After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Monday, August 08, 2011

On brothers, birthdays and institutions.

   Today is my youngest brother's 50th birthday. We will have a party, and celebrate this milestone with him. But he will not have his wife, his children or their spouses here to celebrate with us.
   There are none.
   Jeff suffered carbon monoxide poisoning when he was seventeen years old. After being in a coma for months, it took him over a year to relearn how to walk, talk and do the most simple tasks.
   But it all didn't come back. He has an IQ in the mid sixties. Physically, he is as feeble as an eighty year old man. Perhaps the most devastating effects of his injury are the total inability to remember or think logically. He has lived with us for seven years (since our mother's death), but still comes down to the kitchen in the morning and opens several cabinets looking for his coffee cup, which has been in the same place since he came to us. When we suggest he fix a bowl of cereal, he will look through the cabinets until he finds the bowls, take it to the table, then go through more cabinets to find the cereal, take it to the table, come back and look in the freezer for the milk before opening the other door, and then prepare his bowl of cereal. Only after he has stared at the bowl for several moments will he realize he needs a spoon, which prompts another hunt through the drawers. Afterwards, unless we suggest he clean up, all will remain on the kitchen table. It is this way every day. 
   He will do anything we ask of him, but we must ask. And only one thing at a time.
   Needless to say, possibilities for work, even volunteer work, are non-existent. A well-meaning friend suggested being a "bagboy" at the local grocery. I explained that the ice cream would melt before being placed on top of the bread.
   Yet two things began to become obvious. One, Jeff needed an experience, or better yet an environment, that stimulated him more, that kept him busy. And two, I needed to do something else besides spend my day with him. I felt myself being slowed, becoming as lethargic and unmotivated as my charge. I felt guilty about not doing the former; and guilty for feeling the latter.
   So we began looking at alternatives. But the prospect was daunting, and not a little bit frightening. I had visions of some dark and dreary place where "undesirables" were shunted off to be barely kept alive. It used to be that way.  Laura Hillenbrand, in her book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, describes such a time, not so long ago:

In the 1930s, America was infatuated with the pseudoscience of eugenics and its promise of strengthening the human race by culling the “unfit” from the genetic pool. Along with the “feebleminded,” insane, and criminal, those so classified included women who had sex out of wedlock (considered a mental illness), orphans, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, epileptics, masturbators, the blind and the deaf, alcoholics, and girls whose genitals exceeded certain measurements. Some eugenicists advocated euthanasia, and in mental hospitals, this was quietly carried out on scores of people through “lethal neglect” or outright murder. At one Illinois mental hospital, new patients were dosed with milk from cows infected with tuberculosis, in the belief that only the undesirable would perish. As many as four in ten of these patients died. A more popular tool of eugenics was forced sterilization, employed on a raft of lost souls who, through misbehavior or misfortune, fell into the hands of state governments.
   Not a pretty picture. Of course, insane asylums no longer exists, but there are nevertheless some frightening places still around. 
   But a serendipitous (i.e. God-inspired) comment from a new friend led us to just the perfect place. Annandale Village is a community in Suwanee, Georgia (45 minutes northeast of Atlanta) which offers a bucolic, community style setting for adults with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. After visiting, we allowed Jeff to stay a week. We were unsure of how he would react to the place (His first comment the first day: "Is this a nursing home?") but he thrived. He was led into a dizzying world of events, field trips, and a sheltered workshop. We told him this was no nursing home; it was more like perpetual summer camp.
   Jeff will soon be going back for his second week-long stay, and we are trying (along with my middle brother, Charles) to work out the financial arrangements for him to become a permanent resident. 
   We are grateful to be able to offer him the chance to be a more productive and self respecting man. And we don't feel like we are "institutionalizing" him at all. 
   Yet he will always be a part of the most important institution of all: our family.
Happy Birthday, Jeff.  


Leo said...

Thanks for sharing this, Wayne. Well written, and a touching story. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Touching, indeed, my friend. Thank you for sharing the story and your compassion for your brother. It's heartwarming to know that there are people such as yourself and facilities such as the one your brother visited. God Bless you and your family.

Anonymous said...

I love you and your dedication and compassion for Jeff. Indeed touching, and I'm blessed to be your wife.