Survivor: Albuquerque

Route 66 - New Mexico

Atop nine-mile hill, West Central, Albuquerque in the distance.

We need to hook a U-turn so I can tell you about Albuquerque. Merely typing the letters, A-L-B-U-Q-U-E-R-Q-U-E evokes powerful emotions. That’s because I had to type that word 9,000 times in journalism school.

And even though I’m holed up in yes, another Motel 6, this time in San Luis Obisbo, with a stunning view an aluminum warehouse and mid-coast California mountains, (more like humps on the horizon compared to the Sandias) from my balcony window, there’s important history I need to share with you before we whip lash back to the west coast. My mother would say this is the quintessential two steps forward, one back.

Albuquerque. It’s a love-hate relationship, always has been. Like so many cross-country moves in my life, I did not want to go. Who wants to move to a new state and a new school at fifteen and thoroughly ensconced in all things budding hippy, including that far out dude, Bill Broom who looked like a blonde Jackson Browne? Maybe therein likes the true root of this need to revisit every place I’ve ever lived before, to scope it out under my own volition. But go, I went.

My step-dad Mike was transferred with the FAA and since my mom had hated Texas with a purple (why purple?) passion from the time she moved there to reconcile with the Whatley dude when I was three, and being that she was ensconced in all things Hispanic, seeing how her new husband was, ABQ seemed like a grand adventure. We were only supposed to be there a year. I didn’t leave New Mexico for good until I was 36, haven’t lived there now for twenty years.

Libby the Dog - Old Town Albuquerque

Old Town Albuquerque hasn’t changed either, Libby on the portal.

Some things have changed. Some have not, like the sun-baked Indians sleeping at the bus stops on East Central a.k.a. Route 66. (Lest you think I am being insensitive or non-politically correct here, I just need to say that I grew up with Indians and the ones I am friends with don’t call themselves Native Americans, even though we all know of course they are and I am a staunch supporter of Indian rights. There’s a purpose here, bear with me.) But good, bad or indifferent, the leather-skinned Indians on East Central are as much a part of the landscape as the mountain sunrise.

I have never lived anyplace where the light show at daybreak can be an awe-inspiring invitation for unlimited possibilities, boundless renewal. It’s like the cheesiest inspirational card on the greeting card aisle in the grocery store, the one you don’t buy, it is that beautiful. But the sun is a tough bastard too — unforgiving, unrelenting, no place to hide our secrets, our failures or regrets, or our sorrow.

Sandia Mountains from the Rio Grande Valley

Sandia Mountains from the Rio Grande Valley

The sun pounded down on us the day we emerged from the cool, stained-glass sanctuary and rolled my mother’s white casket draped in her handmade quilt, down the cemetery road to her burial site. We had the option of taking her in the hearse, driving the 200 yards or so, down the road, around the corner. We chose to roll her instead, her grandsons as pallbearers, holding on, lest she roll out into the freeway.

No soft, forgiving cloud cover on the unusually warm November day when we said goodbye to Garrett either, or Don. Hell, we sat out in his front yard and baked in our black linen, it was Labor Day weekend, last year, the sun infused in the porous black cloth, inseparable, like scalding fingers squeezing one more tear out of our hearts, until the sun went down, the heat abated, the cover of darkness comes and the beer and whiskey flows. It’s how we roll.

And it’s taken its toll. My little brother Jay would be the first to tell you how he’s struggled with drinking, it’s the hardest thing he’s ever dealt with and this comes from somebody who’s dealt with a lot. Most would agree, he’s had more than his share, an accident at a young age, which blinded him in one eye. He and my sister-in-law lost their first baby, Beau, when he was just ten months old. Jay battled cancer in his 40s and won. He’d battled alcoholism and won. I marveled at his strength, for some 20 years, during which time he built a solid career, availing himself to opportunities, going from a being a plumber, taking classes at night, gaining certifications to eventually manage highly sophisticated cooling systems at a huge government facility. It was a high-pressure job, but he’d made it.

He was only three years from retirement when he had a stroke last April, brought on by drinking. He had backslid.  Decades of forward steps, then one giant backwards step into a deep dark hole — of regret. I do not tell you this to shame him, I asked Jay if I could write about this, he said yes, “I know I screwed up and I made bad decisions, but there have been a lot of successes.” He’s raised two kids, he’s been married to the same woman for more than thirty years, Jay’s a funny, generous, loving man. He reminds us that lives are made up of many chapters. He’s working on how to make the best of this one. He’s still with us, his brain and his legendary sense of humor, amazingly, blessedly in tact. He does a killing impersonation of Lola his pug doing an impersonation of James Cagney.

JR and Lola

J.R. and Lola, “see here, I’m the big dog here, see?” Think James Cagney with a cigar in her mouth.

He chipped in $50 on my Kickstarter campaign, saying “GO FOR IT!” and he went to a couple of dog parks in Albuquerque with me, and then out to eat with the whole damn family. It’s one day at a time, for him and the rest of his family, all of whom I love very much, one day at a time, one step at a time, in the truest sense of the word.

My last stop in Albuquerque was to locate brother Paul. It would be impossible to say what day, what year, what inciting incident nudged little brother Paul off the grid. It started with drinking,  smoking pot and ended up with meth. The fact that my mother, may God grant her peace, was a textbook enabler, cajoling, threatening, pleading, caving, excusing, blaming, forgiving — that whole decades-long, co-dependent psycho-drama, I am sure, contributed to his demise. Not as justification, but context here, I suspect, here again, we might all know a family with a failure to launch.

Such was Paul’s journey, until my mother died and he no longer had a place to live. Please believe me when I tell you, he got his share of the inheritance, which has led him to live with a Vietnam vet in Albuquerque’s North Valley in the guy’s garage. I have offered in year’s past, to bring him to St. Louis, to try to help him find a job, to put him up until he can get back on his feet.

Libby and Paul

Libby and Paul, Albuquerque North Valley

I’m not making myself out a saint here, I knew it was lip service, because I knew he would not come. Heaven forbid if he’d taken me up on it. I knew he’d never come because that ship has sailed. I can’t save him. All I can do is round him up when I’m in town, get him some lunch, dinner or cigarettes, if he needs them and try to enjoy some laughs about what was once was, a normal childhood. It was a normal life — I drove him to piano lessons, we went to church, my step dad was his scout master, we went on vacations, we had family gatherings. We were raised under one roof.

What  leads some people down the dark path of addiction, no matter what she’s dressed as? What causes some to fall so far outside the lines, while others can brush against that hot, red, danger zone, but like bumper cars on the midway, and yet navigate back to safety, sanity and self-preservation? Genetics, responsibility, our own inherent life force?

Maybe that’s I’m really doing here. Using mine, because I can. I drew the Lester card. I love my Whatley brothers with all my heart. They are my REAL brothers and we will always and forever be inextricably linked. I’m going to use whatever, heretofore still mysterious genetic code or grace from God which so far has spared me to keep on heading down this road. Because I am my own survivor, with my own trail of tears. I might find the Lester blood, I might not.

For me, it’s another mile forward, no miles back.

Albuquerque sunset

Albuquerque sunset.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Jean, this post has touched me deeply. I feel your pain, your strength, your resillience. You do know, the Lesters are a religious singing group out of MO. Now wouldn’t that be a kicker if…?

  2. I think genetics played a big part in all this and clearly your dad’s genes were more influential even though you didn’t know that until later in your life when your parentage was finally told to you. You are on the journey of a lifetime and I know all this will continue as you go on your great path forward.

  3. This was a beautifully written blog entry. So much love and reflection – for the city and for your family. A lovely read, lovely photos. I’m glad you feel so much love for your brothers, and I wish them both luck.

  4. Jen Dease says:

    SERIOUSLY! I started reading this because Mitzi sent me the link to the blog post you did about my fam, and now I can’t stop reading because so many of the things you’re writing ring so true for me. There are some days I really have not even the faintest clue how any of us are able to get of bed and walk around because life is so terribly horrible. But then you wake up again and the world has had the audacity to NOT stop spinning, and someone makes you laugh or you see a sky so beautiful you can’t not be moved by it’s beauty, and BAM! You’re right back in the thick of it. Keep writing, lady; I hope it takes you where you want to go. Peace! Jen Dease

    • Hi Jen,
      Doesn’t matter whether it’s Savannah or Albuquerque does it? We get the chance to do it again.
      It’s like the Jackson Browne song, The Pretender, only I’m going for the real thing.

      I’m going to rent myself a house
      In the shade of the freeway
      I’m going to pack my lunch in the morning
      And go to work each day
      And when the evening rolls around
      I’ll go on home and lay my body down
      And when the morning light comes streaming in
      I’ll get up and do it again
      Say it again

  5. I just chanced upon a link to your blog and what a trip. I grew up on The Hill, and trips to Albuquerque were always special, especially when we had time to visit Old Town for an enchilada in La Placita or La Hacienda (I liked the latter best). Haven’t been back since 2000. I’m so sorry your brothers have come to such grief. We know something of that in our family, but not to the extent you do. You write compellingly and bravely, with such passion and love. Godspeed on your journey, on all dimensions.