In the late 1950’s I was in second grade at St. Paul’s Elementary School. The cafeteria was across the street from the classroom building, so students walked through a dirt lot to go to lunch. There, under the live oaks, Carol broke the news to me. “Did you know your brother’s crazy?” I didn’t know.
My brother was admitted to a psychiatric ward that spring. I thought he was in a medical hospital. The best doctors in Florida could not diagnose his illness, so they resorted to a psych ward. Desperate, my mom got a referral to the Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York. A neurologist there recognized the “sunflower” rings around my brother’s eyes as a symptom of Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic condition. His body lacked the enzyme to bond to copper. It built up around the eyes, then all over the system, stunting fine and gross motor control. At last we met Dr. Scheinberg, then one of six doctors in the world who treated Wilson’s disease. There was a drug which bonded to copper, but a lot of damage had been done by the time Jack got access to it. He was not “crazy.”
While Jack was in a children’s hospital waiting for the medication to work, for anything to work, my father collapsed at his bedside from internal bleeding and was rushed to another hospital. My dad lay dying in one hospital, my brother still fighting for his life in the other. That July in the Florida heat, my mom, with a broken leg, drove a stick shift, un-air-conditioned car back and forth between the hospitals.
I turned eight that summer and was farmed out to our neighbors on 9th Street. For nearly a year, the Breeden’s, Baldwin’s, Witt’s, and Wisen’s took turns caring for me while my parents were at one hospital or another. I ate, played, biked, laughed, cried, slept, and wet many a bed up and down 9th street. No one mentioned the wet sheets, and no one ever again said my brother was crazy.
My mother willed my brother and father to live. Once, when the health insurance benefits ran out, a billing clerk hassled my mother when she tried to check my brother out after yet another hospitalization. Mom wheeled Jack right up to the head of accounting and told that director that he could keep Jack as collateral. She said she’d come back for him when she raised the money. Shamed by her dare, he let them go without paying on the bill.
I have never met anyone, man or woman, as strong as my mother, nor as determined to live and thrive as my brother. Each in their own way taught me about strength. I believe that there is day and night for a reason. No matter how dark the night, when I wake up – and I always have so far – there is another day, a fresh slate waiting for me to do my best. I believe each person has more strength and courage than we first think we are capable of. Too often, I underestimate myself – and others. My strength, when summoned from that place deep inside, is bold. It makes demands on me to be better than I want to be or think I can be. I believe in speaking out and acting up for just causes. Yet at times I censor myself; so the more powerful don’t even need to. But sometimes, I do find that strength I saw in my mother and brother.
I believe in the power of love and relationships. All human development takes place in the context of relationships. I believe all people need desperately to be nurtured and to nurture each other, like the neighbors who helped raise me that year on 9th street. I believe that in the company of caring family, neighbors, and colleagues, and sometimes strangers, I can summon my strength and stare down any challenge. This I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.