Yesterday, my post was about Willowbrook, the large mental institution on Staten Island, New York, where my older brother was for about 15 years. Michael is autistic, very low functioning and has never spoken. Willowbrook was broken up by court order and the six thousand or so residents were relocated. This took many years to do. Mike’s first stop was the Brooklyn Developmental Center. The following is an account of my first visit to see Mike at his new place; I hadn’t seen him for many years. This story, in abbreviated form, was recounted in the review of my photography show, Brotherly Love in a previous post.
Story of my first visit
The Brooklyn Developmental Center was more compact than the Willowbrook campus. I felt like I was going to a strange high school for an away game. I went with Mom, Dad, my younger brother and my wife; Mom and Dad had the usual back of cookies and some fruit. There was the usual argument about whether to take it inside. Should we leave it because it was too close to lunchtime, or should we take it with us so we could give it to him when we take him outside. Michael loved to eat more than anything. We went right up to his ward on the second floor. The door was locked, but we knocked and waited for the attendant to let us in.
I was expecting strangeness and was not disappointed. The inmates were wandering about. Some were curious about us and came over to look. I wasn’t frightened, and found myself greeting them with my usual friendly face. I was reminded though, of the gooeyness of this kind of environment, which could have come from a combination of drool, food residue and other bodily fluids. The place seemed clean, but messes seemed to be in different stages of creation; there was no way to prevent this from happening. I was sure they had plenty of hand washing and antiseptic supplies on hand, by the familiar odor I smelled.
As my folks were talking to the head nurse. I wandered about. There was a TV area, with patients draped about in varying states of attention; patients sitting by themselves; patients rocking back and forth. There were patients doing laps around the ward area, passing by every few minutes. One inmate passed by totally naked except for a football helmet, complete with a heavy-wire grid covering his face. The other thing I noticed was that he had an enormous erection; I was mildly amused. I continued looking for Michael. I had to ask one of the staff where he was. I turned to where he was pointing and saw my brother’s head emerge as the football helmet was removed from patient I noticed moments before. I could not stifle my laughter. I had planned to introduce Mike to my wife, but somehow, the thought of saying, “J__, I’d like you to meet my big brother,” seemed hilarious. The laughter just kept coming. I told my younger brother what I had seen. He said, “Lunch time.” I could not stop myself. My parents had no idea what was the matter with me.
I must have walked away, in an effort to control myself. My family gathered Mike, who was now dressed, and proceeded outside. I followed down the stairwell, out of earshot. My laughter was bouncing off the cinder block walls. I don’t exactly know when it turned to tears. I went off on my own to gather myself together.