My brother Mike could never remember exactly how he made the biggest mistake of his life. It knocked him off-course and altered his destiny. All he recalls is hitchhiking to L.A. Somehow he missed the mark and ended up 500 miles from there, in Tucson.
Turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all. It was a miracle.
Maybe he was just standing on the wrong side of the highway. Chances are he was high and not thinking clearly: Mike was a heroin addict. There were lots of events and long stretches of his life that he couldn’t recall. He was high on smack most of the time for almost 20 years running.
Mike was two years older than me. Our father was mentally ill, and by the time I was born Daddy couldn’t handle a job or any other responsibility. Our mother, only 20 when she married, not realizing Daddy was ill, did the best she could but was not equipped to deal with something like schizophrenia. Who is? Mom’s own mother had been a homemaker and her father worked at the Navy Yard near Seattle and brought home the bacon every single day. Everything seemed picture-perfect, right down to the bridge club and the county fair flower judging and the black metal lunchbox Grandma filled up for Grandpa every workday.
I think Mom expected a life like that, but hers didn’t even come close. There was a deep stigma of shame attached to mental illness back in the 1940s. In order to get help Mom would have had to tell someone about Daddy’s schizophrenia, which for her was not an option. So she had no one to share her burden with. She had only a high school education, and worked at low-paying jobs to support all of us. Life was hard.
Mike started experimenting with drugs when he was 12, stealing cough syrups containing codeine that were sold over-the-counter back then. He soon moved on to stronger stuff. He was first incarcerated when he was 13. We were all eating dinner in our apartment when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. “I’m looking for Michael Torello,” a policeman said, looking down at me from where he stood on our porch. Mike had already gotten up from the table, and he walked out the door and drove away with the policemen. I didn’t see him for six months. He had stolen a car, I later learned. After that he was in trouble constantly.
He started disappearing more often and for longer stretches, incarcerated or just drifting in a drug haze. He broke into people’s houses and stole things to sell, or took money if it was there, to buy his drugs with. Mom never talked about him. There was an unspoken rule not to mention him. I had a lot of grief about him I never expressed, and in my thirties I sought out counseling. Talking to compassionate experts helped. I wish Mom could have done the same, but she never got past the shame of her generation over mental and emotional problems in the family. She suffered in silence.
When Mike was 20, his right arm got caught in a meat grinder in a pizza parlor, where he was working while high on drugs, most likely heroin. Moments after it got caught in the terrible blades someone tried to turn the grinder off, but the external off button was not working. Someone finally unplugged it. The arm was lost up to the elbow. After a long stay in the hospital Mike went to live with our father, long-divorced from Mom and living with his mother.
After a few months Mike disappeared again. Daddy committed suicide shortly afterward. I lost track of Mike for years.
In my late thirties I was surprised to get a letter from Tucson. It was from Mike. He had tracked me down. “I woke up in a Tucson jail one morning and wondered what the hell I was doing there,” he wrote, “especially since as far as I knew I lived in California, and didn’t remember leaving it on purpose.” When he woke up in the jail he had an eerie feeling that his life was about to change into something he wouldn’t recognize. The feeling was right on.
Mike was tried and convicted of burglary. Except for the fact that it happened in Arizona instead of California, it seemed like a familiar story in Mike’s life. Need drugs, commit crime, get caught, go to jail.
But this time, a compassionate judge sentenced him to a residential halfway house, Casa Amigo, instead of jail. At Casa there was counseling and job training, basic living skills like cooking and cleaning, virtually nonstop Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, and other resources. Not to mention friendship and bonding. Mike needed all those things.
After Mike and I wrote letters for a few months, I flew to spend a week with him in his little bungalow, in an old barrio of Tucson.
“How in the world did you end up in a city in the Sonoran desert?” I asked him over coffee.
“I just remember hitchhiking, and everything else is blacked out until I woke up in jail,” he told me. “I asked a guy in the cell and he told me I was in Tucson.”
Mike didn’t know how he got there, but he knew Tucson was the right place for him to end up. From his first day in the halfway house, when he was forty, until he died ten years later he was clean and sober. He had been addicted to one drug or another continuously for nearly twenty-five years.
Mike was a high school dropout, but he completed two years of community college and then earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Arizona. Job hunting afterwards, he had a lot of anxiety about the felonies he had to disclose on job applications, which would scare off employers. But someone at the Arizona Highway Department read between the lines of his resume and saw his amazing turnaround after so many years of drug abuse and crime. The department gave him a chance, and he was a civil engineer there until he died.
He met his girlfriend Susan in Narcotics Anonymous. She and Mike lived together, with their formerly stray neighborhood cat Petey, until Mike’s death.
Mike had no self-pity over his missing arm. He was grateful he still had his elbow joint. “It gives me a lot more functionality,” he told me. He drove, ironed, cooked, bowled, did everything else people with two arms do.
He didn’t even feel sorry for himself over his rapidly spreading lung cancer. I learned it was already late stage when I arrived. He was thin and gaunt and fragile-looking. His cheeks were hollow. But he was peaceful and calm. Happy.
My last night there, Mike and I talked and talked until the mountains in the window and the moon hanging over them disappeared, and a faint salmon glow lit the sky. “The last ten years have been fuller than I ever dreamed life could be,” he told me. He had remained in NA and sponsored and mentored many newcomers. He was loved and respected by his extended family of recovering addicts throughout Tucson. He and Susan had a loving relationship. Petey was a joy. “I have no regrets,” he said. Not even about dying.
We never saw each other after that visit. He died soon after I got back to San Jose. His memorial was held in the halfway house, where his healing had begun. Mike’s many friends gathered from all over Tucson and shared their stories about him, and their love and respect for him. Afterwards his ashes were scattered in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains east of Tucson. Mike wanted to be in the winds near his beloved home where he had found peace and meaning, and service to his fellow addicts, in his last years. It was there that he finally got treatment instead of punishment, and found healing, friendship, work and love.
I never dreamed that one day I would call Mike my teacher, but he was. He taught me that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to recover from addiction, even from one with as vicious a grip as heroin, and even if the addiction has lasted decades. It’s never too late to find love and adopt a cat and make a home and go to school, even after a life of crime and incarceration. It’s never too late for a miracle.