In That Sleep What Dreams May Come

I pour out the last glass from the bottle of wine we opened together last weekend. I head upstairs, where my guest bed is stripped, its sheets still drying from the wash; the towel he used still sits here. In a family picture on my wall, one smiling face looms out, that image forever freighted with a different meaning now. There is an empty space in my house, a sense of loss even though he was here for only a few short days. I am gutted, angry, filled with a fire to go forth and never waste another precious moment, to heal a broken world with whatever power I might have. And so I sit down to write.

My cousin Andy had the power to fill a room with his presence. He was magnetic, aglow with opinions, eager to share his latest objects of fascination. Like many of us Maloney cousins he was a Renaissance man: an electrical engineer, a voracious reader, a skilled chef, an eager skier, a card and pool shark, a determined sailor, and a devoted lover to his high school sweetheart, along with a host of other pursuits he would be sure to tell us about whether we were interested in them or not. He and I always shared a bond, even if we only saw each other a few times a year; though he was over four years my junior, he was precocious enough to keep pace from a young age. On an unstated level, we were the only living children of parents who knew loss, perhaps living out a sort of surrogacy for the younger brother I barely knew and the older one he never did.

Andy was voracious in his appetites, and so many of our times together are vivid: in the Northwoods by Minocqua, snorkeling off St. Thomas, on that family Mediterranean cruise we were set to relive this summer; teenage pillow talk when we were supposed to have been asleep, a bourbon-infused night after a Shakespeare festival in La Crosse, too many euchre marathons to count. One night, after I unwittingly enabled his tip into drunken excess, I suddenly saw the danger in the relentless course he charted. But I was myself enchanted by that push, wanted to ride along with it, even as I remained firmly bounded by an unshakable sense of limits. He was refreshingly open about the troubles he did eventually face, sought out the help he needed, was bounded by a loving network of support.

Some diseases, however, are too deep to cure, and Andy careened toward the edge in his final months. My journal entries on the four times I saw him in 2022 read like a steady progression. In February, when he descended on my house with a gaggle of friends for a ski weekend, it was a rollicking party, good food and happy stories and a few nightcaps for just the two of us, united in our thirst for those moments. “His company is so very easy to keep,” I wrote in a contented blur on one of those nights. A May backpacking adventure on the Superior Hiking Trail left me a bit put off by certain conversation topics and the regularity with which he self-medicated with THC, but he was a trooper through relentless rain and mud, not once complaining at this brutal slog that would have broken many other backcountry rookies. By Thanksgiving, I wrote with annoyance at the seeming evacuation of his social awareness; by Christmas, I was having asides with relatives, bluntly asking if he was okay. He was not.

Andy was supposed to come visit for New Year’s, but instead spent it in a hospital. He was bitter over the intervention, our lone conversation during that stretch a rant-filled call in which I could not get a word in edgewise. It was, however, necessary, his ultimate passing in no way invalidating the wisdom that something had to be done. I now recognize that he was by this point deeply sick, on a path to ruin in one form or another. I started to wonder if this story could ever have a happy ending, a cascading series of concerns that, alas, proved preparatory for the end result, a thought that is in no way comforting but did allow me to glide past the shock phase in the cycle of grief and begin the effort to heal.

He finally made that planned New Year’s trip in mid-February and spent his final weekend in my guest bedroom. It was a low-key affair, reading time and board games, me apologetic for being pulled six different directions by hockey and a ski race over those days. Of course all the what ifs flit through the mind. Was this a goodbye? No: he was going on with life, making reading lists and travel plans, and by then I knew his evasions well enough to be sure it was no act. Could I have said more, done more? No: I have enough faith in my instinct that he was not ready to talk, and this intuition has since been backed up by those who did try to broach the topic. But there was a visible void there, a missing spark of the old manic energy and rebellion, the fuel that drove him to the edge and sometimes over it. I chalked it up to medication and hoped he would, in time, find a better equilibrium. He did not have that time. His case was terminal.

This suicide is the closest and rawest to me in recent years, but it is far from alone: there have been far too many in my orbits, too many friends and relatives left in grief. It is hard not to look around for things to blame. There is something to a late modern anomie, a lack of meaning or sanctity in a cold-hearted and status-obsessed world; an uncle and I who had been just trying to watch a football game were subjected to snippets of this malaise amid a meandering December rant. There is a news environment that preys on fear and despair for profit, a doomsaying world in which Andy at least dabbled. There is the Covid-era exacerbation of isolation that has compounded so many of these trends and pushed too many over the brink. There are the guns, the sickly offshoots of an American fetish that draw headlines for mass carnage but more often than that prove deadly accessories that turn dark thoughts on bad days into irreversible fates. There is the lingering cloud of generational trauma, the specter of addiction, the accumulating weights that trouble people across all cultures and eras.

And still. So many of us live through the same general conditions and come out well enough, and I ask him the question on a ski the night I learn of his passing: fuck, man, why couldn’t you see some of what I see, feel some of what I feel that lets me take every crisis I face and crush it beneath a resolute certainty of purpose? I’m not sure if I will ever know that answer, and I am, true to form, at peace with my efforts with Andy. I have found counsel in the words of both friends near and thinkers afar, and I have, perhaps eerily well, scripted my ability to process the unthinkable in my words on here over the years. I wish I could impart that equanimity to his parents, to the love of his life he left behind, to everyone else in our sprawling clan, but their journeys are their own. May we all find what we need to persevere, in speech or in writing or in unsaid feelings, in embraces and little memorials that convey what words cannot.

I head upstairs and remake the bed. The towel goes in a laundry bin, the wine bottle into the recycling. The picture, of course, remains on the wall. The fondness over the good times we lived will never die; nor, I think, will a certain anger over his final choice. But the rant-laden phone call from the hospital in January did end with a sudden, tender “love you,” a jarring reminder that the incandescent soul was still there, clinging to something as it lost its war with a fatal disease. That is still Andy, here both to haunt and bring forth a smile, the eternal presence burning through us. Like Hamlet, we do not know what dreams may come in his sleep of death, but those of us who live on know he will endure in ours.

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2 thoughts on “In That Sleep What Dreams May Come

  1. To say I am sorry doesn’t cover it. Your grief is so real and suicide is so hard on the survivors. My husband’s only sibling, his brother, took his own life many years ago. I was the last one to talk to him and I still have some guilt over not recognizing what he was trying to say in our conversation. Your beautiful musings are healing and cathartic. Thanks for posting this.

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