On June 18, after many years of struggle with drug addiction, my youngest brother Chris was found dead of an overdose. At the funeral service, a close friend to Chris and one of our brothers spoke. For my own healing process, I elected to write a eulogy of my own.
Let me repeat here what I have personally told my brother and Chris’s friend: nothing about this blog post should be considered an attempt to “set the record straight,” or to somehow clarify or articulate more effectively anything either of them said at the funeral service. One or both of them covered what follows here; they truly did an exceptional job honoring his memory. I wrote this to help my own mourning process, simple as that.
I should also say that they have earned my respect. It’s taken me literally months to write what they turned around in just a few days.
Christopher Andrew Boots was born on September 20, 1983, the youngest of four sons. As the oldest of his brothers, I was eight years old when he arrived.
Here’s what I remember of him in the beginning. First, he was big. According to my mother, he arrived a couple of weeks late, weighing in at 9 1/2 pounds at birth; he was so big that he broke his collarbone in the course of delivery. (Had he been born in later years, he probably would have been delivered via c-section.)
Second, he spit up. Like, a lot. If you held him, you had better have a towel strategically placed or be prepared to pay the price. My mother said she had to experiment with different formula mixtures to find something that would settle his stomach.
And thirdly, he loved to pull hair. Put your head in his lap, and he’d grab hold and yank.
He was a fun baby. He added his voice and detritus to the bedlam already present in a home with three boys. And as is the case with most rough-and-tumble boys, he incurred his share of injuries early and often. As already noted, he recorded his first broken bone on the day of his birth. And then there was this:
See the bandage just above his right eye? Yes, folks: he got his first set of stitches at less than a year old, the result of a disagreement with a Coke machine. (You can also see the stitches in the picture of the four of us earlier in the post.)
Later, barely two years old, he and his two front baby teeth had a misunderstanding with the handle of a sledge hammer in our driveway. He didn’t lose either tooth immediately, but they did turn grey before finally falling out. My father later recounted that Chris said to him, a few days after this particular incident: “Daddy, am I going to die?”
I’m not going to lie and say that he was a perfectly kind, thoughtful sibling. In many ways, he was a prototypical younger brother, with the uncanny ability to push all of his older brothers’ buttons. (Bear in mind that he had three older brothers to torment at any given moment, and therefore a wealth of opportunity to hone his gift.) But he also had the capacity to be most gentle and loving. During car trips, rather than play “slug bug” – where you slug your seatmate on the shoulder when a VW Beetle is spotted – he preferred “hug bug,” where you give your father a hug when the famed car appears.
Amidst the instability of our impoverished youth and scattered violence of an abusive household, we four boys navigated a chaotic home life. I honestly don’t know if there is any pattern or typical manner in which children cope with such circumstances. I know that, in my case at least, it was standard operating procedure to stand and absorb the blows when they came, and to remain vigilant in times of relative calm. I like to think that we did our best to support one another, but if I’m being brutally honest, I probably didn’t give of myself to my younger brothers, and to my youngest in particular, as much as I should have.
In 1994, I left to serve a full-time mission for the LDS Church. When I returned home in 1996, it became apparent that two things had changed with Chris in my years away from home. First, I was stunned by the much taller kid who greeted me when I stepped off the plane. He may have been my youngest brother, but after growing at least a foot and a half, he was by no means a little brother.
Second: while all four of us had been put through our paces in Little League, he had emerged as a rare baseball talent. Just a month or so after I returned home, he played a key role in Pearland Little League capturing its first state title. A threat on the mound and at the plate, he may still hold the state record for the most grand slams hit during an All-Star season. In one such game a year or so later, he singlehandedly drove in 11 runs – two grand slams and a three-run homer.
It may have been sometime in this period that he began experimenting with drugs. He never told me explicitly when he started messing around with pot, but he obliquely indicated that he was quite young. It may seem inexplicable that a young man, a highly talented athlete, would start fooling around with something that would be so obviously harmful, even destructive. Or maybe to you it is standard operating procedure. Regardless, it was behavior that would end up defining much of his life.
About two years after his All-Star triumph, my parents’ marriage, long troubled, began to truly disintegrate. All of us ran for cover in one way or another. Already married, I was blessed with a strong wife to lean upon for solace and strength. Chris was around 15, a critical age for his home life to really start unraveling; I wouldn’t be surprised if he began turning to drugs in greater frequency. I’d like to think that I did my best to reach out to him, but my efforts were probably lacking.
Time passed. My parents divorced. My brothers and I went on, working and finding our way separately. Chris remained in a home consumed in chaos and turmoil. In time, his drug abuse became known to his family and friends.
If there is anything for which I seek forgiveness from God, it is this: that I didn’t somehow do more to extend help and strength to him at a time when he so badly needed it. When the extent of his drug abuse issues became known, my wife and I had moved to a different state; I extended offers to him to come live with us, offers that were declined. But I could have done more to stay in touch with him, reach out to him, let him know that I was available to him as his brother.
In 2007, shortly after my wife and I moved back to Houston, I spoke with him over the phone. A few minutes into the conversation, he began sobbing. Do the math: he was 23 years old, unemployed, living with his girlfriend. While his brothers had all completed or were working towards college degrees of one kind or another, this onetime perennial all-star athlete had no education or prospects for the same, no opportunity to move forward. He was anchored in failure and, especially, misery.
With the support of loved ones and some connections, he did find work at a local hospital, and began some community college classes. When his depression issues began to take a greater hold upon him, we spent time with him to give him some love and encouragement. But he made some critical errors: he broke up with his girlfriend and quit his job at the hospital with the intent of earning more college credits. Without someone around to monitor him readily, and with the loss of the security of steady income, it was only a matter of time before his addiction issues reasserted themselves ever stronger. And so in 2012, family and friends discovered that he had graduated to opiates.
Funny thing, heroin: it may be known as a downer, but it has an unbelievable ability to accelerate an individual’s downward spiral. Unable to hold down steady work, he ended up in and out of jail, on government assistance, living with our father. Prior to discovering heroin, he was at least able to keep a job; once Vicodin and Percocet entered the picture, he simply didn’t function. At holidays and in conversations, he routinely nodded off, high as a kite. Most of his friends, alienated by the insanity of his addiction, severed ties.
His final stint in jail started in late 2014. Given his prior convictions and probation, it was a long stretch, some six months. When he got out around March of 2015, he came to stay with me and my wife, and lived with us for around six months while he tried, for what would be the final time, to put his life back together.
Because I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with him, I can share a few things about him that many might not know about his last year of life. One: he really did throw himself into recovery. In his letters to me from jail, he related that he wanted to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings as soon as he got out, so on his very first night with us, I took him to a local NA meeting. This led to more meetings, finding friends who could support him in sobriety, time spent at a retreat. In May, my wife and I went on a long-planned trip to China for the end of my UT MBA program. Chris, with no transportation of his own, stayed with my in-laws in a different part of town during our absence. My father-in-law related that Chris, on his own with no encouragement or request, took it upon himself to find a local meeting and call people associated with the group to give him a ride. By every appearance, it seemed that he was devoted to recovery during the time he lived with us.
Which led to the second thing I observed: as he was able to distance himself from his demons, he really did seek to own his behavior and extend apologies. He openly acknowledged that he had made a great many mistakes; offering no excuses, he simply sought to take responsibility for what he had done. He related to me how badly he wanted to make things right with old friends, and from what I could tell, he was in many ways successful.
In particular, he wanted to mend fences with our father. While Chris was in jail in 2014, our father had been diagnosed with dementia; by the time Chris was released, he was in a nursing home. Before one visit to see him, Chris told me that he wanted a few minutes alone to speak with him in private. I don’t know what was said, but I’m pretty sure that Chris was working the ninth of the Twelve Steps: seeking to make amends.
Third: his capacity for gratitude and compassion emerged brighter than ever. My wife related that Chris would spontaneously offer hugs, grateful to us for opening our home to him. He mourned with us over our struggles with infertility; it seemed that he wanted us to become parents almost as badly as we did. He pulled his own weight as much as possible; when my wife’s car needed repairs, he helped himself to our tools and got it fixed, refusing payment for his work. And as counterintuitive as it sounds, when I reached Chris’s bishop after he had been found dead of an overdose, the bishop related to me that Chris had been helpful to him in explaining the nature of addiction, even offering to provide him with contact information for local NA groups.
Here’s the thing that I believe is so critically important to understand: to remember Chris purely as an addict is to misremember him. There’s obviously no denying that he succumbed in the end, but there’s a reason that Chris had so many friends at his funeral: because he loved many, and was loved by many.
So sleep on, dear brother; take your rest. May you find mercy in the presence of the Almighty through the grace of his Son, and may you now, in the end, find the peace that eluded you in life, and understand.