Joseph Edwin Haeger reflects on experiences with his older brother Justin who dies way too young at age 22 due to a methadone overdose.
My mom had two older sisters who were in the same grade. By the time my mom went to high school, she knew which sister had preceded her in any particular class based on the tone of the teacher’s voice when taking attendance. She knew the first day whether she needed to 1) maintain an image or 2) metamorphose one. Sometimes, this was harder than expected. The power of first impressions is strong: once an idea has time to plant itself and grow, the roots sometimes reach too far.
I could relate to that because I had an older brother. I got a single reaction when I encountered a common teacher. When they went through the roster on the first day, there would be a pause. Their voice would drop and the word tumbled out of their mouths almost like a question, “Haeger?”
And my line—I had learned—was, “Yes, Justin’s brother. But we’re different.”
Most teachers followed this with an, “Of course,” but it sounded like they were backtracking, trying to cover their tracks from their initial hesitation at my name. Justin Haeger. Powerful enough to throw adults off while facing twenty pairs of new eyes.
Justin and I were different in a lot of ways. He liked guns and hunting, I did not. He liked rap and hip hop, I liked rock and alternative. He liked talking on the phone for three hours, I couldn’t last ten minutes.
Interests can’t tell you everything about a person. What we like doesn’t build our core, but rather the core will determine what we gravitate towards. For example, he did a lot of drugs. I never had an interest.
Thus, we’re led to the main difference between us: I learn by watching and listening; Justin, on the other hand, learned by doing.
This means I took note of our parents’ anger, disappointment, and subsequent punishment when he came home drunk and/or stoned at 15, and 16, and 17. I had enough foresight to see the trouble and pain and, in turn, weigh the options and consider the consequences. I don’t think this moment of reflection ever entered my brother’s mind. He didn’t think about the A + B = C. All he saw was the B, and he loved it.
Then I met my high school art teacher. Her name was Mrs. Audel-Neal, and she was wonderful. The first day of class I sat next to a couple acquaintances. This was the first class I had been in that wasn’t filled with freshmen. There were some sophomores, juniors, and seniors. All the freshmen sat together around a single, four-person table and the rest of the students were spread throughout. Audel-Neal started roll call.
Justin had taken her art class years prior. He drew a self-portrait that no one in our family expected. We knew he was artistic, but the level of realism in his portrait seemed astounding.
Looking at it now, I can see that it was clearly drawn by a high school kid. We fell into the same trap that teachers did when they read my name. Our expectations had dropped, so once we saw a bit of his potential, it looked amazing. This may be why my family thought I was such a good student—Justin paved my way.
Audel-Neal went through the A names and B names and C names and so on until she got to Haeger. She said the name and paused, looking up at me.
“Yes, Justin’s brother. But—”
“Fantastic,” she interrupted. I searched for a hint of sarcasm. A modicum of fear that tended to find its way into a teacher’s voice, but there was nothing but sincerity. She looked at me, dissecting my face in search of his face. “I can see it now. Welcome. I loved your brother.”
Justin was good at making people see what they wanted to see. When he was 15, he was lost for twenty-four hours while snowboarding. A day doesn’t seem so bad within the confines of normal life, but when three teens snowboard down the wrong side of Schweitzer, then walk off the mountain without food or water—after spending the night in a dugout snow fort—where temperatures drop near zero degrees and the natural instinct for survival would be to eat the snow when you’re thirsty, but it doesn’t enter into the young mind that eating snow actually dehydrates you—none of this makes for a normal day. They all had to be hospitalized immediately after finding help. I can’t say I would have survived.
Immediately after this, his drug use worsened and he started acting out more. One psychologist told my parents there was nothing wrong with their son and he didn’t understand why they were taking such drastic measures. Justin knew exactly what to say. He was later diagnosed with PTSD, though I’m not sure if that was accurate. Like I said, Justin learned by doing. I wonder now if the diagnosis was just convenient timing or if he would have started getting high regardless. Either way, he was a charmer.
I began class thinking he had done me a favor. He had fooled her and I wouldn’t have to worry about changing anyone’s perception of me. I could go to class, draw my drawings, and leave without having the teacher keep a watchful eye on me.
My first two years of high school involved an obsession with Nirvana. I listened to other stuff, and I wish I could say it was a variety, but it all stemmed from Nirvana. I would branch out to other Seattle grunge bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Mudhoney. Or I would listen to what came directly after like Foo Fighters, Bush, and Silverchair. I loved muddy, crunchy guitar with pained vocals, and Kurt Cobain was the king of this sound.
One day Audel-Neal walked table to table taking pictures of our faces.
A few days later, she handed us the portraits. She told us that these were the photos we would use as our guides for the pencil drawn self-portraits we were expected to do, like the one that Justin did that had impressed the whole family. Part of the reason I took the class was so I could also impress the family as well, like any little brother. A junior in the class raised his hand.
“Do we have to do a self-portrait? Like, could I do someone else?” The picture she handed him was not flattering.
“No, I’m not going to force you to draw something you don’t want to, but I would like it to be a portrait.” Audel-Neal said.
In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t get the adoration Justin received. They would say nice things, of course, but I wouldn’t trust it. When Justin and I were little, we drew while our dad worked in the garage.
“Let’s both draw tanks and see which one dad likes more,” competitive 10-year-old Justin said.
“He’s not going to pick either. He’ll say he likes them the same,” my 7-year-old self replied.
“How about this: you and I both draw one, then I’ll take them out and say I did both.”
“He’ll pick yours. It’s going to be better.”
That’s all it took to convince me.
We both drew our tanks. His was detailed with a lot of right angles. Mine looked fluffy and bubbly; it would’ve popped like a balloon in war.
Justin took the two drawings to the garage. I waited expectantly in our family room. He came back a few minutes later, dropping my drawing in my lap.
“He liked mine more.”
I looked down at my tank—already knowing his was better—and saw it in a worse light.
Now, I know my dad had said he liked them the same. It was clear what was going on; but Justin, for some reason, needed that win.
I put my portrait photo down on the desk, pulled the CD sleeve for Nevermind out of my bag, and went up to Audel-Neal. I opened it up and showed her a picture of the band. Dave Grohl is on the right, an extreme closeup of his face taking up a third of the photograph, Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain make funny faces on the other side. There is a hard light coming from the left of the frame casting shadows on all their faces. Audel-Neal looked at the photo and said that it would be perfect because of the lighting. She made a copy of it and I set off.
The way to make a realistic pencil drawing is to blow the photo up and then graph it. Then you number and letter each box. On a bigger piece of paper, you make another graph, but adjust for size—thus, quarter-inch boxes on the photo are inch boxes on the drawing. Look at each box as an individual—A-1, B-1, A-2, B-2, etc.—and seeing the shapes in the smaller boxes makes the drawing more manageable. When Dave Grohl’s face became a reality on my pencil drawing I was floored. I had always considered Justin the better artist, but I doubted he could have drawn what I did. My drawing of the other two band members was passable, but the drummer looked exceptional. It was something I was proud of, even if I wasn’t going to get the “oohs” and “ahhs” that Justin got.
I finished my Nirvana portrait quickly. I’ve always done mediocre work when it comes to art, but I do it fast. What I lack in detail, I make up for in speed. That’s the impressive part. Once a painting or drawing is finished, people don’t seem to be all that amazed by the quality, but if they knew it only took me twenty minutes, well, then they might pat me on the shoulder. When I was done, Audel-Neal suggested I try watercolor. I still had the Nevermind sleeve in my bag, so I pulled that out and asked if the front cover would be good for watercolor.
“Yeah, that’ll be challenging, but cool. But you can’t paint the penis.”
“Because it’s a penis.”
“Yeah, it’s just a penis. On a baby.”
“Exactly. It’s on a baby. You can argue, but you’re not doing the penis.”
“I know you’re a smart kid, just like your brother. You haven’t toed the line, so I still trust you won’t mess it up. Don’t waste your potential like him,” Audel-Neal squeezed my shoulder and walked away.
The next year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—misdiagnosed, it turns out. She had a brain stem stroke resulting from Hughes Syndrome, or antiphospholipid syndrome, a disorder that causes increased clotting of the blood. The meds she was on for her MS caused her tremors, she told me. Her student teacher took over her classes, but she occasionally stopped in to say hi. I loved it when she came in because when she recognized a former student it made her so happy. She had never stopped seeing the potential in us. She would come up and give me a hug and ask how Justin was doing.
“He’s doing okay, as far as I know,” I would say.
“Is he staying out of trouble yet?” She’d ask.
“Not as much as he should.”
“He has so much to offer. Why doesn’t he know that?” She would play punch me. “And you, staying out of trouble?”
“Always,” I would say.
My senior year went by without seeing Audel-Neal much. After high school, I went to the community college in Spokane. It was April when Justin overdosed on methadone and died. He had been clean for nine months when he went to jail for a couple weeks. The night he got out he felt like celebrating, I guess. Like with most drugs, you can build up a tolerance to methadone over time, but it goes away after a long period of abstinence. People forget, and so people overdose, and so people die. When it happened, I was 19. Justin’s 22 seemed so much older. Now, as a 27-year-old, 22 seems so young to me. He should have known better.
During his memorial service, I stepped away to go to the bathroom. It had only been a few hours since I last cried—that had been during a slide show. I have a hard time listening to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” without crying now. Thinking back on that time, it can be divided into two different settings: crying and not crying.
During the memorial service, I was able to make it the latter. When I came out of the bathroom, Mrs. Audel-Neal came walking down the hallway. She was getting away from the service for a minute, too. She embraced me.
“It’s shitty. There’s nothing else to say other than it’s shitty,” she spoke into my ear. I could almost hear her lip trembling. “I really wish he would’ve known that he was better than this. He had so much to offer.”
She squeezed hard, just once, and then left me in the hallway. I didn’t have anything to say and I think she knew that. Had she tried to enter into a conversation, I’d have been forced to say all the lies I had been professing the past week. I just feel numb. Doing as good as I can. Yes, God does have a plan.
It was shitty.
She knew he was better than an overdose. She knew he was better than that dropped, wary tone at our name on an attendance sheet. Audel-Neal knew his potential and she never stopped believing in it. She didn’t even stop when she wouldn’t see him in the school halls. She never stopped until she was forced to stop.
Growing up, Justin heard he wasn’t going to amount to anything. He was a bad seed and a bad influence. He was going to turn into a full-fledged criminal if he didn’t get his act together. That was how it always ended, sometimes unspoken: get your act together.
How could he when he was always the easiest suspect?
When he was in eighth grade, someone taped up cutouts of porn in the boys’ room. When Justin denied it, the assistant principal shoved the pictures in his face and yelled, “Does this look familiar to you?”
Justin was expected to get his act together, but he was always guilty in everyone’s eyes. He never did get it together because it was treated like an impossibility. People’s assumptions spoke louder than their threats. He never had any real reason to think it was a realistic expectation, so he didn’t treat it like one.
And I bought into it. Justin was a fuck-up. He was a drug addict. He was a drunk. He was a prick who only cared about himself and his own pleasures. He was my abuser. He was malicious. A drug dealer. A bad seed. A bad influence.
Mrs. Audel-Neal spoke with her actions and made me rethink the assumptions I had made. Sure, he might have been some of those things, but more importantly and above all, he was a human being. He was a person with worth who had more to offer than a drug overdose.
He was a son. He was a brother. He was a boyfriend. He was an artist. He was someone who survived. He laughed and made people laugh. He cried and needed help. He wanted to be loved.
Both of my mom’s older sisters are successful and respected. The tone of the teachers who spoke to my mom when they saw her last name didn’t matter. Both the high-tone sister and the low-tone sister had a lot to offer.
I haven’t seen Audel-Neal since that night at the memorial service. I hope she’s doing okay. I hope she’s happy.
I don’t need to talk to her to know that she feels the same way about me.