Sunday, January 29, 2006

January 29, 2006 - one year later

One year ago today, my brother was at a bus station in downtown Charlotte waiting for a bus with a buddy of his. He'd been living there for a few years as one of the homeless that had taken refuge in the city. He and his buddy had managed to scrape together enough money to get a hotel room for the night. It was at that bus stop that he suffered the heart attack that took his life.

We didn't know till the next day that he was gone. It took that long for people to find his family since he carried no personal numbers or identification with him other than the basics. However, the police knew him, and the people from the homeless ministry he was active at and frequented knew him, and they identified him, tracked down his oldest daughter, and we found out that way.

My brother was a smart man. Unfortunately, he also suffered from BPD and, after the accident at a factory in Detroit that left him in chronic pain for over 20 years, the BPD led him through a series of circumstances to leave his wife and family and live on his own under a bridge where the sound of constant traffic soothed his tormented mind and gave him a sense of community.

He found a place where he felt he belonged. It's called Urban Ministry Center. The people there, staff and other homeless alike, accepted my brother for who he was instead of who they thought he should be, something he had struggled with his whole life. They didn't see him as a failure, as a man with an addiction to pain meds, as a man who smoked pot to leave behind for a few moments the ache in his back that had been his constant companion for such a long time that he had almost forgotten who we was without it, as a man who had been told by his wife upon catching him smoking some of that pot with his teenage son that he had to leave, and not come back. The people at this place in Charlotte saw his wit, and his caring, and his disregard for status, monetary position, education level, and color, and they loved him. They took him in and he became family to him, and they became family to him. They were what my dysfunctional gathering of people could never have been. They put no expectations on him other than to be who he was. They never chided him for his weaknesses. Instead, they encouraged him, and built him up, and just flat out loved him.

I met those people, and I understood why he loved them. They didn't care what color I was or how big I was or "who" I was. I was Ken's sister, and they loved him, and they loved me. It was that simple.

I saw the bridge under which was the place he called home when he couldn't get together enough money to rent a hotel room with a buddy or two. It spoke his life to me. It was his home. It had the same signature on it that was in his home in Detroit, or in his room in the house we lived in as young people. It was Ken. I have pictures of that place. His family - his ex-wife who just couldn't deal with the chronic pain and disappointment that 20 years of lost dreams brings and had to do what she had to do, and his 3 kids - haven't asked to see those pictures, but they will in time, and I have them here when they do. We found blankets there, blankets he used to cover himself and protect his body from the cold. I have those blankets. My sister took them to her house and washed them and mailed them to me. They are waiting for a new home, but it has to be right. I won't take them to a resale shop. He'd want them to go to someone without cost. He'd want them to go to someone who really needed them and just didn't have 2 or 3 or 5 dollars. He would have wanted them to be given away. I give by inspiration. Some day I'll come across someone out here who needs a blanket or two, and they will find a new home, one where they will be treasured.

I told my siblings I wanted to take my brother's place in the family. He was the outward rebel. My rebellion had been silenced by the years of abuse I couldn't get over. I didn't want to be silent any more. I wanted to step up and take his place.
I had no idea that this meant I would wake up almost 8 months later in the kind of pain that never goes away. I didn't know it meant I would learn more than I ever wanted to know about what went on in his head and heart.

See, we judge people based on our expectations of who we think they should be. I have let myself down now. I am no longer who or where I thought I would be at this stage in the game. I am disabled. I cannot work. This doesn't mean I can't work as a nurse. It means I can't work. I can't concentrate long enough at one time to do much of anything beyond simple, basic tasks. I can't stand noise of any kind long enough to even work at McDonald's. I can't focus well enough for long enough to drive a truck. I can't stand bright lights long enough to work in an office environment. After working since I was 12 at one job or another, I am now involuntarily dependent on the grace and kindness of someone else for my daily bread and a place to live.

It's quite a shock, this dependency. It throws a whole new light on things. It makes you look at each and every moment you have in a different light.
I can see why my brother didn't want help from the people he thought he had failed. However, having the benefit of hindsight, I can also see why my family, who had tried more than once to help him, felt they needed to try, and why they feel the need to try and help me now. My mom sends me money. My mother - my 72 year old mother - sends me $100 dollars a month and will continue to do so until my disability comes through, at which point I will reimburse her. My daughters buy us groceries and put gas in my van. My sister wants to pay me to make her a quilt. I was going to gift it to her anyhow, but my mom told me when we discussed it to let her help me...that maybe she was trying to help without saying I will make the quilt, and I will let her pay me for it, though I would have given it to her for free had I been given the opportunity.

It's not just about me, you see...and I have to keep my eyes off my belly button and try not to succumb to "I" strain. My family has the need to help me. It is part of my obligation to let them do that, because, in part, they tried to help Ken and he, being past the point of seeing clearly in this part of his situation, did not accept their help. My brother sent him money orders. He doesn't know if they were ever cashed or not. We tried to find him, and he didn't want our help. Now they want to help me, and I need to let them do that even if it bites at my self-sufficient tendencies and fierce independence - because it's not all about me. It's about me and my mom and my sisters and my living brother and the people who care about me and want me around and need to know that I am okay even if I can't see my way out of a cardboard box at this very moment in time.

I remember I used to tease people about not depriving me of the opportunity to bless them when they were in need and I had something they needed. I'm learning that on a first-term basis now. It's hard learning to accept. It's much easier for me to give than it is to let someone give to me.

In memory of my brother, I will let them give to me, and I will thank God for the opportunity to allow them to be blessed by giving what and how and when they can, and I will be grateful that I can learn this lesson, whatever it is, from the inside out.

Ken, may you rest in peace. May you not be forgotten by the ones who loved you - your biological family or the community of homeless in Charlotte, North Carolina who called you their own and who saw in you what we never could because we were blinded by the ties of earthly family.

You were a good man.

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