My brother’s keeper

At our house, our kitchen counter serves as a place to prepare food, leave messages for each other and drop the daily mail. I came home from Mass today and sifted through yesterday’s mail that Husband had fetched from the mailbox. “Oh no,” I said, fingering one particular piece. “Yeah,” he said, “I was debating whether I should leave that for you to see.” It was this:

CAM01309The notice was on a card I’d sent to my brother the prior week. It was the second letter I’d sent in four months. The first wasn’t answered, but it wasn’t returned either, so I took that as Sign of Life. This returned one means that B is no longer living at his last-known address, or, maybe, something worse. I’m a journalist by training, so I could find out what this worst might be, but I can’t bring myself to tonight. The past eight weeks have been a never-ending stream of Hard and I’m just not my normal Little Engine That Could.

The last time I saw B was more than a year ago. I was concerned because I couldn’t reach my brother by phone and the last time we spoke – the night of our father’s death – things had not gone well. B only gets pay-as-you-go coverage on his phone, so I always know when he’s absent a job and can’t pay as he goes, because the phone no longer rings.

That day, about a year ago, Husband and I drove to Phoenix to check on him and he hid from us in the backyard of a house he had told us he owned, a house he said he got through a quitclaim deed from his prior roommate. Each time we’d made the trek up north we found him in the backyard of this house, never in it, and he never invited us inside. After this final visit, we accepted he was most likely living in the backyard, not the house. We also had to accept that he didn’t want to see us because he ducked behind a wall the minute he heard me call his name. Husband, being tall enough to view over the fence, saw B before he went into hiding, so we knew he was alive. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

I spent all my free moments the next week talking to a mental health professional about my brother and how to approach him. I don’t know his diagnosis and I couldn’t report if he was on medication, I could only report behavior. He can seem fairly normal one day and the next manic or anxious or paranoid. Five years ago he spent Christmas with us, and while there were a few moments of Awkward, overall he did well. But then just two months later he was incoherent, bits of his life all mixed up like a 500-piece puzzle falling out of the phone at me in a torrent of pain.

The mental health professional and I went over a variety of options, and we had to settle on me sending letters with information about how to get help and a phone card. I couldn’t do a well-check because I couldn’t say for certain that B didn’t have a gun. Lots of veterans have them. If I sent cops to do a well-check and B wasn’t well and got aggressive, my do-gooding would land my sick brother in jail instead of a hospital. So I sent a letter. I didn’t get a response or a phone call. And now, laying on my kitchen counter, an “Attempted, not known, unable to forward” postal message.

A long time ago, when we were the final two children in a home troubled by alcoholism and abuse, I was my brother’s keeper. The problem was, I wasn’t very good at it. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of us standing in our pajamas in a dark hallway watching our parents yell at each other. B was shaking so badly that his right hand kept hitting mine and his left was hitting the wall. “Make them stop,” he cried, “make them stop.” I couldn’t control those adults of course, but instead of comforting my brother I yelled at him: “Stop shaking, you have to stop shaking!”

He was a fragile child, always, and suffered at the hands of bullies in school. There was no refuge at home, because forty years ago little boys weren’t allowed to cry and fathers yelled at you if you weren’t “man enough” by eight years old. As I’ve said before, my parents did the best they could with what they had, but they simply weren’t equipped to deal with their own marital misery and the needs of their children. And in the end, living amid chaos and fear, all of us children moved into survival mode, focused on saving ourselves.

I know it is “normal” to do that in a highly stressful environment, but it doesn’t make me feel any better, looking back, realizing that I should have reached out more to my brother, paid more attention to what was happening to him, tried to get him help long, long ago. Nor does it make me feel better knowing that at any point in the past five years since we have been re-connected, I’ve never offered shelter to him. He’s my brother, for goodness sake.

There was reason to keep him out of our house when we had children growing up; the parental instinct of protection is one that must be attended to. But after they left home and B and I had had a year of phone conversations leading to a dinner in Phoenix leading to Christmas at our home with three of our four 20-something children, there wasn’t really a reason. Maybe if he lived with Husband and I, he’d get better.

Except for the fact that just two months after that normal Christmas, we gave him a used computer and two hours later he called me frantic that he saw something in a picture we accidentally left of the hard drive, a picture of my son in ski goggles. The government was spying on him through those goggles, he yelled at me. Why was I trying to help the government spy on him? I finally gave the phone to Husband, who spent an hour trying to calm him down. We thought it was settled, but he called at least three more times that night, continuing to yell at me about helping the government spy. Finally, I said I wouldn’t talk to him anymore and hung up on him.

Two weeks later he called, a different person. Calm. Apologized. “I’ve ruined the computer,” he said. He explained that he tried to “scrub” the insides with a toothbrush. He couldn’t stop, his mind wouldn’t let him, until he’d pulled everything inside the computer out. There was no fixing it. “I’ll pay you back,” he said. I told him his phone call had frightened me, asked if he remembered what he said. Yes, he said, sometimes he got a little paranoid and it made him say stupid things.

“A little?” I asked. He chuckled. No, he said, more than a little. But he was getting help now. Except, it seems he wasn’t. Because if he was, he wouldn’t have been living in his back yard.

B is suffering. He is mentally ill and he’s poor, a lot like the People of the Bus. He can be scary – again, like some of the People of the Bus. You have to wonder which comes first – the being poor so then you can’t get help for Illness and Illness morphs into Scary, or being mentally ill so you can’t hold down a job and unemployment leads to terror? I don’t know. All I really know is that because B is unpredictable, I’m uncertain how to get him help without risking him hurting me out of fear someone is trying to hurt him. As the youngsters say, “It’s complicated.”

And yet. I see my 8-year-old brother shaking in that childhood hallway and at 19, at our mother’s funeral shaking again, and then just last year, hiding in his backyard, huddled behind a cabinet, no doubt still shaking. And my heart breaks. Then I see him, five years ago at Christmas, 49 years old but looking 60, laughing with two of my sons and building a gingerbread house. And I wonder, am I not my brother’s keeper? If not, who is?

 

 

 

 

On funeral etiquette, ritual and grief

My new job requires me to travel quite a bit, so sadly, I’m doing less bus riding and more car driving of late. Now instead of noticing things on the bus, I’m noticing things on the road, including something I’ve never seen in 15 years living in this Tucson suburb – a funeral procession. It looked a lot like this:1388118391_cb42260d2bThe reaction of other drivers to this event made me think about the pace of our lives. Most of the cars driving in the opposite direction of the procession just kept on driving. They didn’t slow down, and only one pulled to the side of the road and stopped.

As a young child I was taught that all cars should stop when a funeral procession is approaching,and if driving in the same direction, one would never overtake it. That lesson was long time ago but it stuck, so I was surprised to see so many drivers acting as if nothing was happening as the procession passed by.

I don’t think people were necessarily trying to be rude. There’s a chance they’d never seen a funeral procession (especially not one at 5:30 p.m.) or that they’d never been taught funeral procession etiquette.

But there’s also a chance they were simply too busy to notice. There are children to fetch from school and groceries to buy and dinner to cook and music lessons and soccer games to get to and blogs to write and … all this after working an 8 or 9 hour day. We’re tired. We’re distracted. And, frankly, I think we’ve lost touch with the importance of ritual as a process that helps us grieve.

The Western world, IMHO, doesn’t have much space for grief any more. In other countries – those we like to call “developing” – when a parent loses a child or a spouse his or her mate, the grieved person can take to the streets and wail and it is considered perfectly appropriate. You’re allowed to dress in black and hole yourself up in your room and burst into tears at a moments notice and no one questions it. There are funeral rituals that last days, if not weeks.

Here in the “modern world,” we’re not so good at that. We allow for some grieving, and some religions are better than others at offering rituals that helps walk people through the beginning stages of mourning. But as a culture in general, we want people to pick themselves up and march right along as if nothing has happened. Sure, you can feel out-of-sorts for a week or two, but then you’ll have people tell you to “keep busy” and “move on with your life” and other advice that only further highlights how uncomfortable we are around overwhelming sadness. We prefer people pretend that their heart hasn’t been ripped from their chests and torn into a million pieces; we’d like them to ignore the fact that every time they try to take a drink of water it feels like they are swallowing glass.

This past week, the 33-year-old husband of a former colleague of mine died. He possessed a great talent for someone so young, evidenced by his body of work in photojournalism. And, evidenced by the 100 or so people who attended his wake, he possessed a larger-than-life ability to be a friend.

Both he and his wife were journalists, making them part of the tribe I call my own, so I went to the wake to pay my respects even though I didn’t know Will. I saw a few of my former students and expressed how difficult it must be to have a friend who is so close to their age die. One explained that this was her second experience of young death and she had learned something the first time around. This time, she said, “I’m giving myself time to be sad.” As tears welled up in her eyes, she told me she wasn’t going to pretend things were normal when they weren’t.

That’s what we do when we stop for a funeral procession – we acknowledge that things are not normal. Perhaps it seems an old-fashioned ritual, but in our busy lives, I think we need more of it. We pay heed that the world has changed for the people in that long line of slow-moving cars. We pay attention, if even only for the two or three minutes it takes for the procession to pass, to the fact that someone lived and has now died. And maybe (hopefully) we think about the people following the hearse and the sadness they feel, growing a tiny bit more empathetic to our fellow human beings as they walk through the valley of death.

 

 

 

 

On reading the Bible in public

We’re in the homestretch with Lent, with just two more weeks until Easter. This week will be difficult but Holy Week will be better, due to the oh-so-close feeling of being inches away from Easter Sunday. (Forgive me Father, for I am a Lenten whiner.)

I’ve been pretty good with my Lenten sacrifices, but not perfect. It’s been easier to succeed with the #LentChallenge of reading the entire New Testament through during the 40 days of Lent, as long as I stick to my bus-stop reading schedule. But in the past two weeks, due to a friend’s death and some family illness, my bus riding has been lessened and so I’ve been reading the Good Book in an airport, on an airplane, in coffee shops, in parking lots and in restaurants. It has been catch-as-catch can, which has meant a whole lot of reading the Bible in public because falling behind – as I did a week ago – is a pain.

Reading the Bible in public definitely draws the looks of strangers, but I just try to get down to business, plow through that day’s reading assignment and not worry about what anyone might think. Most likely no one thinks anything at all, but this past week, first at an In and Out Burger and then at a Starbucks, three people did.

At the burger place, two construction workers asked me how long I’d been a Christian and if I found Bible study easy. This led to an odd conversation over French fries about Catholics being Christian, scholar notes in scripture and God in the movies. I felt like I should go to confession afterwards because the whole time the men were speaking with me, all I could think was, “I only have 30 minutes to get this reading done and you’re interrupting me!”  Completely and totally not the reaction anyone should have to another human being, especially when you’re trying to emulate Jesus. Sigh.

At the Starbucks, a man watched me for 30 minutes but, luckily for my reading schedule, didn’t say anything until he was ready to leave. Then, he stood up, nudged his movie-star sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, tossed his empty coffee cup in the trash and walked over to my table. Nodding toward my Bible he said, “Good for you and God bless you.” And in that moment, I did feel blessed. Now if only I can pass it on.

Less of a Lent loser this time #Lentchallenge

I have the self-discipline of a sloth. I’d like to have focus and determination of a leaf-cutter ant or some other creature of control and tenacity, but in much of my life, I simply don’t.

This is especially true when it comes to Lenten practices. I’m impressed by people who can abstain from coffee for 40 days and still be gracious at the workplace, or folks who sacrifice a particularly addicting pleasure (chocolate, movies, Facebook) and never complain. I really admire those who add significant extras to their Lenten journey (daily Mass, for instance, or what Brian Harper’s doing over at Busted Halo) and still exude peacefulness in a world where there is never enough time.

While I’ve not been a total Lent loser, I’ve rarely made it to the Easter finish line without the sad side-effect of replacing the sin I was trying to conquer (i.e. gluttony) with another (i.e. grumpiness). Not exactly the reason for the season.

But this year may be the non-loser one for me. The #LentChallenge of reading the New Testament in 40 days is proving quite doable, perhaps because this particular discipline fits my personality: I like to read, I like to learn, and I like to be able to check off boxes or cross things off lists.

Additionally, it fits my bus-riding habit. I’m on the Route #6 for about 40 minutes each day, and the readings take about 35. I just hop on and read for the ride, which is what I would normally do but with the daily paper, not the Bible. (Lo, she went into the desert for 40 days with only the Word of God and became woefully uninformed about the world. Journo 5:18)

This change of habit – Bible not newspaper – has led to some interesting encounters with other members of the Public Transit Tribe. One man asks questions every day about what text I’m reading and then tries to engage in a verbal battle about why the Bible is “crazy.” Another woman asks me which Church I attend and raises her eyebrows when she hears the name. “Oh, you’re Catholic?” she asks. “That’s interesting.”

These experiences and others have made me realize how uncomfortable I am reading a religious text in the public square, and that has made me think a bit on why that discomfort exists. I wasn’t always this way, but then again, I didn’t always ride a public bus or work at a public university.

It’s safe to say the majority of people where I work are non-religious and many have no qualms about expressing their disdain of all things faith. They are especially intolerant of Islam and Catholicism, although they would never call it intolerance. For instance, someone will say the Catholic Church is “categorically wrong” to fight abortion because “a woman has the right to her own body.” If a Catholic were to point out that yes, a woman does have the right to her own body and by the same token, so does the female fetus, that person would be dismissed as being blinded by religion, even though groups like Secular Pro-Life make the same argument and are atheist.

Or someone will say that they don’t understand how a Muslim woman – a graduate student, for goodness sake! – could choose to wear a hijab, and when that woman tries to explain her feminist rationale for doing so, the non-religious person will announce that the Muslim woman is misinformed about true feminism because she is “constrained by her religious heritage.”

I’ve had a professor describe the parents of potential university recruits as “holy rollers” and had colleagues make offensive jokes about every religion possible because I used to be a religion reporter and it is assumed I’ll find the jokes funny.  I’ve stood in line for coffee behind women in abayas and overheard whispered criticism of them as “religious nuts,” and had Christian professors in the sciences confide that they are in a “religious closet” because they don’t want to be labeled zealots or have their research questioned.

Considering this, it is probably not surprising that I’m uncomfortable reading a Bible in public. But because I really don’t want to be a Lent Loser this year, I’ll keep it up. Maybe if I make it all the way through, my husband will buy me a pony. Or, at least a chocolate bunny.

#LentChallenge Learning

I’m a week into the #LentChallenge of reading the New Testament in 40 days and I’m only two days behind! Notice the positive spin: I could have said, “I’m already two days behind,” but if I did, I’d only feel rotten about myself. Instead, I’m only two days behind!!! That sounds pretty successful to me.

For reference, keep in mind that I’m using the New American Bible translation, which includes scripture scholar notes. I’m spending as much time reading all the footnotes and references as I am the text, which is probably why I’m two days behind. That and the fact that I had a huge birthday surprise to host this weekend with lots of out-of-town guests and distractions.

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As originally announced by the author who sent out the Lent Challenge, folks are supposed to be blogging/tweeting/facebooking about what they’re learning/relearning as they read through the New Testament this Lent. Mostly this is happening on Twitter, but here’s my four-shot of what stood out in Matthew:

1) The name Jesus was a “common Jewish name”; first-century Hebrew would be Joshua (Greek: Iesous). So, in Matthew 27:16, where Pilate is asking the crowd who they want released, he asks, “Which do you want me to release to you, {Jesus} Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” The footnote says “this reading is found in only a few textual witnesses, although its absence in the majority can be explained as an omission of Jesus made for reverential reasons. … The Aramaic name Barabbas means ‘son of the father'; the irony of the choice offered between him and Jesus, the true son of the Father, would be evident to those addressees of Matthew who knew that.”

2) Jesus, long preached as merciful and forgiving, is shown as petulant in at least one part of Matthew, 21:18-19, where he curses a fig tree that had no fruit on it when he was hungry. ” ‘May no fruit ever come from you again,’ he said. And immediately the fig tree withered.” Ouch.

3) The term “brother” is interpreted different ways in different verses. Matthew 18:21-23 regarding forgiving your brother 77 times, is a direct instruction to disciples of Christ forgiving their fellow disciples who sin against them. It would make one wonder about forgiveness of non-Christians (or, in ancient Israel, non-countrymen) except Jesus has already commanded his followers in Matthew 5:44 to love their enemies “and pray for those who persecute you.”

4) Finally, a verse that’s been co-opted by popular culture and tossed around like a juggling ball, “Don’t judge me .…” and was the basis for the quote heard round the world when Pope Francis’ uttered, “Who am I to judge...”. The scholar’s note on Matthew 7:1 – “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” – is interesting:

“This is not a prohibition against recognizing the faults of others … but against passing judgment in a spirit of arrogance, forgetful of one’s own faults.”

The power of food

This is how unconscious I am about the eating of food: It is Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting for Catholics, a fact I reminded myself of multiple times this morning when packing to head home from the conference I was at. I’ve also reminded myself that my 40-day sacrifice centers around giving up certain food and giving the money saved to charity, the alms-giving part of Lent that is easy to forget. Lucky, we have the Pope explaining on Twitter:

And yet, in spite of these reminders, when I walk into the hotel lobby to wait for my cab and I see the box of salt-water taffy, my first thought is, “Great, if the taxi is late, at least I won’t go hungry.” Really. Then, a nano-second later, I slap my subconscious to remind it that today is Ash Wednesday and I move the taffy out of my view.

Sigh.

I am a stress-eater and a happy-eater and a eat-at-my-desk eater. I wasn’t always this way, but these past couple of years, I have grown more and more unaware of what and when I eat, eating far more than needed of particularly unhealthy foods. It is a problem on a number of levels, not the least of which because I call myself a Christian and in that name comes a certain promise to treat my body as a temple. To appreciate what God has given me and not prance willy-nilly through sugarland. So, this Lent, I want desperately to be more aware. My experience in the hotel lobby shows this will be a long 40 days.

There’s been a movement in the last decade or so to “do something for Lent” instead of give something up. Me thinks we’re all such a mess and have so much need for improvement and drawing closer to God and neighbor that we should be doing both, and also, that sometimes, “doing something” is simply an excuse to not have to suffer with giving up something. We are physical beings and our senses help us relate to the world. When you have to say no to something you want desperately to say yes to, you are more likely to think about people who have no option for yes or no. And when you’re hungry – like during the Ash Wednesday fast – you pay closer attention.

For me, that’s meant noticing today how much food we are surrounded by. Everywhere, all the time. If not in reality (the guy sitting across from me in the airport waiting area eating a 500-foot-long, mile-high sandwich), then in the virtual world (food commercials breaking up the CNN news feed). No wonder people struggle with obesity. Who could have daily will power in this land of food excess?

And then, you also notice this: The woman in the park sleeping, an apple core near her head. The guy digging in the trashcan outside a restaurant. The small children in the soup kitchen line. I think this noticing is probably important, and it doesn’t happen without a heightened awareness that comes from giving something up. That said, if you’re looking for something to do instead of something to give up, this year-old video by Fr. Jim Martin (who lets his college roommate choose his Lenten sacrifice) offers some great advice.

My sister, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and causing a scene

The first time I called the police to intervene in family matters, I was about 12 years old. I can still see myself standing in the kitchen of my childhood, looking into the living room where my parents would not stop yelling at each other, announcing – as if were the most normal thing to do in the world – that I was calling the police.addiction

They didn’t hear, or didn’t care, and I dialed the number and the dispatcher (“How old are you?”) sent two police officers who came into our home, stood between my parents, told them to calm down and explained that it would be a good idea if they stopped drinking for the night.

“You have kids,” one of the officers said, and I recall my parents looking around as though alcohol and arguing had made them forget that, yes, indeed, my little brother and I still existed.

The next time I called law enforcement into family matters was a week ago, when my sister posted messages on Facebook that included a young woman with a sign stating suicide is never the answer. My sister had commented something to the effect that maybe it might be.

Like so many people in my extended family tree – and the guy who sat next to me on the bus today reeking of booze and pot at 7:15 a.m., and the professor I know who can’t meet for Saturday morning coffee because he has to make an AA meeting, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman – my sister has an addiction. It is a cross to bear that seems so much heavier than most.

She has suffered long and hard fighting her addiction, and has managed extended patches of dry and sane punctuated by dark, troubled times under the influence. The news of Hoffman’s death – and the uncharitable reaction to that death by some – had really affected her. She explained that unless someone has an addiction, they simply can’t understand what would drive anyone, against all logic and common sense, to do the thing they know they should not do.

When I saw the Facebook posts, I emailed my sister, asking her to hang on – as others on social media were doing – and saying I’d call in 30 minutes. But when I called, both her cell and landline went to voice mail. I left messages and waited for responses. I called other relatives to see if they’d had luck reaching her, but they hadn’t. I waited a little longer and then called law enforcement in her town for a well check. I did this because I remembered a call I didn’t make years ago when my mother started saying things similar to what my sister was now espousing. I was 20 years old, and had lost the bravado of my 12-year-old self. If I called the cops, I’d make my already distressed mother angry, bringing pain and embarrassment to a life that had already had too much of both. I didn’t want to cause a scene.

The next day, when I found her motionless in bed and grabbed the phone to dial 911, it was too late. Exactly 30 minutes too late, according to the time of death estimate. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with my sister. So I called, and it did cause a scene. But it was worth it.

My mother’s death certificate labels the cause of death “Respiratory failure due to, or as a consequence of, overdose of multiple chemical agents.” There are classification areas on the certificate labeled “natural causes, accident, suicide, homicide, undetermined or pending.” The one the coroner checked is “accident.”

That’s because most people with an addiction don’t mean to kill themselves. They are driven to their drug of choice by sadness or anxiety or the overwhelming chemical desire and brain circuitry that creates addiction, or 1,000 other things. They pick up a drink or a drug and another and another until they can’t pick it up anymore. Usually, when they do this, they are alone. Sometimes they wake up and sometimes they don’t. It happened to my mother. It happened to Hoffman. It could have happened to my sister.

Aaron Sorkin wrote the best obituary about Hoffman I’ve seen, with this section was especially on point: “Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor … did not die from an overdose of heroin – he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he had just taken the proper amount, everything would have been fine. He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed. He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”

There are a lot of those days in a week, and a lot of people dragging a cross of addiction through them. Don’t be afraid to reach out. It’s okay to cause a scene.

(I thank my sister for being willing to share herself in this column through my writing.)