Never had sense and never will
When he drinks from a bottle or even a can
He becomes the Amazing Misdemeanor Man"
I felt like writing a poem* about my brother. I think he's on my mind because I have to visit a pawn shop on Saturday to buy back my Dad's shotgun.
(I'll give you a moment to process that sentence.)
While you're processing, let me just note that there is actually a novel called "Misdemeanor Man" that was written by a lovely man named Dylan Schaffer.
I met Dylan a few years back and really, he's just the nicest and most talented guy you'd want to meet ... but, as his book has nothing whatsoever to do with my loveable, brainless, insane knucklehead of a brother, I must advise Dylan that he picked the wrong title.
Because... my brother Bill is the original, the only, the mold-shattering, ground-breaking, grand master "Misdemeanor Man".
"Never was a felon, he likes to keep it small
DUI or petty theft, my brother's done it all"
So ... back to the gun. You see, Bill's best memories center around when he was a boy and used to go hunting with my Dad. Bill always wanted Dad's shotgun, so before Dad died he made me promise I'd someday give it to Bill. Last spring I finally dragged it out of the attic when Bill showed me that he had, in fact, finally acquired a hunting license.
A couple of months ago, Bill called me, frantic and drunk off his ass.**
(Mumble mumble) "Hey - it's your Brother Bill." (He ALWAYS starts off every telephone conversation with this same introduction, as if I could possibly confuse his witty first words with anyone else's on the planet.)
"Hi Bill, what's up?"
"Uh ... uhhhh ...I don't know what to do! (mumble mumble) They won't give me my gun!"
"Wait ... what are you talking about?"
(More incoherent mumbling)
"Bill .. wait .. I can't understand you. What? What are you trying to say?" (I feel like I'm talking to Lassie.)
"Ameri-Pawn!" He shouts (because the volume control knob on the back of his neck rotted and fell off years ago). "Uh....uh .... I pawned the gun and tried to get it out, but they won't let me have it back. Can you do something? Uhhhhh....." ***
(Side note ... I don't know where my brother got the bizarre idea that I could fix Everything That's Wrong in His Universe when I can't even figure out how to fill a birdfeeder without spilling seeds all over the driveway.)
"Okay ... exactly what do you want me to do, Bill?"
"Uhhhh ... can you go on the computer and find out why?"
"Okay ... but why would it be on the computer?"
(Mumblety mumble mumble jumble oh geez I don't know what he's saying)
"What? What?? I can't understand you!"
"Uhhhh...Steve**** said I've been tagged by the government so they won't let me get it back."
Okay ... "tagged" by the government? What is he now, a migrating seal with an electronic device stapled to his ear? It starts dawning on me that Bill is probably in some federal database as someone who - under the Brady Law guidelines - should not be permitted to own a firearm. I foolishly try to explain this to him, to which he responds,
"I'm not a felon! I'm not a felon!"
I try to further tell him that no, it's true he's not a felon, but there are other reasons why he might not be permitted to own a gun. Could it be because he once (twice, seventeen times) beat somebody up? Or because of his many domestic disputes that involved visits by the Painesville PD? Or because he's collecting Social Security after being deemed mentally ill? Or ...could this possibly go back to the time when he was arrested for beating the crap out of an ATM machine?
To all of this he - of course - responded,
"I'm not a felon! I'm not a felon!"
Trying to talk reason and sense to an end-stage alcoholic is, sadly, like trying to teach algebra to a cat. Who's the bigger fool, the cat or the teacher? I gave up trying to explain anything and then suggested that he call the FBI to find out exactly why he was flagged in their database.*****
Right - like that's going to happen. Besides, Bill calling the FBI probably wouldn't be the best idea. I mean, how would that conversation go? "Uhhhh .... uhhhh ... hey, you a--holes, why the f--- won't you f---in' feds let me get my gun back?" I don't think it would be long before there would be significant federal agent involvement.
I then suddenly recalled that I was talking to a twelve-year-old brain and shifted gears, promising I would call Steve and get it all straightened out. This at least brought an end to this conversation. During my next phone call with Steve at Ameri-Pawn, I learned that although they couldn't return the weapon to Bill, they still had to hold it for 60 days before they could put it up for sale. I explained to Steve that the gun had belonged to my dead father and that I'd really, really like to keep it in our family. Steve promised to call me as soon as the gun was off hold so that I could come in and purchase it.
I later explained all this to Bill a few days later, but also made it clear that there was no way, no how, no chance in hell that I was giving that gun back to him. Knowing now that he's not allowed to own one (and realizing he'd only pawn it again anyway) I told him I'd return it to the attic and someday give it to his grandson. Bill was, of course, very adult and understanding about the matter.
"But that's MY gun! Dad left me that gun! It's MINE! You're my sister, you're supposed to be on my side!"
Bill threatened to take action (including having one of his pals purchase the gun for him), but in the end he did what he always does when he's upset: He drank too much and ended up in the hospital, where he then plunged into alcohol withdrawal. He is, as I'm writing this, still there, shaking and hallucinating. An alcoholic "frequent flyer", this has to be at least his fourth or fifth visit (there would be more, but this particular hospital hasn't been open that long). The nurses all know him. They all agree that he's really a kind-hearted person with a good soul. And everybody involved knows he'll never learn; he'll never stop drinking; he'll eventually come in and never come out.
We all have our own demons to battle in life, and Bill ended up with a particularly bad one. His mental impairment -- which dates back to early childhood -- wasn't severe enough to merit medical attention in the 50s and 60s, so Bill wasn't treated any differently than any other child, and that was a mistake. My father -- who had survived terrible conditions, including injury, during World War II -- had no understanding of or compassion for weakness or mental illness. Bill was his only son, and he felt that Bill could, at any time, change who he was through his own willpower. When Bill refused to change, my Dad took it personally, feeling Bill's unacceptable behavior was an ongoing act of rebellion. They both loved each other so very much. They just couldn't stand one another.
Even as a child, Bill was a weird kid. He spent most of his time rocking back and forth in front of the TV ... and, when he wasn't doing that, he was digging holes in the backyard, hoping to escape to China. He was constantly getting hurt. Barb thinks it was because he loved the attention, and remembers a time when Bill picked up part of a sandbox, threw it up in the air, and watched as it landed on his head, sending him to the hospital for stitches. Barb also can't drive down E. 305th street without remembering seeing Bill, as a teenager, strolling down the street while spraying Reddi-wip into his mouth. Bill's summers were spent capturing turtles and raccoons and keeping them as pets in the garage. He also skipped school, engaged in drug abuse and antagonized authority figures of every kind. I remember a time when the principal at North High slammed his head against a locker because he refused to cut his hair.
If Bill could write a book about his life, you most definitely would want to read it. He's lived in a few trailers and apartments, but spent several years, homeless in Florida, sleeping in a tent in the woods. He knew how to scam every system he ever encountered. He was an expert at panhandling, and knew which churches were giving away free meals on any given day. He taught other homeless drunks how to make cardboard signs that would generate the most sympathy and the biggest donations. He was -- and still is -- an amazing survivalist. He knew how to poach alligators without getting caught, and could survive just about anything nature could possibly throw at him. He had been bitten by water moccasins and recluse spiders several times, and I hear those snakes and spiders all eventually died from Bill poisoning.
Once, during one of the hurricanes, my Dad was watching the Weather Channel's coverage and saw someone running along the beach with a refrigerator box covering most of his body. Without missing a beat, Dad exclaimed, "Look! There goes Bill!"
My brother was an adept dumpster diver, and knew when all the fast food restaurants along Route 60 would discard leftovers every night. He also knew where to obtain free merchandise; one Christmas, when I briefly lived in Florida, he gave me a dirty piece of luggage he proudly admitted he had fished out of the Salvation Army donation box. It was 2007, and I honestly didn't think he would live to see 2008. He had just been in a knife fight with another homeless woodsman and had wrapped his bloody wounds with duct tape (Bill avoided going to the hospital whenever he could, as they were known to not serve alcohol. Furthermore, there were no cigarettes in their vending machines.) He was wobbly, leathery and unable to eat, and he had fewer teeth in his mouth than when I'd last seen him (as I write this, I think he's down to two).
A few months later, when my parents heard about Bill's plight, they told me to send him back to Ohio, so I found him in the woods,****** bought him a ticket on Greyhound, put him on the bus and prayed he wouldn't get kicked off in the middle of North Carolina. Bill briefly lived with my parents******* before he was once again homeless.
"My brother was homeless, so Dad did decide
To give him his basement in which to reside
This living arrangement was doomed from the first
When all these two did was argue and curse
Then one summer day, Bill finally fled
When a gallon of ice cream was thrown at his head"
By then, I had moved back to Ohio and had Bill stay with me until I was able to find a program that would help him. Through counseling and assistance from Beacon Health (formerly Neighboring-Pathways), Bill was placed in extended housing. He eventually received Social Security and now lives in Section 8 housing. He has had a roof over his head for the past five years.
It's good to know that second chances do exist in this world if you know how to find them. Bill has had second, third, ninth and tenth chances. He has survived hitting bottom countless times. And yet, because he is wired to drink, he drinks, and has absolutely no desire to stop.
With Bill, my primary goal has been to do what I can, whenever possible, to keep him alive. My secondary goal has been to keep him out of social situations, in which he has no clue how to behave. A couple years ago, my sister Barb, visiting from San Francisco, decided she wanted to have lunch at a historical inn she had read about on the Internet. The Rider's Inn in Painesville had existed since 1812. It has a mini-museum of sorts that contains historical artifacts, and its atmosphere is quaint, quiet and dignified. Because Bill was going to be with us all day, Barb thought it would be acceptable if the four of us -- Mom, Barb, Bill and myself -- all had lunch together.
I reminded her of the time we had invited him out to lunch at an Applebee's in Florida and the embarrassment that ensued. Bill -- who, as I previously mentioned, cannot control his volume -- had entertained the diners by sitting at our table and shouting out boastful, racially insensitive comments about his exploits in the woods. I was shocked we weren't asked to leave. So ... how would we control him in an establishment as nice as the Rider's Inn?
But, because we were visiting Dad's grave -- and Bill wanted to go -- having him join us for lunch was the only logistical move we could make (after all, it would have been cruel to make him wait out in the car while the rest of us ate). The moment we walked in the door, Bill shouted, "Hey, they have a bar!" and quickly abandoned the rest of us. Later, when we were eating, Bill appeared in the dining room, staggering drunk. Quickly a hostess stepped up to question him, thinking some disruptive homeless man had just wandered in from the street.
"Excuse me, Sir... but can I help you?"
"Uhhhh .... uhhhhh .... yeah, I'm looking for my Mom .... uhhhhh..."
Quickly Barb stood up and said, "It's okay, he's with us" and motioned Bill over to the table, where he tried to eat the food she had ordered for him.
But all of this pales in comparison to Bill's behavior at my Mom's viewing and funeral this past January. Bill hadn't done too badly at Dad's funeral three years earlier, when he had been with his then-girlfriend, Kathy. Kathy had done a pretty decent job keeping Bill semi-sober and sane, and was able to manage him when they were out in public. But during Mom's viewing, Bill spent most of his time drunk, chain-smoking in the parking lot and watching TV in the kitchen. Barb, knowing that most of the guests were going to be people who knew me, including colleagues from work, spent most of her time trying to keep an eye on Bill while I was greeting visitors.
"What are you doing?" She barked at him, when he turned the volume on the TV up to an obscenely blaring level.
"I can't hear the TV!"
"You're not supposed to hear the TV! This is a funeral home! These people don't want to hear that! Turn it down!"
"Uhhhh ... uhhhhh ... I'm going outside for a smoke."
At least she was able to keep Bill out of the viewing area for most of the night. I did have one moment of panic when I was talking to my boss, Pete, and ... bam! .... there was Bill, intoxicated, lurching in behind him. I kept thinking, "Pete, don't turn around, please don't turn around, oh dear God don't let my brother do anything stupid while I'm talking to my boss," and, happily, God heard my prayer. Bill lurched out again, without anyone being the wiser.
On the day of the funeral, however, Bill's inability to follow rules, customs, or even the simplest of instructions became painfully clear to everyone in attendance. When the minister asked everyone to pay their final respects to my mother, "starting with the row in the back," there was my brother, in the front row, jumping to his feet and rushing the casket. Shortly thereafter, when it was time for everyone to file out of the funeral home and into our cars for the procession, Bill -- oblivious to what was going on -- announced he needed to go outside for a cigarette.
Barb hissed, "Stop it. You can't go outside for a cigarette, we're going to the cemetery now. This is your mother's funeral and this is not how you're supposed to act. Knock it off."
When we arrived at All Souls Cemetery, it was freezing cold and there was at least a foot of snow on the ground. Mom and Dad's pre-purchased graves were on top of a hill, and I wasn't looking forward to trekking up there, convinced I'd slip on some ice and break my neck (even under the best of circumstances, I have the poise, grace, and coordination of a hippo trying to do a somersault on a balance beam). We prepared to proceed, in dignified, orderly fashion, up the hill when ... you guessed it ... my brother staggered forward ahead of us, announcing, "I'm going to go check out the digs!" The capper, of course, was when we all went out to lunch afterward. Bill, naturally, avoided the rest of us and never ate lunch. He spent the entire time perched on a stool at the bar. I kept glancing over at him, just to make sure he was still there, and panicked when I didn't see him. Fortunately, it did occur to me to look down. He was on the floor.
I have a few theories about alcoholics...and although I do not have a medical degree, I believe I am, nevertheless, well-qualified to voice an opinion about them. I was raised by alcoholics. I spent some time in Chicago helping a cousin deal with alcoholism. I recently tried to help that same cousin when he found himself homeless on the streets of Parma (happily, he is now being assisted by the same organization that helped my brother. He is no longer homeless and is living in extended housing). I dated an alcoholic, and have both the physical and emotional scars to show for it. So, here it is:
I believe alcoholics tend to freeze in time at the moment they become addicted, which could explain why so many of them think and act like rebellious young teenagers. I also think that alcoholism often victimizes those souls among us who are the most emotionally vulnerable. My brother is a good person. I know this is my gut. He is a sensitive person. He loves animals, and I think one of the reasons he lived so long in the woods was because he just felt more comfortable living amongst other species. He is fiercely loyal, and as big a pain as he's been in my rear and my sister's rear over the years, I know that he wouldn't hesitate to bodily harm anyone who would try to hurt either one of us. He's a good, messed up person who does bad things, especially to himself. I honestly think this can be said of most alcoholics.
And, as advanced as we think we are as a society, we still can't figure out an effective way to treat or even manage the poor souls who suffer from this often terminal illness.
So ... here I am, on a Wednesday morning, wishing I didn't have to visit a pawn shop on Saturday. I'm also thinking about Bill in the hospital, and wishing I somehow could have done more, even if I have no clue what that could have been. He's the only brother I've got. I love him. I won't have him much longer. When he dies, I believe my Mom will be on the other side, loving and forgiving, stretching out her arms to embrace him. With Dad, I'm not so sure. I like to think he'll do the same. Or, he'll first yell, "Why did you pawn my gun, you big dummy?" and hurl another gallon of ice cream at his head before he gives him a hug. It will be a lot better on the other side, I know that. But I'll sure miss him.
It's selfish, I know, to want him here
Where he's never found his place
But I believe, beyond this earth
Bill will finally find his space
Yes. I'll sure miss him.
And ... it's going to be so very dull here without him.
By the way...if you'd like to help people who suffer as my brother does ... donations to Beacon Health can be made on their website, www.beaconhealth.us .
*I've written lots of poems, and they're all terrible. I love doing things I'm really, really bad at, so that's why I also enjoy singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" very loudly on the highway with the windows rolled down. It does, I'm sure, disturb other drivers, but that only enhances my joy.
**That's like saying he called me "frantic, drunk off his ass and breathing," so I'll try to avoid such redundancies in the future.
***Wanna know what Bill sounds like? Remember "Lurch" from "The Addams Family"?
****At this point, of course, I have no clue who 'Steve' is ... I eventually learn he's the pawn shop manager.
***** The answer is now clear. I am the bigger fool.
****** Searching for someone in the woods isn't easy, by the way, especially when you're doing it in Florida. It's like being lost in Jurassic Park.... and you know you'd better get out of there before something with no, two, four or eight legs decides to kill you.
******* I think they lasted an entire afternoon. Okay, I'm exaggerating - a week. Maybe.