Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A STORY ABOUT A SON OF THE STREETS

At least five years ago, in the middle of the night, my youngest brother, Michael, left a state facility in Louisiana where he worked as “kitchen help” and disappeared into an area near Lake Ponchartrain. When authorities called me to say that they suspected he had been murdered and thrown into Lake Ponchartrain, I told them to check the dates of his last bank withdrawals as he had often talked of going out West. Michael suffered from addiction to alcohol and bi-polar disease. He had been given usufructuary rights to the family home in Franklinton, Louisiana where he had lived on a disability income for at least twenty years, minus stays in hospitals and treatment centers that occurred several times a year. He had been counseled, assisted by family, friends, and the Roman Catholic Church in Franklinton, Louisiana. By the time he entered the last state facility, he had allowed his home to deteriorate, even after I had repainted and refurbished it countless times. He had begun cooking on a charcoal barbecue pit inside the house, had turned off the water supply, scorned help from family and friends, and was finally found wandering on the highway in a delusional state and sent to the state facility.

From the time Mike left the state facility and became a “street person” in San Diego, California until his death in Chicago in 2009 (news of which reached me last month), he remained alcoholic, unmedicated (at his behest) and had become a part of the sixty-six percent of those homeless people in the U.S. who are substance users and/or have mental health problems. He died in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago of pulmonary problems, listed on his death certificate as “natural causes,” and some nameless person or hospital buried him in an Illinois cemetery.

Michael had been a victim of his own desire for isolation, living a marginal life in a world I cannot even envision, turning his back on his sister, his close friends in Franklinton, and his cousins who lived in the same town with him, frequently fed him, gave him money, and helped place him in hospitals. He had an income of $900 monthly, a Medicaid card, a home, a car which a friend and I gave him, clothes that I bought for him, and frequent visitors from the Roman Catholic church that stood on the lot behind his home. He had access to Social Service workers who visited him when he agreed to be on medication that he never took very long.

As the youngest in a family of five, Michael enjoyed more attention from my parents than any of us, had the same educational opportunities, and at the time he joined the Coast Guard, was a high-strung but sane person, serving in Hawaii most of his tour of duty in the service. He married in Brooklyn, New York and held an electrician job, working on lighthouses, in a civilian capacity with the Coast Guard for a few years before his wife sent him home to my parents, along with a note saying that she couldn’t take care of him. He had developed Crohn’s disease in his late twenties and had undergone an ileostomy that made it necessary for him to wear a bag the rest of his life. He never held a job again. From the time of his surgery until he died, he manifested symptoms of bi-polar disease. When my father died in 1985, I began visiting Mike and an older brother several times a month to make sure they were functional. Unbeknownst to me, Mike had stopped taking his medication.

I never knew when I would receive a call or a letter telling me that I should go to Franklinton and oversee Mike’s hospitalization again. Members of his church and community often called and asked me what I was going to do about this brother who refused to submit to medication, who wanted to live in his own home, and who was an embarrassment and problem to the entire town. One devoted church member, who appeared to be a father figure to Michael, counseled with him, gave him money, invited him to all family gatherings and, finally, when Michael refused medication and lived on alcohol, this friend made the hard decision that he could no longer help Michael. Priests and deacons, including me, talked and pleaded with him and tried to help him live a civilized life. He was incorporated into church services as a lay reader and a member of the Knights of Columbus, but alcoholism and bi-polar disease claimed him, and his willfulness can only be attributed to those two diseases.

The last time I heard from Michael in December, 2008, he had entered a hospital in Chicago and wanted to return to the uninhabitable home in Franklinton that was in such bad condition it had to be “pushed up” by town authorities. Michael stayed in Chicago and died there six months later. A few weeks ago, I learned that he had died when a credit union called me to say that an old account he had never touched contained a few hundred dollars to which he had named me as beneficiary. Social Security had informed them of Mike’s death, and they immediately called me.

This is a sad story that I’m sure is only one case in the annals of street people who suffer from drug addiction and mental disease. Throughout the years, many people, including me, prayed for the transformation of Michael, and I have no idea how this problem of mental illness can be answered. I do know that when Mike was in a hospital, even for short periods, he improved – he was warm, fed, medicated, and could function in a limited way. I also know that laws governing mental illness require only a few short weeks of commitment before the patient is returned to “society,” where he again becomes an anti-social being. Today, the real keepers of those who suffer in this way are law enforcement officers and social workers who have only limited time with them. When legislation emptied the institutions and facilities of people who had problems similar to Mike, victims of those dual diseases became people of the streets who now live intermittently in shelters provided in large cities, or on the street where Mike was often found in a stupor or exhibiting delusional behavior.

The two poems I wrote about Mike recently do nothing to relieve the sadness I feel about his wasted life, and I will probably be haunted with the question, “What could I have done?” for the rest of my life.

MICHAEL II.
Green scrolled borders, silver seals,
the handsome death certificate,
arrived today,
a neat and tasteful document,
true and correct copy
pronouncing the sentence:
end of your madness.
You, whose mind was an empty room
on a deserted street,
and no one at the door,
you are now certified and authentic.

I hope someone greeted you on the other side,’
the document declared a civilized burial
somewhere in Illinois,
without relatives,
just an orphan boy in a wintry forest
lying under the moon,
saying nothing more or less
than the lines typed
on a silver-sealed certificate.

Wild Man, Brother Lost,
who walked away from condemnation,
now a ghost on the dark stairs,
I hope you have walked into first light
where angels welcomed you
as a reawakened Michael the Archangel,
once vexed in body and mind,
by death, now ennobled in soul.

The illustration is a painting by my brother Paul, who lives in northern California. I used it for the cover of my poetry chapbook Counterpoint.
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