Getting to know Mike
After Mike’s 40th birthday party and his transfer to a group home, I spent a lot of time visiting him there. Michael is my older brother. He is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal. I had not been close to him for a number of years, having moved around the country for quite a while. My move to New York City put me back into close physical proximity to him and the rest of my family. The article I wrote for the Advocate is a good summary of my process of getting to know him better.
In previous posts I wrote about some of my visits to Mike’s group home. At the beginning of my quest, the emphasis was about photography and the hope of capturing some magic moment that would explain everything about my older brother. You should have seen me then: festooned with cameras, lenses, a light meter and plenty of extra film. Despite this concentration on the mechanics of photography, I really enjoyed meeting Mike’s housemates.
Through the house manager, I gradually got to know many of the residents who lived with my brother. Each had a distinctive personality. I found C___ to be refreshing: He was usually very grumpy and had a habit of cursing, which the staff gently addressed. I always offered to shake his hand, an offer to which he usually responded. Two of the residents were brothers, J___ and M___. One brother couldn’t hear very well and most of the time his hearing aid was halfway out, feeding back with a high-pitched whine. He was always interested in what I was doing with my camera. I brought him a print of his portrait that I took. He kept pointing to it, and back to himself, looking at me questioningly. I told him that, yes indeed, that was his picture. He was absolutely thrilled. There were other residents who were nonverbal like Mike, and who did not seem to be interested in anything.
After several years of photographing my brother, I had the good fortune of putting on a photography show of my work. I invited Mike and his housemates to a special visit to the gallery. It was a field trip for Mike and his mates. The photo gallery was on the third floor of a walkup in SoHo on Broadway. The staircase up to the gallery was wide and slanted slightly to the right. The van arrived and the group began the trek up the stairs. One of my friends, who agreed to film this event, positioned himself partway up the staircase to capture the approach. He must have been a little panicked, as he mentioned to me later that he felt like a wartime correspondent, when all these strange-looking people headed directly toward him.
I have two strong memories of this event. One of the silent residents of Mike’s group home seemed to be having the time of his life. The floorboards in the gallery were springy and he found that he could be a human pogo stick. He spent his time bouncing across the gallery floor, with a big grin on his face. The second memory is more of an impression. I thought that Michael may have recognized himself in some of the pictures. I haven’t seen the video my friend took in many, many years and I don’t know if I want to (even if I could find it). It might be better for me to believe that Mike did recognize himself and that he knew that I honored him in my photography show.