Sean had shitty taste in beer. I remember offering him a microbrew once as we sat on the porch. I swear, from the look on his face, you’d think I was trying to poison him. Only the cheap American stuff for him, though, usually, it was a cheap 40 oz. malt liquor–a “forty”–that he’d be carrying.
I was in the room with him tonight when he took his last breaths. At 5:14 p.m. CST, Sean Thomas breathed his last and died. I don’t know exactly how old he was, but he couldn’t have been more than six or seven years older than me.
Sean and I have history. Yes we do.
His mother Kathey has been a friend of the family for nearly a decade. She is an older woman, frequently on oxygen. We met when she joined the church that we were attending. And that’s how her sons entered our lives, too. Jerry and Sean.
The first time Crystal met Sean, he hit on her.
Yeah, it was like that.
Our relationship was…complicated. On the one hand, I spent a chunk of time trying to protect Kathey from Sean. He’d steal her money or prescription drugs. He’d claim to be doing work around the house while letting it go to pieces. I’ve helped evict him from her house on a couple of occasions.
On the other hand, somehow, I connected with Sean, too. Crystal was probably the initial opening. Sean listened to her because they have similar backgrounds. Growing up urban poor, abusive fathers…they recognized each other. And somehow I got rolled into that. Because if I understood Crystal or was married to her or something, then apparently I could understand him, too.
And, over time, I found that I did.
I was with Sean after his brother Jerry died. He was pacing up and down in the back yard of Kathey’s house, marking out lengths like he was in a prison yard. I walked with him, trying to keep up with his thought process as his rage searched for a target.
I was with Sean when he was helping his mother move a large sofa. It wasn’t getting through the doorway, despite our best maneuvering. So he announced that we were going to do this “ghetto style”, which apparently meant a sizeable application of brute force. But damn, he got that sofa through the door somehow.
I was with Sean when we’d bump into each other in the neighborhood, and I’d hear his side of what was going on at home. He’d lay out the unfolding issues at home and make his famous complaint, “Why’s there got to be so much drama?”
I was with Sean when he showed up for one of my birthday parties. He joined in our game of Mafia, not really getting exactly what we were doing but giving it his level best. And then, at 1:00 in the morning, we sat on the porch, both having had one (or maybe two) too many, talking about Jesus.
Sean was scared of Jesus. He was scared of God and Christians and “good people”. There was religion in his background, and it drove the abuse that led to he and his brother ending up in foster care. Yeah, Sean knew all about that “holy roller” stuff, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
For years, he was scared to enter our house. It was like getting a skittish animal to eat from your hand. He’d sniff around the outside, but he’d refuse any offer of entry. Then he came in briefly once for some pizza, as I recall, and then left out the front door, instead of the back door that he’d entered. Progress! And sometimes, he’d come to dinner, but he would flee before any sort of Bible reading or singing or anything. That just wasn’t his thing, he’d insist, as he made his escape.
But, for some reason, he kept coming around. It was like he couldn’t stay away.
Sean died from cirrhosis of the liver. Well, that’s the medical term. Essentially, he drank himself to death. I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not sure I ever saw Sean totally sober, and there were times that he was bombed out of his gourd. I remember one time I talked him into letting me give him a ride home. He was so drunk that he was being incoherent and argumentative. I don’t remember why he was angry or, indeed, if I could have even figured it out at the time. Sometimes, it was hard to keep up with his thought processes. Anyways, he got fed up with me and got out of the van while I was at a stop sign. He just walked off!
Turns out that he left his forty in the side pocket of the van door. The next day, when I opened that door, the forty slid out and crashed on the pavement, exploding shards of glass and cheap beer everywhere. Ah, memories!
One night I got a phone call. Sean had suffered a seizure and was in the emergency room. So, I pulled myself together and went down to the ER. The rest of his family was slow in arriving, so for a while, it was just the two of us. I got him another blanket, when he was shivering uncontrollably in the hallway. I helped advocate for him to the medical staff. And I was there until his family arrived and I could no longer keep my eyes open.
I think that’s how Sean knew that he could trust me. He knew that I had his back. I wonder if somehow I became a replacement for Jerry, the brother that he’d lost.
And so, a month ago, when I heard that Sean had been taken to the hospital with liver failure, I knew that we had to visit him.
And today, when I heard that Sean’s heart had failed and Kathey was asking for me, I knew that I had to go.
Somehow, Sean was still very present, even on his deathbed. He was comatose, I suppose, but even so, he was pretty active. He turned towards those who were talking to him. At one point he did the Sean head toss–if you knew him, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. He was there, until they removed the ventilator.
And then he panicked. I could tell. His heart rate dropped, and he was thrashing around. So I rushed to his side, and I held his hand, and I told him that he wasn’t alone.
And he calmed down, and he relaxed. His family and friends gathered around him. His mother held his hand.
And, softly, he died.
I learned a lot from Sean. Honestly, all of my efforts to learn to engage with the city and urban life were made practical by my desire to speak to him. Sean was never going to know or care what “ontological” meant, but he understood when I told him that Jesus would carry his shit for him. I learned that people are more important than culture, and that there’s a place simply to accept a Coors Light with gratitude, because it’s a way that people connect.
I learned that people’s wounds run deep, and that years of love and patience are necessary to overcome a life of hurt, abuse, and betrayal.
I learned to value emotional honesty. Again and again, Sean would say, “I’m just being real.” And he wasn’t content unless I was being “real” back.
Kathey told me that they had reconciled a few days before he died. He told her that he was sorry for how he’d treated her, that he thanked God for the time they’d had to be together. She says that it’s a miracle, and I think that’s right. He made his peace with Kathey, and I feel that he made his peace with God.
Maybe, by the end, he wasn’t afraid of God anymore. Maybe, when I walk through those pearly gates, he’ll be standing there, saying, “What do you so damn long?” And then, regardless of whatever lame excuse I offer, he’ll pshaw and toss his head–like he does–and then we’ll embrace.
Until then, Sean, I’m keeping it real. Like you showed me.
Rest in peace.