This one’s a true story – not mindless musings, not a recap of the week’s events, not a brain dump of the most recent weird dream I had. It finds its beginning four decades in the past and continues through to today, with I suspect a few more chapters to be written before it ends tragically (but perhaps not unexpectedly). I’m still trying to figure out if it’s the story of a person who got a raw deal in life and responded in kind or if it’s the story of a person who just isn’t wired properly in the head and therefore is unable to take his place in the world. It seems as the days pass and the disappointments continue to pile up that all signs point more clearly to the latter rather than to the former, but I suppose that depends on your frame of reference.
We start in the early 1970s. He was born to a pair of young parents – barely into their twenties, barely mature, and barely married. The marriage unfortunately imploded on itself just as quick as it came about, and as soon as he was able to call his father by name, his father was suddenly and nearly completely out of his life. He and his mother spent the rest of the decade sometimes relying on family members, sometimes barely making it, but ultimately surviving. He had grown into a bit of a cantankerous kid. Manageable but with the capacity to be the neighborhood terror if left to his own devices with other kids.
Still, this behavior did not scare off another man who had reentered his mother’s life when he was about five. His mother and this new man had known each other back in high school but went their own separate ways after graduation – he into the military (and then out of the military for a brief period before electing to reenlist) and she into marriage. The concept of “baggage” often scares men off from single women with children, but not this one. They were both approaching thirty and decided they could make this thing work – and so in 1979 they married. He wore his uniform, she wore a yellow dress, and the boy wore whatever vest and bow tie combination 7-year olds would wear to church on Sunday.
If you could envision pictures taken at the event, it would look like the beginnings of a horror movie. Happily-married mother and stepfather, and a kid with a twisted look in his eyes. Off-kilter, perhaps even stewing in some form of rage. The new guy wasn’t his real father, or anything like him – this one was more upright, more straight-laced, raised by native Midwesterners who happened to land in Florida after a career in the army. Not the same stock. From worlds so completely different as to be alien. For the kid’s part, having a new father figure in his life didn’t fix whatever was broken, uncross wires that were crossed, or fill any voids in his life. He was a big kid, the kind who wore husky-sized clothes and learned that channeling rage through the size advantage he had over his peers presented him with power over them.
By 1980, his situation at home changed again. Now halfway across the country, mom and “dad” had rather quickly produced a son of their own. The optimist would suggest this was the time for the kid to adjust to the reality that he had responsibilities as the oldest son in a complete nuclear family. The optimist, however, would be wrong this time. The boy’s relentless assault continued in every direction imaginable. He had established himself once again as the neighborhood bully. Nothing his parents or anybody else said to him could straighten him out.
It wasn’t long before the antics around the neighborhood made their way inside the house. His younger brother had become a target as well – damaged in his own way, and no match for an oversized ten-year old. The parents weren’t oblivious to what was happening, either. The younger one stuck to mom like glue, camping out in the kitchen with his He-Man toys while she worked on dinner in the afternoons.
Things kept changing around him. A second brother came along. Then a second move, this one half again as long as the first, clear to the coast. As if the last had been to the other side of the world, this one was now to the other other side of the world. After just twelve years, he had known just about everything there is for a kid to know except for stability.
One day in 1985 things came to a head at home. He had done one wrong thing too many, said one wrong thing too many, become too much of a danger to too many people, and finally the man patient enough to give him a second chance at having a father in his life had had enough. What “dad” probably didn’t expect was the pocketknife. The standoff between a 12-year old with a knife and a grown man three times his age was nothing remarkable in the sense that nobody was hurt, but it did finally signal the presence of a gap between the kid and the family he had but didn’t want.
He may have been a miscreant, but that didn’t mean he was going to be thrown away. The decision was made to get him psychiatric help, which likely would have involved inpatient care. As news spread back to his mom’s side of the family, the grandparents sprung into action. They rather adamantly declared they weren’t allowing their grandson be committed to a mental hospital. If he was going anywhere, they said, it would be back to their home so they could take care of him. Mom and “dad” weighed the options and decided to take her parents up on their offer. So the kid was sent off to live with his grandparents, who had since moved to South Carolina.
To hear the story being told, he had a great time living with his grandparents. School was optional, food was plentiful, and discipline was in short supply. Papa doted on him, Granny was desirous of a more strict household – not unlike how she ran the house when her two daughters were kids – but generally abode his whims.
Life achieved balance elsewhere, too. The younger brother, who had all of a sudden become the oldest son, never took after his tormenter. His parents put him into kindergarten almost a whole year early, and being the smallest kid in class tends to help keep you in line.
1990-1991 was a critical period. The family had since moved yet again, completing a coast-to-coast-to-coast trek in under ten years’ time, and were living a day’s drive north. Yet another son was born, totaling three. Everyone decided collectively to try to put the family back together. The kid, now hardly not even a kid at 17, was taken back in, with some conditions. He could have his own space, but phone privileges were limited and there needed to be an accounting of his whereabouts. The relationship between him and the younger brother he used to torment improved but was still extraordinarily cautious. His stepfather, however, remained just short of distrustful of the kid who had pulled a knife on him.
Trouble continued at school and around the neighborhood, however. Poor marks in class and signs of drug use began to manifest themselves, and it wasn’t long before the parents found themselves at the same crossroads they were at just five years prior – send the boy to get help, or send him away. This time they chose the former, and away he went. Then he came back. Then he went back. Then he came back. Each time he came back with different bottles of pills, none of which seemed to take the edge off. The family was at their wits’ end.
One summer evening in 1991, with “dad” halfway across the world preparing the family for their biggest move yet, an dispute between the kid and his mother flared up. He left the house enraged, heading for his 1983 Mustang. She gave chase, yelling at him not to go. He injured her arm and took off. The second son phoned law enforcement, and they caught the Mustang just as it was about to leave the base. The mother decided against pressing charges against her son that night, but the damage was done. He was sent back to South Carolina, while the rest of the family packed up and headed thousands of miles the other way. What had previous been a gap just six years earlier had become a gulf.
Stories became few and far between after that. Every now and then things would get bad, but the international phone calls all ended the same way – with the mother demanding to know how she was supposed to keep a child she had no control over in line, let alone from another continent. The relationship between her and her family was severely strained, but just short of breaking. The next reunion would not take place for another three years. The family had since solidified without him as part of it. They returned to South Carolina to find him still a bit off-center but at least working. He made himself scarce that week, then off they went again on another assignment.
This business of phone calls from back home still continued. A childhood of making trouble for others had progressed into an adulthood of doing the same thing. Each time he would have done something different – stolen money out of Granny’s purse, bounced a check at a store, gotten picked up by the cops on some charge or another. And each time the conversation would go the same way. Anger on one side, exasperation on the other. This is your kid, they would tell the mother, and he should be your responsibility. He’s beyond control and you’re enabling him, she’d fire back. Sometimes he would call and ask for money, and she’d tell him no. And it would all continue because he had an ally in Papa.
It was therefore a surprise to learn that somewhere in his mid-thirties, he had gained a bit of traction in life. He started going back to school to become a medical technician or some related occupation. He had a steady girlfriend, and he was generally behaving himself. It was assumed by most that he was at long last about to become a productive member of society… until his drug problem reared its ugly head. When the girlfriend caught on to it, she left him. Then he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself. The phone calls from home continued, but his mother had sworn off of helping him and refused to change her stance. Of course, he got better and then resumed the life everyone thought he’d finally put past him.
Things continued to disappear from the house. He would always need money from somebody, saying somebody was out to get him if he didn’t pay them back. The warning signs weren’t being ignored, simply not acted on. Papa had become his only ally, while Granny simply abode. One day in the winter of 2011, she noticed a hole in her bank account and checks missing out of her office. She visited the bank, and they showed her the pictures of the person who cashed the checks.
It was him, finally setting fire to the one bridge that seemed unburnable.
Suicidal, drug-dependent, and looking at potentially years in jail, he checked himself into a hospital. His grandparents, with the help of a cousin who was a lawyer, filed an eviction notice against him. The apartment they let him stay in was sealed and the locks changed – not even the wet clothes in the washer and dryer were taken out. He of course apologized and said he did it because some drug dealers were after him, but his grandparents were adamant in not allowing him back in. They had been taken advantage of for the last time, and finally after a decade heeded their daughter’s – his mother’s – advice to cut him off.
Soon after, Papa died. It seemed the upcoming funeral would set the stage for another awkward reunion, only this time with the kid, now a 38 year old man, in a room completely surrounded by people who had for years wanted him disowned. He didn’t have clothes for the funeral, so Papa’s wardrobe was searched for a suitable set of clothes. He could come by the house and pick them up, then he had to leave. He could come to the funeral, then he had to leave. Few pleasant words were exchanged the first day. He unsuccessfully petitioned for access to his old apartment so he could get things that had been left behind. Things were said, and he left.
The next morning they found the screen door of the apartment left open, with no apparent signs that he’d been able to break in.
The day of the funeral, he didn’t show up. When everyone got back to the house, they found Papa’s clothes thrown on the front porch. This so completely infuriated his mother’s family that if he had any chance of redemption at some point, it was gone. Gas was thrown on the burning bridge. More angry words were exchanged, this time by the convenience of e-mail. He was told he’s on his own from now on. And, for the first time in his life, there was nobody to break his fall.
In 38 years he went from being a kid with a father, to a kid without a father, to a kid with a father, to a kid separated from his family, briefly reunited and then separated again, and then finally to an adult in and out of trouble with the law. Was it the lack of stability in his life? Did the fact that he didn’t have a father around in the first few years of his life so damage him that he was completely irreparable? Or was it the lack of discipline from his grandparents after his parents gave up? Most folks are happy to just get a second chance in life – he had a safety net as sure as the dawn for every time he got into trouble. Or was the turbulent family life merely window dressing for the fact that he was simply wired wrong?
It is expected one day that the arrests and suicide attempts will eventually pile up so high that they result in some sort of tragic ending, and perhaps the sad part is that few will care enough to want to deal with the aftermath. For the family that had long since disconnected from him, particularly for the brother he tormented in the early 80s, he was something of a household pariah, a shadowy figure only spoken of when he had done something wrong yet again. And for his extended family, who cared for him later on, he had committed the ultimate unforgivable insult against the one man in the world who still wanted to help him.
And so, the story of my stepbrother, Mike, continues.