Listen to Kevin Christofferson read the article as you follow along.

Memories of Little Sister Inspire Musician to Help Women

You hold the CD in your hand and feel as if you’re holding somebody’s whole life, right there in your palm. In a way, you are.

The cover is red; dead center is an old black-and-white 1950s snapshot of a little boy and girl. The little girl’s name was Laura, and that’s the name of the CD. The music inside tells Laura’s story better than words ever could, but I’ll try.

Back when the photo was taken, Brad and Laura Mersereau were 4 and 2 years old. Already they were close. And through the rocky decades that followed, the brother and sister stayed close. “She had strawberry-blond hair and a lot of freckles,” says Brad. “ She had a lot of friends. She embraced life. She giggled a lot.”

Brad says they grew up in an alcoholic household. “My father stopped drinking at 50. He got sober just in the nick of time, and for his last 26 years he was clean and sober. I’m extremely proud of him for having stopped. I told him that before he died, and he thanked me.”

Brad excelled at his studies, but learning came harder for Laura. “But there was a balance, because her people skills were so good.”

At 19, Laura began to use drugs. “She was introduced to LSD by an older fellow, unfortunately,” says Brad. “It changed her.” Brad was there for his sister when she came home one night, high on LSD. “I stayed up with her all night. I tried to help, but I never have used drugs. I knew she was scared out of her mind at the images, though. She needed to have somebody tell her it was all right and it would pass. But in her case I don’t believe she was ever the same. So it didn’t pass.”

Brad doesn’t know when Laura started drinking. “It was secretive. It really wasn’t completely clear until about the last 10 years of her life.” Laura functioned pretty well in spite of her drinking, getting her nurses’ aide certification, marrying a man she truly loved.

Brad married as well, and launched a career as a pianist in Portland, playing in local clubs and hotels. His life was going well.

But Laura’s was not. Brad saw that both Laura and her husband were drinking a lot. “They loved one another, but it was not your normal story of love. I’d see them walking hand in hand in Northwest Portland. They sustained one another, and some of the ways they did were healthy. But Laura was a bubbling, effervescent, gregarious human being. Over the years the alcohol took the giggles away.”

Brad says he talked to Laura about her drinking but she’d deny she had a problem. As the years went by, he became more direct. “The signs were there. She had the shaking. It was very pronounced. Holding a cup of coffee was a bit of a struggle.”

By the mid-1990s Laura’s husband was facing serious medical consequences of drinking. Brad arranged a novel intervention. “They loved limousines so I had a black limo pick him up and take him to see a doctor who told him he still had time, he could live, but he had to quit drinking immediately. He heard the words but he chose not to follow them. And he died.”

Laura was devastated. Instead of quitting alcohol, as Brad hoped she would, she tried to lose her sorrow in drink. And then her health began to fail. Laura was in her mid-40s and was hospitalized twice in 18 months for alcohol-related problems.

Brad became insistent: she had to stop drinking. “Sometimes she’d scream and yell and everything, but we had this mantra. I would say to her, ‘What are we trying to do here, Laura?’ and she would respond, ‘We are trying to keep me alive.’ She knew she could call me or two or three other people in the middle of the night. Our commitment was to keep her alive. The last 18 months of her life that’s the way it was.”

In early 1999 Laura was hospitalized again. “This time her doctors said ‘You have to stop. No ifs, ands, or buts. If you want to live, you must stop.’ ”

“I think she was sober.”

Laura stopped drinking. “What I’m most proud of her for, is that she accepted enough of my help that she could go with me to an AA meeting. I consider it a miracle that she could go in front of a 12-step group and say ‘I’m an alcoholic.’ ” For the next six months Laura stayed clean.

“I knew all the dances of denial,” says Brad, “and I think she was sober.”

Their relationship had been rocky, but Brad had never let go of his little sister. “It’s tricky to be parental and still keep the lines of communication open. But I have a card she sent me that says ‘Thank-you for being my brother. Love, Laura.’ It’s very important to me, to have that.”

Laura was sober, but the damage had been done. She had bad tremors and health problems. On June 13, 1999, Laura got dressed up to go out for the evening. She put on her high heels, sat down on her couch, and died. She was 46.

“They did an autopsy,” says Brad. “The medical examiner said that it was a perforated gastric ulcer. The toxic shock killed her very quickly. It was brought on by the drinking.”

Helping Women Like Laura

Brad was numb for a while after Laura died. He’d tried so hard to keep her alive; some part of him felt he’d failed as a brother. He arranged for a special service for Laura at his church. It didn’t seem like enough.

Slowly, Brad began to see how he would honor his sister, help other women like her, and preserve her memory.

First he gave Laura’s home to the YWCA and asked the organization to sell it and use the proceeds for a program they call Laura’s House. “We established two things,” says Jean DeMaster, director of the YWCA. “One is alcohol and drug-free housing for women… the other is… an alcohol and drug counselor who will help reach out to women in the Y programs. I was touched at how much Brad cared for his sister. We’re very grateful to him.”

But for Brad, the best way to honor his sister’s life was with music. Brad began to compose songs for Laura. “The musical theme is… different seasons, or cycles in the life process. ‘Sunrise’ is just the sound of a sax and human voices; it sounds like a beginning. ‘Arrival’ has interplay between vibraphone and piano.” The eight-song cycle ends with ‘Au Revoir.’ “It’s the saddest,” says Brad. “It’s about saying goodbye.”

Brad’s songs lift and pull you away, to a place where Laura laughs again, sighs again, grieves once more. There are songs on the album written by other composers, too. Some are standards, like ‘Laura.’ Brad’s producer invited some of Portland’s most talented musicians to perform, and Brad told them Laura’s story before each recording session began. When it was time for Brad to sing for his sister, he placed a photograph of Laura on his music stand.

“I’m a pianist, not a singer,” says Brad. “But I’d been practicing. It came out OK.”

The CD is on sale at Music Millennium, at the YWCA, at The Children’s Store, or by e-mail at bmersereau@comcast.net. It’s $15. Proceeds will go to Laura’s House at the YWCA, for alcohol and drug education. “You can do grief work playing music,” says Brad, “but I knew I needed to do more than play a tune or two about my sister on the job. Musically this CD was about teamwork; there’s a common vision. It speaks to what this project is about, which is the opposite of denial.”

Brad’s sister Laura died from drink. He loved her all her life, he always will. And he wants the world to know that.

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