Doing the Best We Can

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my older brother’s death. He’d been homeless, possibly bipolar, and driven by rage. As another sibling said, “I will probably always be tormented by thoughts of the torture his demons inflicted upon him.”

We are a myth-making species, and the myth another sibling has adopted is that our homeless brother took upon himself the demons that haunted our family so the rest of us could be free. It’s a pretty myth that allows her to make sense of his life, and for all I know, it could be true, but I can’t shrug off his problems that easily.

My brother hated Jeff, partly, I think, because my brother felt abandoned when he discovered he and I weren’t in the same boat — loners with never a chance at a real relationship. He also felt he should be the one to look after me, though he couldn’t even look after himself.

Back when his problems started showing up, no one even considered the possibility of mental illness; they just thought he was a troublemaker. He and my father were so much alike. They both thought they knew the right of things, and they often fought. For most of my life, they used me as the rope in their game of tug-of-war, and I wasn’t smart enough or hard enough to discover a way out. I remember as a young woman thinking I’d never have any peace until they were both dead, and that the depressed me to no end, not only that I would think such a thought, but that it might be true.

For many years with Jeff, I did managed to evade much of their conflicts and the despair those conflicts (and my divided loyalties) engendered in me. After Jeff, died I went to look after my then ninety-three-year-old father, and when my brother showed up shortly afterward, the fighting escalated. And again, I was caught between the two of them. This lasted until my father’s death.

Oddly, although I often think of my brother, I don’t usually think of the horror those demons put us through. I think of the irony that because of his homelessness and his demons, I have a home. It was his death that started a whole cascade of events that led me here, to this house. In a way, I benefitted from his demons, though I don’t feel guilty. It’s just something I ponder.

We can never know the truth of someone else’s life. I learned this after Jeff died. I was wailing to a hospice social worker that he hadn’t had much of a life since he was so often sick, and she told me that he did have a life. It might not have been a happy life, but it was his life. It took years for that particular lesson to soak in because our lives had been so entwined and we thought so much alike that it was often hard to tell who had what thought first, but the truth is, it was his life. I might have been a part of his life, but I wasn’t the whole of it.

It’s the same with my brother. Whatever I think of his life, the choices he made and those that were thrust on him, I try to allow him the dignity of owning his own life.

One other thing I’ve learned from all of this — the conflicts, the deaths, and especially my grief — is that we all do the best we can with what we are given. It’s hard sometimes to separate out the unfairness of life, since some people are given so much — good physical health, good mental health, wealth, joy, companionship — while others get by on a paucity of such gifts.

And even when we, in hindsight, think that others could have, should have done better with their meager gifts, if we’d been inside their heads, with their demons poking at us, we might realize that yes, they did the best they could.

If there is anything I do feel guilty about, or at least unsettled by, it’s that I was right all those decades ago. It’s only now that both my father and my brother are gone that I’ve truly found peace. It’s a horrible thought, made even worse by the truth of it. The one mitigating factor is that if my belief is true — that we all do the best we can — then not only did they do the best they could, but so did I. It’s not as if I wished them dead. I didn’t. I simply wished for peace, not just for me, but for them, too.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

1000 Miles of Tears

tomWe coerced my dysfunctional, alcoholic brother into going back to Colorado. He’d kicked in the door between the house and the garage, and we had the cops threaten to put him in jail if he didn’t leave. We packed his stuff, didn’t even let him take the time to do it himself. I drove off at one o’clock in the morning, and drove straight through. It was a horrible, horrifying, and heartbreaking trip, even worse than I feared. But we got there safely, though I have several painful bruises that he had no memory of inflicting. (He’d never hit me before, though I had hit him, I’m ashamed to admit. I’m not violent, and hadn’t hit anyone since childhood until he came here with his multiple problems and no sense of boundaries.)

When we arrived, I spent the night in a motel. He slept in the car, but he was able to get a shower and put on clean clothes that morning. We unloaded his stuff and packed it in his storage unit (a unit that he may or may not still have access to. The owner said he wasn’t to go there any more, though my brother has a note from the owner’s wife that he has access every morning). Then we drove around, doing “just one more thing,” “just five more minutes,” “just one more stop.” My brother always pushes things, and that “one more thing” ended up being several hours of driving around. During the last couple of hours, he refused to leave the car. He was afraid of being homeless again. He begged me to get a motel room so he could get one more night of civilization and a shower. I refused. (I’d promised to get him a motel room for a week, but there is a law in that town that no one can rent a room for another person. The homeless shelter is pitifully under-bedded, and there was no mental health place to leave him.) I knew that staying a second night would result in another day of “just one more stop”s.

In the end, I had to bribe him with the promise of a six-pack of beer to get him to leave the car. After I bought the beer, he wanted us to go get something to eat, but I was tired. Sick of the whole mess. Had no appetite. Just wanted to leave.

We talked for a while, then he told me I shouldn’t drive far before getting a room, that he was worried about my falling asleep. This concern for me, the first he had shown in the fourteen months we were together, broke me. I started to cry. Then he told me several sights I should be sure to see, and I cried harder. “Do you think this is a fun trip for me?” I said. “It’s killing me. I don’t want to leave you here on the streets.” (Sort of egotistic of me, isn’t it, to expect him to care about my feelings when he was the one being abandoned?) He touched my hand, and my tears dripped like a desert rain. He expressed surprise that I cared, and I explained that of course I cared. I’d spent the past fourteen months trying to keep him off the streets, which is why I’d lobbied for his camping out in the garage.

I really had no other choice but to take him to Colorado. My father needed my sister to help take care of him since I couldn’t do it by myself, and her presence escalated my brother’s psychoses beyond anything I could handle. Besides, if my father continues to decline, my brother would have to leave soon any way. (Or so I told myself to justify my actions.)

I reached out for my brother’s hand, needing that one final touch, but he turned and walked away, tears of his own in his eyes.

I expected to be relieved when I finally drove off, but my tears continued to fall. I cried the entire 1000 miles back, thinking that as abusive as he’d been, he was my brother.  (“Was,” not “is,” as if he’d died or were about to die.) You’ll be horrified to learn that I drove straight back with but a two-hour stopover at a rest area. I didn’t see the point of getting a room for the night because I wouldn’t sleep, and besides, it felt wrong since he would be sleeping outside by the railroad tracks.

My bruises tell me I did the right thing, and yet I know that every time I go into the garage, I will be reminded of my brother living on the streets, reminded that I didn’t even stay to have a final meal with him.

Not my finest hour.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

 

I Do Not Want to Blog About . . .

There are so many things I do not want to blog about today.

I don’t want to write about my father and his continued decline. Anyway, there’s not much to say. He’s doing exceptionally well for 97, but still, he is 97 and has congestive heart failure, hearing problems, and isn’t thinking as clearly as he did just a few months ago.

I don’t want to write about my future plans. (Yeah, I know — “future plans” is redundant since “plans” connotes the future, but in this case I’m talking way in the future, not what I plan to do tomorrow or next week.) The truth is, I have no plans, just dreams. Although I like the idea of roaming the country on foot, the realities are bleak (lack of water sources, possible health issues, inexperience). I also am getting uncomfortable talking about what I’m going to do after my father’s death, as if I’m trying to hurry him out of this life, though the truth is that he could be gone in an instant, and just like that (a snap of my fingers), I’d be homeless. I’d be foolish not to consider my options. But not today.

I don’t want to write about my homeless brother who is camping out in my father’s garage. (It sounds mean, but it’s the best my father can do for him. He is too dysfunctional to live in the house — he creates havoc, and my father wants/needs peace. Besides, if my brother were to live in the house where I had no protection from him, I would leave here.) Said brother is going through one of his manic phases, which means he is intolerable, demanding, insanely vocal, and very needy. I can’t fulfill any of his needs at such times, especially not the one he most wants — awed respect.

I certainly don’t want to write about his legal problems. He was arrested for being intoxicated in public a few months ago, didn’t show up for the court date, and now there is a warrant out for his arrest. When they catch him (because of course he won’t call the courts to get the matter straightened out as the deputy who made the courtesy call suggested), he will expect me or our father to pay his $5,000 bail. I won’t do it, and I sincerely doubt our father will. Besides, as much as I hate the thought of him in jail, I hate even more the thought of him here bedeviling me. I could use the rest. (As I was writing this, I got a phone call from him. He’s been arrested again for being intoxicated in public, but for some reason they waived bail, just gave him anther court date for both charges. I so could not handle being an alcoholic! Way too much work.)

I don’t want to write about grief and the death of my life mate/soul mate that precipitated my move here to look after my father and more recently (and very unwillingly) to do what I can for my brother. I’ve said about all there is to say about grief. It comes. It stays. What else is there to say? Well, I could say I’m mostly happy now which is true, but he’s still gone. I will never be happy about that until I’m gone too.

I don’t want to write about writing, my fallback topic. With self-publishing and we’ll-publish-anything-presses so prevalent, making authors believe they can write however they wish, there’s no reason to discuss right ways to do things. (Despite what most authors seem to believe nowadays, there are right ways. I just don’t feel like fighting about it anymore.)

Nor do I want to write about my aches and pains. I especially don’t want to talk about the gum infection that has me on high doses of antibiotics. (And probably why I’m not exactly overflowing with joy today.) The good news is that if I have any other infections, susunflowerch as strep or pneumonia, those microbes will be killed along with whatever caused my gum infection. The bad news is side effects. At least so far, all I’ve had to deal with is nausea. I haven’t developed a black furry tongue. (Fingers crossed here.)

While trying to think of a suitable ending for this blog post about what I don’t want to write about, I stopped by Facebook and clicked on a link for a test to see what flower I am. The results said: “You are a sunflower. You are the eternal optimist, always looking up. Nothing can shake your sweet, happy spirit. Friends enjoy your company because they find your joy contagious.”

Yep. That’s me today. Sweet, happy spirit. Contagious joy.

Gotta love the irony!

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.