My half-brother Brian reached into a grey trash can, fished out a half-eaten paper cup of orange jello and wolfed the shimmering remains down with a plastic spoon. His case worker Veronica blushed as she stood up in the windowless room and tried to pry the cup from his hands. I didn’t know him — this lunch was the first time I’d seen him in two decades — but I had a feeling she wouldn’t succeed. She gave up after a little while and sat back down. “Gotta pick your battles,” I said. Veronica and I smiled in unison in a feeble attempt to stave off awkwardness, but it came anyway. Everyone but Brian was eager to transition to the next moment, but it wasn’t clear where we were going or how we’d get there.
People like my brother are considered to fall somewhere on the furthest ends of the autism spectrum. On one end, you’ve got people leading lives nearly identical to folks not living on the spectrum. They can drive a car, get married and hold a conversation. You wouldn’t be able to identify a person residing on this end of the spectrum, and, in fact, you might be on it yourself and not even know it.
At the other end are people like my brother. Brian isn’t able to do much of anything. He can’t work at a grocery store. He can’t tell a person that he loves them or that he’s scared or that he needs help. If the muscles in Brian’s face have ever formed a smile, it wasn’t through intention. When people see my brother in public, they look away in politeness and think Something’s not right with him, and they’re right.
I sometimes get questions like, “Is he like Dustin Hoffman in that movie Rain Man?,” when I tell people I have a brother with severe autism. It’s awkward. Brian’s about as far away from Rain Man as you can get. If science could get Brian to the point where he could start talking and counting cards, it would be a miracle.
Brian is my dad’s son from his first marriage. I was produced alongside my full-blooded siblings Shawn and Meagan during his second, a tumultuous relationship that fractured shortly after we were born. Having the unlucky fate of being born with autism in the 1970’s, Brian missed a slew of revolutionary therapies borne through scientific autism spectrum research that might have given him a better life. If he’d been born just a decade later, he might now be one of those people living on the other end of the spectrum, but my big brother was too early to the party.
“Brian loves picking up little pieces of trash off the ground,” Veronica said sweetly. “He has the perfect situation at his group home because his roommate likes to tear up paper. They’re the perfect match.” When Brian looked up from his plate of Spaghetti, stopped chewing and stared at me, I thought my face might crack open. At first, I interpreted the forehead-first glare as anger, but then remembered that Brian wasn’t capable of arranging his face in ways that aligned with social norms. Did he have any way of knowing that I was his brother and that I’d spent more than a decade searching for him? When he broke the stare and went back to eating, I was relieved.
During a family meeting when I was thirteen, my dad informed me and my full-blooded siblings that our older brother had a disease called autism. “We’re gonna drop by and see him on our trip to California next week.” I looked down and drew a shape on the beige carpet with my finger. “He lives in a special home near his ma,” he went on in his unapologetic Boston accent. “You kids met him a few years ago, but you probably don’t remember.” He reached into his back pocket for his wallet, opened it and pulled out a bent picture of a boy with brown hair wearing a blue turtleneck sweater. “This is Brian, kids. Do you remember him? He’s older now.” I looked up and shook my head after seeing the photograph, not understanding how a boy I didn’t recognize could be someone in my family.
Our short visit with Brian was a strange detour in an otherwise typical summer vacation: La Brea Tar Pits, Universal Studios, Brian McGuire, Santa Monica Pier, the Grand Canyon. When we went to see him at his group home, a woman in charge answered the door and led us to the backyard. A large man wearing a blue baseball cap was there standing under a tree. He was waving a leaf back and forth the way a child would with a miniature flag. He’s broken, I thought. “Remember your brother, kids? Hi, buddy,” my father said loud and slow as he hugged him. Brian looked at us and went back to waving his leaf. “Put that down, buddy,” my dad said taking the leaf out of his hands. “Time for lunch.”
On the drive to McDonald’s, I felt nervous sitting next to him as his broad torso rose and fell like a broken machine. When he started moaning, I didn’t know what to make of it. “It’s okay,” I said to him, not knowing if I was right.
“Daddy, he’s scaring me,” Meagan said in a dramatic voice.
“Ignore him, Megabucks.”
Our vocal Christian conservative father taught us from an early age that family was everything, and yet Brian was clearly something different. If our little family was a country, Brian was a refugee with no chance of becoming a citizen.
When we went back to his group home, I saw other men there like my brother eating in the kitchen. “Don’t give him those sugary drinks,” my dad told the woman in charge after inspecting the fridge. When we said our goodbyes out on the front yard, I was relieved. “Hug your brother, kids,” my dad said, snapping a few pictures on his camera. We each gave him a half-hug before our father pulled him in with one arm and kissed him on the cheek. And then we drove away. I would be a man well into my thirties before I saw Brian again. My dad still hasn’t seen him and in all likelihood won’t ever again.
In the years after the visit, my family didn’t talk about Brian much. What was there to say? He had his life in California, and we had ours in Denver. Throughout my teens, I’d sometimes imagine him being like a tree in one of those time lapse nature documentary shots with everyone around him exploding in a constant flurry of transformation while he stood frozen in the background. When I got older, my dad started saying that a legal dispute over child support was preventing our family from seeing Brian. “You kids know I love your brother,” he’d say, “but Brian’s mother has it out for me. She wants to clean me out. I can’t see him unless I pay whatever she’s asking.”
“Why can’t we see him then? We have nothing to do with whatever is going on between you and Linda,” I said one Christmas when I was in my twenties.
“No, Pat,” he said shaking his head and closing his eyes hard as if he didn’t want to see what I was asking. “If you try to see him, she’ll use you to get to me. I can’t afford to go to court. Please don’t do this to me.”
The way my dad talked about his dispute with Brian’s mom was typical of his behavior: Present one narrow viewpoint of a complicated situation while ignoring all other details. Display victimization. Demand sympathy, loyalty and compliance.
My father was a legendary salesman at the Littleton, Colorado Best Buy store where he worked for decades. On Black Fridays, before customers could walk out the door with their new purchases, they’d be systematically led into a small room with my father. “Lightning strikes within twenty miles of your house and I guarantee you that DVD player you just bought explodes and causes a fire,” he’d say. “You need our Performance Protection Plan.”
The same aggressive sales tactics that made my dad successful in his job were also effective in keeping my questions about Brian at bay until I was in my early twenties. “How’s Brian doing?,” I asked him one morning on a fishing trip.
“Who knows,” he said without lifting his eyes from the river. “I have no idea, Pat. My hands are tied here. Ooh! I got a bite.”
As the tip of his pole twitched, I felt something dark and ugly burning in my stomach. “Okay,” I said, “explain this to me again. You didn’t pay Linda any child support for Brian or she just wants more money than what you’ve already paid? Can’t we figure this out?”
He breathed loud at me like I was asking something impossible of him. “I don’t want to get into this, Pat. You know that. Got my bait, doggonit,” he said pulling his line in and inspecting his hook.
“I’m just trying to understand what happened,” I said as calm as I could while my heart tried to extricate itself from my chest. He reached into a styrofoam container, tore a worm in half and slid one of the wriggling pieces on to his hook before looking up at me.
“It’s too much to explain, Pat. And besides, what matters now is that I can’t see him anymore and legally you can’t either. I wish it wasn’t like this, but Linda put me in this position.” I nodded, cast my line out into the river and I let my rage float away in fear of what it meant and what it would do to my family if I held on to it.
With the acrid aftertaste of cheap beer heldover from the night before, I pushed myself up from a bed somewhere in Wichita, Kansas. When I stood up, I got swallowed up by nausea and an unexpected sense of sadness. A naked woman still laying in bed above the covers sported a massive tattoo of an elk spanning from her lower back to spindly antlers that crawled up her shoulder blades. Too drunk to sleep, I’d traced it with my eyes over and over again throughout the night.
“See you around,” she said turning to face me. It was strange seeing a woman I didn’t know naked in the light like that. “Let me know if you guys ever play here again.”
“Good meeting you,” I stuttered in a tired voice. If she’d given me her name the night before, I’d already forgotten it. “Thanks for coming to the show. You’re…super pretty.” She smiled a smile that said you can leave now, and so I did. At twenty three, I’d stopped being Christian years before, but things like one-night-stands were still foreign to me and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living behind enemy lines.
“Did you sleep with that girl, Pat?”, Mike, my band’s guitarist asked from the driver’s seat on the drive home. I nodded and he grinned at me through the rearview mirror. “Even with that ridiculous mustache? I’m impressed, buddy. She must’ve really liked you.”
“That venue from LA emailed me back,” our drummer Chris called over the noise of the van from the back row of seats. “We’re confirmed for that show in August. Who do we know there?”
“I have a brother in LA,” I said without thinking.
“Wait,” Mike asked, “Shawn moved to LA?”
“No. His name is Brian. He’s my half-brother. He’s got severe autism. I haven’t seen him since I was a kid.” When everything got quiet, I knew I’d made a mistake.
“Pat,” Mike said, “We’ve known you for what, five fucking years and you’re just telling us about this now?”
“It’s complicated,” I said feeling the nausea and sadness swallow me up again. From the middle row, I looked behind me to see Chris with his mouth open a bit.
“My dad is in some sort of legal thing with his mom, so he’s not allowed to see him. I’ve been thinking about trying to find him.”
“Your dad won’t tell you where he is?”, Mike asked.
“He says he doesn’t know.”
“That’s fucked, man,” Chris said. “It sounds like he’s lying.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.”
A couple of months later, I told my dad I’d begun looking for my brother on a family road trip to Lake Tahoe. “Brian’s mother will come after you too, you know,” he said after I broke the news. We drove together in his car while the rest of my family traveled together in another. “Even if you do find him, she won’t let you see him. Why can’t you let this go? You really want to drag the family into this mess?” He gripped the wheel with cracked leather hands and blinked hard under his aviators.
“Come on, Dad. I just want to see him. There’s no law that says I can’t. I looked into it. I’m going to find him whether you help me or not.” He breathed out loud and heavy as we crested a hill while the otherworldly expanse of Utah’s Highway 50 sprawled out before us. A miles-wide dust storm the color of rust raged out in the distance.
“I’ve told you so many times,” he said. “You kill me when you do this. I hope you know that.” He slid a cassette into the tape player of music he’d been listening to since I was old enough to remember: Hawkwind, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac. As the music blared, I hated everything about myself: my face swollen from fighting tears, the chaotic sensation of my unruly heart, for wanting so much but never having a say in things. I looked up from the dash and noticed the storm had grown much closer.
“Dad,” I said over the music. “Might wanna slow down. That storm is blocking the road.” He ignored me and maintained his speed. “Dad, fucking slow down!”
“Watch your language,” he said with calm as we drove into the thick red storm. The day morphed to night in an instant and we heard a cacophony of sand pelting the car’s exterior over violent winds before passing through to daylight on the other side after only a couple seconds. “See?,” he said looking at me. “We’re fine.”
“We’re not fucking fine, Dad! You could’ve killed us! And don’t tell me to watch my fucking language. What is wrong with you?” When my eyes adjusted, I saw another red wall of dust half a mile ahead of us. “Dad, don’t do that again. Seriously, slow down for this one.” He acted like he couldn’t hear me again, so I shook his shoulder and started screaming as we barreled towards the swirling red winds. “Dad! Fucking slow down! Please!”
He sighed, loosened his grip on the wheel and braked seconds before we hit the second storm. When we passed through this one, we saw chaos inside: an injured man pulling an overturned motorcycle off the road next a four-car pile-up. “Oh my god,” he said maneuvering around the accidents before calling for help.
I didn’t fully accept who my dad was until I was thirty. He’s the kind of man who rails against women who have abortions but shows no remorse for abandoning his own son — someone he owes so much. “Any guy can be a father,” he’d tell us over and over again as kids, “but it takes a real man to be a dad.” When the anger fades and I’m able to see things clearly, I’m more confused than anything else. Has he been at war with his shame this whole time or has he always hid from it? Does he have any at all?
In 2016, he had a severe heart attack in the hospital delivery room where my sister had just given birth. He clutched his chest, walked out of the room and told his girlfriend to drive him to another hospital across town that would accept his insurance. People as health-conscious as my father aren’t known for having heart attacks, but despite being underweight and a near-picture of physical health on the surface, he nearly succumbed to one so severe that a third of patients who have one still die after treatment. They call the kind he had a “widowmaker” because it’s got a knack for rendering husbands and wives spouseless.
I sometimes think my dad’s heart attack was linked to a life’s worth of guilt he’d accumulated but had no interest in acknowledging. “You kill me when you do this,” he’d told me when I started searching for my brother. Maybe the truth of who his son was and how he’d left him behind was too much for his heart to take, and maybe I was responsible for the heart attack because I’d made him realize it. Maybe a deadly remorse showed up the same day my niece was born because it couldn’t find any other way to present itself. Or maybe me and Brian and guilt have nothing to do with it and the heart attack was just a freak thing that could’ve happened to any man his age. Maybe it was bad genetics. Maybe it’ll happen to me.
After my dad recovered, I confronted him about Brian one last time at his apartment. “You almost died,” I said. “And if you did, I’d have no other way to find him. I’ve looked everywhere over the last couple of years but I’ve got nothing. Please, is there anything you can tell me?” He breathed hard, threw up his hands and turned away from me. I couldn’t believe how small he was. The heart attack had shrunk him. Where’d the rest of him go?, I thought. I could see blotchy black hair dye stains on the scalp under his thinning hair.
“Jeez Louise, Pat,” he said turning back to me. “I told you the name of his case worker years ago. She knows where he is. You don’t remember me telling you that?”
“No,” I said. “I think I would’ve remembered that.”
“Well, in any case, here’s the name of the woman who in charge where he lives. She doesn’t respond to me most of the time, but if you get a hold of her, please ask if Brian needs any new jeans for Christmas.” He ripped off a small piece of paper and scribbled down a name and an email address. I stared in disbelief as he handed it to me without shame or hesitation. I wanted to explode, knock his frail body to the ground and scream the truth in his face — that he was a liar, that he owed Brian, our family and himself so much more, that I could finally see exactly who he was now and how I hated him — but I knew it wouldn’t matter. Nothing I did could change what he’d done to our family. And in that way like in so many other interactions with my father throughout my life, I realized I was powerless to make him care or understand. If the prospect of death couldn’t transform him, I knew I didn’t stand a chance.
I cut ties with my dad in early 2017. There’s a freedom in his absence that’s almost thrilling. No part of me forgives him — I can’t and I won’t — but I am glad he didn’t die. As long as he’s breathing, there’s a remote chance that he’ll wake up and steer towards redemption. I know that he won’t, but what if he tried? Death would only serve to remove that possibility completely.
The physical aspects of choosing to be fatherless are simple, more or less. Avoid the holiday. Erect the boundary. Delete the account. The rest is hell. I recognize his voice every time the president lies without consequence and in racist talk radio diatribes I overhear at stoplights. I see him in the face of my sister when she refuses to talk about Brian or anything else she feels overwhelmed by.
But I also feel him in the pull of the line of a fishing pole bent down by the weight of a rainbow trout. The good memories of him haunt me the most. How could he abandon one son and not the other? How could he show the love and patience of teaching two of his boys how to fish while his other son sat alone and neglected?
It’s crude, but I can’t put it better than my best friend Chris did a year ago. He lost his own father to alcoholism in 2005. “Some people are pieces of shit and then they die,” he told me. “They never get any better.” I feel sick thinking of my father this way, but it’s true. My dad is someone who only bothers to know and see himself and that’s never going to change. He’s not going to get better.
Later in 2017, I found myself strumming my acoustic guitar opposite my brother Brian in Point Hueneme, California. Knowing a dialogue with him wouldn’t be possible, I thought music might be one of the only things I could give him. As I played, he swayed in his chair and thrust out his arms like he was trying to touch the music around him.
“Wow,” Veronica said. “This is the most I’ve seen him interact.” He even flipped his hood back which I took as a sign of his comfort with me being there. But as tempting it is to assume my visit improved Brian’s life by any measure, I just don’t know. I have no clue what he understands and what he doesn’t.
“Is he receiving any sort of behavioral therapy to help him learn how to communicate?,” I asked Veronica.
“No, unfortunately,” she said, shaking her head. Every staff member I encountered at Brian’s day program seemed professional and invested in their work, but it was clear they were spread thin. Brian doesn’t receive the benefits of working one-on-one with a specialist because the money for it doesn’t exist. My Dad’s political leanings put him in the unique position of not only abandoning his autistic child, but of also voting against his interests and well-being at every turn. This is the same Christian man that once called me “the shame of the family” for losing my Christian faith.
“It is true that your father isn’t allowed to see Brian. His mother made that clear to us a long time ago,” Veronica told me as I was getting ready to leave. “But she hasn’t been in the picture for years now. Apparently, she’s got a pretty serious medical condition. You’re the first visitor he’s had in years.”
She went on to tell me that situations like Brian’s were common. According to Veronica, arguments and legal issues within families frequently result in low-functioning adult family members being neglected or forgotten about altogether. “I’d say the worst part of my job is when I’m the only person at a funeral of someone like your brother,” she said. “It’s something you never really get over.”
“Brian,” I said with a shaky voice after putting my guitar back in its case, “I want you to know that you’re loved.” A tear slipped out of my left eye and rested on my cheek. “Our family knows about you and we’re so sorry about everything, buddy.” Buddy?, I thought. I’m a fucking idiot. “I love you and they do too.” I walked around the table and put my arm around him. His warm body felt tense under my arm before loosening a bit. Up close, he looked just like my uncle.
After I said my goodbyes, I crossed the street, walked over to a nearby beach and sat on the sand. People saw me weeping, but I didn’t care. The winds picked up and a noxious smoke from a massive fire burning in Ventura started rolling over the beach. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t. Leaving was all I could do, so I did.
I know a relationship with Brian benefits me, but what does it mean for him? I wish I knew. I want to say it doesn’t matter to me, but it does. Who is my brother and what does he feel? These are questions I think about a lot. What I do know is that nothing will replace the decades of lost time between Brian and our family. Our lives would’ve been more loving, human and vibrant had my siblings and I grown up around our brother, and I think our presence in his life would have made him better off too, even if it was in ways that couldn’t have been observed or understood.
I told my dad I’d agree to see him again in the context of professional therapy, but he declined. I don’t blame him. Considering the severity of his heart attack, I honestly don’t know if he could survive any sort of professional confrontation, so I keep my distance and try to find peace on my own. It’s the best I can do.
As for Brian, I don’t know what to do other than to see him whenever I can. I sometimes fantasize about moving to LA and think about what it’d be like to be a regular fixture in his life. From what I can tell, he’s dependable in the fact that he never seems to change. I’m told that he’ll be out there in California doing the same things at the same times in the same places he’s been in for decades and that I’m free to see him whenever I like. I was surprised how much I missed him after I left LA, and I believe we forged a genuine connection. I suppose there’s nothing I can do other than to honor that connection in the most human and loving way possible. I finally found my brother again after twenty years but lost my father in the process. The economies of families are often cruel and unpredictable. What else is there to say?
I fear that I’ll never fully shake the specter of my father because I came from him. How do you assess a disaster when you are the disaster? “Take the good and leave the bad,” I’m told, but chocolate wrapper platitudes don’t mean shit when you actually try to apply them to your own life. This isn’t a goddamn buffet. Try as we might, we all end up taking everything life gives us regardless, and we’ll be destroyed and rebuilt and baffled by it all over and over again until the very end.