©2009 Daniel A. Brown
When I was 18 years old, I found out that my dead sister was, in fact, very much alive. Deborah Brown was supposed to have died in childbirth back in 1940, ten years before I appeared. This was told to me and my other sister, Janet, in the hushed solemn tones that befitted the explaining of family tragedy in the 1950’s. We made the appropriate murmured comments and thought no more about it.
But in 1968, my best friend, Joanie, and I were hanging out in her room taking a break from our endless games of double solitaire and decided to explore my wallet, which, in previous inspections, wasn’t usually that exciting. I had my New York City Transit Authority subway pass, a Social Security card, a beat up WABC-AM Big Dan Ingram fan club card from 1962,` and a Photostat of my birth certificate, white letters against a black shiny background.
Having never seen hers, Joanie was curious about my birth certificate, wondering what kind of information one needed in order to prove that one had, in fact, been born. Apparently I was delivered at an institution called Leroy Sanitarium, an alarming name until I learned years later that it was a posh maternity hospital located near Bloomingdales in downtown Manhattan. Expectant moms could therefore go shopping right up until their water broke. The names and occupations of my parents were duly noted as was another fact that subsequently changed my life. Under the heading: “How many children alive at birth”, someone had typed, “2”.
That couldn’t be. There was only Janet, who was born two years before me and if Deborah died in childbirth in 1940, what was she doing alive in 1950? Joanie and I looked at each wordlessly as I decided to get my coat, head home and find out.
I had no idea how I was going to handle this situation so I walked right up to my father, who was working at his desk, and asked him point blank, “Who’s Deborah Brown?” His response was to jump out of his skin, shocked insensible by a name and an identity that he had hoped to never hear again, especially not from one of his children for whom someone dead and buried had suddenly achieved resurrection. He called my mother into the office and I was told (in the same hushed solemn tones) that I did, in fact, have another sister who had been born profoundly retarded (their words) at birth and placed in the care of the State of Minnesota soon afterwards. I also learned that night that I had a half-brother, the product of my father’s first and failed marriage. Nothing more was said. Nothing more was asked. That a sibling (or two) had been deliberately erased from my life was justified by my parents’ explanation that they didn’t want to upset us kids with unnecessary unpleasantness. I accepted this only because such a rationalization was in keeping with how my parents functioned, sweeping unpleasantness under a very thick rug which periodically exploded when the suppression underneath reached critical mass. I soon left home for college, eventually joined a commune in western Massachusetts, and faced my own personal crisises that left no room for caring about a non-existent sister. I even accepted family methodology of pretending she wasn’t there. When asked how many siblings I had, I always answered “One”.
At the time, I was terrified of any kind of deformity, a point that got rammed home when our commune house band performed a benefit concert at Belchertown State School where many of our members worked. Standing amid the swirls of drooling, distorted happy faces, all dancing with visible glee, I was so catatonic with fear that I seemed to mimic the psychic posture of the very people I was terrified of. Seeing this as some kind of character flaw that needed to be overcome, I went to nearby Monson State Hospital and got a job on the nursing ward for two years. The ward, Simons Building, housed those residents who needed total care.
A typical day.
I arrived on site at 3pm and began my shift by inserting tubes of Fleet Enemas into the rectums of various impacted residents who could no longer shit on their own. Hurrying before the enemas took effect, I would then tie them with sheets to the retaining bars adjacent to each toilet so they could sit on the can without keeling over and cracking their skulls on the tiled floors. After the impending explosion (you could identify each resident by the manner of his defecation), I would gaze into the toilet and note the response on a clip boarded sheet, “Good Results” being the desired solution. Then it was time to untie them and plop them in their chairs in preparation for dinner with, hopefully, enough time to wash my hands in-between. Dinner arrived in giant stainless-steel milk containers, which was then distributed to individual trays. Seeing that none of the 35 patients could feed themselves, I and the other ward worker (who was either working an overtime shift or partially stoned or both) would feed all of them in the 30 minutes we had allotted. In practice, we accomplished this by running down the line of open gurgling mouths, inserting spoons. After dinner, it was time to clean them for bed, lifting their naked bodies onto a metallic wash platform and hosing them down like hogs. We had no towels so sheets were used for drying. In two years, I saw exactly one bag of towels for our use. Bathing was followed by the slow, grunting process of diapering each body for the night but having no diapers, t-shirts were substituted. Thirty-five years later, I can still convert a shirt into a diaper if need be. Their day would end in their cribs, after which I’d take my dinner break because, even after spending hours surrounded by shit, piss, blood and dribble, I was starving. Dinner was at Friendly’s where, on my limited budget (I was paid $3.25 an hour), I’d wolf down a cup of clam chowder, a plate of French fries and a cup of coffee with blessed relief. Upon returning to the ward, I would be greeted by several huge bags of laundry that needed folding and placing in the various cubbyholes. We would then make the rounds to make sure no one was choking in their sleep and then remove to the sitting room to watch television. Arriving home around midnight, I would often shut off the engine and pass out in the car, too exhausted to make it into the house.
The residents on the ward were very distinct individuals and some of them would have made great extras in any B-grade horror movie. There was Barney who weighed about 100 pounds and careened around the ward on his twirling tip-toes while emitting a howling banshee shriek like a bobcat in heat. Jay-Jay, a mammoth man with the facial expression of a baby cow, crawled on his knees that had calluses the size of baseball mitts. Steven scampered like a crab and would chew his Johnny to shreds which would eventually join the Good Results at enema time (because of the anti-seizure medication they were on, most residents had gums that grew over their teeth or no teeth at all). Raymond was one of the few mobile inmates who could also talk. Every evening, like clockwork, he would perform this dance of ecstatic masturbation that could have been choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Rocking back and forth with an impossibly gigantic member firmly in hand, his face would break into this huge rubbery Robin Williams grin as he danced and stroked away. Needless to say, the matronly women who worked on the wards in their polyester stretch pants went bonkers when confronted by this apparition, screaming in vain, “RAYMOND! IF YOU DON’T PUT THAT AWAY, I’M GONNA CUT IT OFF!” Raymond would then murmur worriedly, “Oh no, don’t do that” before lurching back into his sensual bouncing bliss.
I must have begun to resemble my charges after awhile because one night, the shift nurse standing next to me sneezed and, without thinking, turned around and wiped her hands on my shirt. “Omigod! I’m SO sorry, I thought you were one of the residents!” was her stammered apology. No problem. I didn’t talk until I was four so my father, chief psychologist at New York City’s prestigious Mount Sinai Hospital, assumed I was potentially as retarded as my discontinued sister.
Monson State Hospital was founded for people suffering from epileptic seizures and it was common until the 1960’s to incarcerate those who were so afflicted. When I transferred to a higher functioning ward, I found patients as seemingly normal as myself who had only been placed in state care because of their petit and grand mal convulsions, some since childhood. Of course, after decades on the wards, they were so institutionalized as to be unable to function outside the walls. Most of them were eventually transferred to halfway houses when the big state institutions were shut down decades later. But the people imprisoned in Simons Building weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, if ever. They were alone and forgotten, never visited and never loved. Bundles of meat to be fed and diapered, without even the pretense of normalcy.
Except for Sammy.
Sammy, like most others on the ward, was a baby in a 25-year old body. Slobbering and sucking on his hand, he remained in his crib, locked in a fetal position, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. But every Sunday, something unusual would occur in his orbit. Sammy’s entire family would come for a visit, wearing their best clothing (arriving most likely after church) and beaming faces. Surrounding his crib; father and mother, brothers and sisters would talk to him like he was one of the family, telling him the news of the week and trying as best they could to interact. There was nothing forced or fake about it. It was an oasis of loving radiance that contrasted to the desperate apathy that otherwise encompassed his reality.
I marveled at this and, after several weeks of witness, began to think about my sister Deborah for the first time in years. Without revealing my intentions to my parents, I wrote to the state of Minnesota and learned that she was living at Faribault State Hospital right outside Minneapolis. With some extra cash I had on hand, I bought a round-trip airfare and off I went to see her. I expected Faribault to be as grim as Monson but was shocked when I entered the wide, green campus that greeted each visitor. “Campus” was the correct word, because, in contrast to the vacant locked-down atmosphere of Monson, Faribault resembled a thriving, bustling college town. People were everywhere with patients, parents, and care workers in abundance and I was told that there were three staff members per resident, as opposed to two for thirty-five at Simons. I felt surprised and not a little angry that my home state could furnish such shabby and horrific care by comparison.
I went into Deborah’s ward in anticipation for our meeting, the workers there being glad to meet me, the first member of her family to appear in thirty-odd years. There was no recrimination in their attitudes, the Browns not being the first clan to dispose of their children, even in family-friendly Minnesota. After some ritual chit-chat, one young woman bubbled “Here she is!” and looking over my right shoulder, here she came. I had envisioned some wonderfully tearful reunion, like that sappy TV show from my childhood that reunited long-lost friends to the applause of a weeping studio audience. Instead, my reaction was to restrain myself from running out of the ward in terror. Not because of her appearance. She looked a lot better than the folks I spent the day diapering. Not because she was retarded, considering my line of occupation at the moment. No, what caused me to want to bolt out the door was this thought-form that had been placed on her for thirty-five years. The energy of the hideous Family Secret finally brought to life. The One Who Cannot Be Named. And there she was.
I bit down on my panic only because I could understand it. Then I gave her a closer look and was surprised how much she resembled our mother, however disfigured and distorted her face. Mom had said that German measles or x-rays had caused her retardation but whatever the cause, Deborah was a crippled and crunched version of her maternal sire. She could walk and function mildly but there was no communication or recognition in her face (“Hey, Bro, it’s about fucking time you got here!”) which blankly whirled and mumbled to its own private motorized rhythms.
We went for a walk around the campus and I bought her a cup of coffee. She held and drank from it, much to the astonishment of her care workers who told me that she had never done such a thing before. She even took my arm at one point, another revelation. But any interchange remained subliminal and subconscious. I had to leave the next morning and didn’t see her again for another twenty years.
Looking back, I cannot rationalize why I waited that long. Time and money were concerns, as was raising my own child, but I was still buying into Deborah’s identity as the family non-person. I also told myself that since she seemed to be in her own private universe, a visit from me would do nothing for her, no matter how much guilt I shoveled away from myself. It took some further education to inform me that Deb could have still benefitted from my attention, no matter how it looked on the outside.
By 1995, Deborah had been transferred to a pleasant half-way house in the tidy suburb of Maple Grove. There were four residents in the house with a fulltime staff and she worked at some social service agency, earning a small stipend doing some kind of simple factory work. This was part of the new trend of mainstreaming the lives of “special needs” people which had its benefits, mainly offering them as humanely a living situation as possible. But there was also a new mental attitude that I was bothered by, one of pretending that Deb was just as normal as anyone, just more “challenged”. To this end, I would receive letters and cards, supposedly from her, telling me of the thrilling things she had done during the day and the places she had visited during the weekend (the zoo, the museum, the park). I knew that they were, in fact, being written by her caregivers and that Deb was most likely sitting in her room with her eyes glazed and her head wobbling as she spun around in her solitary universe. I didn’t complain because I understood the impulse, one that was as helpful to them as to her. But my parents were receiving the same kind of messages and it was driving them crazy to the point that my father wrote to Minnesota demanding that they stop.
I had come out to visit that same year and spent a few days with her, going this time to a local trendy coffee shop where Deb and I both had tomato juice (which I rarely order, much less drink), a coincidence that brought out some coos of delight from her aide. Back at the house, we shared dinner but there was the same non-recognition between us that had occurred two decades ago. I didn’t know what to do and pretending to have a normal conversation was an act of pretense I was unwilling and unable to perform. I knew I would probably not come back for another visit but vowed to stay in touch with cards and little gifts from time to time.
I also decided to come clean with my parents who were still unaware of my two visits over the years. I wrote to my mother with whom I had a better relationship. I told her essentially that I had visited Deborah periodically, kept in touch with her caregivers, and that she was doing well and in good hands. In no way did I guilt her about putting her firstborn away or pretending that she didn’t exist. I had come to understand that my mother, even in her best moments, lived in a world of disassociated fantasies in which even me and my other sister occupied a fictional existence. For this, I forgave her and accepted the situation as it stood. I intended to say my piece and never bring up the topic again. A few weeks later, I received a heartfelt letter from her that must have released decades of fear, guilt and anxiety. She was relieved to hear that Deb was doing fine and thanked me profusely for seeing her and being the family contact. It was one of the most honest letters my mother ever wrote me.
The reaction from my father was uglier.
One wonders how a professional psychologist, especially one who dealt with children, could be so cold and cruel to his own. Somehow my father found a way. While it’s the apparent nature of Freudian psychology to view people as warped and unclean, my father went a step further and used it as a weapon to attack and traumatize his children. He never laid a hand on us but somehow this alternative was worse. By the time I was twelve, I had learned to not only distrust him and the entire psychological process in general, but to hide myself from my own father, knowing that his analytical radar would always be scanning me for defects. When I became attracted to art, I never showed him my sketches, drawings being used in a battery of tests to reveal imperfection and perversion. After alienating my sister permanently and intimidating his grandchildren, he now was faced with the fact that I had established a relationship with the greatest defect of them all.
On his 90th birthday celebration, he took me aside and warned me against continuing any further contact with Deborah. “You might wake up one day and find her on your doorstep! Then what will you do!?” he hissed. He then fixed me with the same disapproving gaze I had been raised with and ambled off. Obviously, I ignored his advice but was shaken by his anger and contempt.
Which only grew as the years went by. A hardy soul, Dr. Brown disproved the notion that longevity was connected to positive thinking and gracious deeds. Retiring from private practice at age 91, he continued to be physically fit as he achieved a meaner disposition. After a stroke left him essentially housebound (until then, he was walking two miles a day at age 96), I began to visit more often for my mother’s sake which earned my Dad’s resentment because he wanted her attention all for himself. When Mom started to fall and injure herself, I moved in for a spell and overran his authority in order to prescribe care, an act that moved him one evening to try to stab me with a fork at the dinner table. What he couldn’t attack physically, he assaulted verbally. Knowing my weaknesses as only a father can, he took delight in throwing them in my face, using language that were nearly operatic in their venomous manipulation. Once I had to flee the apartment to prevent myself from slugging him, drove to the Cloisters and wept in the parking lot.
But I never gave in and eventually, he became so physically and emotionally infirm that he was removed to a local nursing him where I made sure he remained. Not out of vengeance, but because, in his rage, he was beginning to injure his wife who was afflicted with difficulties of her own. When her memory loss became so acute that the hired help was swindling her out of thousands of dollars (she would unknowingly write three paychecks to them a week), it was time for me and Janet to move both of them up to Langdon Place, an assisted-living facility near us. That we did, my dad riding in an ambulance all the way to Keene, New Hampshire. Because of his condition, he was placed in the Nursing Ward while Mom had her own little apartment in another wing. When Dad came to, he resorted to what he was good at, namely charming strangers while neglecting his family. He held court to a bevy of pretty young nurses who found him fascinating. Whenever Mom came to visit him, he ignored her. When I showed up, he would look the other way and pretend I wasn’t there. Janet had learned that she could no longer survive being around him and made herself absent while taking care of their needs behind the scenes.
A month after their arrival, Dad’s condition began to deteriorate again. Now when I visited, he was asleep in his bed in a fetal position, not slobbering or sucking on his hand, but no longer the focus of the Court of Pretty Nurses. The last time we spoke was at an outdoor July 4th celebration where he mumbled something incoherently to me with his eyes twitching open and shut. A week later, I got a call from the facility warning me that he was failing fast. I was already in a cranky and irritable mood, so out of sorts that my future wife, Lisa, snarled at me, not knowing my mood. Neither did I, so I went to bed early and fell into a fitful half-sleep.
A vision, not a dream, appeared.
In it, Dad was on a wooden wharf, stepping onto a gangplank that led to a small sailboat. Seeing me, he beckoned in my direction, inviting me to accompany him on his impending voyage. Without hesitating, I frantically waved him off, thinking out loud, “There is no fucking way I am getting on that boat with you!” He left and I fell into a deeper slumber. At 3am, the phone rang and I knew instantly what it was before my feet hit the floor. It was Langdon Place. Dad was gone. He was 100 years old. Mom was by his bedside and Janet had also been notified. A moment I had anticipated for years had arrived. I felt no tears, no pent-up relief. It was what it was.
Three days afterwards, I got a call from Minnesota. Deborah Brown had too passed away. A week later, I got her quarterly medical report, dated a few days before her death. There was nothing seemingly wrong with her. She was in good health and was expectedly to remain so.
Apparently, Dad had beckoned to her as well and she had agreed to go, freed at last from her physical servitude and finally reunited with a father she had never known.
I do believe in the spirit realm and the reincarnation principle so I don’t doubt that’s exactly what happened. Over the years, I’ve had deceased friends drop by for a visit in dreams, updating me on their new existence. So my first thought, of course, was what would have happened had I accepted Dad’s offer. My negative response was instinctive. But had he been a loving father, would I have left my body cold and vacated on my bed and gone off with him? I know some people who wouldn’t have hesitated. Lisa, however, would have been supremely pissed.
Unexpectedly, my Aunt Monica called me the day after Dad passed and shared this dream she had the night he died. In it, he was on this grassy knoll with his brothers, shouting triumphantly, “I am no longer the Rasha!” In the Jewish Passover Hagadah, there is a passage about the Four Sons; One who is wise, one who is wicked (the Rasha), one who is simple, and one who knows not how to ask. Each contributes the question, "What is the meaning of this service?" according to their temperament. The Wicked Son sneers, "What is this service to you?” a challenge of contempt. It is then advised to “Set his teeth on edge” suggesting that, as a Bad Jew, he should have been left in Egypt to make bricks. In our family Hagadah, The Wicked Son was pictured as a long-haired (and faintly Germanic) rebel, plunging a sword into the Torah. When we came to this passage during my teenage years, Dad would glare at me to denote exactly which Son I resembled in his opinion.
But, in truth, Dad was the oldest of five brothers and kicked out of the house at age twelve because he was so brutal to them. He also was the rebel, rejecting the orthodoxy of his immigrant shteltl household to enter the new and radical field of psychology. In the eyes of his father, he was the ultimate Rasha. But safe in spirit, he was freed of that identity. No longer the rebellious bad son, but not the good father either. I keep expecting him to come visit me in my dreams if only to apologize for damaging me and my sister, both of whom, from an emotional point of view, would have been better off raised by wolves. Four years later, he has yet to appear.
Freed from her deformed body and stunted mind, in balance with whatever karma she played out during her harsh 65 years on this earth, she can now imagine future earthly experiences, ones where she will hopefully be loved like Sammy but without the encasement of a bodily prison. I still wonder why she chose to leave with someone who had been so callous and neglectful to her. For that matter, I wonder why Dad came to her, offering that choice in the first place. Maybe people do change for the better when they finally leave their worldly forms behind. We might never know because it appears that some things that happen in spirit, stay in spirit.