When the cotton candy colored sky spins out shadows that land in the hungry crevices of old brick that line these cobblestone streets, I begin to wonder what my brother had eaten that day. Perhaps beef stroganoff, his favorite? Probably not. A paper cup of chocolate ice-cream for dessert? Most likely, no. Will he dream of the time when we chased rainbows in Hawaii and ate bacon-and-cheese biscuits from McDonald’s at 3 am, before driving up to the volcano to see the sunrise? Or will he try not to remember his dreams?
“Do you think I will be a good dad someday, Becca?”
“Oh my gosh, David, you will be a fantastic dad. But don’t get mad at me when I spoil those kids silly; that’s what aunties do.”
I chuckled clumsily so he knew I was joking around with him, even though the words were sticking to my throat like a fly trap.
“I asked dad to put me on a schedule, so every day I have structure, and I know after I wake up that I need to shower, brush my teeth, and then eat breakfast. He even gave me the exact times when I need to do these things and it seems to be helping a lot. Do you think that this is a good thing?”
“I think it’s a great thing, David.”
Now the words were sticking to my throat like a mouse trap.
“And then I read or watch TV until dad gets home from work at 4:00 pm. After he changes out of his work clothes, we take a walk for an hour. Last week, he got home late at 4:15 pm, and I got really worried, thinking that something bad had happened to him, like maybe he died in a car accident. Becca, I don’t know what I would do if something happened to him.”
Words were no longer sticking; they were stuck. I just kept nodding into the phone.
“Becca, are you still there?”
He started crying first–I no longer had to mask the tears with words or silence. Now I could pretend that I was crying with him and not for him; and, as I think about it once again, I was.
“I’m really scared, Becca. Do you think that I will be okay? I’m really scared that I won’t ever be okay. I cry all of the time now.” I can’t stop. I try really hard, but I can’t stop crying.”
“You will be okay, David. I love you so much.”
That was all I could say.
“I love you too, Becca. Please call me again soon.”
“I will. I promise. I’m always here for you. Please try and take care of yourself the best way you can.”
I asked him what I could do to help.
“Just keep loving me and calling me from time-to-time.”
Perhaps a few more words were exchanged after this, but I don’t remember. Or, maybe it’s something else that I’ve chosen to “forget.” But it doesn’t really matter anymore. Maybe it never did.
That was it. Two weeks after this conversation, he murdered the one person who never waivered in his hope for him, the one whom my brother loved most in the world: our dad.
He’s now 40 years old, living in a Minnesota Correctional Facility. His blue eyes no longer sparkle, and the white blonde hair of his childhood is gone. If I could take one photo with me in the afterlife, it would be of the two of us, backs turned away from the camera and toward the creek, heads touching while catching crayfish together on the banks of our creek in Virginia. His reflexes were faster than mine were, and when we would pick up a rock hoping for a “find” underneath, his white plastic bucket would always reach it before mine did. He also would let more of them go than I would, exclaiming, ‘‘they were too small and needed more time to play and grow; I always wondered (though never asked) why he would say this when we would always let them go anyway within an hour or two of catching them, watching the water grow murky as they scurried back down to find their rock.
He was also a pro at catching fireflies. When the first hint of a twinkle would appear in the thick summer haze, about the time we were finishing up dinner on our deck; the last bite of hot dog would remain on his plate as his skinny body, with those long white leg hairs, shot up off the saggy metal weaved deck chair and raced for his jar. I was too busy writing a note to my mom asking if my best friend, who lived next door, could spend the night. “Hi mom. Can Kristy spend the night? Please check ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Thank you. Love, your daughter.” By this time, David had already picked some of dad’s just mowed grass for those blinking beauties to eat and was working on gathering a few stems for their jar–reassuring them with a soft place to land.
He was thirteen when we first noticed it. On a family trip to Glacier National Park (which ended up being our last trip together as a family), a grizzly bear appeared on the path in front of us. We all stopped except for David, who kept walking towards it as if he were in some sort of somnambulate state. My dad, in a voice that was both petrifying and pleading, ordered for him to stop. But he kept walking towards mamma bear until my dad grabbed him by the shoulders. When he turned around and looked at us, the boy that freed those crayfish was gone. I didn’t know yet the man that he would become or the action that would take place seventeen years later. Why the grizzly, especially after seeing her two cubs across the path, didn’t attack him, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the same reason why the officers who found him on the front lawn with blood on his hands chose to tase him rather than shoot him after he started lunging at them: they saw the boy he had been and not the man he had become. After that trip to Glacier, he went from hugging our collie, Tasha; to calling the authorities, reporting my dad to the FBI, telling them that some North Korean spies “informed” him my dad was head of The IRA; all in what seemed to have been a few days. Perhaps it was. Mental illness is a sneaky one. He was healthy and then he was sick–as fast as it takes a firefly from being alive one moment to it being dead, because the number of holes on top of the jar were one away from being enough.
I loved (love) the person my brother was, not the mental illness that ravaged (ravages) his brain. I love the man who told me that he was proud of me for being able to have a job and an Iphone. I love the boy who always beat me at Super Mario Brothers; my loser status entitling me with the honor of skipping stairs by three from the basement to grab more Little Debbie Nutty Bars to bring back down for eight more games of Mario and Luigi, or as many as we could play until mom called down to us telling us to set the table for supper. I love the man who would bring our grandma flowers every year on the anniversary of our grandpa’s death.
I love the man who said he wanted to take care of our dad in his old age and meant it.
A year after it happened, I got a tattoo of a lotus flower on my left forearm as a reminder that some things bloom most beautifully from the darkest, murkiest, and muddiest of places. At night, they recede back into the muddy depths and wait for the sun’s soft song to lull them back up the next morning. Whenever I look at this tattoo, I hear my dad’s voice telling me how much he loved me, and that “Life is great, Boo.” He believed life was indeed great no matter how muddy and dark things became with my brother. I wonder if he ever noticed his voice cracking when he would say this, his sorrow seeping through the phone line.
As I’m typing, I look down and stare at the pink and purple petals of the lotus, and I am reminded once again of the sun, re-appearing the next morning, waiting for her chance to resurrect me. Perhaps, too, she will resurrect my brother to another day filled with the possibility of beef stroganoff for dinner.
Rebecca Janisch was born in Saint Paul, MN, and has been living in NYC since 2002. She is a Certified Life Coach with an emphasis on trauma. She has been wanting to share this story of her particular association with mental illness but didn’t have the courage until now.