The author and her brother, Chris Ross, with Santa in 1972
The author and her brother, Chris Ross, with Santa in 1972
The author and her brother, Chris Ross, with Santa in 1972 (Photo: Tracy Ross)

I Choose to Remember the Bike Ride


Hoping to help my brother beat his alcohol addiction, I set up a two-wheel road trip through the scenic terrain of northeast Kansas. As usual, he was funny, endearing, maddening, and burdened by problems I couldn’t solve.


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Warning: This story contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some readers. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, visit niaaa.nih.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP.


My brother, Chris, was somewhere between his bedroom and the morgue when my plane took off from the Denver airport, headed for Las Vegas. When I landed, my stepdad was there to get me. We drove to my parents’ house, in Henderson, Nevada, in silence. That morning at 9:30, my mom had walked into Chris’s room and found him dead, lying faceup on his bed, his mouth, neck, and chest crusted with blood.

My mom started screaming, first at Chris and then for my stepdad. He came running, saw Chris’s body, and dialed 911. When he called and told me what had happened, a sound came out of my body like nothing I’d ever heard before, and it kept coming as I crumpled against the wall. My eight-year-old and her friend were playing on the grass outside the kitchen window. I texted the little girl’s mother to come get her. Within an hour, I was on my way to the house where my brother had lived for the past three years, and where, on the morning before he died, he’d taken his bike out for a ride.

It wasn’t a long ride, just a half-hour spin through my parents’ neighborhood. Later I’d learn that he did this almost every morning. He’d leave just after dawn, before the desert heat rose up and paralyzed everything. He’d pedal three blocks in one direction, then turn and do four, then back across five or six, then home to my parents’.

By the time he had adopted this daily ritual, there weren’t many things that made him happy. But my mom said that he was happy when he rode his bike. And though our relationship had become strained by then, I have a text from him dated March 18, 2020, that reads, “When this pandemics over lets plan on riding a little of the Katy Trail out near St. Louis.”

Chris died the following May, as COVID-19 raged. That message is hard for me to read, because it shows that my attempt to help him wasn’t in vain, just too late.

The idea of helping Chris heal came to me six years ago, after a phone call that left me rattled. It was midmorning, a Saturday, when I answered and heard him slurring. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I promise I’ll be a good boy. I promise I’ll stay home tomorrow.” If he stayed inside his house, he could keep from buying the hard liquor that went down so smooth. He told me other things that I won’t share, out of respect, but they made me realize he was in deep trouble.

Not that we didn’t know this already, but that call really woke me up. I decided that I was no longer doing him a favor by saying it was OK that he drank as long as he told me when he did it and kept sharing honest feelings. That day I finally decided I would do something. So I suggested that he and I take time off work and attempt a multiday bike tour through a stretch of northeast Kansas, a scenic part of the state with more rolling terrain than many people expect.

Two months later, just before Labor Day weekend in 2015, I drove there from my home in Colorado. It was burning hot, and the whole state was sweating. The plan was to ride 100 miles in three days, camping or bunking down in small towns along the way. We couldn’t take on more mileage because of Chris’s condition: he was 48 and weighed 225 pounds, with high cholesterol and high blood pressure. He was also, as I wrote in my journal, “an alcoholic—I think, because he can go for days without drinking.” But then he’d roll off the wagon, buy a pint of vodka, and polish it off in minutes. When he was sufficiently drunk, he would call me to talk about all the people he loved who’d died prematurely: our real dad, of a brain aneurysm, at 29; our grandfather, of prostate cancer, at 73; our grandmother, of old age, at 85; and most significant to Chris, his two best friends, Mark and Ralph, both of whom died from alcohol-related causes in their forties.

The most recent loss, Mark, had sent Chris into a free fall. Soon he was calling me every weekend, audibly drunk and fretting over the likelihood that he would die, too. His fears were real. Before our trip, he learned that he had alcohol-related liver disease. I didn’t research it then, but it involves severe liver damage from decades of excessive alcohol use. Long-term symptoms typically develop when someone is between 40 and 50, and usually when the person has been a heavy drinker for at least eight years.

As the disease progresses, more and more healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, until the liver stops functioning entirely. Eventually, a transplant is the only thing that will save your life, but transplants for alcoholic liver disease are only considered in people who have quit drinking for at least six months. Whether Chris understood the seriousness of his condition I’ll never know. The offhand way he talked about his drinking—saying things like “My liver’s screwed” without further explanation—makes me think he did know but was in serious denial.

In any event, we made our plan: meet at his apartment and head west on bikes equipped with trailers. We had only the loosest of agendas, something I’d suggested since, in my mind, no plan is also a kind of plan, and because I wanted my brother to feel the freedom of the road and the thrill of human-powered sports. And I wanted him to trust me implicitly.

All was on track until I drove into Overland Park, a big suburban community on the Kansas side of K.C., where Chris lived. When I got to his place that evening, he was in the parking lot, staring into the sky, asking me to name every planet I could see. He looked the same as always—five foot nine and still muscular, in spite of his weight, with beautiful red hair, the color of Lucille Ball’s. The freckles he had as a kid had morphed into rosacea, but some women still found him attractive. Now he was so drunk he couldn’t name a single planet. When I started calling them out, he interrupted me, saying, “Is it Venus? Is it Mars? No, it’s Uranus!” like he was the first person in history to make that joke.

We walked up exterior stairs to his apartment. On the floor beside the front door, I saw a 12-pack of Boulevard beer, most of it already gone. I thought it was an unstated rule that we wouldn’t be drinking on this trip. I mean, he knew why we were going: to explore a kind of riding I’d done before but he’d never tried, to enjoy a brother-sister adventure, and maybe to talk about his history with alcohol in the hope of helping him slow down, if not quit. But the second we got inside, he cracked another beer, slumped onto the couch, and started up with the gloom.

“I told Mom, if she dies, I die,” he said.

“Why would you even say that?”

“I’m afraid. It’s the loneliness. I don’t know how long I can take it.”

That part gave me pause, but he was always so dramatic. We went to sleep, uncomfortable. In the morning, things were better.

I’d arranged to have a touring bike ­FedExed to us for Chris to ride. While we waited, we cruised around—me on my fancy rig, him on an old front-suspension mountain bike he owned. He cranked along, chain jumping, showing me that he’d been training. We went to a Subway and the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Chris was a history buff who had once dreamed of being a pilot; he claimed to know that he’d been denied entry into the Air Force because of his poor eyesight. It made me wonder: If he’d gone to flight school, would he have avoided alcoholism? I comforted myself with uncertainty. Maybe, maybe not? There’s no way to know.

After his bike arrived, we loaded up the car to head for the starting point of our trip, a KOA campground called Jellystone, just north of the Kansas Turnpike near Lawrence. Then alcohol reappeared. He insisted we stop at “one of K.C.’s greatest establishments,” the Green Lady Lounge, a moody bar with a speakeasy vibe that served hard root beer on tap. (He had one; I didn’t.) Next we made our way to the Cashew, a popular downtown eatery, where we ate dinner and I refrained from drinking again. (He didn’t.) I should have said something when I noticed the receipt, which included two shots of tequila that he’d downed while I was in the bathroom. And I should have torn into him when we stopped at 7-Eleven and he bought a bomber of Budweiser, which he promptly chugged. But I didn’t want to start pushing my agenda before our trip even began.

Eventually, we made it to Jellystone, sweated the night out in our tent, and woke up at eight to an 84-degree morning.

Two hours later, it was 95 and we were pedaling toward Clinton State Park, home to a huge “lake” that’s really a reservoir and sits on the southwest edge of Lawrence. The ride was furnace hot, on naked blacktop that took in the sun’s radiation and threw it back with interest. At the visitor center, we stopped to fill our water bottles and a lady behind the desk said, “Watch out, people are seeing a lot of copperheads.” We got going again, and before long my brother was laboring up a moderately steep hill in a visible haze of heat, several hundred yards behind me. I stopped riding and pondered what sort of altruism I’d thought I was displaying when I decided to guide him through summertime Kansas.

Soon he dismounted, laid his bike on the ground, and peered ahead, trying to find me. I backtracked, going as fast as I safely could with an overfull trailer. When I reached him he was slumped in the road, purple-faced from the heat and shaking his head at the prospect of expending any more effort. I had to summon enough energy for both of us. I told him that once he reached the top of the hill, he’d get to fly down the other side, feel the power of his will, bask in the endorphins of cycling. I told him I was here to help, to listen, to make sure he survived. I was his sister and he trusted me, so he gave me a long, pained stare, groaned, hauled himself to his feet, and climbed back onto his bike.

Chris, left, and Tracy playing in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1976
Chris, left, and Tracy playing in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1976 (Photo: Tracy Ross)

Often these days I think about our childhood.

It’s the mid-1970s, and we’re sitting on the floor of our kitchen in Twin Falls, Idaho, playing G.I. Joe and Barbie. I’m a brown-haired, green-eyed four-year-old, and Chris is red-haired, blue-eyed, and eight. We’re happy because after several years without a father, our mom has found a replacement. For long stretches, even Chris forgets we had another dad. He’s in second grade, and I’m in no grade, and Chris is my hero. We put our sleeping bags on the floor of his room and feel the shag rug tickle our temples.

We move to a new house and the fun continues. We unwrap all our Christmas presents early, rewrap them, and act surprised when we open them again on Christmas morning. We make popcorn for our dogs, hide peas under the kitchen table, get above-average grades in school, and go on camping trips with our parents. I love camping with Chris: We walk through streams filled with salmon and pedal our bikes over marshes on wooden walkways. He encourages me to jump off the Redfish Lake dock into late-fall water, then splashes in after me when I start to sink. He is the first to come running—and to laugh at me—when I crash his motorbike in a stand of aspens, flying over the handlebars. We stay up late, shoving as many sticks as we can in the fire, watching the flames climb higher and higher.

But the year Chris turns 12, three things happen. First, one night at Wood River Campground, he shrieks in pain inside his tent, yelling that he can’t move his legs. Second, he has his first drink, a beer my grandfather gives him while they’re sitting in his kitchen listening to Paul Harvey and eating chips. Third, after several years of piano lessons, he discovers the wider world of music.

He’ll heal from the hiatal hernia between his stomach and esophagus, which caused temporary paralysis and required major surgery. And he’ll ardently pursue both booze and music. Like so many kids we knew, he starts sneaking beer and liquor in junior high. He forms his first band in sixth grade (the Beasley Brothers) and joins his second (Cypress) in ninth. Chris learned to play five instruments: piano, drums, trumpet, guitar, and bass. Doug Anderson, Cypress’s lead vocalist, told me once that even though Chris never had a formal lesson on bass, “He was great. He knew what I was going to do before I did it.”

In bands, Chris learns that when you’re a budding rock star—or just a kid bored out of your mind in rural Idaho—it’s natural to start drinking. By tenth grade he’s partying most weekends, has a steady stream of girlfriends, and is one of the popular kids at Twin Falls High, because of what his friend Brad Burgess described to me as “his pursuit of unbridled, all-out, crazy, mischievous fun.” Chris shows another friend, Dave Clifton, how to throw shopping carts off the Perrine Bridge—nearly 500 feet above the Snake River—and lets him listen to his first-generation Walkman. “He taught me to be daring and adventurous,” Dave says. “He gave me heavy metal and rock music. He showed me that life shouldn’t be taken so seriously when you’re a kid.”

But Chris is also coming home so wasted that he stumbles up the front steps. This doesn’t alarm my mom as much as I now think it should have. When I asked her about it recently, she said, “I knew he drank a lot, but we were all so focused on those ‘This is your brain on drugs’ ads. I worried, but alcohol seemed so much more acceptable.”

Without knowing it, she was more or less allowing him to give his teenage neural pathways what they needed to start producing an alcoholic, something that she and my stepdad and I would deal with for the next 30 years.

Several hours after Chris decided that he could make it up the incline we were on, we were still at it. The heat rose from the road, scorching our lips. The tarmac was gooey, and soon Chris was a good half-mile behind me. I pulled over again and consulted the map. There appeared to be a campground ahead. I knew I could make it. I thought Chris could.

“Just there we can take a break,” I said, pointing at the map, when he finally rolled up. “Thank God,” he said, then corrected himself: “No, thank you, sister.” Chris was always generous with gratitude and compliments. He constantly told me how proud he was of my writing and the life I’d built. At times this crushed me—how had I found basic happiness and he hadn’t? How, when we both came from the same family?

My mom believes that one reason Chris drank was unresolved guilt. She’s convinced that, for at least part of a six-year period when I was being abused by our stepdad, he was aware of it but refused to accept it. In the throes of that ordeal, when I was in ninth grade and Chris was in twelfth, I asked him to help me. I don’t remember what he said, but I do recall knowing that he wouldn’t. Soon after this I ran away from home, nearly leapt off the Perrine Bridge to end my life, and instead walked to the house of a friend whose mom called the police. I landed in the custody of the State of Idaho, and began the lifelong journey of trying to heal myself.

According to one of Chris’s girlfriends, he counseled my mom to stay with my stepdad because “he knew she wouldn’t be able to survive on her own, and he was headed to college.” I understand why a kid on the verge of independence might betray his little sister. But anytime my mom mentions Chris’s guilt, I want to scream, “What am I supposed to do with that information? Should I feel sad for Chris? I don’t!”

Yet I have accepted a particular role in our family: the forgiving helper. And during our ride, when I might finally have been helping Chris, I realized I could also be putting him in danger.

No cars stopped to inquire about the lone riders standing on the side of the road, so I coaxed my sweat-soaked brother forward. Perspiration dripped down his temples; splotches of dried salt stained his shirt. I kept pushing until we finally reached the “picnic area,” which was really a campground for horse trailers, with few amenities. We expected a bathroom, a drinking fountain. When we found neither, Chris deflated. He suggested we call his friend Beth, who’d told him that if we needed help, she’d come get us and we could stay at her place.

If we stopped at that point, we’d have failed before we really got started. I understood that Beth might be our best way out of a potentially sticky situation; people have died in less intense heat and from less exertion. But we couldn’t let ourselves off the hook. It would be too easy for Chris to drink at Beth’s and try to downsize the ride. I wanted it to be difficult, maybe even life changing. And if we went to Beth’s, I might be so upset that we’d both need a drink. So I said, “We’re not getting a ride from Beth.”

“Why not?”

“Because it defeats the purpose.”

“What’s the purpose?”

“To be out here, to problem-solve, to prove we can do this.”

“But going back is solving the problem.”

“We’re not going back.”

“Then what are we doing?”

Horse trailers lined one side of the picnic area; I proposed we approach them. As usual, Chris stepped up, walking over and asking one of the drivers for a ride to Clinton Lake. He didn’t really know where we were heading, but he was a master at winning people over. He’d say “ma’am” and “mister,” and tell every waitress he met that she looked like a celebrity. It seemed so fake to me, but his countless friends, including a woman from Atlanta named Page Bondurant, raved about how inclusive and funny he was.

“I officially met Chris at his friend Ralph McGill III’s funeral,” she told me. “He was surrounded by a group of people, but he saw me standing alone and demanded I come join. He knew me from hanging out at the Stein Club, and he introduced me to his entire gang. Chris had the entire group laughing at a funeral. I loved him. He was the most real, honest, entertaining man I knew.”

The charm didn’t help this time, though. No one was going to Clinton Lake, and I started to think Beth might be the best option. But Chris spied a fellow redhead in a truck, pulling her own souped-up trailer. He waved her over, shouting, “Yoo-hoo! Ma’am! How’s it going?” Before long we were sitting in her air-conditioned cab, drinking ice-cold bottled water and getting a ride to the lake.

We were caked in sweat and pulsing heat. Getting out of the truck, we collapsed on a patch of grass in front of the campground convenience store. I wondered if they served beer, feeling ready to break the trip’s cardinal rule. I was so hot and thirsty that I went inside and bought a six-pack, reasoning that it was only Bud Light, not root beer and vodka. Besides, I was pissed off, hot, and now resenting the pressure to help Chris.

Band life and performing remained Chris’s thing into college. By his sophomore year he was in a new group in Boise, the Uninvited, and he was lead singer. He later transferred from Boise State to the University of Idaho, in Moscow, and joined a new band, Imaginary Friend. They were the real deal, progressing from playing mostly covers to their own material. Chris never thought of himself as attractive; he hated his red hair and made jokes about his “Charlie Brown head.” But when it came to music, he knew he had talent. “The cool part was that we could play our favorite songs and our own songs, and we knew both sounded good,” he told me once. “Ninety-nine percent of the bands on American Idol suck and they don’t know it.”

Imaginary Friend’s members were all talented, but their bassist, Darren Bain, told me Chris was exceptional.

“He was a total natural and had an amazing gift for harmonies,” he said. “I think he could have done anything with music, but I don’t think he was ever comfy in his own skin. He never wanted to be himself, so he’d get onstage and do stuff he’d seen Perry Farrell or Jim Morrison do. People didn’t want that. They loved Chris. But he thought they wanted someone else.”

I loved my big brother, too, despite a past that plagued us. In 1989, I was starting my first year of college at an arts school in ­Seattle. Chris visited me and my new ­roommate in our loft apartment on Capitol Hill. We lit candles, played Van Morrison, and drank 40-ouncers. Chris told us about his life as a performer and sang us some songs a cappella. Geddy Lee and Anthony Kiedis filled the room. But when we’d all gotten drunk, and I started to discuss my feelings, he turned into joke-a-minute Chris, emotionally withdrawing. That night it occurred to me that I might never truly know my brother. A gap formed between us. It would only widen.

I told Chris that once he reached the top of the hill, he’d get to fly down the other side, feel the power of his will, bask in the endorphins of cycling. I told him I was here to help, to listen, to make sure he survived.

In 1991, Imaginary Friend tried for the big time, leaving Idaho for Atlanta. They booked regular gigs, and Chris’s drinking hit new heights. He told me once that on his 27th birthday, Imaginary Friend opened for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a ska-punk band from Boston. “I was falling-down drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. Darren described skinheads in the crowd flicking lit cigarette butts at the band. Chris tried the polite approach: “Hey man, that’s not fucking cool.” But when one of the punks threw a pitcher of beer at Chris, Darren chucked it back, hitting the offender in the head and splitting his scalp open. The crowd stormed the stage. Afterward, the venue manager said, “You’re done.”

Chris called that show “rock bottom” for Imaginary Friend, which by then had been in Georgia three years. Several members were settling down; Chris, too. He’d had a number of serious relationships and had even been engaged. In 2007, he moved in with a woman he’d dated for four years, Maxine Downing. In a recent conversation, she told me, “Chris loved me so much, and I dreamed of our future. He was my opportunity for marriage and family, but I couldn’t intelligently agree to it when it meant living with two people. As you know, he was completely different sober and drunk. I didn’t allow myself to go into denial about that and choose the daydream instead. Alcohol was a demon I believe he battled no matter the day.”

Maxine decided to leave after a fight during which Chris destroyed the bedroom. But they stayed connected, she says, because “he was so hard not to love.”

Somehow during this period, Chris managed to graduate from Georgia State with a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems. He worked a series of jobs, ultimately landing at McKesson Corporation in 2008, where he did IT work for doctors.

What he never told us then was that, several nights a week, he and a friend, Mark Ryder, were hitting bars where the bartenders knew them and would pour entire mugs of vodka. Night after night, Chris got blackout drunk; once, he woke up facedown in the parking lot of his building. “People were walking around, not even acknowledging me,” he recalled. Soon after, he tried AA with another friend, Ron Beaton.

For three years, Chris stayed sober, going to meetings in a sketchy part of Atlanta. “Some of the stories were from the hardest people you’ve ever seen,” he told me. “There were guys who’d accidentally killed their kids driving drunk. So when you’re in there supporting them, it’s pretty neat. And you have a really good feeling when you leave.”

This lasted until 2010, when Chris decided that he’d played out his options in Atlanta and wanted to be closer to me and our parents. He left Georgia, bound for Denver, but stalled out in Kansas.

I thought Chris would feel braver after the epic first day. But before we got up, he was already plotting ways to return to Kansas City. We broke camp and packed everything up, got on our bikes, and were ready to go before seven. We knew from the day before how the heat comes all at once, and that when it does it wants to kill you. We paused to look at a map on the campground billboard, and then rode to the general store, where we got in our second argument of the trip, after the sweet old store owner, a woman in pressed jeans and a denim shirt and neckerchief, told us we were playing with our lives if we kept riding. She knew this for a fact, she said, because last year her friend plowed into and killed a cyclist.

Chris fumbled for his phone and dialed Beth. No answer. Then he went outside to check and recheck the red blinking emergency light he’d affixed to his trailer.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my light,” he said.

“Nothing,” I sighed.

“It doesn’t seem as bright as it was.”

“Why do you need it in daylight?”

“Really, dude? For protection.”

“From what?”

“Drivers!”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, I am serious. You heard that lady. Maybe you aren’t afraid of getting hit by a car. But I don’t want to die on a bike.”

And that’s when I kind of lost it, thinking back to my first few hours with him. “What are you talking about? I thought you wanted to die. How better than on a bike?” This shut him up, but it made me feel like crap.

We took off down the road. At first I lagged behind, basically to shield him from approaching cars. But then I passed him, pushing far out in front. The midmorning sun bore down, making the grassy fields on either side of us glint as we went by. We rode until we came to a church, where we stopped for a break. Chris was smiling as he pulled up, then laughing as he pointed out that all I’d eaten since we left yesterday was dinner and a pound of licorice.

I started laughing, too, even though the unspoken message was that he still wanted to go home. And now I didn’t even protest, because the trip wasn’t really working. The Kansas we were out there looking for no longer existed; the lady at the store had told us as much. Small towns were dying as Big Agriculture swallowed them up.

As a result, even though the places on the map we rode to were still around, they were no longer “towns.” We couldn’t roll into one, spend the night, and continue on to the next. This made the trip not at all fun, not at all healing, and only added to the pain. I finally conceded to riding back to the car. First, however, I made Chris promise that when we arrived, we wouldn’t go home. We’d pick a new campground and park far enough away to make riding to it worth the effort.

He agreed, and we started pedaling. Elated now, he climbed hills with newfound strength. After several more miles we hit Lawrence, where he navigated a route through the University of Kansas campus. Before long we came to a viaduct that dropped under a bridge, and Chris pulled over into some shade. “That part was awesome!” he said. “I feel like I’m getting a handle on this bike. If I owned this, I’d ride it all the time. Thanks, sister, for taking me out here and showing me why you love it. I’m feeling good now. Really. Like I have a new lease on life.”

I wanted to trust him, even though I knew that lasting transformations don’t happen that fast. Still, his mood lifted mine. We got to the car and picked a new place to ride. We loaded up the bikes and drove 36 miles south toward the town of Pomona, stopping for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Then, because Chris never could catch a break, he fucked up. He hadn’t had anything to drink, but after we returned to the car, he backed into the lot’s only telephone pole, smashing both of our racked bikes.

The move to Kansas didn’t deliver what Chris wanted, unfortunately. He found a systems analyst job, but he did not love it. He had a hard time making friends—the people there seemed cliquey, and it can be tough to date when you are trying to stay sober. “I mean, you can date other recovering ­alcoholics, but then you have two broken people,” he told me. He tried dating anyway, thinking he was solid enough in his sobriety that he could have water while whoever ­he was with sipped wine. He had an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman, but she was noncommittal, and they ended up just friends.

By the winter of 2015 he was back to drinking. Only it seemed more serious now, because he was doing it alone in his apartment. Soon he was waking up on a ­Saturday morning and buying a liter of vodka. He’d get drunk and call various family members. He’d start off cracking jokes but inevitably end up crying, and it would come out that he was incredibly lonely.

I took his calls for a while, but then, like everyone else, started ignoring him. Even as his alcoholism grew worse, no one did what my mom kept threatening to do: stage an ­intervention. We were all too hopeful, maybe. Too stupid, probably. Uneducated about the disease, definitely.

At certain times, if I felt rested enough from my own crazy life of traveling, writing, and raising three kids with my husband, Shawn, I’d take his calls, trying to be a good sister. He’d ask me to take him along by narrating whatever cool thing I was doing. One day I told him I was going to the mall to look for new sandals. Wandering Nordstrom, I described things I liked: a scarf, a hat, a wallet. He loved the wallet when I texted a picture, and insisted I let him buy it for me. I did, and I still have it.

It was then I realized that he needed a gift from me far more than I needed one from him, and that day, thinking it would help, I told him it was OK if he drank, as long as he didn’t try to hide it with his stupid jokes and lies about who he was and where he’d been. He could also call me when he was drunk, as long as he didn’t try to pretend he wasn’t. We did this for a while, until I decided that my half-hearted attempts to be there for him weren’t helping, and that investing some real time in an adventure might be better. That’s when I suggested the ride.

Chris (second from left) with some members of Imaginary Friend
Chris (second from left) with some members of Imaginary Friend (Photo: Courtesy Imaginary Friend)
Chris riding at an air show not long after the Kansas trip
Chris riding at an air show not long after the Kansas trip (Photo: Courtesy Tracy Ross)

After the incident with the telephone pole, I saw a side of Chris I’d never seen before. He started screaming: “My God, I’m a fucking asshole!” He was inconsolable, and I assumed this came from his fear of letting me down. More than anything else, he wanted me to think that he was on track. I said, “You’re no asshole, Chris. Look how brave you are. You just rode, like, 50 miles. Do you know how hardcore that is? Who cares about the bikes?”

He kept apologizing until finally I suggested we go back to his apartment and round up a couple more bikes. We’d head out the next morning and look for a cycling group. That had been my plan, after all: show him the joy of long-distance riding, connect him with a club, get him on a regular riding schedule, and hope that the combined influences of exhaustion, connection, and obligation to a sport would at least slow down his drinking.

That was naive, but for the rest of our time together it looked like it might actually happen. The next morning, on borrowed bikes, we rode to Shawnee Mission Park, a 1,600-acre city oasis with a lake, an archery range, and bike trails. A silky tarmac path flowed up and down hills beneath a canopy of deciduous trees. Benches lined the loop, including one at the top of a hill, where we stopped and met a pretty, dark-haired rider named Liz.

I struck up a conversation, then segued it to Chris. He and Liz discussed how great riding is, how they were both relative ­newbies, and how awesome it was that they could track their miles on a Fitbit. I heard him tell Liz, “I totally get why people love cycling,” and that he was looking for people to go out with. Liz grinned and told him that Overland Park has miles of trails, tons of bike-shop-sponsored rides, and “all kinds of cycling-oriented meetups.” I knew my brother needed far more than cycling to solve his problems, but Liz was kind, the trails were wide, and the hottest part of the Kansas summer was slowly coming to an end.

We spent the rest of the day cruising the sanctuary, pedaling home, then heading out to ride again. We drove to the heart of Kansas City, parked, and got on our bikes. We had dinner (sans drinks). The next day we went on our last ride, around an art museum on the Missouri side of K.C. After our visit, I walked outside to see Chris standing by his bike, unaware that I was watching him. He hadn’t changed on the inside, but I sensed something different. I saw it in the way he looked at other bikes and riders, imagining himself pedaling with the same ease that they did, I presumed. The next day I’d leave, hoping my visit had helped.

It seemed like it had, at least for a while. On a semi-regular basis, Chris would send pictures of himself riding. In one, he’s straddling the frame of his bike, looking vibrant, at an air show somewhere in Kansas. In another, he’s back at the bench where we met Liz. He took pictures of his mountain bike, racked on his car, to prove that he was headed out on a ride. All the while, he was fighting demons that were stealing his life.

Maybe he was too timid to ask about bike clubs, but sometime that fall it started to sound like motivating to ride was becoming a chore. It must have been lonely pedaling around all by himself. Soon enough he started drinking heavily again.

The winter of 2016 was especially hard on our family. Politically, my side is pretty far left, while my mom, my stepdad, and Chris are independents who supported Donald Trump. As happened all over the country during his presidency, those differences harmed our relationships. I could handle debating politics; my teenage boys could not. With a buzz on, Chris would call and argue them into ideological traps they weren’t sophisticated enough to understand—they were only 13 and 15 years old at the time. He would end up damning our family’s politics, which left my boys hurt and confused. I became increasingly pissed at him, and I stopped picking up the phone when he called.

Chris’s 50th birthday was in February 2017, and his one wish was to have me come to K.C. and celebrate it with him. Feeling obligated but nervous, I decided to go and to bring along my five-year-old daughter, Hollis. The night of his birthday went fine, but the next day he did the unforgivable.

While he was driving us around the city, we stopped at Walmart to buy Hollis a swimsuit. When we got back in the car, Chris was acting different. It was subtle at first, but when he started pointing out jets flying over us that I couldn’t see or hear, I realized he was drunk. (As I later found out, he’d bought and downed a pint of vodka in the liquor section at Walmart.) We made it to his apartment safely, but the rest of the day saw a series of escalating arguments. I ended up taking Hollis to my relatives’ house. The next day Chris brought our stuff by, full of tearful apologies.

After that, I never wanted to see him again, and I may not have if my parents hadn’t finally staged an intervention. That got underway after Chris’s new girlfriend told us that she’d found him passed out on his kitchen floor, with no idea how long he’d been there. My parents realized, in the summer of 2017, that they had to go get him, bring him home, support him, and try to help him get sober.

It worked, until it didn’t. At first Chris was “good,” then he lost his grip. He was holding down a job during the week but sneaking vodka on weekends. It got so that my mom started calling me on Fridays, dreading Saturday and Sunday. My parents adopted methods to survive: they screamed when Chris screamed; they “sent him to his room” when he was wasted; once, my stepdad, enraged by Chris’s behavior, nearly got violent. “I put my hands around his neck, but stopped short of applying pressure,” he told me. (Later he checked on Chris and found him playing his guitar and crying.)

In email exchanges with my family’s therapist, Geri Smith, I asked about Chris and our parents. She wrote that his relationship with my mom was “love/hate, typical of alcoholics and co-dependent family members. Mom tried to force program/treatment on Chris… with Chris pretty much resisting. Chris realized how lucky he was to be living back at home, but also resented the rules of living there.” She said my stepdad and Chris “would align against my mom at times,” but that my stepdad thought he could have a positive impact.

I asked if how Chris had handled my abuse played into him becoming an alcoholic. “Chris was an alcoholic long before the abuse came to light,” she replied. “While family trauma can exacerbate alcoholism, it is not the root cause of the disease. Alcoholism is an allergy of the body coupled with an obsession of the mind.

“One cannot ‘will’ his way out of the ­disease,” she added. “It is more a spiritual malady, treatable through working the Twelve Steps of AA, fundamentally transforming one’s character, purpose, and outlook ­toward life.”

I mistakenly thought cycling would help Chris transform his character, purpose, and outlook. But Geri said that a common way alcoholics avoid facing reality is by “getting more physical exercise.” Manic exertion doesn’t necessarily help.

During one of Chris’s doctor visits, he admitted to drinking “several times a week,” in each instance consuming “six glasses of alcohol.” I tear up whenever I read the list of ailments his alcoholism created. He never complained, but for several years my brother was in extreme discomfort. He might have known he was on his way to an early death.

In 2018, Chris got sicker. In January he underwent a procedure called esophageal banding, a way to protect the veins inside his esophagus from rupture as his liver became more and more swollen and his blood pressure rose. Six months later, he went to urgent care with severe stomach pain, and doctors admitted him to the hospital to drain fluid from his abdomen. “When he lost the fluid, he felt better,” my mom said, but the procedure indicated decompensated cirrhosis, which means you’re at risk of dying from liver-failure-related complications.

After this, in a rare moment of vulnerability with Geri, Chris said that he wanted to do whatever it took to stay sober. He realized that he was powerless against his disease, she says. And yet, after several more hard months, in August of 2019 he entered a residential treatment center called Desert Hope that my mom had found. It cost $1,000 per week, and she could only afford to pay for two weeks. Chris detoxed there and started back toward sobriety. When he got out, he stayed sober, attending daily AA meetings.

He would send me pictures of the coins he earned every 30 days for going without a drink. I still was not 100 percent ready to let him back in my life, but I would text encouragement: “Good work! Keep it up!” When ­I saw him that December—stopping through Las Vegas on my way to Death Valley—I thought that his eyes looked clearer, but he also seemed depressed: he could barely muster excitement when my mom and I gave him and my stepdad their Christmas present, a weeklong rafting trip the following summer. Our hug when I left was brief.

Even as Chris’s alcoholism grew worse, no one did what my mom kept threatening to do: stage an intervention. We were all too hopeful, maybe. Too stupid, probably. Uneducated about the disease, definitely.

The good news was that he was making progress, still trying. By January, he’d gotten a job in the IT department at Desert Hope. He was also riding his bike—a new Scott Speedster my parents bought him—every morning before work.

I wrote on Facebook once that I wished riding could have helped Chris like it helped me—through depression, insecurity, and my own drinking issues—but that I might have been wrong about the correct approach. My parents’ neighbor Diane Holman responded to this post by offering something I found useful. “Chris did take up riding his bike,” she wrote. “Not the way you were hoping for perhaps. Several mornings he rode past our house. I was out walking and enjoyed our short morning hellos.”

Geri saw him at Christmas Eve mass a few days after I left. “He was a different man,” she told me. “He was grateful and sober.”

By early 2020, my brother’s body was shutting down. During the end stage of liver failure, a lot goes wrong. The abdomen keeps filling with fluid, which makes it hard to eat and breathe. My mom remembers Chris sitting in his chair in the living room, taking small sips of air. When they walked, he had trouble keeping up. No one knew how bad things had gotten, because he didn’t complain. My mom believes that no degree of severity would have persuaded him to go to the hospital. COVID-19 was surging, and he didn’t want to die alone.

He said nothing, even on his last night. He just told my parents he wasn’t hungry and said goodnight. My mom decided to let him sleep in the next morning. When enough time had passed that she thought she should check on him, she opened his door and found him dead. The date was May 28, 2020.

I’ll never know if he saw it coming. But a text he sent in March indicates that he thought he would live. “It’s so profound,” he wrote. “The whole country is on quarantine lockdown except AA meetings. I’m at one now. It’s a progressive disease and the longer a person is succumbed to it, the worse it gets. In a way, you and Shawn started me on my road to recovery. Thanks very much. I’ll tell you when that was if you want.”

He died before we talked about the fact that he believed I’d helped him. So I’m left hoping that it happened when we were on the top of a hill he’d climbed on his bike in Kansas, smiling and feeling proud.