My uncle, Big S, died on Saturday. It wasn't exactly a surprise. He's basically been living on borrowed time since he discovered heroin in 1967. It's hard to explain to anyone who has not loved a heroin addict, what it is like to share a life with a junkie. I could tell you about the neurological changes, the tempers, the mood swings, the hateful lashings out which are such an integral part of the disease of heroin addiction, that you stop being able to tell when it's the drugs talking and when it's the person being ridden. I could tell you about that, but I'd rather tell you about how in spite of all that, my uncle was loved.
Everyone knew the Family, in the county where I grew up, Big S made sure of that. He bought a coffee house in 1985 and made it The Place to Hang Out for all the artists, weirdos, and misfits. He trained as a therapist, and worked in half-way houses for troubled kids. He translated his feelings of isolation and damage into security for others, even when he didn't like them, preferring instead the company of dogs and horses.
During periods when he was sober, he was kind. Even when he was using he aspired to fairness, never cutting down anyone he didn't think was up for the battle of wits. He once got down on his knees to fight a man in a wheelchair who was bugging female customers.
Family was first above all. His home was home to a never-ending stream of nephews (blood and honorary), down on their luck. He craved to hold us all together, and close.
If he hadn't been an addict, he could have been anything. He could have stayed a businessman, reformed mental health treatment access, been a diplomat, been president. But he was, and always would be. In spite of it, he was never alone, people bent over backwards to please him, in hopes of thanks and praise. He was the anti-patriarch, and he was loved.