When I picked up the ringing phone, I heard a recording of a man howling in agony. How despicable of a robo-caller to disseminate such a heart-rending sound. I hung up. Half an hour later, the phone rang again. It was my brother, crying, but now able to speak. The recording I’d heard was no recording at all, but my brother grieving. His thirty-eight-year-old son Justin had just died.
I recall how my nephew, six-year-old Justin, would aim at and bump me in my parents’ former swimming pool. He didn’t know when to stop his antics, but he was being affectionate and I was charmed.
Justin’s parents were both substance abusers when he was born on June 19, 1984. To his great credit, my brother has been sober since, as he puts it, 8-6-86, nearly thirty-six years. Throughout Justin’s childhood, divorced from Justin’s mother but granted visiting rights, he drove from Connecticut to her Long Island home every other weekend either to stay with Justin or to bring him to Connecticut.
Justin grew into an infectiously exuberant young man, always cooking up schemes and reveling in the attention he got from women. One semester during his second stint at college, he lived in student housing around the corner from my apartment building. During his first round of college, he’d enjoyed playing football, especially hitting the opposing quarterback as hard as he could, no matter that it cost Justin a lasting shoulder injury. Now on his second stint, he still had no patience for studying. For his course on Virgil’s Aeneid, we agreed that I’d read the epic poem alongside him, but preoccupied by what proved to be an illusory get-rich-quick scheme, he never got around to it.
After abandoning college, Justin followed his dad into house renovation and building, and he became a skilled carpenter. Under his dad’s guidance, he renovated the apartment I bought in 2008. My brother did the design and measurements, but it was Justin who built the shelves and storage units that remain a nice feature of my home. It took about five months.
A year or two afterwards, he brought his girlfriend, a police officer, down to Brooklyn from Westchester to meet me for lunch. Lunch was delightful and companionable. I was touched that he wanted me to meet her. Not that my enthusiasm helped their relationship last. It didn’t.
I asked Justin if he’d be interested in renovating my bathroom. The sink needed to be replaced, which would require other adjustments. This time he wouldn’t be under my brother’s supervision, and things didn’t go well. As he diagrammed it, his proposal couldn’t work in this tiny New York City bathroom. Worse, each time I tried to reach him, his voicemail box was full and he didn’t return email. I had to wait, sometimes days, for him to contact me. Our apartment building’s managing agent, who would have been obligated to monitor the project, couldn’t have coordinated with him. I was compelled to cancel and make another arrangement. I gathered from my brother that Justin felt aggrieved.
I came to accept that Justin and I were on different planets. I couldn’t engage with his love of motorbikes, speed racing or action movies any more than he could with mine of literature. Our intersecting interest was carpentry, but with him as craftsman and me as admiring beneficiary. Not enough to hold more than an occasional conversation. Had we not been related, our paths would never have crossed. As it was, they didn’t cross often. Not often enough.
In 2019, presumably at the behest of his father, Justin drove up to Connecticut from Long Island to attend my father’s, his grandfather’s, memorial service. He brought his then girlfriend, made up in Goth black. Justin’s and my exchanges were cordial.
Cordiality continued as my wife and I joined my brother and Justin in the monumental task of sorting through the disarray of Dad’s old home. It took many weekends from May until October. Justin’s quiet sense of humor helped make the sad task bearable.
None of us spoke about the discordance inherent in Justin’s involvement in his grandfather’s affairs. His grandfather, my father, had pretended Justin didn’t exist from the day he was born. We never found out why. In fact, Dad had also regularly punished my brother in his childhood, so cruelly that at the age of sixteen, my brother escaped from home for a boarding school. My brother’s substance abuse started at that time. Cause and effect? Cruelty leading to addiction leading to …?
My brother and our father were close for the last decades of Dad’s life. However, between his treatment of his own son and then his grandson, Dad left a legacy at odds with the goodwill he deservedly earned elsewhere.
In 2020, I got a call from Justin’s mother, and then from a friend of hers, urging me to intervene because Justin had once again become addicted to a variety of drugs, including heroin. My brother, by then living on the West Coast, assured me they were wrong. Justin had twice gone into rehab over the course of two decades, and my brother felt his addiction was under control. It wasn’t, as my brother belatedly recognized when Justin soon afterwards moved out to be with him. That stay went steadily downhill until Justin returned this past winter to Long Island with a new girlfriend.
Justin’s last six months were ones of turmoil. He sold his house, which had long been threatened with foreclosure for failure to pay property tax. He had little money. The girlfriend left. Creditors closed in. A long-time partner appropriated Justin’s tools, preventing him from working.
Justin decided to rejoin my brother on the West Coast. He was to fly out on July 4. My brother found a therapist he thought could help. The evening of June 29, Justin called his father to talk. It was the next evening, June 30, that my brother called me to say Justin had died of a heroin overdose.
Accidental? Suicide? A call for help? A toxic dose from a new supplier?
On the phone that evening with my brother, I was calm. Hanging up, I cried for a long time. Justin gone. My brother devastated. And earlier, wrongly convinced the call was a recording, I’d hung up on my brother inconsolably sobbing.
Those who die by design or through neglect inevitably leave behind unanswerable questions. After letting time pass following cancellation of our bathroom renovation project, should I have pushed through Justin’s voicemail and email fortress to show I had no hard feelings? Too late, death makes clear what sacrifices would have been worth the effort. But then a pall of inevitability descends. What could anyone have done? Would rejoining his father have made the difference this time, or would it have been another chapter of hope followed by frustration? Yet despite all the burdens that beset him, Justin had a great capacity for happiness. It wasn’t faked. It wasn’t the product of bipolar or some other disorder.
As my brother never stopped hoping for Justin’s recovery from addiction, I held on to an unspoken hope that as he grew older, Justin and I would find more in common. Hope was itself a connection.
I hadn’t realized how much I cared. I’d come around to thinking of Justin as a family member I’d gladly help if I felt I could. Perhaps it was the “family member” part that I underestimated.
Late on the day Justin died, my wife and I sat outside on our ninth-floor terrace. Historical districting has rendered our apartment building a rare tall structure in this neighborhood. To the right, we look all the way to New Jersey, ahead down all the way to the Verrazzano Bridge and Staten Island, and left out to a large swath of Brooklyn that keeps going east all the way to the end of Long Island. There’s a constant hum of traffic and, at this time of year, of air-conditioning units, a collective white noise that accentuates the feeling of wide open space. I remembered how someone I once knew gathered a group of mourners on the nearby Brooklyn Bridge to say goodbye to a friend. At the conclusion, they released the ashes into the harbor breeze that carried them off to blend with eternity.
In the vast panorama before me, I imagined Justin’s spirit floating between land, harbor water and sky. His spirit had to have been in pain, knowing the torment his death was causing his parents. Even so, I chose to believe he was on the way to a place of peace. I wish the same in this world for the people, above all my brother, who loved him.
I’ve written about Dad’s admirable side and my love for him throughout this blog, including my transcription of the speech I gave at his memorial service: https://adrianspratt.com/theater-versus-the-message-my-memorial-speech-for-harold-anthony-spratt/
While drafting this remembrance of Justin, I consulted with no one about the details. These are my possibly flawed recollections and interpretations.