My Brother’s Keeper

19 02 2010

Black Heritage is my heritage–embodied in the history of my family.

Excerpted from Fried Chicken and Sympathy, Chapter 4: My Brother’s Keeper

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“This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether or not God will show them favor in this life.”

Ecclesiastes 9:1

Death truly does comes in many forms, which don’t necessarily involve a dead body.  There are economic, psychological and emotional deaths as well.  Oliver was the sole economic provider for our family, and when he died, that element died with him too.  Bay now found herself burdened with providing for seven children, along with bearing the weight of our various struggles and illnesses, and the inevitable hardships that followed.  Oliver’s death changed our lives irrevocably.

But next to Bay, I think Gerry was affected the most deeply.

Gerry was supposed to have been the “baby” of the family; then I came along and usurped his place.  Because we were the closest in age of the siblings, we were often stuck together, while the others were off at school or doing the teenage thing.  The one family picture where I actually got to see myself as an infant was the one I described earlier, with Bay, the six older siblings, and me on her lap.  The other picture of me from early childhood was with Gerry; I was probably about one and a half, and he was about eight.  It had been a professionally-done black and white print, overlaid and enhanced with colored oil paint.  I am in a cute yellow dress, and Gerry is in a fine blue suit.  The photographer posed us with me sitting on his lap, and one of his arms draped around my waist, holding me securely in place.  We are both all smiles and glow, my milk teeth showing, his a sunny grin with tiny teeth, reflecting a closeness that became damaged and diminished.

When I was six, and Gerry twelve, my favorite T.V. show was Speed Racer, and his, Batman. The problem was, the shows aired at the same time on different channels, and these were the days of one TV per home, and no TiVo™.  We would have “good-natured” battles over who would watch what.

“I don’t want to watch Batman!  He’s stupid!” I’d whine.

“Is not! You got to see Speed Racer yesterday – so I’m watchin’ Batman!”

“No, you’re not!” I’d yell, stamping my foot.

“Yes, I am!”  he’d yell back, turning the knob on the TV and shoving me to the floor.  I would then hop on his neck and start punching him.

“Oww!” he screamed, trying to get me off his back.  “Leggo!”

“No!  I wanna watch Speed Racer!”  He attempted to topple me off his back, while I reached toward the channel knob.  I pretty much had him in a chokehold until Bay stepped in to arbitrate the mini-war.  Most of the time, I ended up watching Speed Racer, while Gerry pouted and fumed.  But with those he loved, Gerry rarely got ugly or violent—and I knew he loved me.

Our favorite game was hanging upside down on the couch with our heads toward the floor and our feet skyward.

“I’m falling down Niagara Falls!” Gerry would yell, pretending to drop.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” I’d scream, letting the blood rush to my head.  Then we’d roll off the couch, feet over head, and walk around woozy for a bit, before getting back on the couch and doing it again.

So my being born really didn’t cause any huge sibling tension, or affect Gerry’s place in the family.  He was still the baby boy, and Oliver’s little prince.  He was spoiled rotten, and got away with acts that would have been unacceptable with the older siblings: being able to stay up past bedtime, talking back, and eating whatever he wanted, even if it was bad for him.  This distinction was not lost on Teddy, Adrienne, Barbara, June and Joan, so they did what they could to put him in his place.  Any of his infractions of household behavior was gleefully reported to Bay or Oliver, in the hope of his getting a beating, or at least a scolding.  It mostly backfired, because in Oliver’s eyes, Gerry could do no wrong.

The same was true of Bay.  Her reactions to Gerry’s bratty behavior and outbursts were based on fear that he would do serious harm to himself; and in his case, her fears had a legitimate basis.  June said that when Gerry would throw a temper tantrum, it involved a lot of thrashing and crying, and three times it resulted in Gerry’s getting a head injury.  The first time Gerry pitched a fit, it was because Bay wouldn’t stop washing dishes to give him some sweets.  She tried to get him to wait, but he first tugged at her skirt, then eventually started hitting his head against the wall.  He did this with such force that he busted the skin above his brow, at his scalp.  Bay rushed him to the emergency-room at Cook County, and he had to have stitches.  Another time when he was upset, he ran into a table and gashed open his head, also requiring an emergency room visit and more stitches.  So it was no wonder that she gave in each time he became demanding, to avoid any more injuries or medical bills.

The coddling given by Bay and Oliver did nothing to improve his short attention span, or his even shorter temper, but I have always felt Gerry’s behavioral patterns had a deeper-seated cause that had little to do with lack of discipline.  From my own personal studies and observations, I suspect my brother suffered from one of the Autism Spectral Disorders (ASD), perhaps Asperger Syndrome.  Many of the behaviors outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) fit Gerry’s behavioral and social dysfunction.  From his difficulty communicating or perceiving what has been related to him, to repetitive behavior and motion, to the inability to interact and lack of sensory response, Gerry lacked the necessary frame of reference to be able to navigate in the outside world.  My curiosity and study led me to seek out a professional opinion.  So a friend referred me to Dr. David A. Reisbord, a Los Angeles neurologist who treats many cases of Autism and its related illnesses.  “The temper tantrums and self-injury are typical in Asperger patients,” says Dr. Reisbord.  “So are all of his other symptoms.”

If Gerry had been born today, and I had had a mother who were willing to seek help, he might have been appropriately diagnosed and treated.  Even if his condition had been recognized and attended to in his teens (during the mid-‘70s, when Autism was being recognized as a serious developmental disorder), some of his pain, and much of ours, might have been assuaged.  But back in the 1960s such syndromes were not commonly known, or were simply dismissed among “plain” folk like us.  Bay’s desire for privacy also tied into her myopic approach to Gerry’s problems.  What happened in the home, stayed in the home, and it was nobody’s business how it was handled.  Even if the appropriate help and treatment had been available then, Bay would never have sought it.

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