My brother’s keeper

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one life the aching 

Or cool one’s pain

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again

I shall not live in vain

-Emily Dickinson

Today’s post is accompanied by Short’s autumn ale and this is my last one out of a six pack. (And no, I didn’t buy it yesterday). However it is only two in the afternoon…which could be worrisome under normal circumstances. Suffice it to say what’s happening now isn’t normal, if death ever is. And over my pint I’m wondering if I failed to live out the directives of one of my favorite poems, the one listed above.  I’m feeling that I failed to not only stop a heart from breaking, but by my lack of action a heart stopped beating altogether. 

That being said, I really don’t want this post to be about poor me. Let me tell you about my brother David.

He was born David Lindsey Hasenfang on September 2nd, and had just turned fifty six when he shot himself in the head at his home. His story is sad from beginning to end, but I guess I think if it’s written down it will somehow matter more and be less tragic.

He was a chubby, blonde haired and blue eyed toddler when his father was killed in a train accident; and my sister wonders often how their lives might have turned out had this never happened. Hard to know, of course. I picture him, probably not even out of diapers and already adrift in a sea of depression he’d never fully pull out from, and I think.

I think, did you ever even stand a chance? 

His every whim was indulged from the get-go. No doubt, due to a mixture of my mother’s distracted depression and two adoring sets of grandparents eager to fill the gap of a missing father. Then my mother met my father, whom he probably did become attached to, and who promptly left after fleecing everyone in his wake. By the time he had a second stepfather he was nearing adolescence, and the brew of emerging hormones and lifelong defiance with authority became the perfect storm. Our German stepdad at age thirty-something knew zilch about child raising, but what he did know was that this smart-mouth upstart was going to show him respect. And once my parents discovered marijuana pots in his room, there were knock down, drag out fistfights that drove me to my room to hide. 

When he turned twenty one David received a sum of money set aside from his deceased father, and sometime after that he bought a truck and a dog. He was California bound. He worked for a landscaping company out there and had a genuine flair for it, and I wasn’t surprised. When he was in eighth grade the only bright spot in his troubled academic history cast this light: an art teacher told him he had talent and he should direct his career in that route. He didn’t finish high school, let alone pursue art in college, but I think his gifts came through when he worked with his plants and flowers.

He loved it in Cali, though the free wheeling drug culture was not a good scene for him. He admitted this to me much later.  He became mired in one incident after another, calling my sisters and then my mom for money. At some point my mom flew out there and I don’t even know what happened, but she was a wreck upon coming home. The “incidents”  were never his fault, naturally. In between countless brushes with the law was the ever present threat of doing himself in, which distressed everyone to no end. At some point he came home to Michigan and lived with my parents for quite awhile, obtaining factory work mostly.

When I had my firstborn, he was very excited. I think part of it was due to the fact that at barely twenty, he had become involved with a somewhat older woman. She was separated and had two kids and in no time was pregnant with his. She didn’t want him or the baby and opted for adoption. I remember this being a very painful decision, as he weighed how to raise a baby when he himself was unstable in almost every conceivable way. Many tears were shed by him and my mother, and I know he waited the rest of his life for a knock on the door that never came. 

So with the arrival of a nephew I was hopeful. Hopeful he could at last establish a bond and receive the unconditional love only children and pets can give. And for awhile he did, until he couldn’t. When Sean was a toddler I suggested they go fishing, which my brother loved. And when he dropped Sean off he was livid. “Why did you ever think I could do this? He wouldn’t shut up and sit still, and drove me nuts. I hate kids!” He was shaking with the effort to control himself and stalked off in a rage. 

That was when I knew I couldn’t trust him not to become unhinged around my children. And I had to put them first, had to protect them. It was probably around this time for various reasons, he became less and less stable. He was fired from a care taking job at an estate, and that was one of the last legitimate positions he had. Somehow, probably with my parent’s help, he bought a house and settled not far from them or me. He also met a sweet young woman and got married, and we thought, “Oh…this is it! This is the turning pont.” Nice as she was, she was also very ill with kidney disease, which was there before the marriage. In between doting on her he’d explode, and she was understandably too fragile to withstand his unpredictable outbursts. They divorced, and this was probably the earliest beginning of the end. At some stage he began growing pot again as a soure of income, and we would only see each other sporadically. He hated holidays and special occasions and refused to participate in family functions, and this hurt. Later I understood it was because he was embarrassed to be surrounded by “successful” people with growing families, but at the time it simply annoyed me. 

After my mom died, it seemed as though he was determined to reverse the pain he’d caused them over the years by helping my dad. And help him he did, from mowing, weeding, raking, shoveling snow, to taking him for groceries, to just being company. They became friends, and I was so grateful for both of them. 

Then my dad passed.

His downward spiral continued but the pattern was in fits and starts. He received a good chunk of inheritance money and my sister intoned, “spend it wisely.” But we should’ve known better. How could a decent amount of cash combined with his erratic, bipolar behavior, not be a disaster waiting to happen? He refused to apply for Obamacare because he was certain the Feds would come after him for years of not paying taxes, so he paid God only knows how much out of pocket for his dozens of meds. So the money trickled away, taking with it what little reasoning and hope he had.

I met with him a few weeks before he died and we went for a nice walk with his dog Rocky, a big and beautiful lab-pit mix. His animals were the one constant throughout his life, for all the usual reasons: their devotion, companionship, unending love, and unwavering acceptance. David hid from his family and most of society because in his moments of clarity he was ashamed of  who and what he was. But really. What was that, other than a flawed human like any one of us? For every side of him that was selfish, hurtful, volatile, irresponsible, reckless and law breaking, there was another side that was caring, loyal, artistic, ferociously funny, sentimental, and occasionally considerate. It’s just that, like Darth Vader, the dark side took over much of the time. And that scared and frustrated me, so I’d back off. Maintaining any relationship with him meant risking your own mental health, and that’s a pretty high price to pay. 

And yet. The predictable should and could-haves circle my brain like the bees hovering over the hummingbird feeder on my deck. Sucking the life out of me with the accusation that I didn’t do enough. I say this because when on that hike, he hinted in a very roundabout way he should’ve received more of the estate for his care of our dad. And I know enough to know that he targeted me, not only because he felt closer to me but because he knew I was the one more likely to cave. To say, “Oh, you’re right. What do you need?”

Only this time, I didn’t. I offered help, but it wasn’t what the kind he wanted. I was determined to break the cycle of enabling, not understanding this wasn’t possible with a man as sick as he was. He was desperate, and though logic dictates if he didn’t follow through last Monday it would have been a different day, it’s a very hollow assurance right now. I must work through the voices that mock me now, who call me a fake and a hypocrite. What kind of person prides herself on being compassionate, and writes blogs about being a brother’s keeper to a homeless man, is oblivious to her own brother’s  agony? What kind of person appoints herself the judge and jury of her brother’s mistakes (spending thousands on a steel walled garage)? I will tell you: a newly humbled person. The juxtaposition of this shiny new structure with an American flag waving, (from a flagpole kit given by my parents), next to the peeling shack he lived in, was painful to view. 

The person in question didn’t become unglued at the scene of the crime. I paid a cleaning crew to come and take the bed away and do what they do. No, it was the piles of unwashed laundry and unpaid bills that did me in. I could see exactly when he went down the hole and didn’t come out. I keep seeing his mail, which went from opened in June to stacks in September, and I think it wouldn’t have killed you to have paid this for a few months, until something could be worked out. But, no. Miss psychology major had a lesson to teach. A lesson she wrongly and  arrogantly assumed could penetrate fifty six years of illness and drug abuse. 

Of course I know there would always be another four hundred to pay, or more. And for how long? My brain knows that. The guilt that threatens to envelop me is being held at bay by the shields of my loved ones and the the Holy Spirit. There is Grace everywhere I turn; from my brother’s neighbors who have taken in his pets with great love, to the support of my sisters, to my special friend who stood at the bedroom doorway and asked God to “bring David to a place of peace and light.” 

So I take immense comfort from all these things, and I will heal as I do my best to honor what is left to do without bitterness. I truly view it as my cross to bear and what I owe to my parents, and to David. Maybe I can do for him now what I was too weak or cowardly to do when he was alive. 

And I hope that will be enough. 

I know this post is hardly a ray of sunshine, but I had to get this story out there. And anyway, if you happen to see a chocolate lab pit dog bounding out on East Road in southwestern Michigan, you will see all the love and light you can stand. David rescued him, and I know Rocky did the same, if only for a brief period of time. One of the last things my brother wrote was on a sticky note he attached to the door to his house, to reassure the police: “Dog Rocky is very friendly.”

Cheers and peace to you, my friends.