Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I was supposed to take care of him

(advance warning: this is not a light story. You may want to skip it, and wait till I post about my gardens or the birds).

I came across a photo of my brother as a baby. I have two brothers, the youngest a farmer who is busy sending me still the lovely letters of our grandparents (I am now in January 1923, and my grandfather is writing "I would rather talk with you than with anyone in the world" as he starts yet another letter from California to Wyoming. I am hoping my grandmother relents soon.). It is the older one, born when I was three, whose photo turned up on my desk. He is a beaming, wiggling baby, bundled up because he was a winter child. Thin and serious I am standing beside him, my hand on his small, fat arm. My face is a little petulant. I have been crying, my light, thin hair has escaped from its curls and straggles across my tearstreaked cheeks. I no longer recall what upset me.

I do recall the night he was born, and how upset I was that the sister I had hoped for had not come. My mother in her wisdom assured me some days later that God had realized my family had a girl already--and how could another girl be as lovely and wonderful as I was? So, to complete the family, here was a boy, my little brother.

"And you must always take care of him."

Due to her battle against cancer much much later I truly did take care of my youngest brother. But this winter brother, with his jolly dark eyes and his dimples--ah, he was to become my companion, torment, delight. He was the dearest thing in the world to me, though we'd squabble and fuss. We played endless, imaginative games. We were each other's great allies in a world that changed and shifted, in which our father was so often absent, in which we so often had to move.

When he was 3 I saved him from drowning--he had fallen into a narrow Japanese fish pond while our parents were talking with furniture makers. I couldn't swim, but I could stretch out and down and pull him out, sputtering, crying, and very wet. I had nightmares for weeks about not being able to get him out, of him slipping from my grasp--but fortunately, in real life, we held on well.

He was a charming, outgoing child. His face was covered with freckles, his eyelashes thick and dark. By the time I was 6 he was almost as big as I was. By the time we were teens he loved to tease me by introducing me to his friends as his "little sister" (he'd tell them I was a few years younger than they were, and went to a special school. They believed him). He was tall, handsome, brilliant.

He had a gift for art, and shared many of our mother's other talents as well--he played the piano with passion and skill and composed beautiful pieces.

He was the sunny child, the favorite son, the darling of us all.

And from here the story would be told differently, I think, by each of us. But as it is my version, I will tell it as it happened from my view.

It would be wrong, though, to put casuality in the narrative I am about to begin. The pieces may not connect this way, except perhaps in my own mind and heart.

Dark nights before I left home. Quarrels between my brother and my father. They became physical. I remember how I put myself between them, and how I sobbed to make them stop. The harsh words, the screaming. My parents at that time drank a lot. Times were hard.

And I left home, working my way through college, dazzled and distracted by my ambitions, my love affairs, my writing.

And my brother was thrown out. He was..oh, was he 16? maybe as old as 17.

And my parents divorced.

And I would look for my brother in the streets of the beach towns, and when I found him I would take him home to my tiny rented cottage and feed him, and beg him to stay. And I knew he was taking drugs whose names I didn't know, and I knew he was so sad, and I longed to be of help. But he'd laugh, and tell me he was fine, and leave.

And there was the night I woke screaming from a nightmare, with a pain across my belly, calling for my brother. I was living with my grandmother at the time, saving money for a long journey to Europe--the grandmother of those letters I'm reading now--and I told her "He's been hurt, he's in such pain". She believed me. We phoned all around, and found him in a hospital, the victim of a knife fight.

It was like trying to contain a wildfire.

The war in Vietnam was raging then, and there was a lottery, and my brother's number was a low one, a very low one. He got out on psychological grounds (I think he went to his physical on LSD, raving).

I left for Europe, traveled, went to the East Coast. Years had passed, but not many really. My mother wrote that he'd enlisted in the army, had been accepted. He wrote me from bootcamp, in deep despair.

He went AWOL. When picked up he'd been on his way to me. I was on my way back to England. "Sure, go on" he wrote, and my mother said "yes, you've been wanting this, go".

He was in a stockade in northern California. So, a dishonorable discharge, no big deal.

And then the world crashed. He'd gotten out of the military jail and was staying with our mother when the arrest came.

My family, prone to protecting me from harsh reality, wrote nothing to me. I was wandering British fields and writing poetry and gawking at everything in the British Museum. Fortunately I also had dear friends, who sent--odd letters of "how are you coping with this tragedy? Are you coming home now?"

And one sent the small clipping from a local paper about the arrest. For murder.

I wrote home immediately, asking for information, raging--how could they have thought to keep this from me? My mother filled in the details. My brother wrote from prison: Please. Do not come back. You can't do anything here.

And I stayed. I stayed in England through the months of early imprisonment, which went from the tender spring to the green summer, and into the bitter winter. I stayed through jury selection, and the trial. My dearest college and highschool friend quietly took my place, attending those sessions, talking with my mother while I walked the streets of London and wondered what heartbreak lurked beneath the smooth faces I passed.

He was found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Had he been tried a month later, he would now be dead, because under state law it would have been a mandatory death sentence.

He served 15 years in maximum security prison. When I returned to the US I went to see him, with my mother. I had no form of identification beyond my library card and was refused admittance. The warden to whom I appealed, weeping hysterically, turned out to have befriended my brother, admiring his art and his gentle spirit, and so I got in despite all the rules.

And the first words my brother spoke to me were "How does it feel to have a murderer for a brother?"

To which I replied, with all my heart, "You are still and forever my brother, and I love you dearly".

In that maximum security prison almost all the inmates were doing hard time, for crimes that were intense, brutal, terrible. I'd talk with them. They showed me photos of their children. I'll always remember the baby I met there in prison, and her proud father who said, "I call her Regina, because she is queen of my heart". He was in for multiple murders. The baby was beautiful.

My brother's life and experiences tore open my heart and soul. Because of him, I had to recognize that all things human--even horrible and brutal ones--are also possible to me. Because of him, I talk with the guys on the street, because in every temporarily lost soul I see a flash of that freckled, loving, bright little kid.

He was paroled the year my daughter was born, and came to stay with me awhile in the woods. He cared for our mother in her last years, with gentle skill. In prison he became deeply religious, and has remained so, living a quiet and austere life in the house our mother last lived in, hundreds of miles from either my youngest brother or myself. He has a cat and a garden. His closest friend died last year, and I think he may be lonely, but he sends cheerful letters, in which he always reminds me that God is good, and cares for all of us.

Lives change in a minute. I think, though, what always troubled me most about this tale was my sense I had failed.
Because, you will remember, I was supposed to take care of him.

14 Comments:

Blogger Dr O2 said...

wow! this truely needed the warning! It's saddened me deeply! And yet added to my admiration towards the strong charecter I knew you have.

To be perfectly honest I always see it very possible to commit accidental crimes which makes me a criminal. We are very prone to accidents.

Furthermore I have been in mental hospitals witnessing patients. Most of them are better than us people i loose! We are the dangerous ones perhaps.

I only got one brother & he is more than the world to me. Can't imagine a day I see him differently. No matter what.

I also feel your concern over your younger brother. It is a common feeling found in the first children.

Excellent piece Jarvenpa.

11:17 PM, May 16, 2006  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

We little human people go and dig in our gardens--the bleeding hearts and lilacs are in bloom--and watch the free-wheeling birds, and all the time we are stepping on and over graves. But I like to think of your little brother, his time redeemed, living in your mother’s house.

And perhaps it is wrong for you to keep the sense of failure, when for him all things have changed.

8:49 AM, May 17, 2006  
Blogger Kimia said...

I remember your post about your mother and how she suffered of three cancers. I admired her because of her strength and now I realized that she had been stronger than what I thought. Seeing his son in jail is harder than any cancer.
There are some happenings that we always think they are only in movies or for others not for us. Unfortunately, they easily happen to us with no notice.

3:52 PM, May 17, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Thank you for your comments. Yes, dr o2, you are right that many eldest children bear a sense of concern for the younger children, whatever happens. And yes, marly, I know I should move on, and someday I will, perhaps, but the three year old in my heart who really, really believed she was responsible for her baby brother is still quite strong, and comes out from time to time.
And yes, Kimia, my mother was unbelieveably strong. I was so grateful to the friend who was able to be with her through the trial (I still count that friend as a sister, a life time tie).
When I was young and read novels with complex and sad plots they seemed contrived.
Now they seem to be very mild, because so much more happens in life.

6:33 PM, May 17, 2006  
Blogger starry nights said...

this was really touching and sad.I am the youngest of 10 children and my oldest sister had to take on the burden of loking after us, even after she was married she would always come by and make sure we went to school and had food .Sometimes even now (we are all grown )she stll feels she has to take care of us and feels bad when things go wrong.It must be really hard to be the oldeest.I admire you for your strength. I think you have done and gone through a lot. and there is nothing you could have done to make things different.sometimes we create our own destiny.

5:24 PM, May 18, 2006  
Blogger David said...

Jarvenpa, I think it took a lot of courage to write this story! I have memories of far lesser intensity that I am no where near ready to write about. It is impossible to say if you could have done something different in the past that might have changed your brother's life for the better. However, you and he still have the future. I wish you both success in making the most of it!

10:38 PM, May 18, 2006  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Oh, no--I didn't mean "move on," exactly. That phrase bothers me! Failures tend to be etched on the bone, and the memory of them goes with us everywhere. I meant something more like forgiveness, yet with the painful, hard earned wisdom retained.

Anything blooming at the bookstore? Or is all washed away?

8:02 AM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Marly-currently blooming, though under the continual rain: lilac colored and crimson sweet peas, blue cornflowers, blue and white love-in-a-mist, rose geranium (tiny pink flowers), coreopsis (bright yellow), foxgloves, opium poppies, California poppies, Shirley poppies (yes, I like poppies), pink flowered rose mallow, and roses: single red ones, and much frilled old fashioned cream/yellow/apricot ones. The big red ones should follow soon. The rosa mundi is just starting--single or barely double, pink with white stripes.

4:07 PM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger ChittyChittyBangBang! said...

What a story, Jarvenpa.
Can't say I am not moved by it. Thanks for sharing.
Do not dwell too much on the past... you and yr brother still have a future together, and that is what counts.

1:50 AM, May 24, 2006  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

Younger brothers! My brother just sent me broke with the money he helped himself with in my closet!! ;-) It is a routine! He's dating girls and recently is in need of some more money :-)

10:52 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

Your warning was warranted, but as always, I trust you to speak with a clarity from your soul, so I read on. The responsibility you felt/feel was definitly seeded at an early age. As children, we take some things to heart and never quite outgrow them or put the 'adult twist' to our view of them. Thank you for sharing such a personal facet of your life. It would seem as if you are kind of taking care of one another now.

7:47 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger ardvisura said...

Dear Jarvenpa
thanks for your visit to my blog,I got your message but didn't find time to come and visit you.
I am as usual very moved by what you write.
take care

9:07 PM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger graceonline said...

I have never fully understood what can cause one person to take the life of another. I hope I never do.

More and more, though, I understand redemption--and forgiveness.

Have you noticed how often family members of murder victims stand against the death penalty, decry the taking of a life for any reason, even to avenge their loved one? How often they say, "I have forgiven"?

What thrills me (yes, thrills) about your story is that your brother found healing and redemption, and that his life is again a gift to others.

It is good to pray for healing and peace in the heart of the murderer, for if they can find peace, so may we all.

Namaste, with gratitude.

11:15 PM, June 26, 2006  
Anonymous old girl from the north country said...

Thank you for telling your story. I found your blog by way of Lori Witzel. There is a man I have loved for most of my life who is much like your brother. He has a sister who is ten years younger than he is and who has tried to be there for him in recent difficult years.

I have done my best to let him know that he is loved no matter what he did. Still, there are moments where I regret that I wasn't able to be there for him because of fear. Now I am wondering if what I sometimes see as my failure made it possible for him to begin taking care of himself.

9:26 AM, January 01, 2007  

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