Pieces of my beloved brother's life in the Downtown Eastside

Left to right: Benjy, Nick, me, Kirsty

On my most recent trip to Vancouver, I went for lunch with my siblings. The four of us crowded around a booth—the brothers, Benjy and Nick, on one side, and the sisters, Kirsty and me, on the other.

It was the first time the four of us had ever hung out without parents around, and we were pleased to discover that we'd grown up into friends. We reminisced and laughed. We promised we would make sibling-sushi-lunches a tradition, and that every time I came home from university the four of us would have a date.

I flew back to school the next morning. I went to classes for three months. And then, a few nights ago, I called my mother, and she told me that Benjy's body had been found in his apartment. The coroner said the cause of death is “not known.” The toxicology report is expected to take months.

My brother. My gentle, kind, big brother.

He was the guy that made friends with the girl behind the counter at Waves. He always took the time to get to know the homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. Benjy got excited about reading 
The Economist and The Shock Doctrine. He spoke deliberately, a combination of his morning cocktail of anti-depressants, and his natural, plodding thoughtfulness. He played the piano and drew and wrote.

Benjy was born 31 years ago to a mother who loved him and a father who beat him. He spent the first few years of his life living in a little apartment on a rooftop in Mexico City, occasionally wandering a little too close to the edge, before my mother scooped him into her arms.

By the time Benjy started school he was living in Canada. One day, my mother took my brothers and their favourite stuffed animals and hurried them into a car and they drove away from my brothers’ father. My mum told them, "Nobody is ever going to hurt you again."

They went to a women's shelter for a while. My mother started university and my brothers attended elementary school.

My father entered their lives on the top of Burnaby Mountain. He was the young, daycare leader who took my brothers camping and fell in love with my mother. They were married and, eleven months later, I was born.

Benjy was a wonderful, loving brother. He called me "Emie." He would sit at the piano and play Für Elise and sing "Emi-ly-ly-ly-ly-ly-ly-lyyyyyy." He told me that it was my song.

The first time Benjy got drunk, he was 11 years old. By the time he hit high school, alcohol was no longer potent enough.

My brother developed a heroin addiction. He dropped out of school. He was always asking my mother for money for "haircuts." We visited him in various shelters and treatment programs. His hair grew very long, and his cheeks grew very sallow.

When he was 17, Benjy moved to Toronto. He said he needed to be out of the city if he was going to get clean. So he left, got a job, gained some weight, cut his hair, and stopped using drugs.


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