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:
The 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?