3 min

AIDS saved me

Close call on becoming just like dad

Credit: Xtra West files

My brother’s favourite joke, back when we were growing up, involved a man being bitten by a rattlesnake. Instead of running away or dying, the man just bit it back and went on working. Every time he told that joke, I knew that my brother imagined the man he was talking about was my father. He was a trucker that never stopped working.

Growing up, there were weeks when the only times I saw my father, he was either so exhausted that he couldn’t speak or else he was on the front porch getting drunk with his buddies. Quality time between us involved my mother waking me up before dawn and throwing me into the cab of his truck. These spontaneous father-son days usually happened when he was in the middle of a drinking binge and had more to do with her trying to force him to come home after work than they did with any real desire to spend time together.

When my brother was 14, he decided that he wanted to be a work/alcoholic just like Dad. Like a normal teenager, I realized that being even a little bit like him would be my worst nightmare.

For a decade, I did everything I could to ensure that the fruit that was me fell as far away from the tree as possible. I grew my hair long, got a useless degree and joined a group of radicals who flew me to the other side of the country. Meanwhile, my brother started working for my father, married and began siring offspring next door.

Like all those Greek heroes who tried cheating fate, I found out that destiny has more than one way of working its will. By the time I was 25, I forgot all about my vow never to relive my father’s work-drink-sleep-repeat-as-necessary lifestyle. Suddenly I was working 14-hour days and spending entire pay cheques on weekend-long binges.

Because they weren’t married to me, the friends I lived with kicked me out and I moved into an apartment on my own. Instead of thinking, “Wow, you are really screwing up,” I decided to devote even more time to feeding my addictions.

If it weren’t for a certain retrovirus tap dancing on my immune system, Bryan would have left me. By now, I would be a bitter, burned-out drunk living alone in a tiny apartment with a 25-inch television screen. But five years ago, I disembarked from that train ride to hell.

For months, I had been fighting a losing battle against a simple cold. The lymph nodes under my arms were swollen and hard. The folks at work had decided I was a lazy burnout. Bryan convinced me to use up some of my holidays. “Take a month off and rest. It would do you a world of good.”

A month later I was in the hospital being told I was going to die.

It was like Ebenezer Scrooge being given a glimpse of his future. Other than my work mates, it was surprising how few people stopped by to see how I was doing. If I had died right there, the funeral could have been held in a VW beetle.

When they let me out, I talked Bryan into moving into a house with friends. I quit drinking and took up a few hobbies. I spent quality time with my pets and reconnected with my friends and family.

It was like one of those makeover montages they like to put in films where, over the course of several months, the hero goes from geek to chic, but they don’t want to waste screen time showing the details.

Meanwhile, those offspring my brother was churning out had grown into little people. And, like me, Dad has changed. Instead of treating the kids like lamps when they visit, Dad is right in there. He and I wrestle and play with them until we are so exhausted they have to leave.

A year ago, my brother got a long distance plan that included free calls after six. Because I’m the only person he knows outside of town, my youngest nephew calls me everyday. He watches the television shows that I like just so we have something to talk about. If I don’t visit for a few months he threatens to come out to Vancouver, tie me up and drag me home with him.

Last month, we were talking and my brother grabbed the phone away from him. I could hear a group of his buddies whooping it up in the background. “How the hell do you have time to be talking to my kid everyday?” he asked. “I barely ever see him.”

By now I have already told Dad that in his next life he might want to rethink his hands-off parenting style. “If you have any more kids pretend they’re your grandchildren,” I tell him. I thought about talking to my brother. I could tell him that if he worked and drank a bit less, his family would have all the time in the world together. But as tough as he thinks he is, once bitten by the truth he would probably try to bite me back.