It seems that on this trip I am either starting something or ending something. I’m back in Chicago area, having ended a trip to New Jersey to see my original family, including Michael, my older autistic, profoundly retarded and nonverbal brother. I wasn’t hoping for a story book ending on our day trip to see Mike, at least consciously. But I was very saddened, disappointed and hurt by the reception he gave us all. My feelings during this visit, more than 50 YEARS after Mike was sent away, were more honest than the past 30 years of trying to make contact with him. After staying away from Willowbrook for decades, I visited him once with my entire family at the Brooklyn Developmental Center; later at his group home, at Christmas parties, Halloween parties, some weekends, at his school; each time bringing home raw data in the form of images and feelings, to process. In my 30 year journey, I learned photography, to try capturing instants that, upon analysis, would give me a clue as to Mike’s true nature. I honed my writing skills, attending workshops. Michael was even the subject of a Master’s thesis, in which I tried to create my interpretation of his environment in a virtual world.
My friends tell me it was a journey. I know it was.
Some people are wiser than others. Some people know when to cut bait.
In the case of our family, living with Mike – a severely handicapped, virtually noncommunicative child who would run through the neighborhood, sometimes naked – ended at year 13. My cousin recalled to me that even as Michael was being sent away, my Dad thought he was getting better.
It is so deceptive. Living with such a handicapped individual day-by-day, incremental changes – not incremental, more like a drunkard’s walk of changes, one step forward, two steps back, another half-step forward, a step back, you get the picture – seem like real progress. I guess if my younger brother and I weren’t around, Mike might not have been sent away at all.
So what do I have at the end of my journey? I am a better photographer and a better writer than when I started; I have a second Master’s degree. I am grateful for all that.
When we departed from visiting Mike at his geriatric group home, I had not progressed AT ALL in my 30 year quest to understand him. His gesture of getting up and moving away from us was so SIMPLE, and yet comprehensive in summing up how he felt about his family. It was a time machine that brought me back to my own feelings from 50 years before. It seems my journey was an unnecessary obscuring and stepping back from my feelings that were right in the first place.
Well on to item 2 on the bucket list.
[Note to readers: I beg your indulgence and forgiveness for any repetitions of blog posts. As I think about where to go from here, I may return to my older brother and our last visit from time to time, not to intentionally repeat, but to add more insight as I continue to process this very significant event.]