My mum and Andrew, not long before he died.
The last time I saw my Uncle Andrew was when I was 14. A long time ago now, 16 years, but I remember it well enough. Well enough to have made an impact. My uncle Andrew, or Jacko (his surname was Jackson), was the baby of the family, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters (half and step) and grew up with an alcoholic gambler for a dad and a violent gambler for a mother. But he had my mum looking out for him from the moment he was born to the moment he died of a heroin overdose.
When he was a baby, my mum was 17 and thinking about joining the navy. She wanted to fly helicopters and jets and get the hell out of a very bad situation. She had left school at 15 to work and support her younger brothers and sisters (she was the eldest) and joining the Navy was the way out.
Except it meant leaving behind all those kids.
So instead she got married to my dad, moved out, took two of them with her when they were a little older – two of my aunts.
He wasn’t always an addict. For a long time he was just a guy. He had a girlfriend and a dog for a while They had two kids – Christopher and Andrew. He and his boyfriend John were our main babysitters when mum was working nights for a long time. Then, then I don’t know what happened really, a lot of those old memories are missing. In my mind it goes from Uncle Andrew the babysitter to Uncle Andrew the heroin addict. There’s no transitional memories.
The last time I saw him, I was 14, my sister 11, and he’d already been in and out of prison for mostly theft related offences. Stealing from the shops in Coventry City Centre. Later he would steal to order or steal to get caught and take a break from the heroin while in jail for a little while. At this point, he was drinking too. We went to his council flat in the city, a few rows down from where my great grandma lived, we’d been to see her too. A little old Geordie woman who had lived in Coventry for over sixty years but had never lost her accent and had the best stories. Except he wasn’t allowed to go and see her any more. Not since he’d threatened her neighbours after she said they’d upset her over something trivial. So he was a few houses away from his grandmother but unable to see her, and really, probably didn’t even realise any more.
We pulled up and walked in and there was smoke coming from the kitchen. Black smoke. But there was no smoke alarm and my uncle was asleep on the sofa in front of the day time tv shows. My mum ran in found he’d forgotten some toast in the grill. She woke him up and asked him where his gas fire was gone.
In the living room, where the little rectangle fire would’ve been was just a bright patch of white paint and some pipes. Next to that a half empty bottle of vodka, an old sofa.
He’d sold most of his things, including the gas fire which had been attached the wall and actually belonged to the council because they owned the house. Except Jacko had needed the money. My mum didn’t asked what for. We all knew. He looked awful, thin and pale, his tiger tattoo stretched too far over his neck. I hadn’t really even thought about it back then but this was what addiction looked like, manifested in my uncle, a lovely man I adored, despite that addiction.
He gave us some presents, over due from Christmas he said, but I didn’t remember him ever getting us presents before, and it didn’t really matter. He gave my sister some trainers, and I got a necklace – a bronze cameo style pendent with a fine cross stitch of some flowers in it, on a long chain.
We didn’t ask where it came from.
When we left, after hugs and my mum talking to him about some things, serious things, we sat in the car for a bit before pulling away. We were driving back to Wales, 140 miles away, a long drive with this hanging over us. I wanted to cry. I imagine my mother wanted to cry too. We didn’t. Then we left, and that was the last time I saw him until he died when I was around 23. Of a heroin overdose. While he was in rehab.
The thing is, despite the stealing to order, the prison, the time he stole my mums care and crashed into three of the neighbours cars writing them all off, the heroin and alcohol and all those years my dad refused to talk about him, let alone to him (over some stolen socks of all things), he was a wonderful man. He hopes, towards the end, of reconciling his relationship with his kids, but never got the chance. He never met his granddaughter. He was and is my first thought when I think about how homosexuality was always accepted in my family, in my household. He was the norm and made me feel normal, years later, when I was trying to reconcile my own feelings. He was funny and creative. I have a quilt my mother made with fabric he designed and printed while in prison. I still have the necklace he gave me on that last visit.
It hurt my mum the most I think. And her two sisters. His parents were long dead when he passed. His children barely knew him. But he and his sisters were almost like triplets. And my mum stuck by him, always, regardless of what happened, even when everyone else gave up on him, or had to walk away for their own mental well being (for which Jacko never blamed them and neither do I).
I miss him. I never got the chance to enjoy his company as an adult. Or enjoy the sober Uncle Andrew again. The last time I saw him, that wasn’t him. That was the addiction. And that’s one of the few things in this life I will regret.
Prompt from – “Blog City ~ Every Blogger’s Paradise” Day 168 – The Last Time I…