My oldest brother. Truthfully, I could write a bible length book on him alone. Kenny was six years older than me. The oldest in the family. And honestly, the smartest. His actions didn’t always show that, but he for sure was. He knew so much about so many different things. A quality he probably got from my Dad. I always admired their minds. Both knowing so much, but it almost appeared that they never learned it, they just somehow knew it. Almost an acquired intelligence, I’d call it. The perfect combination of book and street smarts. When the time comes, and I am ready to finally shoot my shot at becoming a millionaire, they would be my life line.
When he was younger, Kenny was a menace. A complete terror. From getting kicked off the bus, to sending Go-Karts through the air. It appeared to be a given that he would forever be a worry for my mom.
As if being insanely intelligent wasn’t enough for Kenny, he was also incredibly talented. One of those annoying people who became great at whatever he tried. He stuck with guitar, and kept us up all night shreddddingggg Sabbath, Slayer, and everything in between. He was also insanely funny. Always cracking the MOST inappropriate jokes that would make my stomach hurt from laughing. For most of my childhood, Kenny was my favorite person.
When my sister became too cool for me to hang with her and her friends, Kenny took me under his wing. As I look back on all the events in my life, wondering why I became the person I am, nothing seems more responsible for my making than Kenny being my best friend for most of my childhood. He took me out on the go karts, usually returning me home with cuts and bruises, but also laughing my ass off, with wayyyy cooler stories than anyone else in my grade school classes had. He’s the reason I became such a tom boy. Watching him crank on motors just to fry them again was fascinating to me. As cool as our hang outs were, the activity never mattered, it was just the idea that my big brother thought I was cool enough to hang with him and his friends. He made me feel wanted. And at that age, that’s all I wanted. He always made me feel important, like my opinion matter. Could you imagine a 14-year-old caring what his 8-year-old sister thought of his band’s new song? In my head, I was 35, wealthy as shit, and the Manager of an internationally known rock band. Kenny gave me a sense of confidence without even knowing it. He also had this weird way of making me realize my problems were much smaller than they were. Almost like, if Kenny thinks it’s going to be fine, then it has to be fine. If Kenny thinks it doesn’t matter, it can’t matter. I was a little kid absorbing everything around me and having a big brother like Kenny around seemed to be the best thing in the world.
Kenny started playing with drugs when he was about 16 and was addicted to Heroin by his senior year of high school. It was your typical, hanging with the wrong crowd scenario. He started hanging with some new people and started trying some new things. I was about 12 when shit really started to hit the fan. So, honestly, I had no clue what was going on. I believed my mom when she said he had the flu, as I watched him rolling on the floor, with his body covered in sweat, screaming for whatever his vice was at the time. I remember feeling lucky that my flu was a breeze compared to that. It wasn’t until years later I realized I was watching my brother withdraw cold turkey. I guess everyone was trying to shield me from this reality. But, looking back now, I wish someone just told me what the fuck was going on. After a while I began to understand the severity of Kenny’s lifestyle. I won’t sugar coat it. It was bad. Kenny was either in Rehab or in Jail.
He never lasted in the free world more than 2 months at this point. I remember preparing myself to visit him in jail for the first time. I recalled all of those dreadfully long days of “D.A.R.E” and prepared for the worst. Mind you, I was just a young pup still and hadn’t even been offered weed by the creepy guy in the middle school parking lot yet. This was my introduction to drugs. There I was, walking into the Riverhead Jail, throat dry, hands sweaty, ready to see Kenny crying, pleading for freedom, begging us to help him. I composed myself and entered. There he was on the other side of the glass…smiling. SMILING… “Hey Rach!” he said. “How’s school going?!” I was completely taken back by how content he was. I tried to keep the conversation light, pretending I wasn’t in an episode of Law & Order, and that this is definitely what all my friends were also doing at the time. (They weren’t). My mom was with me, but I guess the idea of visiting her first-born child in prison wasn’t sitting well with her. She ran to the bathroom and got sick. Once you leave, you aren’t allowed back in, so there I am, probably about 12 at the time, left in a prison visitation hall, alone. I understand my mom’s reaction but Christ lady, talk about traumatizing.
I watched a ton of Law & Order. A ton. Like a disturbing amount for a middle schooler. I actually had a t-shirt that said “…and these are their stories” that I asked for. My mom didn’t buy it for Christmas one year and begged me to wear it. I asked for it. Myself. I picked it out of my dresser and put it on my own body and wore it…proudly. God, all those times I was called down to see my guidance counselor are starting to make more sense now. Okay, but also in my defense, like who doesn’t want to be Olivia Benson? Anyway, with all this legitimate knowledge of the prison system, that I had from a television show… I was scared shitless. But, I always had to act cool in front of Kenny. He was my cool older brother and I was not about to let my “cool little sister” reputation be compromised. So, I sat there preparing to be shanked. But, after a while I finally asked, “Are you really okay? Aren’t you sad or scared to be here?” Kenny answered me and said something along the lines of, “I mean it’s not ideal, but that guy down there gives me some of his cookies from the commissary, that guard over there gives us 20 mins of extra tv time sometimes, that dude over there is funny as hell, and that one’s got some crazy stories”- and so on. This is where Kenny’s lessons became much deeper than “if your hurt don’t cry until mom can’t see so we don’t get in trouble”.
He truly never complained. He found the good in everything. He never needed much. He didn’t try to change his present, instead he made the best of it. He laughed at the situations that got him to where he was. He made friends with the other inmates. Even started rolling cigarettes to make a couple bucks. I know you may be reading this and thinking, “What the fuck? That school counselor didn’t do shit.” Well, so was I for a bit. But put yourself there. Maybe you’re thinking, “I would never do drugs!” and on behalf of the D.A.R.E association, I congratulate you on maintaining your virginity. Just kidding, no disrespect. To each, their own. But whatever your poison may be, you probably did some stupid shit with some stupid people. So now, you are held accountable for that and sentenced to let’s say a year in prison. You can’t change that. You’re stuck in a place you don’t want to be for an extended period of time. You could cry, beg to be forgiven, sulk in sadness, sulk in anger, wish to be anywhere else but where you are, OR, you can laugh with your cell mate, chat up the guards for some favors here and there, and if your Kenny, trade cigarettes. I don’t know, if it were me, I’d choose the latter. And I’m sure you would too. Don’t get me wrong, my brother was no saint and he did some messed up things he should have been held accountable for, and he was. He served four years in prison, spent months in rehab facilities, back to prison, back to rehab…you get the picture. Do I condone his actions? Not at all. But I understand him making the best of it. Imagine we were all only judged on the worst thing we’ve ever done. For most of us, that would be insanely unfair. Yes, I know there are some people in the world who do horrific things that should be, but this is not about them. This is about the everyday people, who have done things we wish we hadn’t. So, if I was held against my will for those things, you better believe I’d be pedaling hand rolled cigarettes for cookies from the commissary.
Kenny learned fluent Spanish and Polish while in prison. Like I said, the annoying kid who becomes great at everything. He would play different sports with different groups of people in the yard. He was allowed to work as an Electrician throughout the jail when it needed maintenance. He read a lot of books. Most of which, will always be beyond my reading level. He absorbed the cultures of the other inmates. He would learn about each culture’s religion and beliefs. Really learning about it, taking time to appreciate them all (or laughing at how ridiculous he found them).
I admire Kenny’s brain. His way of thinking. Every value I hold with me today, was molded by him. He taught me to make the best of the bad. To always keep learning. To accept others. To try and fail and try and fail again. How to stand up for myself. How to love people from a distance. And how we can always change where we are going. He taught me there is always more than the now, but to always be okay with the now. And most importantly, he taught me how to forgive, not just others but ourselves.
Kenny would call every day and we would visit when we could. And even though our environment was much different, there he was, still making me feel like the coolest kid around. Always asking about my days, always listening to my stories. I’m no idiot, I know he didn’t have much going on in his world at the time, which is probably why he showed so much interest, but at least he did. He was still my big brother.
Kenny made his way home finally. He had a beautiful baby boy with his fiancé and they began to start a life together. They met when they were about 15 years old and dated on and off ever since. They were living proof, that even though we cannot rewrite our pasts we can write a new future.
Our environment was once again changed, when Kenny died in an accident on his way home from work. Although his story was cut painfully short, he once again taught me, after it is all said and done, the only thing left is the love we give. Above all else, we remember feelings, more so than any words or actions. It’s muscle memory. Our brains forget words and actions over time, but our bodies always remember a feeling. So, when I think of Kenny, I’m reminded of the love he gave me. A therapist once told me, that Kenny was my first true heartbreak. Not in a romantic way, you sickos. But really, he was the first guy to ever break my heart. He broke my heart again and again throughout his addiction, and then completely shattering it when he left us.
Like I said, I could write a textbook on this area alone, but the summary I came up with is, how lucky am I too have loved someone so strongly, he could have shattered my heart and took a part of it with him? His physicality no longer exists but his spirit and words are so near it feels as though he is walking right along my side. I always feel him walking right behind me. And on my roughest days, I feel him place his hand on my shoulder. I hear him in my ear all the time, telling me it will be okay. Telling me he is still here. Cracking inappropriate jokes. And still, making me feel like the coolest kid around. He is still my big brother. He always was. He always is.