On the afternoon of Thursday, June 18, I answered a knock on our front door. As expected, it was an appliance repairman. Our LG dishwasher had been giving us fits, and the first repair guy turned out to be quite incompetent, so my wife Shirly had found another company that seemed reputable.
When I opened the door, the fellow looked strangely familiar. Entirely too familiar. No, no chance – that couldn’t be him.
He entered, putting on the facemask that we had asked him to wear. “What’s your name, sir?” the young man asked.
He shot me a look. “You have brothers?”
He slowly took off his mask. A singular blend of sorrow, guilt and regret flashed across his face.
“Um, yeah…Chris was my friend.”
It was him. Travis Webster. Like my youngest brother Chris, a hardcore heroin addict. According to at least two sources – one of which was Erik, another brother and Chris’s longtime roommate – Travis was directly responsible for Chris’s relapse and death.
It also happened to be the fourth anniversary of Chris’s passing.
Back around 2012, Chris approached me and my wife asking for a quasi-handout. He was between jobs, he needed money, so did we have any odd jobs for him? As it happened, we had an old shed out back that was falling apart and a termite magnet, and I had never gotten around to tearing it down. So sure, Chris: come tear it down and we’ll swing you some money.
He brought Travis with him. I hadn’t met him previously, and Chris had said nothing about bringing anyone along, but he seemed at least reasonably clean-cut and polite, and more articulate than Chris. They got after it, tore the shed down, made more of a mess of things than I would have liked, got paid, and left. It was later that I learned the truth: they were both drug addicts, doing odd jobs together to make enough money to buy dope.
As I mentioned in my eulogy, Chris’s issues with opiates first came to light around 2012; at that point, he had probably been on pills for at least a year. His run-ins with the law started sometime that year. In 2015, when he was released after nearly nine months in state jail, he came to live with me and my wife for several months as he tried, for what would be the final time, to put his life back together.
It was after Chris’s death in 2016 that I got more perspective on Travis from Erik and Carlos, Chris’s best friend, both of whom spoke at Chris’s funeral.
“Travis is scum,” Erik declared. “They were constantly doing drugs together. He’s the one who got Chris to relapse. I had to do CPR on him twice when he OD’d. When Chris was sober and we moved back in together, and he started hanging out with Travis again, I was furious. Chris said he was trying to help Travis or whatever, but I didn’t buy it for a second. And he had the nerve to show up at the funeral.”
“I got a really bad vibe from Travis the second he showed up to my house,” Carlos said. “I asked Chris, ‘Dude, why are you hanging out with him?’ I just didn’t trust him at all. He got Chris really screwed up on drugs.”
In the years since Chris’s death, any thoughts of Travis were both fleeting and negative. I had figured he was out there, strung out on heroin, twisting in the wind. Maybe he, like Chris, found his way to an early grave. It wouldn’t be a surprise, given his penchant for overdosing. I had wondered what I would say or do should he ever cross my path.
Well, wonder no more.
“Let’s go talk,” I said, leaving my home office and heading to the living room. Travis followed, and we sat down across from one another.
I looked him up and down. He’s taller than Chris was. Black hair, exceptionally fair-skinned. This wasn’t necessarily a sign of drug use per se, though – he works on appliances for a living, so he’s probably indoors most of the time, I thought to myself. He seemed relatively filled out. I had seen Chris at his worst with the addiction, and I didn’t see the sorts of signs on Travis: no gauntness, very alert and responsive. If he was still using, I thought, he’s doing a pretty good job of hiding it.
“So, you know what today is?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he responded promptly. “I’ve thought about him a lot. We really were close. He helped me a lot.”
“I’ve been wanting to see you.”
“Oh yes.” Except now that he was here…what precisely was I supposed to say, or do?
“So where are you at?” I continued. “Are you in recovery?”
“Sober for four years,” he said promptly. Well, what timing. Apparently he got his act together right around the time that we lost Chris.
“You have a sponsor?”
“Are you attending meetings?”
“Not recently, because of the pandemic. But I do the online stuff.”
Again, this made sense. I had read someplace that a lot of the normal addiction support groups were basically suspended due to the quarantine. We commiserated about that a bit.
“I know Erik really blames me for Chris. But the thing is, when he died, I had been sober for four months. I really got into recovery because of Chris. At first he was dragging me with him to meetings. Then the roles reversed. I got serious about recovery, and I started dragging him to meetings. Then he started avoiding me, saying he was too busy. Then he stopped taking my calls altogether. That’s when I knew he was back to using.”
I pondered that for a bit. Then I became curious: where was he at emotionally?
“So how do you feel about yourself?”
“What do you mean?” He sounded a bit uncertain, maybe defensive. I wondered if he felt shame over Chris, which would be terribly toxic for him. Probably best not to push it, I thought.
At this point, I knew we had to put a bookmark in the conversation. We both had work to do. We agreed to hit the pause button and circle back as soon as both of us had the time.
He first went to work on the dishwasher. He duplicated the problem successfully, and confirmed what I had suspected: the fix wouldn’t be easy or cheap. “For the amount of money it would take to fix this thing, I’d just buy a Whirlpool,” he said. “LG and Samsung make great phones and TVs. Everything else they make is crap.”
Next he tackled the clothes dryer upstairs. It’s a gas dryer, and I thought I had smelled something leaking a day or two before. We headed upstairs, and I asked him to keep his voice down, as Shirly was working.
“So have you told her?” he asked quietly.
“That you’re here?”
“No – about who I am!”
I laughed a bit. “No – she’s been on a call, so I haven’t had the time to talk to her.”
While he went to work checking the dryer, Shirly emerged from her meeting. I broke the news to her. If ever there was a need for proof as to the kind of girl I married, look no further. A known heroin addict was in our home for the second time, and how does she respond? “Oh – well, I’d hug you if it wasn’t for social distancing!”
Right around this point I had to jump on a work call, so I headed back downstairs. While I was gone, he told Shirly he couldn’t find evidence of a leak anywhere. Just call back if it starts acting up again. “I’m not going to charge you for any of this,” he told her. “I figure it’s only fair.”
At this point, Travis had to go – his next appointment was coming up. “I didn’t have a chance to visit Chris earlier today,” I said, “so if you like, you’re invited to come along.” He said he would like that, but wasn’t sure if he could swing it due to work. I promised him that I would call him before I left for the cemetery, and we parted ways.
I had quite a bit of work in front of me, but I also had some personal calls to make. First up, Erik. (I had already sent him the selfie.)
Unsurprisingly, Erik didn’t mince words: he still loathed Travis. As far as he was concerned, Travis was the one who had dragged Chris back into the abyss. “If he really has cleaned himself up, then good for him, but Chris was fine until he started hanging out with Travis again.”
At this point, I was in full-on journalism undergrad mode, trying to piece together a timeline. Chris’s relapse in mid-March 2016 was discovered by Erik personally: he had discovered on Chris’s phone a string of text messages to and from some unknown individual, seeking to get together and shoot up. Was that individual Travis?
“No idea,” Erik said. “That was four years ago, and I don’t have the phone anymore. It could have been him, but I have no way of knowing.”
So is it fair to say that your belief that Travis set off Chris’s relapse is based on circumstantial evidence? “Yeah.”
I had another question for him. “Why do you think this happened? Assuming that it’s not a coincidence that Travis should show up on our doorstep on the fourth anniversary of Chris’s passing, what is it that God wants to have happen as a result of this?”
After several seconds of silence: “No idea.”
My next call was to Carlos.
“HOLY (expletive expletive),” Carlos uttered when I told him what had happened.
He repeated what he had said before. “When I first met Travis, he just seemed skeevy. I got a real bad vibe around him, you know? The more Chris hung out around him, the worse he got. And around 2013, I finally just had to cut Chris off completely. It was really hard, but with my condition (muscular dystrophy), I need people around me who are dependable, and Chris was way past that point.”
“There’s no way I can make it,” Travis said by phone. “I’m on the west side of Houston, and I won’t be getting back to that side of town before dark. But I can definitely do dinner.” He sounded happy, even eager, to meet.
At around 7:00, I arrived at the cemetery.
I retained my stance that the events of the afternoon were no coincidence. If ever there were proof of the existence of God, this was it. So as I spent time over Chris’s grave, thinking about him, continuing to acknowledge the void that his death had left for me, I pondered what had happened, and I asked the Father: What is your will in this? What do you want to have happen here? What am I to do?
Around 8:00, I met him at a Jason’s Deli. Right next door was BJ’s, a hamburger grill that I had ruled out due to the alcohol on the menu. Travis insisted we go there, and laughed off any concern over being tempted. “Nah, I’m way past that.”
We were shown our table, and I took my seat across from the man accused of having a hand in the death of my youngest brother. As we ate – me a few appetizers, he a late dinner – I asked him some direct questions.
“Travis, you say you had nothing to do with Chris’s relapse and death. But you also admit that you two did drugs together frequently. You came to my home to earn money to buy drugs.” He willingly confirmed all this.
“Let’s look at the dates,” I continued. “You measure your sobriety date from late March 2016. But in mid-March, Erik found text messages between Chris and some unidentified addict indicating that he had relapsed. He then searched the apartment and found needles under Chris’s mattress. Realistically, he had probably been using at that point since early March, possibly sometime in February. Frankly, the dates are a little too suspect.”
He was more than willing to respond. “I wanted this conversation, because I wanted to be challenged. I wanted you to ask me the hard questions. Because I want to prove that I had nothing to do with Chris’s death.”
His explanation: “At the time he relapsed, I was in Harris County Jail,” he said. “I was released in mid-March, promptly got out and shot up again, and a week later had my last drink. I’ve been sober ever since.”
Wait a minute. You spent time in jail on drug-related charges, and your first item of business when you got out was…to get high again? “Oh yeah. Look, the thing you have to understand is that there’s popping pills, and then there’s shooting up. It’s an addiction within the addiction. I had been abusing opiates for around eight years before I touched a needle. And if you had asked me, when I started using pills, if I would start shooting, I would have said, ‘No chance.’ But when I started shooting, it was like going from third gear to overdrive. There’s no way to describe it.”
“When I decided to get my (stuff) together, I went to the Wheelhouse,” he said. “It’s hardcore there. It’s basically boot camp for addicts. They tell you who’s who and what’s what.”
He then went on to describe his interactions with Chris in the final weeks of my brother’s life.
“At first,” – in the latter part of 2015 – “Chris dragged me to recovery meetings with him,” he said. “It’s true that when Chris first came around, I was in terrible shape. Totally strung out. At that point, I had overdosed on six separate occasions. Erik had to give me CPR twice.” These were all details he volunteered, independently corroborating Erik’s version of events.
“When I got out of the Wheelhouse in April, I was serious about wanting to stay clean. I started calling Chris to get him to come with me to meetings. And he started dodging my calls, telling me he was too busy, something had come up. Then I saw him at a meeting around April or May, and it was obvious he had been using. His mannerisms, the way he spoke, his pupils were all constricted. He told me he had had a couple of beans (slang for hydrocodone), but I didn’t see any needle tracks on his arms. But when he told me he had had a few pills, I knew it was just a matter of time before he started shooting again.
“Not too long after that, he stopped taking my calls completely. After that, I found out on Facebook that he was dead.”
The aftermath of Chris’s death hit him hard. “By that point, I had been sober for three months. But finding out he was dead was hard. I nearly relapsed.”
But based on his Facebook profile, he didn’t.
Erik, by both his and Travis’s account, was merciless towards Travis. “I blew up his phone with messages, straight up blaming him for Chris. I told him, ‘I couldn’t save my brother’s life, but I saved your life. Do something with it.”
“Those Facebook messages crushed me,” Travis said. “I read them every day for probably seven months. Chris and I had a lot in common. He was my friend.”
“But you have to admit that that friendship was pretty toxic – for both of you,” I said.
“Yeah. Yeah, it really was.”
So what has Travis been up to since then? “The appliance repair company is my dad’s. He gave me the job in part so I had some cash in my pocket, but mostly to keep an eye on me. Which I definitely needed. He basically had me doing the basic grunt work while he handled the complicated stuff.
“Then one day, he was working on a really complicated repair issue, and couldn’t figure it out. I asked him if I could give it a try. He said, ‘If I can’t figure it out, there’s no way you can.’ That lit a fire under me. I decided, out of pure spite, that I would prove him wrong. Four years later, I’m their top guy. Look at the company’s Google reviews. My name is on most of ‘em.”
Aside from steady work and remaining sober, he’s in a steady relationship – has been dating a girl for around three years now. And he was particularly proud of the fact that he had just paid off the last of his medical bills from all those overdoses.
We had been talking for more than an hour. Travis had finished dinner. I had consumed one too many root beers (not quite as good as Sprecher’s, but still excellent), and had eaten the Pizookie that Travis had insisted I try, meaning I had consumed enough carbs to last me at least through the winter.
At this point, Travis asked me a question – maybe the question.
“Do you believe me?”
I pondered his question, and gave him my initial answer.
“I don’t think it matters.”
Understandably, he looked most dismayed at that answer. So I walked that back a bit.
“Yes, I do believe that you didn’t have anything to do with Chris’s relapse and passing, and here’s why. If you look at why people lie – factoring out sociopaths – it’s really only for one of two reasons: to avoid trouble, or to get something they want. I don’t see either of those in play here. Any statute of limitations, real or perceived, kicked in years ago. You just want your name cleared, and based on what you’ve shared, I have no reason to believe otherwise.”
“The reason I don’t think it matters,” I continued, “is because I need to forgive you anyway.”
I looked at him. “I’ll pose the same question to you that I’ve asked others today. Assuming that this reunion wasn’t a coincidence, why do you think God wanted us to meet today?”
He smiled and shrugged. “You’ll have to ask the man upstairs.”
I gave a few reasons, but in the confines of this blog post, I’ll share two. “I think that one reason is for me to extend forgiveness to you. I’ll tell you what I told Chris in a letter while he was in jail: you’re a sinner. That makes you no better, and no worse, than anyone else living. We’re all sinners. We all need redemption. I freely admit that I’ve done some horrible things to plenty of people, and I hope to be forgiven. So I hold no ill will towards you. Chris’s decisions, in the end, were his to make. I forgive you, for whatever role you had in Chris’s path of addiction.”
“The second reason,” – and I made sure to look him directly in the eyes, because I really, truly wanted to drive home this point – “is to repeat a message that Erik sent you. Chris is gone. You’re still here. Your life has been preserved. Do something with that life. Whatever it is, do something lasting, meaningful, do that thing that God wants you to do.”
As we parted, I told him I planned on blogging this. I asked him if I could use his name.
“Absolutely,” he said, without hestitation. “It makes for a better story, doesn’t it?”
On Sunday, Travis turned 30.
I can honestly say that I’m rooting for him. And for anyone and everyone trying to escape the clutches of addiction.