By Laura Richards
I was five and he was three. I stared at the tiny black and white photo of a sad little boy with pleading eyes standing on a metal folding chair, a number pinned to his sweater. “This is your new brother,” my mother said as her words trailed into the distance.
Life as I knew it was about to change forever.
I remember the long drive from Boston to JFK in New York and sleeping on a row of hard, molded plastic airport chairs waiting for the baby flight to arrive from Korea. I saw him for the first time from behind sitting on someone’s suitcase as chaos enveloped him. He stared in wonder at a soda fountain and popcorn popper at the Howard Johnson’s rest stop on our way home. Transition from poverty in another country to the bright lights, flash and color of the Western world seemed too much.
He smelled of kimchi and slept on the floor even though he had a bed. He called me “Uhn-nee” the Korean word for sister and refused to remove his clothing until one day my parents had to wrestle him down in the backyard and strip them off as I watched terrified from the kitchen window. To him new clothes meant a new home. My mother said he was the only child she ever knew who had corns on his feet because his shoes were too small.
Malnourished and wandering the streets of Seoul all alone, he had been shuffled to numerous placements in his brief life and all had sent him back. A child utterly rejected by every adult he’d ever known with an understandable inability to trust, living with the constant terror of being sent away again. Bone scans had to be done of his hands to determine his approximate age. He had no known date of birth so my parents used the day he stumbled off the plane and into our lives as his birthday.
It turns out that despite his rough start in life he was very bright to the point of gifted. He and I would sign up every summer at our branch library for the children’s reading program “Hooked on Books.” The librarians made fishing poles out of long dowels with brown yarn for the lines and cut up manila folders for the hooks. For every book we read we were given a colored paper fish to add to our hooks. The ones burnished with gold and silver paper were the most coveted as it meant you had reached the five, ten or even fifteen books read mark. Every summer my brother’s fishing pole was heavy with multicolored fish and multiple silver and gold because he was their star reader. Mine was flimsy with just a few colored fish blowing about as I wasn’t a prolific child reader. I was jealous of his ability and bountiful colored catch. Sure he outsmarted me academically but socially I had him beat.
As the years passed, it became more and more evident that something was very wrong with my brother. He didn’t connect in a normal way, had issues perspective taking and eventually became paranoid and combative. My parents did everything humanly possible to help him. He had plunged from being at the top of his class at a prominent private school in Boston to the depths of delusion, barricading himself in his bedroom and complaining that poisonous gas was being piped into our house. It was heartbreaking. He blamed all of his problems on a lasagna my mother had made years before. We tried to soothe him by explaining we had all eaten the same lasagna but reason had no place at his table.
It came as a tremendous relief when he was finally diagnosed in high school with paranoid schizophrenia after a complete collapse at yet another private school, this one a boarding school on Long Island. All of his therapists felt he would be better off outside of the family unit and though my parents weren’t particularly comfortable with the idea, they were desperate to help him so complied. It took one emergency room doctor mere minutes to figure out what a dozen others couldn’t over as many years. We were devastated by the diagnosis but grateful to finally have answers. For me it crystallized the tragedy and sadness of what could have been. A brilliant mind and promising life stolen forever.
He and I had a typical sibling relationship especially when we were younger. He drove me crazy teasing, imitating and barging in on me and my friends and I would chase him around the house and do all of the mean things that much taller, older sisters do to shorter, younger brothers. I would play Randy Newman’s song “Short People” as loud as possible on the record player with unrelenting glee. We built encampments in our back yard, slid down the sand pile at the DPW lot behind our house, incurred the understandable wrath of our mother when we used an entire roll of scotch tape on her wallpaper trying to keep our fort blanket in place. Of course it didn’t work and we ruined her wall (sorry mom). We would stay outside in the dark after a snowstorm making elaborate igloos and paths until we were beckoned inside by the bell my parents had affixed to our house. He was my playmate and partner in crime.
Eventually those typical sibling experiences were replaced by atypical experiences like visiting him in psychiatric hospitals. One night, I sat as he was restrained to a hard, flat bed by leather wrist and leg straps, his paranoia at its peak. At the very worst, and most terrifying, he became homeless for a while. The police needed a recent photo to officially declare him a missing person, a photo that I had taken just weeks before at his high school graduation. I will never forget driving to my parent’s house with it on the front seat beside me, stunned at the turn of events. His smiling face in cap and gown, my parents flanked either side of him smiling too, basking in a rare, happy day in a life that had been full of difficult ones. Things seemed to be looking up for him but my tears fell. Instead of seeing him enjoy his post high school summer with hopes of what might lie ahead we were filling out police forms and fearing the worst.
He eventually turned up but things were not good. While I was starting new jobs, dating, getting married, buying a home and building a family as a wife and mother, he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and group homes unable to work and struggling to get through each day. I was getting on with the business of life while he was living in self-inflicted isolation and hating people for various reasons.
As a mom, I tend to take for granted the childhood memory-making happening under my nose every day. Events and funny stories that will eventually become humored and sentimental discussions around future holiday tables. My four boys will get to enjoy this but it’s something I can’t share with my own brother even when I try to jog his cluttered mind to remember what it was like for us. Only he knew about the untuned piano key in our Great Aunt’s parlor that sounded like an old fire engine bell. He knew what it was like to sit on a warm evening on the screened porch of our other Great Aunt and Uncle and watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” with the heat bugs in the background. He was there when I tried to shave my legs for the first time and badly cut my shin on my dad’s old metal razor. Things that only siblings share and reminisce about, not mourn.
He has better days but that little boy who shared and holds all of my childhood memories is lost forever within his illness. Holidays are particularly tough for him and therefore for us. He joins when he can but the voices distract and it often ends badly. Last Thanksgiving, he declared that we were all Nazis and he hated my food after eating three full plates of it. I’m grateful for the good moments when he chats with my sons or throws the ball with them in the backyard knowing it’s fleeting and he will soon be back to his stonewalling and paranoia.
When someone asks if I have any siblings it’s hard to answer and I often hesitate knowing the next question is inevitably, “What does he do for work?” or “Does he have a family?” or the truly dreaded question, “Are you close?” How do I answer or explain? I often reply, “Yes, a brother who is mentally ill and lives in a group home.” That usually abruptly ends the conversation yet saves a series of future awkward questions. Sometimes it starts a conversation that they too have an aunt, grandparent or cousin who suffers from depression or bipolar and I’m glad. Glad to know we can talk about such things and that I’m not alone and it’s not just our family struggling so deeply with mental illness.
My relationship with my brother is now limited to the occasional email always signed, “your brother” followed by his name as if he’s reminding both of us of his place. That he is a brother, my brother. I’d like more but it’s just not in the cards. He has no sense of boundaries with the phone and visiting isn’t something he’s comfortable with. I love him but it’s hard. He’s a hard person to love.
Laura Richards is a Boston-based writer and mother of four boys including identical twins. She has written for a variety of publications including Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, U.S. News & World Report, Redbook, The Boston Globe Magazine and Scary Mommy and can be found on Twitter @ModMothering and via her website www.LauraRichards.co.