We were greeted by a flashing light on our answering machine when we walked into the house after church on Sunday. In less than two hours, six messages had been left, and I immediately thought something awful must have happened.
I pushed PLAY.
I knew my brother’s voice from the first two words he spoke. He’d left one message after another, talking until the time limit for each message ran out, and finally, until the entire tape was full.
Most of what he said could be characterized as rambling. Each message consisted of a combination of the following:
* APOLOGIES: “I’m sorry. I know I messed up.”
* EXCUSES: “I was going through a bad time.”
* DEFENSES: “I was in a rehab facility around Thanksgiving and the doctor there told me there’s nothing wrong with me.”
* BLAME: “I don’t know why my own family, my own kids even, won’t talk to me. What did I ever do that’s so bad?”
* GUILT: “I really need you, Sis. Just call me. I miss you and I love you.”
I’ve spent a lifetime watching my brother spiral downward and listening to him twist and turn his role in that downward spiral until those of us around him begin to think that he deserves another chance.
By high school, I’d visited Joe in jail a few times. In college, I read about his exploits in the local paper. Off and on throughout my twenties, I took every opportunity I could to lavish my niece and nephew with love, offering them the kind of care and attention that my parents and grandmother provided but that my brother and his partner of the moment could/would not.
And then two years ago, I tried again by inviting my brother into my home for Thanksgiving. His first night in Birmingham, he slept in the hospital while I slept in a chair in the same room.
He’d suffered a mini-stroke, what’s called a “TIA,” an episode during which blood flow to the brain is temporarily blocked. Joe had also taken himself off Lithium for bipolar disorder causing a drastic change in his behavior, and the doctors discovered illegal drugs in his system through a standard urine test.
He and I returned to my home after his release, and along with my parents, Bruce and the girls, we celebrated Thanksgiving. Our family gathering came to a close when I drove my brother’s car (and my brother) back to Champaign-Urbana where he was living at the time with his most recent ex, since he was told not to drive for two full weeks, and then I flew back to Birmingham the next day.
Not long after that visit, the first round of phone calls began.
Joe would call throughout the night, leaving message after message until space on the machine ran out.
His calls evolved from sad to angry to accusatory to sheer harassment. I called him out on his behavior and we stopped talking altogether. My parents, and others in my extended family and people who had at one time called themselves Joe’s friends, went a step further when my brother’s calls and sporadic visits grew threatening. At this time, a number of orders of protection have been issued to keep Joe away from those he has routinely reached out to for help and understanding.
It’s difficult to express my feelings when I hear the sound of his voice and recognize that whatever our relationship by blood, I can not go down that path again.
My girls deserve better.