The Captain Was Here

I stood for a moment under the naked branches of the Silver Maple, the last beams of moonlight creating hard, cold edges.

In those early morning hours as the cold settled on the earth turning the fresh snow to crystalline, I realized the captain was not coming. I don’t know why I expected him to step out of the backdoor, coffee cup in hand, much too cheerful for such a cold morning. I couldn’t really imagine anything else I suppose. I turned on my heel and set to work starting our 1947 Fordson Major diesel.

I set the choke and pumped the compression handle on the aged tractor just as I had been taught. I still felt that pang of anxiety as the fan blade began to spin just an inch from my knuckles. I dodged the spinning blades just as I had 100 times before. The tractor came to life but only just. It sounded tired. Like a life of toil and burden had finally taken its toll. My father would be able to instantly diagnose the problem. Clogged injector. Loose valves…

As the Fordson warmed, the familiar din of the diesel offered some solace. I set to work dragging the hoses out to the water troughs. The ice on the troughs was too thick to break with my hands so I retrieved the wooden pole affectionately referred to as the ice buster. It had many uses but the most important was keeping the herferder bull at bay when he got too nosy. I bashed at the ice which alerted the livestock that morning had officially begun. I pulled out the larger pieces of ice with my bare hands and refilled the trough. The first of the cattle walked lazily towards the water troughs, their heads held low; steamy breath hanging in front of them.

As the herd moved toward water I stacked bails of hay on the trailer. The bailing wire felt like razor blades on my gloveless hands. We still used a steel wire bailer which has been abandoned by most ranchers in lieu of the lighter faster nylon bailers. My father refused to purchase a new one as our McCullough 100 was still performing to his standards. It had been bailing since just after the Second World War and continued to work with routine maintenance. Most of the paint had given way to rust and probably appeared to be just another derelict piece of machinery to most.

As the tractor continued to warm I turned off the water and began to walk the hoses down. There were many times when I had neglected to walk the hoses down resulting in useless frozen hoses. This of course meant water could not be delivered to the animals. This was a huge offense and I made it often when I was young and had better things to do.

I climbed into the cold steel seat of the Fordson and pushed it into low gear. It had been years since I had felt the diesel’s power underneath me. I pulled the hay trailer out through the barn and into the pasture where I was instantly mobbed by hungry cattle. They showed no emotion. No sadness. Only hunger.

I unloaded the alfalfa bales, carefully retrieving all the bailing wire. Green foam had already begun to form around the mouths of the feeding cows as I stared south west past bald mountain to the jagged face of Thompson Peak. I watched for a moment as last years alfalfa crop nourished them.

I put the Fordson into gear again and lurched forward. I pulled into the barn and let the diesel idle. I inspected my hands. My calluses had long since disappeared and my skin was now chafed and painful.

When I went inside the house it was cold enough to see my breath. There was only a small amount of wood split and stacked by the door so I went out to the wood shed to spilt some small pieces. Mine were the second set of footprints in the hard snow leading out to the woodshed.

The wood was seasoned lodge pole pine. It split easily. Each piece sounded like a blowing pin as they clacked against each other in my pile. I hauled in an armload of and started a fire in both wood-stoves and the fireplace. As the house began to warm I could feel the radiant heat mixing with the cold stillness that had permeated the air.

I went back to the woodshed for some larger pieces and spotted our steel splitting wedge in the snow. I picked it up as it would have bothered him to leave tools on the ground. As I turned it over in my hands the cold steel burned me. I grasped the wedge tightly and began to carve and gouge heavily into the old woodshed.

When I stepped back to read what I had written I felt like weeping. I looked to the east blinded momentarily by the dawn light easing over the mountains. I looked back to what I had carved and with my fingers felt each letter–The Captain Was Here. 

Man Enough to Cry

It wasn’t a purposeful thing to never show emotions, it was thrust upon me by generations of real men. From birth, I was taught to not show emotion. All men are. We’re taught that masculinity means “manning-up” and, “not being a little bitch.” Movies teach us this. Books and music teach us this. Our peers teach us this. We’re taught from the time we can walk that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. We’re taught that real men are not supposed to be fragile, and real men are not supposed to cry.

The culture of hyperbolic masculinity shut me down. For over a decade of my young life I could not show what I felt in my heart. But here’s what I want to tell you–all that masculinity isn’t part of us. It’s not innate. It is taught to us by men who cannot or will not show emotion. We are bombarded by the term that shuts down any conversation–Real men. A real man does this, not that. A real man wouldn’t be seen wearing that… It took me a long time to recognize this is the rhetoric of frightened men.

Toughness and strength is born of circumstances, actions, fortitude, grit and mettle. Toughness and real masculinity is not the fabricated machismo we are taught. I know this because of one man who wasn’t taught to be ashamed. Stanley Bill is the toughest man I ever met, and he knew nothing of fake masculinity.

Stanley Bill owned the Bill Brothers Ranch, a beautiful piece of land on the north end of the Honey Lake Valley. It was some of the most fertile land in the valley and as luck would have it, it was located just across the road from our little ranch. Over the years Stanley had become close to our family and as all of us kids grew up and moved on, he and my father forged an unlikely yet unbreakable friendship. My father had become the son Stanley never had and none of us saw it till the morning of my father’s death.

I had just driven the hour and a half drive out to our ranch and noticed Stanley Bill’s truck in our driveway. The news of my father’s passing had already traveled through the valley and Stanley Bill had come to pay his respects.

Stanley stood in our living room in those early morning hours. He said few words as his wife, Una, usually did most of the talking. At 6’6″ and shoulders almost as wide, Stanley Bill was an imposing figure. He was the last person I ever expected to see openly weep for the loss of my father. He struggled to speak as he wept into a small wadded up handkerchief. Though it would be days before I could shed any tears of my own, Stanley’s tears gave me comfort.

For a brief moment I thought, is he joking? No, Stanley Bill was not capable of that type of guile. No, the tears were real. My father had meant something to Stanley and his heart was broken over the loss. He had taken my father under his wing when we first bought our ranch. Stanley took an instant liking to my dad and showed him the ins and outs of ranching. Not just how to turn a crop of alfalfa over, or move a head of cattle; Stanley taught him the etiquette and propriety of ranching the generational lands of his father and his father’s father. He made sure my dad didn’t make the kind of mistakes that might show him in a bad light or worse, earn him the moniker, “greenhorn.”

The Bill Brothers ranch was well known in our valley and surrounding counties. Each morning Stanley and his brother Howard would famously tack up a team of Belgian work horses for disking, cutting or bucking hay. They worked their land with massive equine creatures that could tear through earth faster and with more finesse than a diesel tractor. You could hear the toil and peals of metal and beast as they neared the fence line. It was a magnificent sight to see Stanley Bill driving these massive animals, each one sensitive to any movement of the reigns or his shouts of Gee and Haw.

Each horse was meticulously cared for. Their manes carefully and intricately braided. Their tack polished to a new cars sheen. I remember thinking, this is the kind of man whom Steinbeck, Hemingway and Conrad had in mind when they wrote their heroic protagonists. Stanley Bill was the strong, silent, archetype–cogent yet humble in his words and his actions.

In my 28-years I had never seen a man cry before. Especially not a grizzled, tough-as-nails rancher who had fought at Omaha Beach and lost a brother in the Norman hedgerows. The man who was openly weeping on front of me along with two of his brothers rode down off the Madeline Plains on horseback to sign up for Second World War. These were the men who’s contributions saved the world. Stanley Bill stood in the our living room in those early morning hours, his chores unattended as he weot into his handkerchief. Crying for my father. Crying for a man he considered a son. 

I believe Stanley Bill had never heard all the macho axioms that men are bombarded with from a young age. He didn’t know about all the cliches designed to mock a man who dare show his emotions. This was an important lesson in humanity and I paid close attention. It was a lesson that has served me and will continue to serve me for the rest of my days.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Stanley Bill. He left no question in my mind as to what constitutes a real man. Crying for the loss of a loved one is something that only the most ardent of us can do. It is strength, not weakness that allows a man to cry.

A few days after my father’s passing I was finally able to release everything. I sat down on a lodgpole pine round in the woodpile where I had been splitting wood and allowed everything to hit me all at once. I cried for the loss of my father–and a few years later as I read Stanley Bill’s obituary, I cried for him too. 

The Coolness of Cool 

When I was in the 7th grade I coined the phrase “Geekaroni” which actually stuck. People used it for the better part of the year when referring to anything that wasn’t cool. “Ugh, that teacher is soooo geekaroni.” That was probably the coolest I have ever been.

When I was a kid, being cool was easily definable. The only requirement was being well liked. The dynamics of being cool changed slightly in middle school with the introduction of “cool” clothing. Being stylish became a large part of the cool requirement. In high school the Darwinian alpha male thing really took its foothold. The strongest, best looking and most charming were the coolest. Everyone else was second tier, 3rd string or some form of geekaroni (C’mon, let’s get geekaroni trending again).

Later on in my twenties being cool meant something else entirely. There was a major shift in the cool paradigm. Being cool meant detached, aloof, maybe even dangerous. Experts refer to it as ironic detachment and it’s cool as fuck. Therein lies my problem–I give too many fucks. I care about everything way too much. 

Another point in my life that I may have been cool was some time in the grungy 90’s. I was a young twenty something working in an artsy coffee joint. I had grown my hair out long and pierced my ears and nose. Again I’m not sure if I was cool because I have always lacked the aloofness cool people possess. I certainly looked the part. But simply looking the part is not enough. No it always comes down to attitude. The Fonz had it. Elvis had it. Han Solo had it. Even my own dad had it. That laid back, insouciant, devil may care disposition. Yeah, that’s it. These guys were the epitome of cool and it was all about the attitude. Here’s an example: 

The other day I went into my favorite cool people coffee shop–and was greeted by the 20-something barista-bro with gauged ears and full tattoo sleeves. I use the term greeted loosely.

Barista Bro: Hey brother, what’s good?

Me: Oh hey, Brother. I mean, um, Bro. (In my head: What the hell does ‘What’s good’ mean?)

Barista Bro: *Blank stare

Me: I’m pretty good bro, how are you? 
Barista Bro: I’m swass, brother. 

Me: (What the fuck does swass mean?) Yeah, absolutely. Me too. I’m just Swass and stuff, (In my head: nailed it). 

Bro: *Blank stare.

Me: (Shit! You fucked up! Say something cool!) Uhhhhh… the ummm.
Barista Bro: *Blank stare 

Me: You know, I’m just out doin the daily swassification. You know how it is. 

Bro: *Blank stare 

Me: *Blank stare 

Bro: You get the Ethiopian pour over right?

Me: Yep. 

I’m not sure why getting cool approval from a twenty something is important. That guy wasn’t my peer. His entire life revolves around being unaffected by his surroundings. But I think maybe there’s something in everyone that makes us want to be cool and makes us seek approval from verified cool people.

Something I am sure of is that not only am I uncool, I am a full-fledged card carrying, dad-doofus. My singing is shushed by my children. My cowlick is smoothed down by judgmental little hands in the morning. I’m asked repeatedly not to speak in a Irish accent to the crossing guards. My life is uncool. I spend my days yelling at cars to slow down in the school zone. I get giddy when the NPR Christmas catalog shows up. I enjoy deconstructing and improving Daniel Tiger plots. I’m un-fucking-cool. 

Let me ask you, what’s your definition of cool? I mean… the idea of what’s cool is pretty much all over the board these days. Everyone’s idea of cool is slightly different. Apparently being a nerd is cool now? What kind of paradoxical bullshit is that? All the old standbys seem to be timelessly cool e.g. Tattoos, sense of humor, no fucks given attitude. But now there’s a whole slew of new cool axioms. Did you know that neck tattoos are cool now? Inking your neck was something you only did if your daily commute was to and from the yard in an orange jumpsuit. Now it’s the ultimate symbol of not giving a fuck. It shouts “Fuck you, this is my art and this is my body, you can look away if it bothers you.” And yeah I’ll admit–that manner of thinking is cool as fuck.

Why should it even matter if I’m cool? Who cares? Besides me. And my children. And probably my wife. Unfortunately for them I will probably never be cool again. Unless being attached, concerned and stricken with cowlicks somehow becomes cool.

So this is it–my declaration to the world–I am uncool. I will never know what cool feels like again. At this point in my life I will never know what the latest cool lingo is, (young people just make words up anyway. Swass, what kind of crap is that) I will never drive a cool car or listen to cool music. I am uncool. And strangely… I think that knowing I’m not cool somehow makes me cool. Right? Just a little? I know, I know. *Sighs deeply. I’m total Geekaroni.

Donald Goes to Heaven 

Donald Trump dies and stands before our Heavenly Father in judgement.

God: Donald, I must ask you, what did you do with your time on Earth, did you feed the poor? Did you heal the sick? Were you humble? Did you ask the important questions in life? Were you merciful and forgiving of your enemies? Did you show the world compassion?

*God shuffles through some papers

God: Ohhhhh. Wow. Donald it says here you owned a gold toilet? Is that right? And did you say this?

Suddenly an image appears on a passing cloud–it’s of Donald bragging to Billy Bush.

God: Okay I’m just gonna shut that off. Donald… I think I’ve seen enough. You’re not quite what we’re looking for so we’re gonna send you back for a little retooling. How’d you like to be a cockroach? Yeah I think that works. Peter can you make sure Donald gets back to Earth safely? Oh and he’s going back as a Cockroach. Okay, bye bye now.

God: (Exclaims loudly) Jesus, where do they get these guys?!

Jesus: I don’t know! That guy was really screwed up! And is it just me or was he orange? Like really, really orange.

“Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and should give generously to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given them”
1 Timothy 6:18

The world is a low level of gray. Dark; like those days when you were a child walking home from school. Those days when the clouds were black and your pace quickened as the heaviness of a storm felt too close. Do you remember the feeling? Like you were too small for the world. Too small to be under the sky. 

The rain is sweeping across your windshield obscuring your view now. The wipers won’t move fast enough. You turn the music down even though you can’t hear it over the din of the rain and wet wheels on the concrete. You need to feel connected to the road. Your senses are heightened. Your knuckles have lost all color as a semi truck passes you throwing even more water in your way. 

You approach the underpass; as you enter your wipers finally catch up with the rain. Then for a moment the world goes quiet. The sodium lights cast a comforting glow in the dark gray of the storm. For a brief moment you feel peace. The world is crashing down around you. But inside the tunnel, the strength of the walls and ceiling shelter you. You breathe deeply in the quiet before going back into the storm. 

Haircuts, Bondage and the Fleecing of America 

The first thing I want you to know is that I’m not cheap. I’m not even frugal. I’ve actually been known to waste money from time to time. Sometimes though, I can be a little tight fisted with the money. 

I’ve cut my own hair hundreds of times. Mostly to save money. When I do go get a haircut the only thing I expect is that the person do a better job on my hair than I can. To me that’s worth $20. If it’s a bad haircut it’s a waste of money. I can do a bad haircut at home. Some things you splurge on, like a GOOD haircut, oil changes and transmissions. And some things you just have to say no to. No I will not break the bank to get spanked! Sorry not sorry, but I think it’s stupid to spend money on bondage equipment. You know the fetish right? The dom and sub, the bound and shagged, the choked and gagged… I find it ridiculously expensive. Fun? Maybe. Overpriced shenanigans? Definitely.

I’m from the olden days when folks just tied their partner up at home with some neck ties and maybe dripped some yankee candle wax on their nipples. Well thanks to a bored housewife who wrote 50 shades of Grey that’s just not possible anymore. Since the world went 50 shades of everything, it has become commonplace to spend a thousand dollars on a set of handcuffs and some leather straps. It seems everyone is ready to embrace this very expensive, overpriced, ridiculous fetish. 

No I haven’t seen 50 Shades… but I’ve heard enough about it to know that the main character, Christian Grey, spends a fortune on all his little bondage accoutrements. Hey, I can make a whip at home and a trip to the Home Depot will yield me the same materials needed to inexpensively chain someone up–but that’s not really the point is it? It’s all about the flash and the glamour of spanking the shit out of someone. I honesty don’t know how much all that leather and latex costs but like all things, including haircuts, I assume it’s overpriced. 

Paying through the nose to whip the shit out of your partner is just not in my purview; actually the whole Dom and sub trope seems like a really expensive and yes, weird endeavor. I’m not judging (much) but when did it become bad form to just get naked and bone? For free! Remember? All you needed was a bit of privacy. *Quick reminder: I’m not cheap. 

Nowadays your standard deviant either needs a high rise penthouse apartment, a personal helicopter or a legit dank ass sex dungeon. If you don’t own any of those things–it just seems pretty sketchy. Unless you’re rich, you’re just a guy with a woman tied up in his spare room alongside his Play Station and beer can collection. That story does not get adapted for the big screen, it’s a Criminal Minds episode. 

So that’s where I’m at. If my wife and I wanted to partake in this flagellating hobby we’d have to mortgage our home in order to afford some fancy ass spank’n paraphernalia. And we still wouldn’t have a decent view of a city skyline to whip each other to. 

*Update I researched it today–it was just as I expected, completely overpriced. No–not overpriced–out of reach. Seriously, how can your average fetishist lay-person afford this stuff? True, I mostly looked up the fancy leather-bondagey stuff, but I’m guessing that’s what Mr. Grey used to defile Don Johnson’s daughter. There is of course less expensive spank’n gear on the market… but again, if you use the cheap stuff, doesn’t that just make it cheap? Well it does according to the media–and every episode of CSI Miami.

Listen, I’m not cheap. I shell out loads of money for organic fruits and vegetables (because I don’t want Monsanto’s bug and people killer in my smoothies). I get the newspaper just to support our dying gray lady. And even though they were out of thin mints, I bought 10 boxes of Girl Scout cookies just to support the cause. But damn it, sometimes you gotta put your foot down and say no! No to expensive bondage equipment. No! I will not sell a kidney so that I can get beaten in the other kidney! 

In all seriousness though, I’m not coming down on the good folks that like a four hundred dollar cat of nine tails to the ass. If you can afford it, go for it. It’s not my thing but I get it. Weird shit is fun. I’m sure there’s some weird shit out there I’d be willing to splurge on. In the mean time, I’m out. I’m doin’ the free sex with the wife thing and I’m cool with it. But by all means, tie people up and drip hot wax from a $400 candle on their nether regions. As long as you’re both into it and it’s legal–do it! And if you’re gonna buy all those expensive whips and chains and leather corsets… what can I say? Buy American. 

Give Them Time

“I made a mistake today.” I said wincing. “A pretty big one.”

“What happened now,” my wife asked, unmoved by my announcement. 

“I–I Ummm,” I stumbled looking for the words. “I drove by the kindergarten playground at lunch. I said.”

My wife stopped unloading the groceries. “Nooooo” she exclaimed. “Please tell me you didn’t.”

“I did.” I said sheepishly.

“Well I bet you didn’t like what you saw.” She said knowingly. 

I shook my head no and made a sad face.

“I told you,” she said, “It’s gonna take some time.”

Our 5-year-old daughter Fiona started kindergarten this year. It was one of those simple things that parents turn into a major affair. We had gone back and forth about whether she was ready or not. Because of her late summer birthday we were given the choice of keeping her home till next year or going forward and letting her go to kindergarten. Neither of us were 100% sure she was ready. When our other daughter Emmylou went to kindergarten we were 100% sure she was ready. Honestly, I was closer to 50% on Fiona. We waffled back and forth wondering if she had the social skills to go to all day kindergarten. Would she be able to fit in. Would she throw tantrums or hit. We didn’t know what would happen. Fiona has always been unpredictable. 

Our nine-year old, Emmylou is very predictable. She is the quintessential girly-girl who fits in wherever she is. She’s magnetic. Other children seem to gravitate to her. Fiona is different. She’s a little standoffish until she gets to know you. She may take an instant liking to you, but she may also take an instant dislike. She’s overly sensitive and will blow up at small slights and imagined injustices. She’s been known to give really long loving hugs, but she’s also been known to throw punches. Really, really hard punches. All these factors make Fiona our wild card. It became our biggest bump last summer. How will Fiona cope with all day kindergarten.

The first morning went great and left me feeling confident that she would have a great kindergarten experience. While some children cried and begged their parents not to leave, Fiona sat quietly at her new table watching the other children’s reactions to being dropped off. We waved goodbye as the teacher began the rules of the classroom. Everything’s fine I said to my wife. My wife gave me that knowing look that said, “Of course it is dumbass, why did you think any different?”

“Do you think she’ll make friends?” I asked. “Of course, it just takes time,” my wife said. Though my wife is much more pragmatic about these situations I could see it in her eyes, she was a little worried. No, that’s a huge exaggeration. I really wanted her to be as worried as I was though. 

Before we parted my wife warned me not to spy on Fiona. “Give her some time,” she instructed. “She’ll figure it out and she’ll make friends. But whatever you do don’t torture yourself. You can’t make friends for her.” 

I was going to heed her advice, I really was. Unfortunately I just happened to be out driving–near the school–at lunch time–by the kindergarten playground. I creeped by at 5-miles an hour, my eyes searching for her little mop of blonde hair. I spotted her, my sweet Fiona, standing alone on the playground. She looked sad. She was watching the other kids play–unsure how to join them. 

In that brief moment my heart broke into a million pieces. I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and I was gasping for air. I wanted to run in and scoop her up and hug her. I drove home wishing she was back home with me. Like it was before kindergarten. 

I thought about it for the rest of the day. Eventually I considered the possibility I was projecting. Perhaps I saw myself in her. In 1985 I started Middle School in a new town. We had moved to a small ranching community where family and friendships went back generations. I spent that year feeling very alone. Everyday I searched for friendship but always found myself sitting alone in the library. I never figured out how to enjoy being alone and have never really enjoyed being on my own. 

When I picked Fiona up from her first day of school she was happy. Her massive grin outshined everything I had been fearing that day. I asked her how she liked kindergarten. “I love it!” she screamed.

When we got home Fiona busied herself in the playroom building with Legos. I realized that she plays by herself frequently. Even when neighborhood kids are over she will eventually end up playing by herself. She doesn’t look lonely I thought. In fact she was happy and smiling and singing. Perhaps it wasn’t sadness I saw on her face when I spied on her. Perhaps she was just watching. Examining, like she does at home. 

Fiona is a strong child. She will find her way, whatever that is. If Fiona wants to make friends she will eventually learn how. She’ll learn to open doors–make conversation, take a leap and ask someone to climb the monkey bars. Until then my heart breaks for every moment of loneliness she may experience. But I guess that will never change. 

Okay, cue the Scooby Doo Dream montage. You really thought that was the end? Seriously? You thought I’d leave it like that? Fiona has found her voice. She has found her footing in kindergarten. Her new friends are a motley crew. She befriended the class clown, Rudy, and the girl who never stops talking. Her best friend though is a quiet little boy named Cash who sits next to her at lunch and helps her open her fruit snacks. 

It’s painful to think of your children feeling alone, but torturing yourself by watching them at their loneliest is a pain no parent should put themselves through. My advice, for what it’s worth–give your kindergartener some time. You may still be called upon to prop them up, but give them a chance to do it on their own. I promise you it’s worth the heartache. 

My Brother’s Keeper

He looked at me but wouldn’t make eye contact. I could tell that he was trying to figure out if my offer to buy him a pizza was real. After considering it he declined and started to walk off. Before he could walk away I reached into my pocket and retrieved five dollars and handed it to him. He gave me the obligatory God-Bless-You and walked away quickly. He knew the drill–money is handed over, the transaction is over and he is dismissed. It’s an unwritten rule of panhandling.

It’s selfish really, we hand over a dollar or two to a homeless person and then we get to feel good about ourselves for the rest of the day. Maybe even post on Facebook about how charitable we are. My reasons are even more selfish than that though. I view my charity as paying it forward–but paying it forward for someone else. Someone I can no longer help. I help people because it’s my hope that my altruism will somehow find it’s way back to him. I like to think that the kindness I can no longer show my brother is still manifesting itself through helping others.

I don’t discuss my brother much because few people will understand and some will judge without any kind of foundation. When I’m asked about him I always answer the same way, “He’s fine,” and hope they don’t press for more. Most people don’t, but a few do. Over the years I’ve learned to sidestep around the truth. The truth makes people uncomfortable. I don’t blame people for becoming uncomfortable when I tell them about my brother because the truth is ugly. The truth is that Eric is not fine, Eric has never been fine. I used to tell people that Eric is a lost soul, as if that somehow explains away mental illness, homelessness and his time institutionalized. But that’s a terrible description. Eric’s soul isn’t lost, Eric is mentally ill.

For as long as I can remember, back to when we were children, Eric exhibited strange behaviors. It confused doctors at the time and although Eric was intelligent he was put into behavior classes and Special Education. Those strange behaviors eventually manifested into mental illness. The disease that plagues Eric is no fault of his own. Something lurks deep in the recesses of Eric’s genes. Something that drives him out into the cold. Something that has stolen his personality and left behind an empty shell. Eric’s disease is unpredictable, no one knows when he will slip into a profound darkness that leaves him wandering the streets talking to himself–screaming at what appear to be imaginary people. Not even Eric can predict when his disease will surface.

Though Eric is sick he is not a bad person. In fact he is giving to a fault. Whatever tiny amount Eric has he will give away. He has always been like that. As a child he’d receive a new watch for his birthday and as soon as someone admired it he would give it to them. This kindness and naïveté led to intense bullying in his teen years. Bullied by people who didn’t want anything from him except a reaction; to see pain in his eyes, which there was, constantly.

Growing up I was two-years younger than Eric, but I was his protector. Protecting Eric made me violent. It made me over reactive. I would lash out at anyone who may or may not have been cruel to him. Protecting Eric made me vindictive and mean. Now after what feels like a life-time I have no energy left to protect him. Eric is on his own. He has been jumped, robbed and beaten several times. Some people ask me, “How can you allow this to happen?” They look at me with disgust and again I know they’re thinking, “He’s your brother.” He is my brother, but I am void of help. Void of the energy it takes to navigate Eric through a system intent on shunning the mentally ill. I have personally spent thousands of dollars trying to help him. Growing up my family spent tens of thousands getting him treatment that wasn’t covered by insurance. Eric has had people in his corner, but it’s emotionally exhausting to stay in that corner for very long.

Eric is not a bad person and has never physically hurt anyone. None of that matters when you’re mentally ill. There were numerous times when I received calls to come bail him out from jail. His crime–vagrancy, being homeless, talking to himself, making sane people uncomfortable. And when they realize he’s not mentally stable he’s shuffled through the system until a crack forms and like many mentally ill people, he falls through.

Eric has been mistreated and misdiagnosed by health-care workers and an aging mental health care system for most of his life. It is my opinion that they don’t treat the mentally ill, they handle them. They tolerate them. They definitely don’t treat them. These same health care workers have come under fire for a practice called “dumping.” As soon as money runs low in the state’s budget for mental health or they just tire of dealing with a patient’s bullshit, they find a relative with a small amount of sympathy left and give that patient a one way ticket to their front door. Eric has been dumped many times. It lasts about a day or two before people realize they cannot care for Eric.

After my father passed in 2001 I did my best to take care of Eric but my father was really the only person who had what it took to keep Eric from slipping away. Shortly after my Father’s passing there was a rapid progression of Eric’s disease. It was clear I couldn’t take care of him and I asked for help from mental health but there was none to give. Eric’s disease became more profound and he disappeared into a darkness I cannot comprehend.

One Thanksgiving, instead of sitting around eating a meal, I sat by Eric’s bedside as he lay in a coma from a massive overdose of Tegretol. I had picked him up that day around noon. He got into my car, handed me an envelope and slumped over in the seat. I quickly surmised it was a suicide letter as I watched him slip into a coma. Another time when I was summoned to the ER, I arrived to find Eric lying unconscious in his hospital bed. He had been brutally beaten while sleeping in a park. He was covered in lacerations and was missing his front teeth. These incidents were not few and far between–they were constant. It reached the point where I knew for my own sanity I could no longer help him. Then something happened a short while later that would rock my relationship with Eric to its core.

We were awoken just after 2am by police officers. They surrounded the house. I saw flashlight beams in the backyard and there were officers pounding on the front door. My wife let them in and they demanded to see our newborn baby. We led them to the bedroom where she was asleep. An hour earlier my brother had turned himself in to the police. He claimed he had just killed his brother’s family including their newborn daughter. In his mind he had committed this act and begged to be locked away, which of course he was.

When I finally visited Eric in the mental institution he looked awful. I barely recognized him. His head had been shaved and his eyes were different. They weren’t my brother’s eyes. I sat quietly with him for an hour. Every so often he would ask for change for the vending machines which I always brought when he was locked up at mental health. It was really the only thing we had to talk about. It continued like this for over a year. Our relationship was extremely tenuous and neither of us wanted to talk about it.

After Eric was released I didn’t bring him over for holidays or social visits anymore. I would meet him at his apartment or in the mental health lockup or sometimes on the street or a homeless shelter to give him money and a bag of toiletries. Then one day he was gone. He left no trace. I spent weeks driving around at night looking for him in areas where there was a proliferation of homeless people. I felt incredibly guilty. I had pushed him away and now feared he was dead. I would buy bags of burritos and hand them out to the homeless at night asking if they knew my brother. Some recognized the picture I showed them but told me it had been a long time since they had seen him.

Eventually Eric turned up in New Mexico. Someone in the mental health-care system told Eric there was no more money left in the state’s budget for mental health and bought him a one way ticket for Santa Fe New Mexico. He is there now being shuffled through their mental health system. We talk infrequently but I still send money, clothing and toiletries as he needs them.

Eric’s suffers from a disease that has no end in sight. I wish every day that a massive breakthrough in treating mental illness will be announced. Sadly, I know that in our lifetime Eric will not get the treatment he requires to get better. Eric will always live on the fringe of society; an outsider looking in. He will never know true happiness. He will continue to fall through the cracks of a society that punishes the mentally ill instead of treating them.

This is a story that I’ve finally decided to share because I believe it’s time we have an honest discourse about mental illness. If you ask me how my brother is I don’t want to evade the question anymore; I don’t want to answer, “Eric is fine.” I want to tell you the truth. I want to say, “Eric is in pain.” One thing I definitely won’t say anymore is that Eric is a lost soul. That’s not accurate. Eric’s soul is not lost. It’s his place in this world that’s lost.