NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.
Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
You think you know crazy? Maybe, maybe not.
My family’s idea of crazy is a little different from most, although I’ve discovered that once I admit this, the stories sometimes start coming out of the woodwork. We’re not alone, but our family craziness is still, I think, a little nuttier than most.
Our stories include dashing from a festive Pesach meal to bolt the door against my brother. Visiting him while he’s tied in restraints to a bed… or in a special visiting room, holding a joy buzzer that will hopefully bring nurses if he gets violent. Calling the cops to coax him to hand over the puppy he is attempting to raise… or kill.
Or just standing by over the years, watching a clean, sweet-smelling, cuddly little boy (“Eli rhymes with belly, rhymes with jelly”… I swear my early love of doggerel came from having such an easily-rhymed, easily-teasable little brother) turn into a haggard, scarred, toothless, decrepit smoke-and-beer smelling old man of 43.
My little brother is schizophrenic. Technically, he has schizoaffective disorder, which is just about the craziest of the crazy – bipolar and broken in the mind. He hears voices, instructions, he sees things, he is full of paranoia about the world around him and everybody he sees exists as only a 2-dimensional character in a play for which only he knows the plot.
My mother bought him implanted fake teeth after the bike-vs-whatever accident (I don’t think we ever found out what hit him – a truck?) that scarred his face, making him the most handsome toothless homeless man on the streets of Toronto. My mother has invested almost twenty years of hope and love in him, on top of the initial investment you make when you raise a kid for 18 years and send him off to a promising university career, scholarships all over the place right there on the horizon, master’s programs, doctorates… and have him come back instead shattered into a million, billion pieces.
And now he’s missing again. It’s good that I have this blog, to give me perspective on times that he’s been missing in the past. But this is the longest he’s ever been gone – just about 3 weeks now since my mother saw him. She was the last to see him. I don’t know if it was a good visit.
Good visits are not something I expected, after a while.
The last good day I had, the last “normal” time I spent with Eli was when Naomi was a baby still. But it was fall, so she must have been at least six months, and I was starting to feel more normal.
He showed up at our house – something he did a lot, and one reason I felt very guilty for moving away last summer – just as I was thinking about going out to the park with her. I hadn’t done it much yet, but was thinking I really ought to start. Eli’s showing up was perfect timing, because there was no way I was letting him just hang around my living room.
So I bundled her up into my beautiful purple Moby wrap and stuck a hat on her to block the breeze, and off we went to Cedarvale park.
I don’t remember what we talked about. No doubt it was weird and disjointed. But it was a nice day and the sun was shining and I had a sweet baby and – for a moment – a brother.
Except, of course, that I’d resigned myself years before to the fact that my brother never was coming back. I never really let myself get my hopes up. A while ago, when his doctors were considering ECT (electroshock therapy) for him, I wrote in an email to my mother:
I used to have a brother - we read each other's minds and finished each other's sentences and clawed each other to bits, in the most loving kind of way.
I don't see Eli in there anymore, and haven't in a long time.
I don't think he's coming back.
Now, he’s been gone 3 weeks. He hasn’t touched his bank accounts or been to my mother’s to borrow money.
But it’s nice weather… nice enough to sleep under bridges without dying – though not without food, or beer. And maybe not nice enough to swim in Lake Ontario without drowning. Not nice enough to pick a fight with a fellow street person who’s hoarding all the radios (one of his ongoing paranoias – that the world is running out of radios) or overcharging for a silver bracelet (one of his weaknesses – he loves spending the last of his cash on a bit of bling).
It’s in my head, like a mantra: he’s never coming back.
But he might, he’s surprised us before. But then, in my head, there’s this other mantra: these things never end well.
I watched the movie The Truman Show the other day with Elisheva, and now the image of the button is haunting me in a different context:
How’s it going to end?
Even if he comes back tomorrow (“Ha ha ha, you fooled us all!”), there is no happy ending. There is no point at which he’ll smarten up, settle down, get a job and grow old. He survived the 5-year post-diagnosis “suicide window,” but that doesn’t mean the alternate endings are any more pleasant. The best-case scenario is more of the same.
My mother said, on the phone the other day, with a little bit of hope and a little bit of comedy and a little bit of resignation and despair, “Maybe he took a trip.”
He didn’t take a trip.
This choose-your-own adventure does not have smiles and sweetness and warm family memories at the end of it. Just because I cannot imagine the horrible ending doesn’t mean it isn’t waiting for us around the corner.
Please daven for Eli Melech ben Zelda Devorah, that Hashem should find a way to give him peace (with some to spare for my mother!).