A year ago today, my little brother J.R. passed away. It was a long, sad, heart wrenching descent into the grips of alcoholism. I know, upbeat topic for today, right?
But this week, this week alone, I have had two people who I love very much tell me about their family’s heartaches because of addiction. One friend told me her son is in trouble with cocaine. He is a father, with three kids. Another friend was recounting the sadness and horror of losing her nephew to a heroin overdose. He was only 29 years old.
We know this is an epidemic.
What do I have to offer other than the tears and anger I share with the rest of the grievers? I guess it starts with an ardent wish, a prayer, a chant– that grows in my imagination, morphing into some colossal force field of protection that could be magically erected to keep this demon addiction at bay. But in the end, it just comes down to self-preservation. Love thyself. Right?
I would not pretend for one, single second to be an expert on any of this. I do not know what blessed/cosmic/genetic/cultural or behavioral potion yields some people better equipped to ward off self-destruction than others. If I did have that wisdom, I’d be the fucking Super Bowl half-time show today. What I do know is this: people fight addiction and win. People do it every day. But surely that must come from a place of fierce self-love and self-determination and an almost animal instinct to survive. What else could it be? Sure, support, encouragement, tough-love, threats and lots ‘o therapy all get thrown into the mix, no doubt, but the rock-bottom core must be love. Love thyself. I guess that’s it then. I just wanted to reach out to the sweet people who read my writing with a brief note about this today. Call it a wish for your family’s peace and happiness. And to honor my little brother J.R., here is the eulogy I offered for him last year. He so desperately wanted to help other people not become addicts. Today, maybe, in some small way, his story still can.
RIP little brother.
Eulogy for J.R. Whatley, August 14, 1958-February 1, 2014
“I am Spartacus!”
That’s what J.R. used to say.
Truth is, he had good reason to compare himself to a gladiator. How often did we marvel at his strength? J.R. fended off any number of wounds that for most people would have proven fatal. So, okay, let’s just talk about that for minute.
When J.R. was a little boy, he had terrible asthma. It held him back in school. It made him fearful. When he was about nine years old, Mom and Mike bought J.R. a Chihuahua. Folk medicine held that Chihuahua dogs helped people with asthma. They would comfort them, reduce their anxiety, make it easier for them to breathe. When they went to pick up the puppy, Paul went with them. Mom thought it sweet that Paul wasn’t jealous of his big brother getting his very own dog, because when Paul held the tiny puppy, he said, “J.R. is gonna laugh a lot and smile a lot and be so happy!” And he was! Who knew Chiquita would end up terrorizing our friends for the next 18 years by biting them in the ankle every time they walked in the door?
Jay was blinded in one eye, an accident that occurred when he was splitting firewood in Mom’s driveway. He was only 20. I’ll never forget the day Karen and I had to rush him to the hospital in his pick-up. I’ll spare you the details on what he endured in the emergency room. He never let partial blindness hold him back though, in fact, he leveraged it for humor. J.R. and I were playing tennis over at Altura Park one day and he just pummeled me. He then rubbed it in by saying, “pretty humiliating to get beat by a one-eyed man, huh Jean?”
He could inject a beat, a perfectly timed, funny beat, in the most unbearable of moments. When Karen and Jay lost their baby Beau, back in 1985, back at their house after the funeral, I walked into the room carrying my baby boy, Patrick. It was a painful reminder of what they’d lost. A pall fell over the room, every thing went silent, except for the God awful sound of a TV commercial advertising the pan flute. Remember those? Here you’ve got this curly-haired dude, up on the mountain top playing the pan flute. J.R. looks at the TV and then says in pitch perfect seriousness — ”Well, all is not lost. We still have Zamfir.” Everybody in the room busted a gut laughing. Then we all cried. Reminds me of that Joni Mitchell song, “laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.”
Then cancer came calling. Thanks for that, right? I don’t need to say a word about how much we hate that killer, but, J.R. fought cancer and he won. He was Spartacus.
All the while, and through all the battles, J.R. was the family “go to” guy. If you needed a quilt frame made, a bathroom remodeled, a drain unplugged, a golf swing corrected, a fish hook baited, a guitar solo played or some computer code written, J.R. was the man for the job. Now our brother Garrett used to say that he personally used a single tool for every job, it was called his Rolodex! But that was a bunch of malarkey, because Garrett relied on the best human resource you’d ever hope to find: J.R.
He was also a naturalist. J.R. loved the outdoors, loved to take the kids fishing on the San Juan. One of his fondest final memories of Don was going with him and Bev and Karen fishing up in Colorado just a few weeks before Don passed away. As the wise-ass little brother, J.R. wasn’t above giving Don a ton of grief. He loved to tell Don’s Man Versus Mountain story. The time J.R. and Bev had to drop everything and drive up to the Pecos Wilderness to rescue Don from a solo backpacking trip that went awry. Soaked to the bone and all out of gorp, Don had managed to hike back out to a pay phone. J.R. and Bev piled in the car and raced up Pecos to get him, where a dejected Don climbed in the car and said, “get me to a Lota Burger!” J.R. teased him all the way home, “man versus mountain. Mountain won.”
But we all know there was a life-long battle that J.R. could not win. I would be derelict in my duty not to talk about this and I know he would want me to. Despite years of being sober, for which, he would often remind us, he did not get enough credit, J.R. could not conquer his alcoholism. When he was at the rehab center, after his second stroke, J.R. told me he wanted to dedicate the rest his life talking to young people about addiction. He wanted to redirect years of heartache and try to leverage it for good, to provide counsel and compassion to others. But, this would be one time when he could not summon the strength. His heart was in the right place, but his mind won the battle, that old devil mind telling him that he was the victim of “the Whatley curse.”
But I am here today to tell you something. Break the chain of this voodoo nonsense. Break that chain today! There is no such thing as the Whatley curse. Do not believe it. Reject it. It’s name is fear. For all the years that J.R. towered over other people could never have withstood what he endured, there was still some deep place inside him that clung to fear.
If you are afraid of the boogie man, he will be standing at every corner.
If you believe you are cursed, therefore you will be.
But, if you believe you are blessed, surely that will come to pass.
How? By the grace of God and your own free will. You, me, every single one of us has the solemn duty to be the best stewards of our own lives. I’m not suggesting that any of us is superior and woe be it for me to pass judgement on anybody, that’s not my job. Who among us doesn’t have degrees of addiction? But here’s what we know: drinking too much, smoking too much, gambling too much, eating too much, gossiping too much, shopping too much, name your poison friends, we’ve got ‘em covered! None of that gives us peace or leads us to a state of grace. And man! If we can get to that place while we’re still here on earth, we are most certainly blessed. And I’d like to issue a reminder, my our extended family, gathered once again in grief, we have an obligation to rise to the guardianship of our single greatest endowment: my mother’s blood. Do not squander your inheritance!
There was a song we used to sing in Sunday school, “I’ve got the peace that passeth understanding down in my heart…” It comes from Philippians 4:7. We sang this at Gideon Baptist church, where, when J.R. was a very little boy, he was saved by what some consider, default. During the invitational, when the choir is singing “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…” J.R. got up and one of the ushers ushered him right up to Brother George at the front of the church and J.R. was promptly saved. He acknowledged Jesus as his savior. Now, Garrett insisted that J.R. had gotten up to go to the bathroom and was snatched by an over zealous Baptist. Whether intentional or not, I’d like to believe when J.R. was baptized a few weeks later, he allowed himself to be immersed in faith — not fear.
Credit where credit is due, little brother. You did a good job. You were a good provider for your family. You were a good brother, a beloved uncle, a treasured friend and welcomed co-worker who lit up the room. Today, while we grieve, when some of the sad memories still hover in the corners of our minds, let’s make a vow to wash them clean with the shimmering, bright memories of J.R. at his best self: his funniest, most handsome, most ingenious, industrious, patient, loyal, generous and loving self.
And I want us to pledge to do one more thing: let’s promise, that no matter where we are, no matter who we’re with, for the rest of our lives, when we look at a glassy, mountain stream, I want us to think of J.R. and shout out loud —
I am Spartacus.
I am Spartacus.
I fight for my survival and I win!
We, are Spartacus.
This is J.R.’s enduring gift to us all.