Marilyn Gardner Woods
“Your brother, Mark, is the highest functioning schizophrenic patient I treat,” the psychiatrist
Following the death of my father, I willingly became my brother’s keeper. My first move was to change the doctor treating his Paranoid Schizophrenic disorder, a mental condition that had been a volatile part of our lives for five decades. My brother was diagnosed after a breakdown when he was in his early twenties. He stopped driving when he began to hallucinated seeing little children in front of his car in the road ahead.
My father was ill-equipped to deal with a son’s mental disorder. A successful and high-powered over-achiever who couldn’t comprehend incapability, he fought to his end to make my brother “normal.” The day Dad collapsed and died, he was heading to the airport for his regular monthly flight from California to Dallas to make sure my brother was on track; balanced his check book, cleaned his apartment and visited the therapist once a week.
To this therapist, a “professional” woman, it seemed to me that my brother was nothing more than a meal ticket. She kept him highly medicated and frequently cancelled appointment at the last minute or didn’t show, knowing his was a thirty-minute bus ride with a downtown transfer to her office.
Multiple times over the years, I expressed my unease with this doctor’s professional ethics, but Dad would always counter, “Mark’s doing fine. We don’t want to disturb things…”
I relented, not wanting to upset either my father or my mom, who had cultivated a built-in denial mechanism over the years. We didn’t talk much about my brother’s situation, especially when things were as ordered as they could be. It was when phone calls from my brother’s work—usually the human resources guy—came that we conferred.
“Your brother has pinned Chinh against the copy machine in a fit of rage.”
“He fell asleep in the meeting on safety practices this morning.”
“Who monitors his medications?”
When I relocated my parents to California near me, I became the one running interference in these matters. A confidential sister-to-brother conversation (without parent intrusion) usually did the trick.
“Problem at work today, Mark?”
“Have you been taking your meds?”
“I hate how they make me feel…”
And we would continue back and forth until he had made a promise to me to go back to the drugs. Over and over I suggested smaller doses, cutting a pill in half or every other day, but my brother was all about routine. All or nothing at all.
With my aging parents, there was never a formal agreement, power of attorney or even much of a discussion about my brother’s care after they were gone. I knew my brother, who I had loved and older-sister-spurned for over six decades, would be my responsibility. At least in the areas where he both needed and accepted my help.
When Dad died, I wasted little time in going to Dallas and finding a new psychiatrist for Mark, who was a highly recommended ethical and compassionate doctor. This slight man with graying hair and wire-rimmed glasses, who assigned my brother the high functioning label, reduced his meds and continued to manage them, embraced his obsessive routine and gained his confidence. We both had faith in his treatment.
Mark and I enjoyed almost four years of this high functioning schizophrenic life of his. He walked his dog early morning before work and the first thing when he returned home. He drank six to eight Coca-Colas every day, sent small gifts to our mother now in assisted living regularly and bathed on schedule. He didn’t balance his bank account or clean his kitchen or do his laundry. Instead, I handled his bills, he ate TV dinners and walked to Target to buy new clothes when needed.
I marveled at his routine.
With a heaviness in his long stride, he walked back and forth to work, a mile and half each way in the rain, snow or blistering heat of Dallas summers. I can picture him even now—shoulders rounded over his paunch, suspenders holding up his too-short jeans, his thinning hair the color of a faded carrot slicked down.
My brother labored in that paper manufacturing plant for thirty-nine years and forty-nine weeks. Three weeks shy of retirement at age sixty-five, he was felled by a massive heart attack. He collapsed as he lifted yet another heavy box in the Olmsted-Kirk warehouse. At one time, he’d run “the slitter,” a big machine that cuts giant rolls of paper; that position had afforded Mark a badge of honor. But eventually, improved technology and Mark’s limited capacities had relegated him to the bottom rung of the ladder, so that he spent his final years pounding, lifting, and stacking heavy rolls of paper like the one that fell on him that day.
I went to Dallas immediately. My brother died in Parkland Hospital, the same facility where John F. Kennedy died forty-two years before.
Before I left Dallas, I visited the plant where Mark had spent almost fifty years as a dedicated employee. I hosted a sweet and sad Texas barbecue (with a few Lone Star Beers) for his fellow laborers. Back at the plant, I said my good-byes and left the building.
Just as I closed my car door, that same Human Resources Manager who had called me so often rushed from the front entrance toward me with a stack of papers in his hand. A bit disheveled, he stopped by my car and before saying anything, leaned over, his hands on his knees, in an attempt to catch his breath. I waited.
“I need you to sign these,” he instructed, shuffling paper and thrusting a ballpoint pen through the window.
At that moment, I learned that my brother, my high functioning schizophrenic brother, had quietly designated me the beneficiary of his life insurance plan (a plan I didn’t know he had) through the company and that for the rest of my life, I would receive $619.20 every month. This from my brother who never asked one thing of me in my life.
Now, a decade later, the checks are still direct-deposited regularly each month. When it arrives, whether I buy something fancy, spend it on my kids or put it in the bank, I pause a moment and say, “thank you Mark.”
Marvin - Beautiful; thanks for sharing with those of us not fortunate enough to have met Mark or known you two when younger. This is a wonderful example of unexpected blessings others can give to our lives.
Thank you, Marilyn, for the touching story about your brother. I miss my brother so much. We played the piano together every Wednesday before going to dinner. In music, I hear him every day. With love Ruth
i read this in the middle of the night. unknowingly, it seemed to me the right time to read something so bittersweet. I’m glad you have a positive way of remembering him. Linda
We often never know the life struggles others carry with quiet grace and dignity but on the occasion such treasures are shared, as you have done in this case, I understand more and more what it means to live a good life. Thank you for sharing such an inspirational story about what it means to be a family! Larry
The stories that are pouring out of you, Marilyn. Their specificity reflects a universality. Keep them coming...Elaine
Loved this one too! Seems difficult to write a short story... where to begin?...where to end?...but you are nailing it! Made my heart sing that folks made adjustments for his condition at his work place. There is kindness in the world. Cat
From Mary G.
Beautiful story Marilyn. I found it very moving. It is so hard to take care of a sibling, while ensuring their independence.
Sounds like you have experience, Mary. M.