“You [men] are not our protectors…. If you were, who would there be to protect us from?” – Mary Edwards Walker
I shook the recliner from side to side to test it to see if it really was literally being held together at this point only by the sticky gray duct tape. I didn’t want Diane’s grandkids jumping on it, as I knew they surely would, only to find themselves flung to the floor when the back of the chair snapped off or something. But to my surprise, the old “throne” was still pretty solid. Might even be a decent chair again if she could have afforded to get it re-upholstered. The good news was in its current condition it would be a perfect complement to her apartment’s hand-me-down, garage sale motif.
I shut the bedroom door with just the tips of my thumb and forefinger grabbing the knob, then headed back down the hall to the kitchen to wash the tackiness from my hands. Jody was finishing up putting the groceries away, pushing on the freezer door with both hands trying to get it to close. She pushed so hard that a faded photo, one of those old Polaroids with the white border slipped out from behind the previous year’s magnetic Red Sox schedule that was plastered on the freezer door, and it drifted to the floor. It was probably taken with the same camera my father used to take those pictures of my mother in the bedroom that she’d shown to my sisters when they were young telling them what a pig he was for making her pose like that, but she nonetheless kept them hidden under her mattress in a sort of collection.
I picked it up and looked at the faded picture of my brother, Eddie’s, fourth grade picture and slid it back into place behind the magnet. His dirty blond hair was cut straight across at the bangs and he was wearing a striped shirt and black horn-rimmed glasses and was missing a front tooth. He resembled a young Austin Powers. He was about fifty now, and still housebound and living out his life in a bedroom at Diane’s place in Dedham suffering from a severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder that had kept him paralyzed with ritual behavior and crippling agoraphobia for the last eight years. Poor guy was so afraid to leave the room some days that he’d just hide out there no matter how hungry he may have been or how badly he may have needed to use the bathroom.
I had no idea that if we’d only recognized the clear signs pointing to where he was headed going as far back as when he was the age he was in that photo we might have done something to help prevent just how rotten things would turn out for him although we were really just kids as well. My parents certainly didn’t pay any attention to those signs, that’s for sure, or even if they did, I doubt it would have mattered much for the kid. In fact they hardly paid attention to him at all once Susan was born replacing him as the youngest so maybe that was the start of it all or at least a part of it.
When he was a kid he’d often wake up screaming with night terrors or would come sleepwalking into the kitchen while we played cribbage around the kitchen table some nights after the younger ones had been sent to bed. And there was that constant tic accompanied by a slight stutter, most noticeable when he was excited about something. His head would snap repeatedly to the right, his eyes squinting in unison as his bangs bounced in time against his forehead, his body sort of wiggling all over as he struggled for the words. Ma always said he’d just grow out of it and to pay it no mind and my parents never took him in to see a single doctor. Having left for the military when I was still a teenager and then being gone most of the time after that, it was quite a shock to see just how troubled he was becoming during one of my trips back home.
It was in the fall of 1986 and I’d caught a military flight back to the states from Germany to visit for a week. I had been sent back there to Augsburg, just north of Munich, in 1983 to my old unit a couple of years after my father died. All you had to do was sit around on stand-by at the flight line terminal on the base and wait for the next available seat on whatever aircraft was manifested back to the states and closest to where you wanted to go and it was a free ride. It was pretty cold being strapped against cargo netting in a jump seat on the C-130 that lumbered at thirty thousand feet westward into a headwind over the Atlantic towards Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, but the price was definitely more than right.
With Dad gone for five years at that point, only Eddie and Susan were still living at home with Ma, then in another new place in Roslindale on Florence Street on the second floor of a triple decker just off of Hyde Park Avenue. It was within walking distance of a package store where I walked over to pick up a twelve pack of Michelob and drank in its entirety one night while watching a Red Sox game. After drinking potent German beer for the last couple of years, American beer had a kick like Kool-Aid. Ma was aghast at my consumption and asked if I was an alcoholic. I started to explain about chemical tolerance but she only got confused so I just grinned at her and said “Yup, and so is everyone in the military.”
I slept on the couch, and the next morning got awoken by the sound of the front door knob rattling and un-rattling in a very peculiar way. I was lying on my side and lifting my head a little to see over the green vase with the dusty yellow plastic tulips, I saw Eddie performing some version of what looked like the “hully-gully” in the doorway, one of those dances we’d all do at someone’s wedding reception at the American Legion Hall or Italian-American Club.
Fascinated, I just watched in silence as he grabbed the tarnished brass door knob in his right hand pulling the door ajar just enough for him to stick his left foot out into the musty hallway and tap his toes four times as he jiggled the doorknob furiously. He then switched his hand and foot and repeated this behavior, all the while counting aloud to himself “one, two, three, four, one two, three, four.” He repeated this pattern four times, twice on each side, then on his final utterance of “four,” he slipped sideways through the door closing it sharply behind him making sure he made no contact with anything. I was only a fledgling psychology student by night at the time, but knew Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I saw it. It seemed to grow worse every year after that, and was steadfastly fearful of seeking the treatment he really needed and would go into a panic at the very thought of seeking treatment or hospitalization.
He never had any close friends, and certainly and sadly no intimate relationships I was aware of. Years later, I tried to help him to understand that OCD is among the most easy to cure on the list of anxiety disorders, but unfortunately, for whatever his reasons and despite all the encouragement by all of us for him to seek treatment, he could only remain trapped inside his own distress, his days now spent more or less confined to a single room with the help of enablers who just didn’t know what else to do. When I got stationed back in Massachusetts for my last tour of duty, I visited with him once a week for six months to continue to try to help him better understand and confront his disorder, but to no avail.
His anxiety still exerted its power over all attempts by anyone to help him, and it became clear that the only way he’d ever get to a better life would be to finally go out and get the professional help he needed but refused to get. All I could do was keep praying for him that he’d find the courage one day to take on the battle I knew he could win.
To be continued…