I’ve needed to talk about this for a long time, my brother Garrett.
Even though the death of my brother Don eleven months ago weighs fresh on my heart, I lost another brother back in 2002. I still miss him very much. I’d intended to tell you about Garrett on what would have been his 60th birthday, on June 27th. Wow, 60. That’s as hard to imagine as JFK being old, you know?
Anyway, June 27th, was supposed to be my last day on the job and I had this great tribute to Garrett all planned for my liberation day. But their ticky little technicalities, like “you can’t take vacation days at the end of your employment” kept me strapped to the desk until the first of July. Wah-wah. Cry me a river.
I cried that much yesterday. It was all that Amy Winehouse stuff. I really liked her music, I think she was an exceptional talent. Every time I hear of someone overdosing on drugs, it tears open a hole in my soul so deep, you could drop a ball bearing in it and it wouldn’t land until next week. It is bottomless sorrow.
Garrett died, alone in his San Francisco apartment on November 21, 2002, of an acute asthma attack. His wife was teaching school. He had called her to say he wasn’t feeling well. She quickly arranged to get him to the doc. It was within walking distance of their house. She told him, “Go now and I’ll be there as soon as I finish giving this test.”
He decided to take a bath first. He drew the bath, but collapsed in the kitchen before he could make it into the tub. They found him on the floor, the bath water still warm. It wasn’t just the asthma, although he’d suffered mightily from it since we were kids in Texas. The truth is, Garrett’s health was so compromised by years of drug abuse, that any number of things could have killed him; his liver was shot, he was on a waiting list for a transplant. Lord knows the ethical questions that might have arisen if they’d found a match.
I just wanted to see him one more time. Just one more time, to tell him that I loved him, to tell him I’d remember every good thing and every bad thing that ever transpired between he and I — the outlaw kids. For those who’ve read the prequel to this blog, A Woman With a Past: The Post-Apocalyptic Approach to Men, you know that I was the product of a “fling” as my mother so sensitively put it. A “fling” between her and Tommy, the Irish bartender in San Francisco, back in 1955.
She had been living apart from the Whatley dude for years. (I keep the name for brand consistency.) Whatley was in Texas; she in California. During this period, from about 1950 to 1955, she had not only one, but TWO kids with men other than her legal husband. Garrett was the Mexican cab driver’s kid. Now, I hesitate to tell you this, because I do not want to sully my late mother’s reputation any more than I already have, because, as you also know, I loved her very much (Stockholm syndrome) and she really was an incredible woman (this has been verified independently). She was just a tad reckless in her early days. Enter Garrett, thank you Nick Valdez, then four years later, enter Jean, thank you Tommy Lester.
Now, eventually my mom reunited with Whatley down in Graford,Texas, and hauled me, or so the story goes, kicking and screaming from the Lester clan. (Hence my quest for Tommy’s son, Michael, who my father had with HIS wife at the time. This is the half-brother I’m hoping to find somewhere in California. More on that once I cross the Rio Grande) Are you all with me?
Things must have been peachy once mom reunited with Whatley, because that’s how I got my two younger brothers. So, now we’re all just one big, happy family! Except Garrett and I didn’t look like anybody else. The Whatley men are tall drink-a-waters, lanky, blue-eyed, my little brother Jay looks like Clint Eastwood, Don looked just like Jeff Bridges. Garrett, um,well he was more of a cross between Bill Murray and Cheech Marin. And even though he was cute as a button, the Whatley dad picked on Garrett. He could be a mean spirited son-of-a-bitch at times, especially when he was drunk. He more or less left me alone, but he was mean to Garrett and that made me hate him. Hate’s a strong word, I use it sparingly, but if it was going to come down to who’s side I was on, it was always my brother. I was never so glad as the day they split up, only to have her usher in the Mexican step-dad not six months later. That was a mixed bag too, as previously reported.
In families with this much turmoil, shrinks will tell you, kids either act out or they try to be the “fixer.” Need I tell you who was who? By the time he was in the tenth grade, Garrett was already in trouble. We lived in an affluent part of Ft. Worth, Texas. He ran with the rich kids whose parents belonged to the country club and the Episcopalian church. These kids had cars and they had money and they drove over to “Stop Six” on the bad side of town where they bought heroin from the dope dealers. Goddamn the pusher man.
The first time he went into rehab, I rode with my mom to take him. “Bye, Jeannie” he said and kissed me goodbye, (he always pronounced “Jeannie” with a soft “j” like “Jacque,” as in Cousteau.) I watched him walk away from me, up the stairs, up the sidewalk, the gate rattling closed behind him, a chain-link fence with razor wire, now holding him back, trying to beat the devil out of him, this budding addiction. This was court-ordered rehab, not a country club, but it was a damn site better than going to prison at seventeen, the judge had been lenient.
Prison probably wouldn’t have changed things. Garrett was in and out of rehab many times. My sweet brother, wrestled with this monkey on his back for the rest of his life and ultimately it pinned him on the kitchen floor. There were long intervals where he was clean — he got married (three times!), he went to college, he coached soccer, he taught pre-school, he was a concert promoter, a counselor for troubled teens for decades, a musician, an artist, a sculptor, a beloved brother, son, uncle, oh, and father.
This was the single biggest heartache of his 51 years, that, by his own admission, he had failed as a father. He was nineteen when his son was born. He had already tried to commit suicide at seventeen, he’d overdosed in San Diego and was literally picked up off the streets, after he’d hitchhiked out there from Texas. He’d been locked up in Shreveport, LA, (I’m stopping there to pay homage next week) and he’d been to rehab, all before he married at the ripe of age of nineteen. But they tried to make it work.
He got a job, he was clean, they rented a cute little house in Ft. Worth and for a while, he was happy, productive. He loved the baby very much and we were all a family, surrounding them with love. Within two years they split up. Garrett’s wife and the baby traipsed off to California. They were hippies, okay? That’s what hippies do. There were paternal visits, many at first, but time and distance, as I have lived to tell the tale, took their toll. My mother, to her everlasting credit, never lost touch. She loved Garrett’s son in a very special way, the son of the prodigal son. The rest of us Whatley sibs did our best to keep him in the fold and we’re blessed because he lets us. Garrett’s son, who I’m allowing to remain anonymous, is a very fine man — a family man, with a beautiful and smart wife and two dear sweet little girls. He’s amazing. They’re amazing. We are enormously proud of him and love him very much.
That’s what Garrett wanted to tell his son, except the message has never been delivered. He had been writing a long letter to his son, he told me he’d started and stopped it several times. He wanted to explain, or at least tell his son, why he’d made some of the decisions he’d made along the way. This is supposition on my part, because I have never seen said letter. He died before he finished it. His widow promised that she’d hand it over, after Garrett passed. She should, it doesn’t belong to her. But she’s dropped out of site. Despite our repeated attempts to find her, she remains incommunicado. Depression and addiction does that to people, this is the only thing I can surmise. I tried to find her when I was in New York, but I failed in my mission to retrieve the lost letter. I’m sorry, Garrett.
Oh, the unfinished business and unfathomable loss when lives are cut short by addiction. The lost ones are worthy of our tears, those famous, those not.
Peace to you, Miss Winehouse. Peace to you my brother, Garrett Daniel Whatley.