I called him Uncle Jeff.
My Dad told me Uncle Jeff was found dead on a discarded mattress behind a convenient store on a rainy Friday.
I’d expected the call for years—Jeff was living on the streets of Florida since my grandmother died four years earlier. Still, my body reacted as though it were just injected with a foreign substance. I felt lightheaded, nauseated and scared. I was scared for my mom, who became dangerously depressed when she lost her mother and turned to alcohol, and I was scared about the visions my mind created of my uncle overdosing.
Was he convulsing or vomiting like they do in the movies? Were any of his street friends around to try to help? Was he found with his eyes open or closed? Did he die in the rain (Oh, how cinematic that would have been), or did he die in a puddle of nothing other than his own excretions? No matter how hard I tried to stop these images, I couldn’t prevent them from flooding my head.
I searched Google Earth that evening to give myself something tangible to focus on. Maybe the mattress looked cozy, I hoped, like a hippy commune with fire pits and trash cans that I can picture as drums. It didn’t. Even though the satellite snapped the picture months before, the mattress in a littered lot looked like death.
I find it ironic that photographs are still considered an objective medium, because for me that photographic representation created more questions than answered. It left something of a black hole in my mind that I filled with horrifying hypothetical scenes that preceded it.
After sharing part 2 of this narrative many of the comments I received were comments on my Uncle’s appearance. “He was such a good-looking guy,” someone wrote. That is true. My uncle was good-looking, but truth of him lies much deeper: He was a sick man who learned too early of the escape that drugs offered him.
It took two years—and writing this series to understand the totality of the experience and my family’s dynamic.
For years I was angry at Jeff for what he put my grandmother through on her death bed. I was angry that my mom would spend the money and time to buy and mail clothes to him to find out days later that they were sold and he went on another binge.
But after talking to my family—which was cathartic for all of us considering his situation was somewhat taboo to discuss, especially at family gatherings—I realized that my anger was futile.
As is true in many times of trauma, such as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Bombing, focusing memories on the love and support of those who are willing to help in even the most modest of ways, makes moving on possible and even inspiring.