Family, Ruined

Once upon a time there was a little apple-cheeked family, several of whom made very poor choices. Choices have consequences.

“I can’t place him,” said the Professor, looking at the photo of the gaunt, haunted-looking old man in the wheelchair. “Who is it?”

“It’s my brother,” I responded flatly. “I got a call this morning. He’s intubated in a hospital in California and probably won’t make it out alive.”

“Shit,” he said. “I didn’t even recognize him.”

The Professor reserves words like that for use in grave situations. I’d heard from a cousin that my brother recently had three strokes and then contracted COVID. That qualifies.

I told you after my recent good gathering of cousins that our family kept secrets that I will no longer entertain. This is one of them. Not because I want to cast shade on a dead man (or dying man – I’ve heard nothing in a week), but because I hope this sad story will speak to someone and maybe save a family or two from ruin.

My brother, through the sheer weight of neediness, was at the center of my parent’s universe. That made him the center of mine too until I struck out for a different universe (and found it). And though he straightened up and made my parents hopeful for a decade in his forties and fifties, it didn’t last. They died, he returned to dysfunction and drugs, and the story ended with our family’s ruin.

“It didn’t have to end this way,” I told the Professor. He’d called it correctly.

I am the elder sister of a black sheep who turned prodigal and then re-turned to black sheep. He was born with challenges and coddled and catered to as a result. I was judged selfish and lacking in compassion. I wasn’t. I tried, but he made it hard. I reached my limit and erected boundaries. They never did. They thought that’s what love does, or maybe it was more complicated than that. It probably doesn’t matter. The end result was the same.

I’ve always, always understood the older brother’s reaction when the biblical Prodigal came home to a rollicking celebration and reassumed prominence in his father’s affections. I recognized scolding and shame in his father’s words and understood the brother’s reaction. I also wondered if the Prodigal’s change of heart lasted. My brother’s didn’t.

Throughout my life my mother tried to prepare me to assume her role of primary caretaker and enabler. She wanted assurance that I would take over when she couldn’t. I wouldn’t. That would have been like chaining myself to a huge boulder headed for the bottom of the sea. I couldn’t.

What my brother needed was to be held accountable – especially by my parents – for his choices, but they were always trying to make excuses or fix things. He couldn’t help himself, they said privately to me. Only it turned out he could. The decade he lived as a prodigal came about after he met someone tougher than he: the judge who put him in Folsom Prison for three years.

So after a lifetime of worry, heartache, anger, and disappointment, the Professor’s word sums things up pretty well. Shit. My brother ultimately took down the pretty little apple-cheeked family.

Now Mom and Dad’s ashes are stashed in some storage unit in Central California and I’m essentially an orphan in my adoptive family. My brother’s lost (or quit) his wife, family, home and job. He’s lost his health. His lady friend (as my nephew’s wife calls her) died a few weeks ago. His daughter was prepared to care for him but COVID took him out of her hands. If he makes it, he’s got no fallback.

“He couldn’t let your parents go,” mourned my cousin when I told her that my parents’ ashes have gone missing.

He could no more let go of them than they could let go of him. Co-dependence is another grave word with consequences.

So why am I airing dirty laundry? Because light drives out darkness. I’m not looking for attention, sympathy, or sermons. I share because I write to organize my thoughts, to understand things. And I write because my brother’s past the point of intervention but maybe your black sheep isn’t.

Examine your choices carefully. Shun co-dependence. Hold onto your family tight. Because a family ruined is tragic. Trust me.


  1. Sorry for your loss, Teri – But it appears that you lost him years ago. Good fences and good boundaries make good neighbors and good family members. I love reading your posts!


  2. Love you cousin Teri, I am thinking of you. You express your feelings so beautifully and please know you are not alone.


  3. Teri,
    My family had gone through similar. Our black sheep went in and out of prison eleven times, maybe more, all drug and crime related. Mother passed in 1992 not wanting to hear from him ever again. Dad knew him through dementia shaded life ending blinders 22 years later. He has cleaned up, we still keep him at arms length and always will, trust being buried so many decades ago. I have come to understand, this is the American family. We all have one relative like this. Hugs, nothing we can say or do will erase this shame, these memories. We go forward from here.


    1. Oh, thank you so much for sharing that, Julie. I too have come to some conclusions about what the American family is. I really believed we were an exception, an anomaly, and many others were healthy and whole. A fairy tale. Now I understand those families are anomalies. Thanks for being vulnerable back!


      1. The truth sets your soul free. This we learn, as we age. I too was horribly embarrassed for years. No more. Happy Holidays Teri.


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