Jose Ernesto Vargas.
He was named after my father, being the first born male. But early in life, he adopted the name Ernie. All my life, I knew him only as Ernie.
I came into his life two years after his birth. The “terrible twos,” as it is called, must’ve made him all the more terrible, having to give up much of the attention to this newborn entity in his life.
I have few vivd recollections of my youth. I wasn’t fond of it, so it tends to stay buried deep within my psyche, but I was told that as a baby, Ernie was rather horrible to his new little brother. Stories of him reaching through the bars of the crib to scratch my face were often told around family gatherings. I thought they were funny, as everyone else did.
But maybe, in those terrible moments, that’s whom he really was: a child that wanted what was in his mind, his.
I have a scar on my eyebrow. It has always been a point of interest to most people. How did you get it?, they’d ask. To be honest, I’m not completely sure. My mother said that when I was very young, Ernie threw something at me and it hit my in the brow, cutting right through the follicle producing skin. Though, I do have a vague memory of my mother hitting me in the back of the head, and my brow landing squarely on the metal strike pad on our front door. I remember it as the only time my mother was ever sorry for having hit me. So maybe it was her?
We grew up in an old school Mexican family. Violence was pretty standard.
So, it went that way for the first four years of my life.
Then my little brothers showed up. Mark and Alex. They were twins. Making me, of course, and as obvious as can be, the middle child.
Turns out, I wasn’t much better than Ernie when it came to accepting young siblings. My mother told me that when we went o pick her up with my new brothers, I took one look at them and started crying.
Take them back! They’re ugly!, I said. My mom loves telling that story.
To be fair, I was four. And they were ugly. Sorry, guys.
So then, it was four of us.
My brother Ernie, being the eldest, and the biggest, was not big on sharing. When it came time for meals, Ernie had no problem taking as much as he wanted, and leaving little for anyone else. He seemed to live the life of an only child. With three entities that he didn’t want to exist.
He was also very liberal in doling out beatings. For whatever, really. Sometimes it felt like he beat us just because we took up the space he wanted for himself.
I grew to hate him as a kid.
So much so, that I’d stand on the opposite side of anything he liked.
He liked, no he loved, the Steelers. So, to piss him off, I became a fan of their most ardent rivals at the the time: the Cowboys.
I didn’t even like football. I didn’t watch it, I didn’t play it. I just liked them to piss him off. I’d hang Cowboy pictures on my side of the room, facing his side: the Steelers.
And so it went for what seemed like many years. Four tiny men, often left to their own devices, due to working adults, beating each other everyday.
He brought me up as much as my mother, father and grandmother did, really Many of my defenses were created then. Physically, I learned to defend myself. Psychologically, I learned how to outsmart him. How to change the gears with humor, so he’d leave me alone.
I didn’t get that from mom and dad. I got that from Ernie. In an effort to defend myself.
Going to high school is a difficult time for most of us. Even more so if you had an older sibling go there before you. Teachers always assume you’re just a younger version of the personality they knew a year or two before. If they were very smart and worked hard, they expected you to be the same.
Me, I have no idea what that’s like.
Ernie wasn’t an intellectual. He was a brute and a wise guy and a troublemaker.
My teachers that had him in their classes a year or two before, had expected me to be an asshole, it seems. His reputation preceded me. But unlike him, I was not really a troublemaker, and as it turned out, much to their surprise, a decent student.
Yeah, I was pretty boring in high school.
But not Ernie.
I mean, he wasn’t really into the learning part of school, but he sure enjoyed the social aspects of it. Everyone knew him, and everyone was shocked when they found out I was his little brother.
Not just because we were so different mentally, but also, we did not look at all like each other.
He stood over six feet tall. I, at best, in boots can barely sneak past 5’9” in high school. He had curly hair, mine was straight as Geronimo’s. He was light skinned… Okay, I’m pretty light skinned now as well, but that has more to do with my disdain of outdoor physical activity. But in high school, I was a skater, and spent summer after summer skateboarding in 100 degree heat. So I looked… Well, Mexican.
He was a rather hulking mass of a human, too. So much so, that around the house, we were known by our respective nicknames: Gordo and Flaco. Basically, Fat and Skinny. It carries more love when said in Spanish. Probably. But yeah, he was a big dude, always struggling with his weight. Probably because he never let his little brothers eat.
Indeed, none of us looked like Ernie, strictly speaking. We all took after my father, mostly, with some seasoning from my mother. None more so than I. I looked like him, and I acted like him.
Ernie seemed to have been fathered by someone else. At least, that’s what I’d tell him when he especially pissed me off. Right before he’d pound me into tears.
His dissimilarity went beyond his physicality, though.
While we did not, by any means, grow up in an ideal household, Ernie seemed not to give a shit about anyone but himself. He never grew out of the selfish way he treated meal times. A Kool Aid packet makes two quarts of the sugary drink (it was the 80s, okay?), and Ernie seemed to not have any problem filling up the largest tumbler in the cupboard with it. Fuck his three brothers, his dad, his mom and grandmother, all of which lived in the same house. Okay, to be fair, my Grandma wouldn’t touch that shit, but not the point.
In a house like that, four young men, three adults, with little money, yeah, you kind of fend for yourself a bit, and get as much as you can, but he turned into a fucking Olympic sport.
He and I always slept in the same room, as we were the oldest. Not sure why, but I guess it made sense to my parents, what do I know? Now, I have a bit of a disdain for sports, in general. Baseball bores the hell out of me, football was a brutal homoerotic bloodspot, and basketball, while the most exciting of the three, still did not interest me. But Ernie, he loved sports. Any sport, it seemed. I swear I remember him watching golf once. A Mexican, watching golf!
I noticed early on that a someone, somewhere, a long time ago, figured out that by staggering the scheduling of these sports, they can keep fatfucks in front of their TVs 365 days a year. No offense to you fatfucks.
So, in essence, there was never a break for a weird intellectual kid that loved Buster Keaton from the nightly onslaught of the Sportspage on the news.
See, kids, it was the 80s, and we didn’t have internet. If you wanted to know if your favorite team won that day, you had to wait until the end of the newscast on your local TV stations, and watch The Sportspage. So, nightly, at 11PM, on school nights, I had to stay up with him and watch the highlights. My disdain for these sports only grew. Though, oddly, I know a lot about these sports as a result, and can rattle off a statistic or two, much to the chagrin of anyone that knows me.
And then there was the fan. The fucking ever present fan in our room. The drone of it still lingers in my subconscious.
Ernie had to have a fan. Constantly. Always pointed directly at him, mere inches from his face. In the summertime, while I sweated in my bed, rolled up next to the wall, to absorb some its coolness, Ernie had the fan directly on him, barely a whiff coming my way. I’d beg him to oscillate it, and he’d angrily refuse, because it would be a major inconvenience for him. He has to have the fan on him, and fuck his little brother if he sweated in the bed next to his. In the wintertime, the fucking fan was still on. This time, making the room all the more cold, my blankets pulled up over my head, as I breathed my own carbon dioxide until I had to poke my head into the cold room for fear of hyperventilating.
Looking back on those years, it felt as if I was in a prison cell with him. And he was the guy I had to acquiesce to for fear of being shanked.
Still. I felt I wanted his acceptance. I don’t know why.
So I joined the football team in my sophomore year in high school. I’m still not sure why. I hated the goddamned sport. But it somehow worked for Ernie, as he was on the varsity team, and rather popular. I did it for the same reason I’ve done almost everything in may life: girls. It also seemed to make him look at me differently, like I wasn’t the weirdo book reader nerd that was his brother (I was), but I was somewhat cool because I played junior varsity football.
I was terrible at it, as I was all other sports. And secretly I hated it. But, as has always been a theme in my life, I stuck it out. I remember hating the little conformities we had to adhere to as football players. On Fridays (game days), we were supposed to wear our jerseys to school, and the cheerleaders wore their outfits. Now, as much of a fan I was of the girls wearing their outfits, I refused to wear my jersey. Seemed like a stupid rule. Needless to say the automaton-like jocks had a problem with this. But none of them did anything to me. They knew my brother was Ernie, and perhaps thought it best to leave me be.
So, there was some merit to having him as a brother in high school. The sideway glances of his old teachers notwithstanding.
Adulthood was a very difficult transition for Ernie. It was difficult for all of us, but I think for him especially. The movement from adolescence to adulthood is often violent, emotionally. The expectations of becoming that which you held disdain for most of your life, while dropping everything you loved as a child, was hard for me. My inexorable metamorphosis into manhood took a lot longer than it should have, in retrospect. But then, I didn’t have the luxury of going to college so I could vomit out my childhood with too much booze and terrible decisions.
Mostly, those years were spent staying up all night with my skater friends, as they drank themselves into oblivion. All the time, I’d stay sober.
But that’s another story…
I lived at home until I was probably 23, which by Mexican standards is relatively young. One of the many houses we moved into (we moved around a lot, as we couldn’t always make rent), had a converted garage, which I claimed swiftly for myself. No more fucking Sportspages or fans making me cold or fans being kept away from me to keep me hot. Just me, books, a stereo to play old Rhythm & Blues music, and a fold out couch to sleep on.
It was fucking heaven.
Ernie stayed in the house sleeping in the living room, or wherever he could.
This situation worked for a while. Ernie and I kept away from each other, for the most part. It was an odd time, where we lived together, yet rarely acknowledged each others’ presence.
We did learn well from our father.
Then one morning, a knock on my door. It was early for me, 11am.
I open the door, allowing the sickly bright sunlight in, and with a wince, I asked Ernie, What’s up?
Dad’s dead, he said swallowing the lump in his throat.
Our father had been dying for years.
Too much drinking made him weak. I watched the alcohol turn my father, who seemed like a giant, who could fix anything, any car, who had the biggest, strongest hands I’d ever seen, into a man so sucked dry from it, that he no longer stood upright. The man I idolized, seemingly slumped over, his pride, his soul left from him long ago, sucked out through the holes in innumerable beer cans. As if the alcohol had opened him up and took what was great about him, and left only the soft, rotting peel behind.
The drinking made him weak. The smoking used that weakness, and took him down.
He was found by my grandma on the floor of his bedroom, as if he had fallen out of the hospital bed we had set up for him, the IV tubes, disconnected from his arm. She called out to Ernie to help. He came into the room, and lifted his barely 120 pound body off the floor, and lowered him into the bed. Ernie told me, as he did this, he heard our father let out a weak moan and a final sigh.
He was dead before his body touched the bed again.
Dead in the arms of the son that was his namesake.
As I look back, I wonder how brutal an impact this had on my brother. While none of us were close to him, being a father was not something he ever seemed terribly interested in, his death affected us all. But affected us all uniquely.
Ernie heard him die. Felt the life ebb away from him. Felt the body that was once a vital and strong and scary man, slump into lifelessness.
Ernie felt his father, whose name he bore, die in his arms.
We all moved out, one by one. First was one of my younger brothers, Mark, as he joined the army.
Then it was my turn. I moved into a 400 square foot single in Hollywood on my own finally. Away from The Sportspages, the fans, the freezing in the winter and boiling hot in the summer, garage. I felt like a man.
Then my other younger brother, Alex moved in with his girlfriend.
But even as we all moved out, Ernie stayed with my mom. Whenever she moved, he moved with her.
I suspect all Ernie really wanted out of life was to watch sports on TV, drink, and hang out with his friends from time to time. Maybe it didn’t make sense for him to move out. Why should he? He stayed rent free with my mom, she cooked for him.
Understand, she did this somewhat begrudgingly. My mother felt very inconvenienced by his presence, but because she was old school Mexican, she couldn’t bring herself to kick him out.
She loved us, and were it any of her other sons that refused to move out, she’d work it out, and suffer if she had to for us. Maybe that made her a great mother, maybe it didn’t. I’m not a family psychologist. I don’t understand a lot about what is acceptable love according to today’s talk shows.
But suffer she did, and stay he did.
Even when she moved into a retirement community, wherein you had to be at least 55 years old to live there. She let him stay.
Oh, she would be pissed at him all the time, telling him that the company that ran the property were threatening to kick her out if he did not move. She begged him, cajoled him, yelled at him.
But free room, board and cable are hard to walk away from.
My mother’s tenancy was beginning to get tenuous.
Ernie was barely into his 40s when he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.
I cannot fathom what kind of torment he had to go through in that time. No one that has never had cancer can fully grasp it. We can witness it. We can comfort. We can care. But know? This is absolutely alien to us. To us that don’t know the fear of death. The dread of the treatment. The weakness it must bring. The unavailability of the physical actions we all take for granted on a daily basis.
Because he still lived in her house, in a retirement community, my mother had to get special permission to allow him to stay, due to his condition. They acquiesced.
So. He got to stay longer. He got to live the way he wanted to live.
Stage fucking four, man. For most, it’s a death sentence. The radiation, the chemo. The loss of appetite, loss of hair. The withering away.
None of that happened to him. Oh, he had radiation and chemo, and it affected him, to be sure. But he never lost his appetite, he never lost his hair, he never lost weight.
I have to make a rather harsh admission now.
Ernie was never pleasant to be around. There.
At family functions, it always seemed like he was completely burdened by our collective presence. When we were kids, he’d just beat us because we had the audacity to take away his rightful heir to all the attention and food and toys he felt he deserved as the first born. Truly, I believe he wanted to be an only child.
But we were adults now, and no way was he gonna beat me or anyone down. So he fought us in the only way he could: with his unending disdain.
A scowl on his face, a tension engulfed him like some unearthly aura. It was palpable. It seemed like he was always waiting for someone to say something to piss him off. Like, Hey Ernie, what’d you do today?, for him to come back with some oddly angry retort. A sneering, almost hissing response was all I ever heard from him in adulthood. Of course, I’d often come back with a cutting sarcastic remark, in an effort to shut him up, or at least make him laugh. It worked from time to time.
Look, I’m an angry fuck too. But I ain’t that angry. I often would try to describe his behavior like this: Picture me, with all my anger and depression, but without a hint of irony. Without any self-deprecation. And definitely, without any humor.
That was Ernie. Always making us uncomfortable.
Somehow this fucking ne’re do well fought the beast off and it went into remission.
After he got better, he still refused to move. The tenants association from my mother’s retirement community were making their previous threat of evicting her good. It was real now.
She begged him to leave.
He would not.
Unfortunately, the unsavory task of kicking him out fell unto my younger brother Mark’s shoulders. He told him he had to leave by a certain date, and if he didn’t, he’d show up with the cops to do so.
In moment of desperation, Ernie called me.
He sounded despondent. Scared. Perhaps he had been crying.
They’re telling me I have to move, John. Where am I gonna go?
Dude, I really don’t know, man, I told him. You got friends, can’t you stay with them temporarily?
I had to tell him that he his tenancy with my mother was going to brutally affect her if he did not move. And he had to move.
He said he was going to, he just needed more time. He was gonna find a job.
Ernie had barely worked in his life up until this point. But he was about to start a regular job. Went to school for it, and everything. He just wasn’t looking for the job very hard, it seemed. According to him, he was gonna start soon.
His call to me was inconsequential. I couldn’t help him. He had to move.
Sometimes I think about that phone call. Could I have done more for him in that moment? Could I have offered my couch to him temporarily? Could Have loaned him money?
Probably. But I didn’t. I don’t know why.
Maybe it was the anger I felt at him after years and years of his disdain at me. At us. Maybe I was afraid that if I tried to help him, he’d never leave my apartment.
But I did nothing.
But I should have.
He finally did move. After a few brief stints with friends, he rented a room from an old Mexican lady. Yeah. He basically moved in with a surrogate mother. Same exact situation.
It was apparent that he wasn’t gonna be able to get a viable job, for at this point, unrelated to the cancer, he was blind in one eye. So, he was on disability.
He lived in his surrogate mother’s home and watched sports all day.
A few years pass. This is his life.
Then, he finds out that his disability checks will no longer be coming. They’re cutting him off.
The cancer comes back.
Stage two this time.
Ernie is no longer angry. He is only depressed.
In an effort to make him feel better, an old friend of his, Efrain, takes him to the beach.
Ernie was always like Fred Flintsone. For some reason, he found any excuse to walk around barefoot. The callouses those feet must have had. Like tire treads, I bet.
But these tire treads did nothing for him this time. Somehow, walking around the beach, he got second degree burns on his feet.
Fucking asshole, I thought. What kind of jerk gets second degree burns at the beach? Put on some thongs, you jag off.
This being mere weeks after his diagnosis of his cancer coming back, he was admitted into the hospital, to make sure everything is okay.
My mother went to visit him everyday. She told me how depressed he was. How quiet he was. I imagined him on some form of autopilot. The body working, because it still does. But the mind done with this existence.
In her last visit, my mother told me that he said to her, I don’t really care if I live or die.
Ernie was found dead by a nurse early the next morning.
He never did like waking up early.
He was 47.
Young for a death, of course. But years in the making.
My mother found the bottles of his medication, and saw that they had never been touched. Weeks since his diagnosis of cancer, and he hadn’t taken any of it.
He wanted to go, I think. He was done.
I remember Ernie saying on several occasions, that he was Jose Ernesto Vargas, named after our father. And he was going to die as young as he did, by 50.
I would often sarcastically tell him, that just because he bore his name, he bore none of his attributes. None of his personality. I look like him. I act like him. I carry the brunt of his attributes. That all went to me. So fucking relax, Ernie. I am more like our father than you’ll ever be.
But it was he that followed in my father’s footsteps, and died before his time.
Well played, Ernie. Well played.
I think all Ernie wanted out of life was to stay home every day, watch sports, and have a fan blowing on him all night. And goddammit, he did it! He fucking succeeded in living the life he wanted! I know I cannot say the same, but he… Ernie, you lived your life they way you wanted, dude. I envy that.
But that was all being taken away from him. And maybe it was that that made him want to get off.
Maybe he was just sick of fighting that beast that is cancer, and couldn’t stomach a rematch.
Maybe he just wanted it all to end for him.
I don’t know.
Suicide. The very mention of it wreaks havoc in one’s mind. We, among the living, whom can never comprehend the contemplation of ending ourselves, refuse to see any clarity in it. Any sense of it.
But for those in that mindset, it makes the most sense, I imagine. Perhaps it is the sleep that they await after a long struggle. The same way you and I look forward to our beds at the end of an exceptionally hard day. But what if your hard days never end? What if the that sleep that makes you see things different in the morning, what if that sleep does nothing to change the drab color of your world?
That’s the kind of fatigue I cannot completely fathom. A fatigue that goes deeper than your muscles, deeper than your bones. A fatigue that tires your very existence. A fatigue that destroys your ability to fight.
Ernie’s death made me contemplate the philosophical worth of suicide.
Is it inherently wrong to choose this path? Is all life to be saved, even if the person who lives it is done with it?
Maybe it’s nobody’s business if someone decides to jump off this ride. If we can’t tell someone how to live, can we tell them how to die? I don’t think so.
Suicide is a cry for help, they say. And maybe, often, it is. Maybe, most of the time, it is someone screaming out, Please help me, I cannot live like this anymore, I need guidance.
I’m sure that’s true in many cases.
But maybe, every now and again, it is only the respite one can find. Perhaps it is a way out of an existence that never made any sense to them. An existence that they hated.
We fight everyday for our piece of existence. To live the best life we can possibly live. But as we all know, it is difficult.
Money. Work. Love. Relationships.
None of these things come easy for most of us. For most of us, it’s a fight to just exist.
And while it cannot be said with any certainty that Ernie took his own life, one thing was clear: he was done fighting.
And it is that fight that kills us. Long before we exhale our last.
Goodbye Ernie. Namesake of my father.