Success! February’s 2011 issue of The Sun will (most likely) include my Reader’s Write entry for the topic “Making it Last.” In light of this recent accomplishment, I am re-committing to writing an entry for Reader’s Write each month. This month’s topic is “Shoes.”
My brother didn’t grow up on the “normal” curve. He was a sweet kid, but also impulsive and prone to anxiety. Once he started school, it was clear he learned differently than most kids. Back then, that meant he was a problem. I have some memories of feeling resentful that my mom spent so much time dealing with my brother’s problems, but I was also proud of my role in the family. After all, I was the kid my mom didn’t have to worry about. Instead of feeling compelled to understand what life in his shoes was like, I took refuge in feeling superior to him.
In high school, I discovered the secret of good literature – that it transports you to worlds you’d never otherwise experience. While reading Richard Wright’s Native Son, I slipped on Bigger Thomas’s shoes as though they fit my feet. Anxiety flooded me each time Bigger made a life-changing choice, as though they were my choices. I understood that he was desperately trying to save himself more than he meant to hurt anyone else. As the terrifying consequences of his mistakes unraveled, I began seeing that Bigger’s story was not unlike my troubled brother’s own life.
I though about what it must be like to be my brother – learning disabled, socially awkward, prone to inappropriate outbursts and the wrath of disapproving adults and peers, obsessive and compulsive about so many things. Not a single refuge, not even in his mind, from the stresses of growing up. Imagining walking in his shoes, of experiencing life the way he did, opened up a well of sadness in me that made me want to do something for my brother.
And I have tried. Both times he was admitted into a psychiatric hospital, I convinced him to go without resorting to involuntary commitment. I spoke with him when he worried about taking meds, and shared with him how good therapy had been for me. I encouraged him when he seemed doubtful, talked to his insurance, contacted his doctors. I completed a three-month class on mental illness to learn how to be a better ally for him. I’ve been my mom’s support all my adult life as she has struggled with how to do right by him.
But if I am honest with myself, my heart wasn’t in it. I suspect am driven more by a vague desire to do the right thing, to be a good daughter, to be a kind sister, than by any true understanding of my brother’s experience in this world.
The years have worn on. After a time of steady improvement, my brother is severely depressed, refuses to go to work, drinks too much, and treats my mother, with whom he lives, with little kindness and much anger. Many days, my resentment of my brother runs at a fever pitch. I am angry about the demands he makes on our aging mother, for his verbal assaults on her, and his consuming primacy in her life. I think about how things might be for her without him: I see my mother reading books she enjoys, writing in her journal, traveling when she wants, painting with the oil paints in her old art crate, playing with her funny, precocious grandkids, visiting with the friends she infrequently sees now, maybe even dating.
I can’t recall the last time I felt the depth of emotion and empathy for my brother that I felt when I was sixteen. When my mom relates a particularly nasty exchange she’s had at his anger’s whim, I find myself so full of righteous anger that I sometimes wish my brother would die. I am ashamed and fearful that I am capable of such a hateful desire.
I want to believe that there is no bottom to my ability to love him, that I can find a reserve of empathy to draw on and learn to communicate with him in ways that are healthy and constructive. I would like to think I could be one of the people to help pull him to higher, solid ground. Truly, I know that I have to be this person. Yet, I am so mired in bitterness toward him, my heart feels poisoned and I wonder if I can muster the will to forgive, to stop trying to be the hero for my mom. I wonder if I can take another imaginary walk in his shoes. And I wonder if it will make a difference.