My Brother’s Struggle for Independence
My brother, the doctor, lost his independence when his kidney failed him. As he fights to get better he is frustrated because I hold the keys to that independence — literally.
Four states away is the car I sold him seven years ago. As it sat in a garage I asked if my son could drive it while he was in LA during his gap year.
My brother agreed because he was actually suppose to be in LA with my son. I asked my brother to stay with him because my brother has a lot to share, my brother needed some space from my mother and sister in Ohio and his daughter would be less less than two hours away in Santa Barbara.
As we prepared for the trip to LA my brother gave excuse after excuse about not being able to make it to LA. The excuses were weak, but I didn’t pressure him because I knew something had to be seriously wrong for him not to be there for his nephew.
Nevertheless, we got the car fixed up and my son had wheels in LA. He even returned home on a cross-country trek with his friends.
My brother missed something big. Six months later I’d find the bag that he’d packed to join my son in LA in the apartment 4 blocks from the train station that connect Santa Monica to downtown. He would have loved those three months. The apartment was for him as much as it was for my son.
My mother said he was sick but my brother said he simply had the flu and hadn’t taken care of it properly. He assured me that all was well, but he would be a couple of weeks late in LA.
He never asked for a ticket to LA.
So we visited for Christmas and saw that he looked terrible. It was obvious that he was fighting more than the flu.
And he was losing to whatever it was he was fighting.
Again, he assured me that he was handling his condition and getting better by the day. My big brother, the doctor, said he was going to be fine. He looked terrible and I knew better, but he didn’t want to participate in any conversation that involved going to see a doctor.
I agreed on the condition that there would be no discussion if I had to return back to Ohio because of his hralth. He smiled and said not to worry.
Two months later and our younger brother calls me from Ohio. He was visiting and said that the illness was more than the flu. “Deathly” is the word he used to describe my brother and that my mother and sister were helpless because he didn’t want help.
So I boarded a plane and saw for myself that our youngest brother was spot on. We went to a doctor the next day and to the emergency room the following day. No questions asked.
Two more weeks and he would have died.
He was prepared to die.
I didn’t ask questions, but I told him that I was good with whatever decision he had made. However, my mother couldn’t take care of him if he fought every decision we made to help him get better. So, if he couldn’t play by my rules, he was going to need to make other arrangements. The family had been taking care of him for six months against his will and that had taken a toll on everyone.
During those conversations I worried that my brother would worry that he was being a burden. I worried that he might make decisions that would take his life as opposed to being a weight that his family had to carry. I worried that he was only willing to be the one carrying the load and not the load being carried. Every word I spoke was measured so I didn’t trip a wire that might lead to him thinking that he’d been too much of a burden.
So we spoke directly and honestly, but I knew that I was not talking to the same man that had sound advice for every step of my life. There was a fog that he was living in, but we had to get his body to heal before we could think about his mind.
Miraculously, the doctors got him home in a few days and prepped him for dialysis. When he returned home, all of his belongings were moved to the easiest area to maneuver in the house so he couldn’t fall.
Our mother wouldn’t tell us but she found him on the floor in the basement a month prior and he couldn’t get up.
He said that he could.
But she knew that he couldn’t.
Luckily, a package was being delivered and our mother asked the driver to help. And thankfully he did.
Over the stretch of my trip I saw my brother lose his balance twice. Each time he fell in slow motion and I was too far away to catch him.
He was frail. He was falling. He was barely alive.
But the hospital sent him home. Stabilized.
My nephew took over the simple responsibilities of caring for my brother and my brother didn’t complain.
Our mother cooked and cleaned for my brother and my brother didn’t complain.
Bills were piling up. I took over the finances and my brother didn’t complain.
Then came his dialysis treatment.
For about a month he succumbed to the routines and order of those helping him get stronger. My nephew dropped him off before going to work and my sister picked him up when she got off work. And they made certain that the medicine and food that he needed was ready for him. Our mother cooked and cleaned because that’s the only thing she knew how to do.
And now he feels better.
Enough to complain.
“I need my car here,” he tells me after dancing around the subject on the phone.
This was a big step because my brother didn’t have the strength to talk on the phone for more than two minutes. For the previous eight months he didn’t fight me over the phone because he didn’t have the energy to hold up the receiver. Now here we were arguing about his car for 90 minutes.
“It’s on the list,” I assured him. Getting his car back to his driveway needed planning but I was in no rush to let him decide when he was prepared to drive again. One month of dialysis and he felt like Superman. I could hear it in his voice. But I knew that he was months away from driving.
“I’m not going to drive it,” my brother tells me with added frustration. “I know it will take 2 months to get the registration and insurance taken care of. I want it to be ready to drive when I’m healthy so I can go to the store to get milk on my own.” For 90 minutes he stressed this point to me above the bills that needed to be paid and the care that needed to be overseen.
He wanted the car in the driveway. He wants to know that he can be independent when he’s ready. He doesn’t want to depend on his nephew that won’t get the milk when he wants it. He doesn’t want his sister to bring him his medicine from the wrong pharmacy. He doesn’t want his mother moving his cane closer to him because he wants it by the front door. Everyone is doing everything around him the wrong way.
So he wants his car in the driveway so he knows it will be there for him when he thinks he’s ready. He has a plan to be healthy so he’s no longer a burden.
Unfortunately he’s had a recent history of poor decisions with respect to “being ready” for anything.
On my last visit he conceded that I was in charge of the decisions regarding his recovery, but he wanted me to not judge him for the last year. He didn’t want to be punished for putting everyone through this emotional and physical roller coaster because he was getting better. He did not want to be treated like a child because he had acted like one. He wanted to be treated like the responsible adult that had taken care of the family since our father had passed. He wasn’t asking to be in charge of everyone, but he wanted to at least decide when he could go to the store by himself.
But, should something happen to my brother at the grocery store it would be our nephew or our sister that would have to come rescue him. And our mother worried about him every time he went to take shower. She wasn’t ready to think about letting him drive a car.
So I listened to him plead his case for 90 minutes.
My brother’s tactics of debate ranged from “ I have ways of getting the car here on my own” to “I just want my nephew to focus on going to class”. I simply sat quietly while he resharpened his mind against his best pupil. Occasionally I would tell him why there was no rush to have the car in his driveway and he’d try another path to victory.
“If I really want to drive and I know I’m ready there’s nothing to stop me from taking Mom’s car to the store,” he argues.
“Nothing at all,” I concede.
And then he finds another topic to tackle before revisiting the car. His inability to sustain a healthy debate or properly concede defeat tells me that his mind is still in a fog. He’s arguing to argue, not to win. He’s asking for empathy and understanding, not logical resolution. That’s not how we argued for the first 44 years of my life.
I’m not beyond empathy on his behalf, but his health is not the only concern in play.
During our last visit my brother called out my youngest son for not placing his shoes out of our mother’s pathway because she could trip and hurt herself. Yet, he was allowing her to take care of a frail man on a daily basis that couldn’t raise himself from the floor.
During the entire phone conversation my wife patiently walks by, offering not-so-subtle eyerolls because she has similar conversations with her family.
Eventually I have to continue with the rest of my Saturday afternoon so I tell him that we will talk next weekend because he will be worn out all week from dialysis. That will give me time to compare notes with my sister, my nephew, my mother and my other brother to make sure he is getting physically stronger while he is regaining his mental fortitude. If they concede that he’s ready to have a car in the driveway, I’ll arrange to have that taken care of. then he can move on to the next thing to complain about.
But if they want me to continue to be the bad cop, I’ll continue to take those 90 minute venting sessions because he needs them. He appreciates me for that if nothing else.
And I hope he wins an argument with me soon. That will mean that his mind is as healthy as he thinks he is.