I didn’t know much about the history of Holland, Michigan, when I made my first solo road trip to The Tulip City to visit Mike, my little brother. A yearly festival draws busloads of mostly senior citizens to the picturesque downtown and surrounding area, but I wasn’t making the trip to see the flowers or buy wooden shoes.
Mike and I had been close friends when we lived in Chicago, but we drifted apart after our family moved to the suburbs. In high school, he started hanging out with a rougher crowd, drinking, and getting in fights. He got suspended several times, something our father, an assistant principal in an inner-city school, could not tolerate.
I felt guilty about the break from my brother but didn’t make any effort to repair the breach for several years. When he called one fall weekend after I graduated from college and invited me to meet his new fiancé, I was surprised, but relieved that he’d made the first step.
Mike gave me general directions on how to drive there but I didn’t write them down. The route sounded easy to follow. I packed enough clothes and toiletries for a long weekend. Leaving my central Illinois home late in the afternoon, I drove down long stretches of Indiana and Michigan interstates. Taco Bell filled my stomach but not my soul. Road kill littered the sides of the rumble strips. Deer, possums, raccoons — those odors burned my nose for miles. My burrito wasn’t sitting well on my stomach.
When I reached the border of Michigan, my eyes hurt after almost four hours of driving, and I had a headache. That burrito started talking back to me. I didn’t appreciate the tilt of the conversation. Streetlights flickered on and I didn’t want to drive much longer after the sun went down. I stopped at a tourist welcome center and called Mike. When he told me the trailer was only an hour away, I knew that I could make the last leg of my drive.
When I finally arrived at his place, he was so damn happy to see me that he started to cry.
I cried too.
“What kept you away so long?”
I mumbled an apology instead of an explanation. And promised to come often. A promise I kept for the next 13 years.
During all those visits Mike never admitted that he struggled with anything. It came as a real surprise to me when Mike was hospitalized before one trip. I asked Mike what happened when we met for dinner at the local Taco Bell, and Mike’s wife, Chris, coaxed him to talk about his problems with alcohol.
He had been hospitalized several times when he passed out trying to quit cold turkey. The doctor told him he needed help to stop drinking because it was going to kill him. I was relieved when Mike’s life seemed to settle down after he talked to his doctor, so my sister and I planned a long weekend trip the following fall.
Mary Ellen called me the day before our departure. Mike had been hospitalized after binge drinking for several weeks.
Four of us, Mary-Ellen, Mom, my brother-in-law Tom, and I trekked up to the hospital the next day. Mike’s wife Chris ushered us into his hospital room. He was hooked up to an oxygen mask. We didn’t stay long but he acknowledged our presence. The doctors said he needed rest. They would run a few more tests.
We decided to leave the hospital while he rested. To keep ourselves occupied we went shopping for food. We wanted to cook something to take our mind off Mike’s circumstances. The sights and smells of food always comforted us. Taco Bell wasn’t on the menu.
In the middle of the food prep back at the trailer, we received a phone call from the hospital. Mike had died from a heart attack. After eating a hurried meal, we returned to the hospital. In a fog of grief we discussed funeral arrangements with Mike’s wife and planned to return to Holland the following weekend.
When we made that last trip to view Mike’s urn at the funeral, dented beer cans and broken vodka bottles littered the highways and roadways of my mind like so much road kill. Heading home after the reception, the smell of death lingered in our noses. Taco Bell was out of the question.