“I wake up hearing unfamiliar voices convinced they’re trying to explain
that if my words were clearer
then maybe I would know what I’m trying to say”
– Idelwild, “Not Just Sometimes, But Always” (2005)
I always start with the story of the tee shirt.
Perhaps because it captures the innocence of youth, of idolization, of just how much I looked up to Liam.
There’s not much to the story, really.
My parents threw a pool party for my 10th birthday and in the chaos of childhood, Liam left the tee shirt he wore to the party behind.
I can still see it. A youth extra large, I’m guessing. Baby blue. Converse branded. Caricature with oversized feet, rocking a pair of Chuck Taylors.
I never gave it back. Didn’t want to.
Instead, I wore it everywhere. Everywhere I knew Liam wouldn’t be.
It didn’t matter that it was two or three sizes too large for me. That it looked like a night gown when I wore it.
It was his. And that made it cool.
Way cooler than me.
At 10 years old, I thought: If I wear this, it makes me a little bit more like him.
And that’s exactly what I wanted. To be like Liam.
* * *
How do you summarize a man that is everywhere in your mind?
The kind of person you dig back into your brain and find not just one story, but so many stories they’re hard to pick apart. Interwoven like fabric – or a network of masonry – forming the foundation of your life.
That’s Liam. Really, truly.
It’s bicycle rides and Mark, Sean, Devin, Jason, Todd, Bill, Freddy, Balchan, Steve. Names that were there every day for pickup hockey, dares and stories.
For trips to the Corner Store, where maybe we’d pay and maybe we’d steal (or perhaps some combination of both) bubble gum and baseball cards and soda and candy.
If it sounds all sorts of ‘aw, shucks’ hokey, that’s because it actually was.
Maybe we went home to parents that fought, or didn’t get along, or abused alcohol, or drugs, or each other, but 10-year-old boys (and oftentimes, 40-year-old men) don’t talk about stuff like that.
They razz, they shoot hoops, they play video games and run around along a riverbank or the woods until it’s time to come home.
That was our life.
* * *
Liam’s home was where all the kids went.
There were snacks, and cats and dogs and life … so much life.
There was Doug and Jen and Megan. And Bernie. God we loved Bernie. All of us.
I know that living room, with its big basket chair to the right of the television; that bathroom, crammed with so many combs, brushes, lotion and humidity (try to dry out when four kids need a shower daily), the kitchen, with the door out to the yard, where the dogs waited; the bedrooms upstairs … I can see them all. Literally navigate them in my mind like it’s yesterday.
And let’s not forget the basement, where in youth we played ping pong and as we got older, probably snuck a beer or two.
It was like that well into early years of high school. Even though at the time the activities seemed simple, the memories are burned deep in mind. Like the time we rented a Sega Genesis and played NHL hockey into the wee hours of the morning.
We added an “s” to the name of every player because Bill Rausch used to do it when we played real hockey, and baseball. He’d rip a slapshot, pretending to be his favorite player of the week – perhaps Mike Gartner – and scream “Gartners!”
So Liam and I would do it, too. Mario Lemieux was Lemieuxs and Jeremy Roenick was Roenicks. Why you do things like this as kids is not entirely clear, but the fact that you speak each other’s language and inherently get these little inside jokes are what signify the depth of your bond.
It’s for this exact reason that at any moment Liam or Sean or I could yell, “Well, you can tell Chris Colas he can suck my left nut!” or tap three times on a wall and scream “Now you got a roommate” and all of us would instantly be transported back to the same place and time.
Somewhere, in almost every reunion and conversation those jokes were told, those lines expressed with glee and followed by laughs.
These are the tools men have to express a bond, a friendship, love.
I know that now.
I didn’t then.
* * *
But for all the good memories, some of the deepest are the ones that hurt, the ones that crystalized that Liam’s addiction was not some passing teenage fad, that it was real and powerful and dangerous.
Just before I moved to Arizona after high school, I got a call from Liam and another of our friends – after 10 pm.
“Ed, can we borrow $10?”
“What for,” I asked.
They joked and razzed in their normal way, trying to cajole me into giving them the money.
Finally, they admitted it was for heroin.
“Just one last time,” they said. “Then we’re going into treatment. Please, just leave it in the mailbox for us.”
I left a note in the mailbox instead that said, “I can’t do this.” I think it also offered to help.
Ten minutes later they came by the house. I watched them from the window as they looked in the mailbox.
When they found the note, but no money in it, one of them returned to the car and positioned its headlights to face the mailbox.
For what felt like an eternity, they got down on their hands and knees and searched the ground for the money that wasn’t there in the first place.
* * *
During those last years of high school, as Liam battled the first round of addiction, my connection to the Robinson’s didn’t fade.
It got stronger. Megan and I – along with Heather and our friend, Kenny – became an almost inseparable unit, complete with our own language. We had twisty locks and ba-dak-dak-dak-gak-a-gak and a shared interest in trying, by sheer will, to wish Liam out of the chains he was bound by.
We took the Lakeland bus to midtown and the PATH to the Village; hit concert after concert and snuck drinks at the legendary Smitty’s.
The move to Phoenix put some distance between us, but the bond never really faded. Time has no power over that love. It’s always there, somewhere, waiting to be reignited, rekindled, to be expressed.
The funny part was, the part I didn’t expect, was that it didn’t break the bond with Liam, either. He was a part of almost every trip home in the 90s and 2000s and for years, almost annually, Sean, Doug and I held a de facto reunion in Las Vegas.
The timelines are fuzzy now, but I know Liam got clean – many times.
And during those trips to Vegas, I was sure addiction was behind him.
We resumed our old roles. Liam and Sean were always more quick-witted than me. I was always the punchline to their joke.
By my late 20s and early 30s, I didn’t mind. Hell, with the complexities of life, I was happy to oblige.
One of the first trips with them, I lost at everything. I was straight up out of cash.
Sitting at the bar on the third night of a four night trip, bartenders were handing out raffle tickets for hourly drawings.
Two things happened that night. One, Liam developed a surefire way to win in Vegas: “Whatever Ed bets on, bet the opposite!” (It worked.)
And two, he predicted of the raffle: “This’ll be the only thing you’ll win.”
Sure enough, they pulled my name. Two tickets to the PBR Rodeo Finals.
The next morning I woke up and walked three miles to the Thomas & Mack Center, where the event was held. I didn’t want to waste a dime on cab fare.
I was scalping these babies to cull my losses.
Problem was, so was half of Las Vegas.
I got $29 for the pair and walked the three miles back to the hotel.
That night Sean and Liam told me fabulous stories about people from our high school – they came out of the closet, had sex changes, you name it – and because this was before Facebook, there was no easy way to verify this.
I went home that next day and because I was a magazine editor, I wrote about it. About the way time changes the things we know, and the people we know, too.
Here’s the kicker: none of it was true.
And neither Sean nor Liam ever let me know the joke was on me. For years. And years. And years.
I think Megan told me it was garbage a decade later – by accident – and Liam, never one to let the joke die, took it a step further. Since, by this time Facebook did exist, he posted a picture of the article to Facebook just to say, one more time, “gotcha.”
And probably cracking himself up the entire way; letting that smile – that big, toothy smile – fly the way it always did.
* * *
A lot of the last few years are lost in the ether, though.
He surprised me a couple years ago; showed up in Phoenix with his wife, Cristiane, at my work and we talked right there in the lobby.
They were headed to Los Angeles and the exchange was way too short. I wanted them to stay – or to go to LA with them.
He looked good – great – and with his bride by his side and his 40s in his sight, I thought: we’re through this. We’re finally through this.
But that’s not the way it works with addiction. We’re never through it. We’re always its slave and the ones we love are always caught in its aftermath.
The things we do, the choices we make, it’s not just us they impact, it’s all the ones who carry us and cry for us and worry for us and love us … and sometimes – sometimes – give up on us.
I don’t know if anyone gave up Liam. I can’t know that for sure.
But I really believe he never gave up on himself.
He tried hard to make amends. He tried hard to get out of his pattern. He knew he was loved; and he loved deeply.
He was a deeply intelligent, complicated, flawed and loving man.
We – not you and I, perhaps, but society as a whole – make the mistake of turning addiction into a black and white issue; of simplifying the men and women who struggle with it.
But in some ways addiction is no different than Alzheimers.
It changes what we do, not who we want to be.
* * *
Making sense of this death has not come easy.
For the last few days my mind keeps drifting back to a conversation we had in my bedroom. Originally, on Facebook, I had indicated this conversation took place when I was 11, but now I think we were 13 or 14.
It’d been a while since I’d seen Liam – that would happen from time to time – and he unexpectedly asked to come over.
I thought we were going to listen to music and play Nintendo.
Instead, he sat in my room and told me about his father; about the things none of us ever saw. No one had ever had a conversation with me like that before.
I don’t remember the words. What I remember is the sentiment – that the man who so carefully hid his feelings through that goofy sense of humor was laying bare his soul.
I know only a few of us have seen that side.
It was eloquent and sad; raw and full of love.
I feel like that conversation taught me how to speak in a way I’d never considered before. That I eventually developed the idea that, most times, it was the only way to speak.
Time blurs the details.
But nearly thirty years later, I’m certain of this:
It was important for both of us.
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