My 2 ½ year-old-son said, “Mama, can we go visit the place where Jim is?”
“Jim, who?” I asked.
“That Jim”, my son said, pointing at a half-hidden photo on the bulletin board of my dead brother, whom he has never met.
It took me by surprise. “No sweetie, we can’t visit Jim.”
I didn’t know what else to say in that moment so, I left it at that for a few minutes. I thought of a sunny Colorado day, one of the last times I saw my brother. We walked out on the ice onto this beautiful frozen mountain lake, and I was cautious, scared even, until I saw that the ice would hold him, his body much larger than mine. So, I followed him out, and the view was magical. Beside that lake is where I imagine Jim is now.
Before I committed to having kids, I thought about my brother and our shared genetics and wondered if I should have kids, if it was fair to them to bring them into the world. My brother lived more than half his lifetime trapped in a hell we eventually understood as mental illness. I would wish it on no one – and yet, I chose to have babies, knowing that they could inherit the curse that plagued my brother.
Jim was intelligent, compassionate, and funny. After a shower and a haircut, he would have fit in well in any university think-tank. He gave his respect and attention equally to children, the elderly and to the wacko on the street. And he lived years with horrid indignities, homelessness, and, hunger – often times he was that wacko on the street acting unpredictably and even frightening people.
I see my brother in the suntanned men and women holding cardboard signs on highway entrance ramps. I see him sitting cross legged on the sidewalk of the main drag with a scruffy dog and a guitar case open to collect coins. I see my brother behind the hazy-eyed face of the man in the church parking lot ranting loudly and clutching a bottle of malt liquor in a paper bag.
When I got the phone call, it was, “Jim is dead. It wasn’t violent. He wasn’t shot. He didn’t hurt anyone. He didn’t take anyone with him. It was probably fast. Jim is gone.”
I felt relief. And then a terrible pain for the woman who had given birth to my brother, her first born, her beautiful boy. I held my own tiny son and knew that my brother had once been a baby delighting his mother with his everyday discoveries, his future full of promise and joy.
It was a phone call that I’d been expecting for 20 years. We knew Jim would not live into old age and many of us had stopped holding out hope that he would find a job where he was valued, get better, and make a tidy home for himself. At some point, my prayers for him became shorter term. I hope he is warm and dry tonight. I hope the police are kind to him. I hope he is not in pain today. I hope he knows we love him.
My brother slowly killed himself over the course of twenty years and then jumped from a bridge to snuff out the last of the suffering. It is a terrible truth, and I don’t know when or how I will tell my son this part of the story.
The other truth is that this illness will probably pop up again in our family. Maybe we will be better prepared next time, maybe it won’t take as long to recognize it for what it is, maybe there will be less stigma, maybe there will even be a cure. But, someday, my son will need to know.
For now, I will speak of Jim’s love for the stars and his overflowing generosity and compassion. I will tell my son that he may grow tall like his uncle, but that is where I will draw the line. I will continue to quietly hope that my children don’t inherit their uncle’s chemistry or faulty wiring. I will shush my fears when I see their toddler wildness resembling what I know the adult manic episodes of a madman look like. I will find a special place to frame and hold a photo of my brother, so that I am reminded to speak of him with my children.
In shavasana, the quiet moments at the end of a yoga practice, I always feel my brother’s presence. I imagine what he likely felt looking up at the stars in the last moments of his life.
I feel peace and relief. And I am grateful for his visit.
No, we can’t visit Jim where he is, but he will continue to visit us, on highway exit ramps, in yoga class, and on the shores of a quiet mountain lake.