Norris Burkes: Am I my brother-man’s keeper?
This won’t be my usual inspirational column. It’s about my brother who is dying one brain cell at a time. For his privacy, I’ll use the nickname I gave him: “Brother-Man.”
I’m not sure when it started, but I can take you back to what was a beginning, of sorts.
Brother-Man was born 15 months before me. As children, we were often mistaken for twins. By 10th grade we both stood about 6 feet tall. I was less than 150 pounds, he 15 pounds heavier. I was a clean-cut ROTC cadet. He was pushing out a beard.
As we neared graduation day in 1975, I was confident in my future, yet keenly aware that my brother lacked the social skills necessary to thrive. However, it turned out to be much more than that.
One day when our parents weren’t home, we took our father’s archery set onto the front lawn of our rural home. My brother fastened a paper target onto a bale of hay and we took turns shooting, not losing a single arrow.
When I wasn’t looking, he decided to mimic the Wordsworth poem and “… shot an arrow into the air. / It fell to earth, I knew not where.”
Immediately I knew where. It stuck straight out of the hood of Mom’s car, 5 feet from my head. Not long after that, Brother-Man began the slow downhill slide of the death of his brain. He tried college, the military, marriage and parenting. He was unable to socially assimilate in college. The Army discharged him early “for the good of the service.” His wife filed for divorce. His son still refuses to talk to him or call him “Dad.”
A few years ago, I asked him why he so haphazardly shot the arrow. He said he was trying to prove that gravity didn’t exist. When the arrow landed so close to us, he concluded that the earth didn’t rotate, or the arrow would have landed hundreds of yards away.
That’s when I took him to the veteran’s hospital to see a neuropsychologist. The diagnosis was psychosis and a neurocognitive disorder.
These days, Brother-Man rejects all legitimate news sources as he thoroughly gorges himself on a diet of conspiracy theories. He disputes all NASA accomplishments, debates every form of science and decries mass shootings as being staged by so-called crisis actors. He believes that scientists are hiding the secret to perpetual energy, even as they weaponize the weather. I work hard to keep him off these topics as they only upset him.
There is no optimistic ending for his story, yet there is some relief.
My brother still has family.
A few years ago, I helped him obtain Social Security disability. Our mom’s monthly contributions help keep him in a senior care facility near his prior Las Vegas home. Pharmacy techs give him his medicines, diet techs help him eat better and he regularly makes friends.
His life remains tenuous at best, but it remains. Sometimes his nurse calls to say he’s not taking his medications. Or he will call me, angry because Social Security has reduced his income for Medicare payments. Or he’ll call raging over his interpretation of a recent news event. I know the end of this story. Sometimes it’s unbearable to watch.
Still, most days I find Brother-Man reasonably happy when I phone. I tease him playfully and he always returns my levity. A few times a year, I fly to Vegas and tweak his care plan. While I’m there, we go to a Vegas magic show or play with the inexpensive drone he got for a birthday. Most of the time, his disposition matches what was revealed by a social worker’s recent question.
“Have you ever considered hurting yourself or someone else?” she asked.
He choked at the question, unable to consider anyone in pain, replied.
“No, I’ve only considered helping people.”
That’s the Brother-Man I know and love. That day was one of the good ones, and I’ll take every single one I can get.
Chaplain Norris Burkes lives in Lake of the Pines. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 843-608-9715.
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