I first posted this article last year on my brother’s birthday, but wanted to share it again.
Today is my brother’s birthday. I called him, something I don’t do very often. Twice a year, maybe? Christmas and birthdays. Hey, bro.
As always, I felt a wave of sadness pass through me when I hung up the phone, plus a mixture of “I should do that more often” and “It shouldn’t be this way.”
People are often surprised to find out I have a brother. Sometimes I’m surprised I have a brother. It’s not that I forget him, not really. It’s just that our lives are so incredibly foreign to each other that one exists quite well without the other. We are separated not only by thousands of miles of geography, but also by years of completely opposite experiences.
It wasn’t always this way. We’re only 11 months apart, after all. My parents thought they couldn’t have children and so, after years of trying, adopted a baby boy and named him Andy. The adoption system being what it was then, they had no knowledge of his birth parents’ history of mental illness and drug abuse. A month after they Andy came to live with my parents, they got pregnant with me. And so Andy and I grew up together, almost like twins, together in everything. Everywhere he went, I went. I skipped kindergarten, so he and I were in the same class from Grade 1 until he dropped out of school in Grade 11. We spent summers at the lake together as children, then winters on the ice as short track speedskaters. He was a natural athlete, easily winning National and North American championships year after year without the hours of training I subjected myself to. He was a natural scholar as well – again, while I studied day in and day out for those coveted A’s, the answers seemed to just come to him. He was an obscenely talented artist – name the medium, he could master it. He was charming and funny and so handsome it hurt. I didn’t begrudge him any of this – big brothers were supposed to be better than their little sisters, after all, and I was proud that he was my brother.
We started noticing the change in him in late junior high, maybe early high school. He stopped caring, stopped excelling. He quit speedskating and started flunking in school. His behaviour became obnoxious, even abusive. He would fly into uncontrollable rages and disappear for days at a time. I don’t remember all the details – although I’m sure my parents do with painful clarity – as I was wrapped up in my own minor teenage dramas. Who knows what triggered the change in him. Puberty? Excessive partying? A genetic bomb that finally ran out of fuse? Did the drug use bring on the mental illness, or did the mental illness make him more susceptible to drug addiction? All I know is that things went downhill fast – or at least that’s the way it seemed to me. One minute he was an outgoing, popular, accomplished athlete and straight-A student – the next he was a 16-year-old drug addict running a crack house with his girlfriend.
I’ll spare you the details of what the next several years were like. In fact, I don’t know that many details, because I went away to university at 17 and spent the summer traveling and getting into my own version of trouble. But I have a few memories, and mostly good ones. Understandably, I suppose, my parents didn’t want him “corrupting” me and discouraged us from spending time together. So we would sneak down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to whisper over mugs of hot chocolate with mini marshmallows. He was invariably stoned – he was dropping acid at least once a day at this point – and I would make funny faces at him and giggle as he freaked out from what his mind saw. I didn’t understand what it all meant then – I didn’t the road before him crumbling like a bridge in an earthquake. I would hang out with him and his buddies, the good little church girl mixing with the town bad-asses, politely declining the joint and who knows what else was casually passed around. Then there was the boy in high school who broke my heart … well, let’s just say my brother isn’t someone you want to have on your bad side. I was under the protection of one of the wildest, most violent guys in town – which, in retrospect, is probably why I didn’t have a lot of boyfriends.
There were bad memories too, of course, during the few months I spent at home. I remember hiding in my room, trying to close my ears against the screaming. Shielding my face as he raged at me with his fists, his out-of-control anger sparked by the most minor offense. Feeling the unbearable strain on our family and trying to make up for with better grades and perfect behaviour but knowing it would never be enough.
I was absent for the worst, though. The hole he kicked in our wall, the door he smashed with his steel-toed boots. The time he poured petroleum over himself and set himself on fire just to see what would happen. The permanent damage he inflicted on my mother with his verbal and emotional abuse. The times the police or a neigbour would find him half-dead in an alley and bring him home to my parents, who – every time – would take him in and nurse him back to health only to have him steal from them and hurl more abuse at them in return.
We thought it was just the drugs talking when he spoke of the voices in his head, telling him to do things. To be honest, we didn’t know a lot about mental illness – it wasn’t something people talked about in small-town New Brunswick. I think I was in my fourth year of university when he was first diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia. He had – finally – been arrested. The voices in his head told him that a friend of his was being sacrificed in a satanic ritual in one of the historic churches downtown. So, being the warrior that he thought he was, he broke into the church and tore it to pieces in the process of looking for his friend. He was arrested, sent for a mental health evaluation, and declared unfit to stand trial. I think to everyone, this diagnosis was a relief. Finally, we had answers. Finally, my parents could stop blaming themselves for how he had turned out. And finally, we could help him. The next several years found him in and out of the mental health hospital, sometimes relapsing or going off his medication and being sent back after being arrested for some other logic-defying behaviour. But at least we knew what was wrong, and after a few years of trial-and-error and unbelievably expensive tests and procedures, they seemed to find a medication that subdued the demons in his head and allowed him – and us – to be at peace.
The last decade of my brother’s life has been uneventful. He lives a very quiet life in a home with a few others with similar illnesses, visited once or twice a week by my dad. He sleeps a lot, reads a lot, draws and writes music. He goes to church and sometimes fancies himself a street evangelist. He’s wild to look at, all tattoos and piercings and long, matted and multi-coloured hair. But he’s known around town to be harmless, and that he is. The medication exhausts him and he’ll never be able to work, and he can’t handle being around people – even my parents – for more than an hour or two at a time. If conversations – like the one we had today – must be had, they are conducted in monosyllables. He is pleasant and seems happy – there’s just not a lot to say. He prefers solitude above all else, a far cry from the gregarious boy I grew up with.
And so here we are, living on opposite coasts and in opposite lives. It’s not that it’s easy to forget him – how does one forget what we have been through? It’s just that sometimes it’s easier to not remember. Because when I do, on days like today, I am forced to remember his chubby hand in mine as we chased kittens around our country home, the rush of adrenaline as I watched him break record after record on the ice, the junior high socks hops where he taught me to head bang – and how to dance. And then I picture him sitting alone in a dark room over 5,000 km away, the promise of his young life forever frozen in fond memories. The brightest star I have ever known, snuffed out by the twin curses of drugs and mental illness.
I love you, big brother. Happy birthday.