Brian Arredondo was 17 and living with his mother in Maine in August 2004 when he looked outside and saw two Marines approach the front door. They wouldn’t say why they wanted to speak with his mother, who wasn’t there, but he knew.
“When I came home, Brian came out to the driveway,’’ said his mother, Victoria Foley. “He said, ‘I’m sorry Mom.’ He just kept saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ ’’
Parked around the corner, the Marines returned to say her oldest son, Alex, a Marine lance corporal, had been killed in Iraq. The phone rang with an emotional, agitated call from the boys’ father, Carlos Arredondo, who lived in Florida. Then another call: Turn on the TV.
They watched coverage of Carlos, who took gasoline, a propane tank, and a lighting device into a Marine Corps van outside his house. The van began to burn, and though Carlos said later it was an accident, not a suicide attempt, the flames seared about a quarter of his body.
“Brian said, ‘Oh my God, what happens if my father dies?’ It was a double whammy for him,’’ Foley said. “We were standing outside that afternoon and he said, ‘I just want to die. How can I live?’ ’’
‘I knew he was having a hard time coping, but I couldn’t reach him.’
He was 24 when he took his life Dec. 19, in a small building on the property of his mother’s Norwood home, his family said.
Life offered an abundance of sadness and turmoil since the day he learned that his brother was dead and, within minutes, that his father was inside a burning van.
Brian Arredondo had dropped out of high school when his brother first went to Iraq. After a sniper killed Alex, Brian worked occasionally as a custodian and for a florist. Everyone knew he struggled.
“I used to say, ‘Brian, I see through that smile. People don’t understand what’s going on with you with that smile,’ ’’ said his stepmother, Melida Arredondo of Roslindale. “That smile could hide a lot.’’
At a funeral Mass Dec. 28 in St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain, Carlos said simply: “We both refused to admit that we had mental problems.’’
Depression rippled through the family after Alex’s death. Carlos and Melida sought inpatient psychiatric treatment at McLean Hospital in Belmont, and they urged Brian to seek help, too. So did Foley.
During the week before he died, “I asked him three times to let me take him to some doctor or clinic or crisis center,’’ his mother recalled. “I said, ‘Just talk to someone.’ ’’
Brushes with the law and stints in jail also punctuated the years after Alex’s death. Mr. Arredondo told his parents little, except that his legal troubles involved disputes with girlfriends, restraining orders, trespassing, a tussle with a girlfriend’s father.
He was due in court two days after he died; he had told his mother he expected to go to jail, maybe for years. He handed out presents early, gave away possessions to friends, and told his mother he might not be around for Christmas.
In 2003, just before Alex was first deployed to Iraq, he sent his brother a letter saying, “I feel so lucky to be blessed with the chance to defend my country six months after I joined the military.’’ To his father, Alex wrote: “I am not afraid of dying. I am more afraid of what will happen to all the ones that I love if something happens to me.’’
Brian Luis Arredondo was born in Boston. Barely a toddler when his parents parted ways, he spent his childhood and youth in Jamaica Plain, Dedham, Norwood, Randolph, and in Maine.
“We only lived in places four or five years at a time, and that created an anxiety in him that I didn’t realize was happening,’’ his mother said.
Still, she added, “the simplest things could make that boy happy. He always wanted to do something to get a quarter so he could go to the bubble gum machine in Jamaica Plain, just to watch the gumball come down.’’
Alex and Brian, about 2 1/2 years apart, grew close over the years. “It was very beautiful to see them growing up,’’ their father said.
When Alex left for the Marines days after finishing high school, though, Brian Arredondo lost interest in school. Motivation slipped further away after Alex was killed.
“In the last few years, he was very lost. He was very, very lost,’’ Melida said of her stepson. “It was unusual for a kid who had so much energy and so much fun with life to not be able to motivate himself. He really struggled.’’
Said Foley: “Brian didn’t talk; he acted. He was the kind of kid who acted on his emotions, and I think that’s how he got lost. The military didn’t offer him therapy, or even bereavement counseling. I think that’s when he started self-medicating.’’
Flirtations with substance abuse augmented his drift, but life wasn’t always that way. During Mr. Arredondo’s funeral Mass last month, friends spoke of their affection for a young man they called a natural leader.
Meanwhile, Alexander Scott Arredondo was, in some ways, as prominent in death as he had been in life, if not more so. Carlos and Melida became part of the peace movement, carrying photos of Alex during demonstrations.
“Over the years, we tried to channel our grief into activism,’’ Melida said. “Brian was with us at Occupy Boston. He enjoyed it.’’
At some protests, Carlos pushed a flag-draped model coffin bearing Alex’s uniform and dog tags.
Last August, US Representative Michael E. Capuano spoke at a ceremony when a post office in Jamaica Plain was renamed in Alex’s honor. Brian Arredondo and Nathan Foley, his younger half-brother, were each given a flag in memory of Alex.
“Time sometimes does heal, but for him, it just got worse,’’ his mother said. “I told him on many occasions, ‘I wish I could bring your brother back.’ If I could do one thing in this world, it would be to bring his brother back, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And I tried to be strong for him and tell him it was going to be OK, but it wasn’t.’’
In addition to his mother and half-brother, both of Norwood, and his father and stepmother, both of Roslindale, Mr. Arredondo leaves his paternal grandmother, Luz Marina Redondo of Costa Rica.
“I didn’t give up, you know? I knew he was depressed, I knew he was having a hard time coping, but I couldn’t reach him,’’ his mother said. “And maybe it’s harder for boys. We’ve got to let these boys know that it’s OK to be emotional and to share it.’’