When we were kids, we thought that our cousin Mike was the Incredible Hulk.
I can’t recall if Mike “suggested” to my brother Chad and me that he was the mean green man, or if Chad simply saw the resemblance and thought that he had uncovered the Hulk’s plain-guy identity, but we thought we were related to a comic book hero.
At the very least, we figured that Mike was Lou Forigno’s body double: he was a short, sculpted bodybuilder with a massive, muscular chest and arms, and he had that signature Lou Forigno/Patrick Swayze feathered hair. Certainly they wouldn’t overlook him as Forigno’s wingman to take a stunt-beating on-film.
We were maybe six and seven—Chad my elder by a year—when Chad charged the neighbor kids a nickel admission to our garage to see the Incredible Hulk, right there in the flesh in Douglas Drive. He had a whole following on our block.
The Hulk’s most impressive performance was flexing his pecks to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” making his chest muscles jump up and down to the beat of the song as he hummed it. We begged him to do it every time he came up from Peoria to visit.
In his late 30s and early 40s, Mike was a hero to us in the way that older cousins can be: someone you admire because 1.) they’re older than you are, and 2.) they’re the model of the kind of adult you want to become: smart, funny, and successful. He drove a convertible Alfa Romeo Spider and made the five-and-a-half-hour drive to our cabin in four hours.
He was cool as hell.
Our family didn’t discover that Mike was an alcoholic until 1996, when, following his divorce, he came to live with us during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.
My dad noticed Mike sipping Cokes at our cabin during the day—all day—and caught a whiff of vodka in the can one afternoon. Then the booze in our house started disappearing. Mom and Dad (to remove temptation) gave the rest of it away; resourceful Mike drank the cooking sherry. Bottles and beer cans started appearing in strange places, and we would continue to find them for months to come: behind my dad’s shaving cream in the medicine cabinet, under the counter with the Tupperware, beneath a pile of sheets in the linen closet. He hid his habit all over our house.
Over the summer, Mike’s drinking escalated until the day he led a drunken high-speed police chase along Lake Pulaski to our front lawn. When the squad cars circled around our driveway, the curious neighbors thought my teenage brother was getting into trouble—not our grown cousin, with his master’s degree, his (now-lost) business, and his (now-ex) wife.
It was jail time or rehab, and Mike opted for the latter. It was the first of two treatment programs he would undergo during his foray at my folks’ that summer, followed by the first of two times that he would begin drinking shortly after release.
By fall, Mike was barely coherent. Red-faced and glassy-eyed, he would take his seat at the dinner table with a dopey, vacant smile on his face and contribute awkwardly, with delayed timing, to family conversations.
Then one night before I went off to watch a high school football game, Mom and I found Mike unconscious in the basement, propped upright in a recliner. He was unresponsive. We called 911.
The paramedics managed to wake Mike before taking him off to detox. He looked around the room in a haze, blinking, blinking, blinking, with no one steering the ship. He was an empty shell. The paramedics told my parents later that they had never seen a person with as high of a blood alcohol content as Mike’s was who was still alive and not in a coma.
After rehab stint #2, Mike resumed drinking before he even made it back to our house. Mom and Dad told him if he wouldn’t stop, he had to leave.
He disappeared for more than a year after that. No one in the family knew where he was, or if he was even still alive.
Over the next 13 years, Mike surfaced sporadically: in Illinois, in Texas, living for periods of time with family, on the streets, with a girlfriend.
Mike was 56 years old when he died last month, with my father and uncle holding his hands in a hospital room in Texas.
Before slipping into a coma, his dying request was that there be no funeral, no wake, no memorial service. Nothing to mark that he ever existed. Just a cremation of his body and disposal of the ashes.
Surely there would be something: some words said over his body or uttered before a photograph of him when he was healthy, with his urn on display by a bouquet of flowers. Or perhaps a gravestone marking his life, carved with a wise and warning epitaph: “Don’t follow my path. Choose life!”
But there was, as Mike requested, nothing.
In the end, he was simply snuffed from life by a sickness that stole from him even the desire to be remembered as sober Bruce Banner, a god of my youth, the Incredible Hulk.