When I was six years old my best friend's father killed himself. I remember overhearing my mother on the phone — things I wasn't supposed to hear. Something about bloody glasses. Something about a gun. I didn't know what it all meant until my mother sat me down. Suddenly, I was terrified that my dad would kill himself, too.
I remember standing on the entry stairs of the split-level home that my mother, my sister, and I had moved into just a few months earlier. With my parents freshly divorced, my mother had to pare down. Gone was our sprawling suburban home, tucked into four acres in the woods at the terminus of a dead end. Now we lived in a neighborhood where the houses were so close together that they had no windows on the sides.
I stared at my dad, who had come in the front door. My mother had called him at work because I was so upset. Winter was settling into Chicago and the trees behind him stood naked, braced against the wind and cold. My father, in his suit and cashmere coat, knelt on the step below me, so that we were at eye level.
"What's the matter, kiddo?" he asked me, as he placed his ape-like hands on my shoulders.
"Daddy, I don't want you to die," I cried. "I don't want you to kill yourself."
"Karla, I'm not going to die," he said.
"Promise. Promise you won't kill yourself," I said.
"I promise you," my dad said to me, looking me in the eye. "I promise you I will never kill myself."
I didn't believe him.
Too frightened to let him escape my sight, I went to work with him that day. We visited a wire factory where my father had a client. I hung onto my father's coat as we walked through the cavernous warehouse, cold and gray like the sky outside. A man at the factory gave me a spool with red, green, and gold insulation wire woven around it, like shiny, moldable thread. It was November, but the batch date on the top of the spool read "6/25/84." I played with it. I stroked the ridges of the wire, cool and prickly against my skin. I put it in my nightstand along with my rosary, prayer books, and piggy bank — prized possessions. And I saved the spool, because it reminded me of that day. It reminded me of my father's promise.
He broke that promise. He just did it slowly.
My father was pronounced dead at 11:28 am on October 11, 2003. He was 58 years old. On his death certificate, the coroner in Downers Grove, Illinois listed the immediate cause as "End Stage Liver Disease" and the underlying cause as "Chronic Alcohol Abuse." He bled to death. His esophageal veins ruptured, a common complication of liver disease. He was found on the floor of his living room, where he had hunkered down for months, unable or unwilling to drag his dilapidated body up the stairs to his bedroom. His ruddy face was overgrown with an equally red, but graying beard — untrimmed, unkempt, and uncharacteristic of him.
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A self-made millionaire who once headed a $534 million banking company, my father was also an abusive alcoholic tormented by a past he couldn't escape, and by secrets he was desperate to bury. He was a wunderkind — he graduated high school at the age of 16, became chief executive officer of his first bank at the age of 27, bought his first bank at 29, and eventually made millions as president and CEO of a banking conglomerate in Chicago that he built from a single little community bank in Countryside, Illinois. He was boisterous and fun loving, the guy everyone wanted at their party. But privately, he wielded an explosive temper that turned to violence at its worst — usually his drunkest. Angry and depressed, he died jobless and on his way to broke.
And he was alone.
My father was found lying on his right side on the formerly ivory carpet directly in front of the sofa, wrapped in a blanket of his own blood. It was the same sofa he'd had since the 1980s when he redecorated his home as the model of well-heeled living — peach, celadon, and white geometric fabric. His house reeked of an unholy mix of death and excrement compounded by rotting milk in the fridge. Decay was creeping in from every corner. He wore multi-colored shorts and a T-shirt.
The coroner's report is meticulous: "It should be noted that the deceased's legs, and entire torso appeared to be covered with his own dried feces," the deputy wrote. "It had appeared the deceased had been sitting in his own feces and urine for some time. His clothing as well as his furniture was soiled. It appeared as though he had apparently been in the same clothes for some time…."
I'd spoken to my father a few days before his death, but I don't remember the conversation. Before that, I hadn't seen him for a few months, since I had flown in for a visit. At that time, his front door had been unlocked, and I had walked in. He sat on his sofa, clearly unable to get up without difficulty. One too many drunken falls had taken a toll. He was walking with a cane on his good days, a walker on his bad, and not at all on his worst.
Now my father's corpse was placed in a white body bag and taken to the morgue, where his right big toe was tagged. He was number M03-301, weighing 205 pounds. The coroner's report ends with me: "According to Karla, although her father's passing is upsetting, it has not come as a surprise. Karla and her mother will be flying in to Illinois later today," the deputy wrote. "Nothing further at this time."
As far back as I can remember I was aware that my dad was a drunk. By the time I was 16 his death seemed inevitable. Nine years later, when the coroner needed to speak with his next of kin, I was the first one to get the news the following evening. It was a brief conversation. The coroner relayed the basic circumstances of my father's death, asked a few questions about his alcoholism, and decided an inquest wasn't necessary. Open and closed. He lived a drunk. He died a drunk. The end.
But the story of a life is never that simple.
As I cleaned out his belongings, I found an old steamer trunk that I never knew he had. In the trunk was a long-forgotten scrapbook full of odds and ends — photos, letters, and a multitude of newspaper clippings from his evidently dazzling teenage baseball career. Next to the scrapbook was an old, battered glove and a collection of baseballs signed by teammates, inscribed with the dates of the no-hitters he had pitched. This was news to me. I didn't even know he played baseball. My father had a secret life that I never knew about, and I became conscious of how much I would never know. How much I wanted to know.
I had my suspicions about what initially drove him to drink — a brutally abusive childhood that I'd only heard about in hints and whispers. But I wasn't sure what kept him drinking after so many hospital stays, so many promises. Was there more? I wanted to know: Why this gruesome, self-inflicted death? Was it even a choice?
James Baldwin, in Notes of a Native Son, wrote of his own domineering father's death:
It was better not to judge the man who had gone down under an impossible burden. It was better to remember: Thou knowest this man's fall; but thou knowest not his wrassling.
So I set out to find the man he was and the man he wasn't. Who was Richard Alan Brown? And what was the nature of his wrassling?
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I started with the photos of my father's life, the photos he'd never shown me. In one, he sits on his desk wearing a natty three-piece pinstriped suit. He is young, robust, and clearly enjoying his first taste of success as a newly minted bank president. In another, taken more than 15 years later, at the height of his career, he strikes a similar pose. By then he was president and chief executive officer of a $500 million bank holding company, and he looks proud, like a man worthy of his title.
In the black-and-white pictures of his wonder years in Florida, an endless array of freckles hint at his strawberry blond hair and green eyes. Little Rick, all grins and gangly limbs, seems utterly unaware of what lies ahead. There he is, dressed as an Indian in a Boy Scout parade. There he is years later, dressed as a Roman charioteer in a college homecoming parade. Pictures of him and Jack, his older brother by two years, show the boys playing in the yard, riding bikes, riding horses, laying sod at the church. Boys being boys. There is a photo of Rick riding Blackie, his horse. Many of the photos have the words "Lazy Acres," the nickname for the family home, inscribed on the back in his mother's neat cursive. Just one — a picture of the boys on their bikes in the yard — is inscribed by a child's unsure hand:
Jack and Rick and Boo my dog. Jack is 7 1/2 years old. Rick is 6 years old. Boo is 5 months old. And she says Hello.
But "Lazy Acres" was a place of torment.
Born in Miami on August 29, 1945, Richard Alan Brown was the second of two boys born to Carol Brown and Karl Brown, devout Catholics originally from Ohio. Carol and Karl raised their family in North Miami and then in a small town outside of Tampa called San Antonio. They attended church and sent their boys to Catholic school.
Karl was 14 years Carol's senior, and by the time Richard was born, Karl was 51 and retired, a former building contractor, according to his obituary, a salesman according to my father's college resume. Karl sat home most days; a real estate listing for the family's house in North Miami states that both Mr. and Mrs. Brown were usually home until 1 pm daily and all day Sundays. Neither worked full-time, subsisting instead on family investments and, in Karl's case, drinking all day long. "He didn't want to work," my uncle Jack told me. "He just wanted to drink."
By all accounts, Karl, a World War I veteran who earned the nickname "Napoleon" from his fellow soldiers, was a cruel authoritarian. My dad told my mother that Karl tied him to a tree in the front yard as a punishment, leaving him in the hot Florida sun for hours. A neighbor brought him water, but when Karl saw Rick drinking, he took the water and beat him. My aunt told me that was a regular punishment for the Brown boys — being chained to a tree.
And that's not all. They were beaten with lead pipes — that is, when Karl could catch them. He was often too drunk to outrun two young boys. In a rare unguarded moment, my father told my cousin that Karl kept the refrigerator locked and often wouldn't let the boys eat. They'd get so hungry they'd eat the dog's food. My Uncle Jack told me the same thing. "He was the meanest son-of-a-bitch that ever walked the earth," my uncle said of his father. "He never once in his life — not once — told us he loved us."
My dad kept a photo of himself and Karl framed in his house. In it, my dad's first car, a red Ford Mustang Fastback — the same model that, when I turned 16, he wanted to buy for me — sits parked on the lawn. He stands on the driver's side and Karl on the passenger's side, leaning on the car. But my dad told my mom that one day, in a fit of rage, Karl slashed all the tires.
On August 21, 1966, as he left for his final year at Florida State University, Rick wrote to Karl: Dear Pop, It is gratifying to know that I can leave home on good terms with you. You don't know how much it means to me. Karl died three years later.
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Karl is my namesake, and I share a birthday with him. But no matter how many times I asked, my dad never told me anything about him. "He was a great man," was the pat response I'd get. For a man who always dominated a conversation, a lot went unsaid.
I certainly never heard from his mouth that Karl was also a drinker — my mother and my uncle revealed that secret, along with all the others, though my dad's medical records show that he had told his doctors as much. In fact, Karl used to send the boys to buy his liquor.
My grandmother, Carol, would also hit the bottle. It was a habit she picked up later in life, after Karl died and her sons were grown. She drank what she called "special water" — vodka, sometimes with orange juice. "She had serious mental problems," my uncle told me. "But she was a smart lady."
She died in 1987. I remember her as a mean woman with slurred speech and a crooked smile who wanted nothing to do with my sister or me. We walked on eggshells around her, except when she asked us to pour another glass of her "special water." That was the only time she spoke sweetly to us.
Carol once worked as a reporter for The Florida Catholic and taught journalism at a local community college. But even though I was an aspiring journalist, my father never told me any of this. My dad never talked about Carol.
Once I began investigating my father's life, however, my mother told me about Carol. She said she once caught my grandmother pushing my sister, then a small child, down the stairs. Carol once tried to convince one of my cousins, also a child at the time, to run away from home. My father, my mother told me, said Carol was "the meanest woman you'd ever meet."
Yet she seemed to have different faces for different people. My Uncle Jack describes Carol as a kind woman who often did little things for her sons behind her husband's back. And my aunt — Jack's ex-wife — remembers Carol as a sweet woman who loved music and culture. No doubt she was complicated. She certainly had a complicated relationship with her son, Rick. Deeply complicated, as I would learn.
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