temporary residence.
Where was I?
(That was a calculated hiatus.)
[“...Talk to me, so you can see… Oh, what’s goin on…!”] Yep.
So my grandmother was taken away from her father, her sibling(s) too, because of a false accusation that her father was abusing them. And ironically, they were raped in foster care; several times I think. She never recovered. Something was wrong forever, they said. My Mom told me that my grandfather told her, that after he married her mother, something snapped, something had been wrong and he didn’t see it until then. I can believe that. They divorced after seven kids, all of them feeling the painful effects of whatever was wrong with her.
That is how the story was told to me. All my young life, minus a brief moment I don’t remember, I didn’t see my grandmother, “the crazy one.” She might as well have been dead, like my Father’s father when he was a kid. (I never knew him, obviously.) It was always “she is very hurtful” and we never understood; well, not never.
One self-righteous moment of mine when I was back on a short break from the seminary, I convinced my Mom to go see her. We all went. It was a wake, I can’t remember who’s. My grandmother was very cold, and then, seeing my Roman collar, she proceeded to try to vent to me about the injustices inflicted on her by her family, including my Mother. That’s when I knew it was bullshit. My Mother didn’t add up to someone who inflicted injustice, not like that.
She had been a nun, my Mother; and when she got out she had nowhere to go. I know what that’s like. It was her “second mother” - Margaret - that took her in. So when Margaret’s house in the city got ransacked by burglars, for the second time, I believe; my Mother, her power-of-appointment, took her in. An eye for an eye.
|Mom & Margaret with Bingley, Llazmin's dog.|
We grew up with Margaret as something of a great-aunt. She never forgot our birthdays, always mailed us a $10 check in a card. Always. Her house - she had grown up there since she was 8 - was preserved from forty-odd years ago, or whenever her parents had died. It was like a museum. Kevin and I used to do yard work there. I hated that.
She always had something to say about everything and didn’t hold anything back - anything! When she got to our house she had dementia, so it was even worse.
I always lose track of how many times old people break their hips or have heart attacks or whatever (I know, karma: I’m gonna do both twelve times for saying that) and she was on hip-surgery-I-can’t-remember, so when she got there she was in a wheelchair.
With the dementia it was like having another kid in the house. She would bitch to Mom, Mom would deal with it; she’d need to be helped at all times (also Mom), she would say random shit at the dinner table; and she couldn’t hear well either, you kinda had to yell at her.
She liked me - hell, I was gonna be a priest (she was very religious); she liked the older kids, probably more memories with us. She hated my brother Ben (the youngest) - they used to legit insult each other - especially her to him about his weight at the time. She made him cry once. (Coulda slapped her for that, but I don’t hit women.) But she loved Andrew, and he loved her.
We would all get the biggest kick out of watching them interact with each other. My God! He would come in - all 6 plus feet-tall of him, look at Margaret from across the room, and then stretch his arms out in the air and shake them at her yelling - at the top of his lungs - something like:
“MARGARET!!!! What the FUCK are you doing up?” And she would just smile at him - having heard all of that - and let out a little chuckle that sounded more like someone farting through a trumpet than a laugh.
That was their relationship.
It was only Drew who could be like that around her. It was something of a love-language; and I’ve never seen anything like it since, probably never will.
There are countless pictures of them together: and by together I mean his arm around her on the couch: she being 80-odd years old, and he, a pot-smoking reincarnation of James Dean, maybe 19 at the time. Regardless, they were magnetic.
|Drew (center), Dres (left), with Margaret.|
It was only Drew who - when Margaret would interrupt my Father’s long-ass grace-before-meals with a comment like, “Sue, why aren’t you putting Ben into more sports?” - Andrew would turn his head, immediately attract the attention of everyone in the room, and loudly say, “Margaret - shut up!” And she would, like a schoolgirl in front of her crush.
I had to change the music. Marvin Gaye is great but I kill songs: play them 100 times and then… Onto “Hurt” by Christina A. - my current addiction for the last 12 hours. And maybe the next couple of days (or the end of this story, it will end [laughs]).
Margaret died. I can’t remember when. It was a couple years ago. She fainted or had a heart attack (I can’t remember) at my wedding, during the Mother-son dance (that’s not when she died, it was soon after). I remember that all-too well: my Mother dancing with me, holding me so tightly, the woman I loved the most in all my life, to a song that continues to break my heart every time I hear it. I had partially closed my eyes and could see, somewhat, all the people crying. I was almost one of them. (My Mom was, of course.) Suddenly there’s a tap on Mom’s shoulder and my Dad’s pulling her away (because Margaret was down, we didn’t find that out for days). My now-ex-wife stepped in and continued dancing with me. I think that was the only good part of that wedding (Mom). And Kevin’s speech.
|Mom & me, Ireland|
After Margaret died, something died in Drew; but that wasn’t the moment that changed him forever.
My parents have eight children: “six biological and two adopted” - I have to say a million times. I don’t count Andres and Llazmin as anything different from my other siblings. I love the shit outta them, and we’ve been through quite a bit together; and they’ve been through quite a bit more than we have. They have the literal scars to prove it. That’s a story for another time.
|[What it says.]|
I remember holding Andres down, literally holding his legs down while my Father held his arms. He was - God - eight? He kept running away when he first got here. I almost got arrested once, at my Father’s Mother’s funeral, for chasing him down. His stepfather tried to kill him when he was three. He almost succeeded, many times.
Eventually the running away stopped. Andrew was a big part of that. They were the same age with basically the same name in two languages. They did everything together - good or bad. They shared their toys, had bunkbeds (so did Kevin and I), had inside jokes, the same friends, went everywhere together, same sports teams - everything. And I remember a time when they found a bird’s nest and killed all the baby birds together; and when I found them I chased them down, yelling at them with tears in my eyes, like the eldest brother should.
The only time I ever broke a bone in my body was when Dres got to my ribs. We always rough-housed, and I never went full force: they were too small and I was jacked then. I pushed Drew off easy, but Dres didn’t stop and had some sort of murder in his eyes; and I didn’t want to do any serious damage to him. I found a rib sticking out under my skin after that. It healed I guess.
When Margaret was around the house - they were much older then - I’ll never forget crying laughing when they recounted how they would basically terrorize her without her knowing. She would wheel herself with her feet to her room on our first floor - it was mine for nine months after she died when I returned from the seminary (before I almost went ape-shit nuts and had to get away from my parents), and she’d get stuck on the door frame. The house was ancient (1820?) and a beam on the floor would catch her wheels. She’d struggle to get over the hump, and when she did - somehow - Drew and Dres would pull her back over the bump, and she’d exhale in frustration, forgetting she had just achieved this, and start again.
I don’t know why that was so funny. Probably because I knew how much Drew loved her; and partly for the hell she put my Mom through those months before she left and never came back.
[“I’m sorry for - blaming you - for everything - I just couldn’t do; and I’ve hurt myself…”]
|Drew's car at Mom & Dad's|
I was in Connecticut when it happened. So was Kevin. He joined the seminary before I did - 7th grade and I in my senior year. I remember getting the phone call. It was my Mom. Andres was in jail.
I remember hearing it from her eyes. My sisters were away that night: Lucy, Katie, and Llazmin. They were staying over at Katie’s then-boyfriend’s, now-husband’s apartment in Skaneateles. Ben was upstairs, so were Mom and Dad. Dres had gotten into some trouble: my Mom found porn, knives, money, and shit under his mattress. He was grounded: had to sleep on the back porch couch. We grew up with that couch. That was the night it burned.
My Father - I can’t fucking remember why he went downstairs - but when he did, the back porch was on fire, and he had just enough time to put it out with the garden hose. Had he not not slept - Ben, Mom, and him…
And Drew! Fuck, that was the clincher. Drew was upstairs sleeping too!
Dres was gone. He had run away again, of course, after starting the fire. It was a matter of moments before the police were after him. There was a helicopter and dogs, police scanning the woods.
I wasn’t there, but my Mom recounted this to me later as the moment when Andrew understood that Dres really did need help. It was a constant debate with him where he’d shrug it off whenever Mom talked about his adopted almost-twin brother as someone who needed special care, help, and consideration. Drew didn’t believe that, and his funny, happy-go-lucky attitude that used to cheer us all up didn’t either.
My Mom says Drew walked out - the middle of that night - saw the charcoaled parts of the house from the fire, saw the police going back and forth with the dogs, and started to cry. As she told me about it, I could see Drew there in my mind’s eye - running back and forth, screaming Andres’s name, asking him to come back.
And that was when Andrew left and never came back.
|Some Christmas past.|
I visited Dres in the - whatever they call that thing where they put him. I came home for a few days not long after that. Nobody really talked about it, but that was talking about it. It was a few years of various rehabs and whatnots til we got to see him at family events again (Dres). And we never saw Drew again, not the Drew we knew.
He was a barista at the Starbucks now near me, downtown before that. Everyone, like I said, loved him. Even they noticed the change. It was impossible not to. It was like someone had pulled the plug, deflated the balloon, or insert-your-own-analogy. It was hard to deal with. Like I cried inside every time I saw him like that.
We used to go ghost hunting a lot. (Long stories.) I remember buying a large pizza at Dominoes and sitting on the bleachers outside B’ville High and eating a third of it with Drew and his friend Lauren, also a barista; and then going out ghost hunting nearby. Everybody said they were getting married. Drew setup a Facebook (event) marriage for them; followed by a divorce a week later. Anyone who knew them knew that was the way it was. And I knew he wasn’t in any shape to do anything like that for real.
|Lauren & Drew|
Like I said, I left the seminary when I was 24. Long story, no need to get into it here. I came home for nine months, got a job at an auto parts factory, spent all my money on movie tickets and pizza and shit like that. Mom and Dad used to wait up for us (me and Drew) when we were out late as if we were little kids. Dad would take away any DVDs I brought home that he didn’t approve of (Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Bastards, Gia, Boys Don’t Cry, to name a few). I was fucking 24 years old!
I bought a portable DVD player and sat in the cornfield and watched all the “contraband.” No joke.
Last year, or was it the year before, Andrew was sitting in the passenger seat of the car with my Mom; she was driving him to an appointment with a shrink I think. He had been in the psych ward for short time before my Mom took him out so she could take care of him. It’s really like hell in there, I’ve seen it (and I’ll get to that). I forgot what inciting incident made that come about, besides the night I already mentioned. Well, that day, she was driving him for the checkup and he just screamed and dove out the car into a snowbank, then got up and ran off.
|Drew and Mom|
My brothers used to disappear into the woods behind our house. It was the country in Baldwinsville so we heard shots fired (hunters) almost everyday.
That day, Drew went off into the woods alone. And afterwards came one of the worst blizzards we’ve ever had. I remember being in my apartment with my son, miles away, holding him while I teared up thinking about Drew, and how they would find his body and he wouldn’t be around at all anymore. And I asked God to save him; and I wanted to go out there, but there was nothing I could do; I was a single dad, and had to stay with my kid.
The cops looked for him all night, Mom said, rescue workers too. I remember him telling me, during one of our long walks on the creekwalk, that night he wasn’t trying to kill himself, though everyone thought he was - that he was looking for himself - that he was out there, trying to find Andrew Cunningham, the one that had gone away into the woods with Andres the night of the fire.
Drew came back, what was left of him; and they arrested him, drove him away, and put him back in the insane asylum.
I went to see him once; twice maybe. He was there for, God, too long. This time my Mom didn’t want to take him out too early, but it became very clear, there was really only one doctor who gave a shit about him, and the rest were just filling out their charts and punching the clock.
I remember going to see him: getting buzzed in and going through security. If you’ve seen the movie One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest - it was exactly that: people drooling, shuffling from here to there; playing boardgames children play; watching television; or just sitting there not doing any fucking thing at all.
|Ben, me, Drew|
One of the ugly, smelly old woman (smelled like they never showered) made some sort of cat-call in my direction when I got there. Drew had gained a lot of weight: he was basically not exercising at all. I brought him a candy bar. The time before it was a calzone. (We used to always get calzones at Zonies after the creekwalk.) He gobbled them both down like they were elixirs of life.
Maybe they were for a moment, from that place.
It was so hard to see him there. The last time I saw him, my Mom had told me not to really listen to him: that he wasn’t in his right mind and he would try to talk me into getting him out of there. When he started talking about how he had “figured it all out,” I almost cried. I didn’t know what to fucking say.
I called my Mom after and she told me she was looking into all sorts of options to get him out: a farm somewhere where they rehab people like that, and other shit.
He went in diagnosed “schizophrenic.” When I brought the calzone, he told me all about his roommate this, his roommate that. I never met the roommate. I was thinking about A Beautiful Mind the whole time though.
He was discharged with “schizophrenic tendencies” and put in some sort of halfway house, charged with taking meds twice a day. During our walks - we were always brutally honest - he told me how he couldn’t even masterbate with those meds - like the opposite effect of Viagra.
We went to the same shrink. I had a lot to deal with too (don’t know if I’ll ever write about that). Doc told me “nothing wrong” with me, that I was “unusually strong” and that he didn’t understand how I could be so resilient. Neither did I. I didn’t know if that was just shrink bullshit; until Drew told me some of the things the doctor told him.
Every time we hung out after he got out, he didn’t wanna see other people. We’d avoid former friends, people he knew. It was hard: it was like he was a turtle crawling into a shell, when I knew him as the life of the party not a few years before.
I took him to the movies on Christmas (The Big Short); he took me Friday - New Year’s, for The Hateful Eight - both great films. We both love good movies. Before dropping him home, we talked for a second about a movie idea he had; and we made each other laugh. That hadn’t happened in a long time.
Drew was always into music and knew as much about it as I did films (I’m a fanatic). I played “Stan” by Eminem for him in the car on the way to Hateful Eight. When it goes from Dido to the new beat, he got noticeably excited, as anyone in their right mind would. I guess that wasn’t the best song to play - all things considered. (Spoiler alert: it’s about a fan who kills himself, and someone else.)
Dres is fine. He has a beautiful son and is engaged to the mother. I see them and the siblings that aren’t in Chicago, Minnesota, or Japan at Christmas, Easter, and other typical family holidays at my parents’ house. It’s my parents’ house now.
I can’t put a date on it but so much happened there it changed the way I look at life. I was there just the other day for a few hours for lunch: just me, Drew, Mom, Dad, and Ben. I can only stay there for a few hours at time now; otherwise I go crazy: cabin fever, claustrophobia, I don’t know; it’s like a mental claustrophobia.
I left there for good, minus the nine-month pitstop of being treated like a 24 year-old teenager, when I was 17. I was gone for seven years: Dublin, Rome, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Philadelphia, and back to Syracuse. Since then I’ve had apartments all across the shitty side of the city and now in Liverpool, something nicer for my kid. I’ve never felt at home in any of them.
My Mom calls it home, their house: “7250,” as my Dad says. New Year’s when I looked out into the woods, I could feel the distance from the very place I was standing - loud - like a deafening thought you can’t shake: a bad dream that you remember so well it makes you shiver when you get up, and a half hour later. I was looking out into the woods, and Drew was in the other room, but he wasn’t: he was somewhere out among the trees - the Drew I knew when we were younger, when we were more innocent and hadn’t gone through so much shit that had left me scarred and my brother broken.
I’ve been a lot of places since we were kids, but I’ve never come back home. God, it’s been at least 13 years since I’ve been home, and I don’t think I can ever go back.