Wednesday, October 26, 2011

my way of thinking: Phil part 3

Parts 1 and 2 told the story of my brother Phil's difficulties with drugs and alcohol. We have gone from his birth in 1956 to 1986.

In February of 1986 I was living with a partner, Paul, and was doing a show in Santa Barbara. I was so busy during that month that I had very little time for anyone. But I still spoke with Phil every day. He was having financial problems (what else is new?) so I did my best to give advice over the phone. I hadn't seen Phil for a couple of months. He didn't say anything about his health other than to say he had been to a doctor for a "slight" infection.

On February 26th I was finished with my show so I invited Phil over for dinner. Paul and Phil got along great so we were both excited to see Phil after several months. We were in for a shock. When Phil walked in the door my heart dropped into my stomach. Phil, who was 6'7 3/4", looked like a refugee from a concentration camp. I had never seen him so thin and haggard looking. He was weak and could barely walk. I freaked out. Phil had been in the hospital many times during his adult life. He seemed to get pneumonia about once a year. So I thought that he was going through that again and told him so. He agreed and promised to see his doctor the next day.

Being Phil, he didn't go to the doctor the next day or the day after that. We continued our phone conversations but they changed tone. I was the nagging big brother and Phil sounded weaker and more tired every day. I asked our Aunt Ruth Lee to drop by Phil's apartment and check on him. That was on March 6th.

The next call I received was from our aunt. She was calling from the hospital (less than a mile from where I was living) to tell me that Phil had been admitted and was in the ICU. I wasn't terribly surprised. My main thought was "here we go again" as I got in my car to go to the hospital. I had done this before so I stopped by admissions before going up to see Phil. I was a little taken aback when they started asking me questions about next of kin and d.n.r. (do not resuscitate) orders. I had never been asked things like that before but I figured they were just being cautious.

When I got to Phil's bedside I was shocked at how bad he looked. He had been sick before but this time it was different. There were tubes everywhere and his skin was gray. I was convinced that this was another bout with pneumonia but Phil had let it go too far. He had gone through it so many times that I convinced myself that he would get over it and I would give him another lecture about drugs ruining his health etc.

By the next day Phil had been moved out of ICU and into a private room. Our Grandmother was being brought to the hospital to visit (Phil was her favorite person in the world) and I began to feel uneasy. When I got to Phil's room I was confronted with a quarantine sign. That's when it dawned on me that this was something more than pneumonia. My aunt was in the room, looking pale herself. She had alerted the rest of the family (aunts, uncles, cousins) and I had this horrible sinking feeling. This was serious but I still thought that Phil would pull out of it. After all he always had before.

I don't want to dwell on the days leading up to March 10. It was a parade of relatives and an absolute blur to me. My aunt and grandmother were there day and night. I came by several times a day but continued to work. On March 10, I was at the hospital at dinner time to try to get Phil to eat something. He was too weak to lift a spoon so I fed him. The only thing he was willing to eat was a small cup of vanilla ice cream. I told Phil I loved him and he told me he loved me. Then I went home to make dinner for Paul and myself.

At 10:00pm the phone rang. It was Phil's doctor. He told me that Phil had slipped into a coma right after I left and had died at 7:30pm. I couldn't register those words at first. Then I was furious that I hadn't been called immediately. Then the reality of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. I became hysterical. When my parents died I was grief stricken but this was different. Paul did his best to comfort me but I could not be consoled. I had to make those horrible phone calls to relatives. The worst was telling my aunt and my grandmother. I'll spare my readers the details. I needed a drink and beer wouldn't cut it. Paul went out and bought me a bottle of scotch and I drank all night.

The next few days happened with me in a fog. Memorial service, burial arrangements (Phil was cremated but buried with our mother), these arrangements were made somehow but I barely remember all the things I had to do. I just kept drinking and my aunt did the driving. Then suddenly it was all over. According to the death certificate Phil died due to complications caused by HIV. AIDS. What a dreadful, horrible word.

During the year that followed I continued to drink far too much. Paul couldn't take it and left me by sneaking out. I didn't even know he had gone til he called me from our apartment in New York to tell me he had gone. Then I looked around the house and finally noticed that all his stuff was gone. I hadn't known there was any problem.

That was my rock bottom time in my life. I owe Paul a thank you for bringing me back to reality. I stopped drinking and started reading lots of books with metaphysical subject matter. I decided then and there that I wanted to rejoin the human race. I wanted to share all these wonderful ideas I had been reading about. I wanted to apply the concepts to my own life and that's when the real work began. I evolved over time. I became calm and peaceful as meditation became a daily ritual. I reached out to friends I had been ignoring. I counted on Phil's beautiful spirit to be with me and I believe he is with me to this day. Not a day goes by that I don't think of my little brother. He was only 29 when he moved on but I see him as still with me. So he has aged right along with me in my mind. Nothing and no one dies as long a they are remembered.

This was a hard story to tell. Believe me it is only a thumbnail sketch but it is a window to my soul. All the challenges that I have faced in my life made me who I am today. They made me strong. They gave me understanding and empathy for others. They helped me to love more deeply and to share my love more freely and fully. Something good can always come from something that seems so bad. It's all in how you choose to look at things.

                                            Peace and Love,




  1. Dear Austin/Bill,

    Words defeat me when I even try to even respond to this sad story.

    A search for love and acceptance in every sense of the word for both of you. I wonder how different Phil's life would have been if your Mom had survived? Or if his desperate need would still have led to his self destruction?

    You are definitely the Phoenix rising from the ashes - becoming a stronger more complete person perhaps in response to the trails. I honestly think that this could be the outline of a powerful book/movie. At the very least it is compelling and powerful in a dreadful but inspiring way.

    I hope it will give your heart ease and some catharsis to write this and to know you did everything you could to help Phil conquer his demons and after venting used the power to conquer your own.

    I like to say that the most powerful aspiration anyone can have is to be an inspiration to someone else and you are truly that!

    Thank you for sharing this with us - write the book my friend and share it with the world!

    Laine D.
    "Aspire to Inspire"

  2. Thank you Laine. Your comment means a lot to me, more than you could possibly know. While writing this I was constantly editing myself to keep the story moving at a fast clip. I thought that, if only I were writing a book, I could slow down and go into detail. Maybe that will happen someday.

    I try not to think about the what ifs in life. I think about what IS and deal with it in the here and now. Who knows what might have been? Not I.


  3. Bill, This was such a powerful story and I thank you for sharing Phil with us. You have been through so much and have taken care of more than your share of loved ones. It's amazing to me how you have turned out to be such a strong and empathetic and loving person. You are an inspiration and I hope you do write that book.

    caregiving. family. advocacy.

  4. Hi Austin,

    it's not a given that you decided to live and enjoy life. I am so happy you understood that it is up to you what you will do after all you went through. This must have left so many scars on you, the pain, the restless nights, the sorrow for the little brother after you have lost your mother. And then see him slip away. I am sure he found peace and now it's his job to guard you and give you energy. I loved what you said that he was the wind under your wings. He still is.

    It takes a lot to write about something this personal and make it accessible to half a billion readers! You have come a long way.

    Much love,

  5. AIDS! What a scourge. I had a very close friend in the 80's who I almost married for my green card. If I had I would have been a widow soon after. he was troubled too but I loved him. This made me weep so much. For him, for my Dad that died too young and for the very thought that one of my siblings or kids could live such an unfulfilled life and die young. I can relate to turning to alcohol also. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I knew while writing this that it was a sad story. I was pushing myself against my normal personal boundaries. Although I am fairly open about most things, I am cautious about revealing too much of the struggles that brought me to this place where I am happy and content. I appreciate all those who have written on The Curculation Desk, Facebook, and those dozens of emails. Phil would be proud that I shared his story.

  7. I already knew the ending to this story from our conversations, but it doesn't make it any easier to read. AIDS is just so horrific. I've had a number of friends lose their life to this horrific disease. and back when Phil passed, so little was known.

    I'm so pleased you used Phil's life as an inspiration, and didn't let the downward spiral take you too far... and I agree --- he is always with you.

    hugs & wags -

    Heidi & Atticus

  8. Bill, thank you so much for allowing us to share this part of you, so personal, so vulnerable. Knowing some of what you have experienced, and yet seeing your transformation in spite of, or perhaps because of your circumstances can and does give us all inspiration. As I have said so many times before, I am richly blessed to know you and be a part of your life. You are more than my friend, you are my brother; my family. I love you!

  9. Austin, thanks for sharing this look into your life and the life of your little brother. Why these things happen I'll never know, but I agree that there is good that comes from bad. It's all in how you look at it, which will always he hard at the beginning. I admire your courage for sharing this with us and I'm glad we've become buds through the Circulation desk.

  10. I wish I could always answer comments one at a time. They all mean so much to me and every one is so individual, specific to the person who wrote it. Writing this story has turned out to be a blessing in many ways. It has solidified friendships, both old and new. It has also opened a few doors that I'll wait and see about. Now I am ready to get back to some fun, light hearted posts. Thank you all!


  11. Bill, I am so grateful you made the decision to live despite the pain of Phil's death. I could tell from the tone of the post what was coming, that this was a story with a sad ending for Phil. How painful to watch that decline in your brother and then suddenly face a catastrophic illness. I related to how shocked you felt and the horror at having to notify relatives. I went through that when my sister had a massive stroke. Calling my father and then a special aunt to tell them had to be the hardest phone calls I've ever had to make. My sister's death came the year after my mother's, and I believe my mother's death was very hard for my sister to bear. We are so interwoven as families.

    You, too, experienced your "weaving" with your descent into alcohol, but then you separated yourself from the story of pain and returned to life, committed to love. How wonderful to let that be the legacy of your brother and family, and what you will leave others with. It is no small matter to replace suffering with giving.

    I hope writing this was more than the painful memories, but perhaps a way to move the story along as well. Thank you for letting us share this part of you.

    Judy Stone-Goldman
    The Reflective Writer
    Personal-Professional Balance Through Writing

  12. Thank you for your lovely comment,Judy. I wanted to share this story because I wanted to make the point that we all have choices in difficult situations. We can ride that downward spiral all the way to the bottom of the drain, or we can swim our way back up and out. The latter is the harder route but the more rewarding choice.

  13. Bill, I just read your 3 part blog regarding Phil's life. My thoughts are scattered and there are so many things that could be said. Mostly, I had no idea and am so sorry for what Phil went through and what you went through with him. Next comes, how could this be my mother's only sibling's sons (yes, cousins) and yet I knew so little of this. Even after being at Phil's funeral I had no appreciation for this. Thank you for sharing this story. I hope in some way it brought you some release of things held inside. It brings me so much insight. I'm not even sure I can find words for all my thoughts. I have no other words than I'm sorry. I am sorry. And I'm glad you found your way through to the other side. Love from your cousin, Susan