In a previous post, I mentioned that I would be skipping around the timeline in my recollections of growing up and trying to understand my older brother. I wrote the following shortly after Mike was placed in permanent housing after the mandated closing of Willowbrook, a large mental institution on Staten Island, NY.
Mike had to leave the Brooklyn Developmental Center as part of the relocation plan for the Willowbrook residents. Mom and Dad would have a choice of locations for Mike’s placement. Somehow, I could not picture Michael living in a residential area. I had visions of him running around the neighborhood naked, and being otherwise uncontrolled, as he was when he lived at home. Were they kidding or what? I wouldn’t want him in my neighborhood.
The evaluation team said that Mike had the capability to talk: he had vocal cords and whatever other prerequisites needed. This was just the excuse Dad needed to start being hopeful again. I sneered privately and probably also said something unkind. How incompetent or ignorant could these people be?
Mom, Dad and I arrived at his home. I was surprised to find it just like any other house on the block, although the path to the front door seemed to be quite long. We had a chat with the house manager. He was nice. His aunt had also been at Willowbrook. I felt at ease and yet uncomfortable in my easy laughter at Michael’s expense, which I did to break the ice. [I don’t remember what I said; I hope I wasn’t too mean.] The manager and the other counselors, said how much they liked Michael. We were filled in about some of his compulsive habits and how they were trying behavioral conditioning to eradicate them. The manager said they could be of help with his masturbation, for example. As much as I was tempted with a witty comeback at this opportunity, I said nothing. (I know! Hard to believe.) As we entered the living area, Michael was there in the sunlight, in suspended animation. He seemed unconscious.
Mom, Dad and I went to a nearby restaurant, while Mike was having lunch. My uncle worked at there when he was a kid, some 40 years before. That fact gave me a sense of connection to the neighborhood. When we came back, we took Mike for a walk. It was cold. It reminded me of the times we visited Mike at Willowbrook: the windy-cold Willowbrook pond days.
We walked along and Michael gripped my hand hard as if he wanted me to be there, leaving me only one hand free to record our presence together. My circular connection to him traveled from his fingers to mine, up my arm to the other, through my fingers, my eyes, through the lens, across a dotted line to his face, down his arm and back to my fingers again.
I developed the photographs I took during our visit, with great excitement. Under a magnifying glass, at home, I detected a presence behind one of Michael’s eyes, in the very first frame of the proof sheet of the first roll of film. It was the same kind of heartbreakingly, almost-human contact one feels when looking into the eye of a knowing, great whale.