This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Lara Hughes

Wendy Staley Colbert: Releasing My Brother

Illustrations: Lara Hughes


             My parents and I were returning to Australia with my brother, Greg—this time not as the gregarious 13-year-old of 1977, but as gray powder that filled two transparent, plastic jugs. My dad hand-carried the jugs aboard in Seattle in a royal blue, canvas tote bag and placed the bag in the overhead bin above his seat. Our destination was the Great Barrier Reef—a place where my brother had been healthy, whole and free of fear, a place where I’d been free of guilt. As the plane strained to lift off the ground, I glanced over at my son in the window seat and reached to hold my husband’s hand. I closed my eyes, remembering the weeks leading up to my brother’s death and silently pleaded with him to grant me his forgiveness. I wanted closure. I wanted to feel at peace.
             My brother developed schizophrenia in 1983 when he was 18 and I was 17. I grew into a wife, mother, and career woman; his illness narrowed his growth until his daily routine consisted of a five-mile drive in his pick-up truck to visit my parents’ house, drink coffee, shoot the breeze with my mom, mow a few rows of their acre-size backyard, pet his dog and watch TV. He often called me to talk about the hardships of his day. One night in 2007, he called just after I had tucked my six-year-old son into bed. I was in my bedroom, packing an overnight bag to go spend the night at my mom’s, as she was sick and my dad was out of town. Greg told me he felt anxious because he’d bumped a car in his apartment parking lot, the cops were notified and had threatened to cuff him and take him to jail if he didn’t stop talking.
             “Are the cops going to come back?” he asked.
             “I don’t know, Greg. I’m sure everything’s fine. I’m sorry. I can’t talk now. I’m on my way to mom’s. I’m exhausted.” I kept my voice low, as I didn’t want to wake my son. I tilted my head to hold the phone between my ear and shoulder, shoved my pajamas into the duffle bag and bent down to zip up my laptop case. I was planning to work from mom’s house the next day.
             “You never have time for me.”
             I felt annoyed, cut the conversation short, he got angry, and I hung up the phone. I thought back to the many times he’d called me in the past, needing someone to talk to, and the many times I’d felt my efforts to reassure him were fruitless. I knew he was due to get his monthly shot of Prolixin the next day, and it was really the medication his brain needed, not my attention. Still, I felt guilty for not giving him more of my time.
            The next morning, he called me at my mom’s house and told me he had taken extra lithium pills during the night because he’d been hearing voices.
            “How many extra? Five? Ten?”
            “Way more than that, Wendy.”
            “Hang on. I’m going to call your case worker.” When I called Greg back, he told me he had just called 911 himself, so I knew he realized this was serious.
            I met him in the emergency room. Seeing him there, ten hours after the overdose, I felt relieved and hopeful—he was more lucid than I expected.
            But visiting him in the intensive care unit the next few days became incredibly painful. He wasn’t able to take his anti-psychotic medication, and the lithium toxicity was beginning to affect his organs.
            “Wendy, I want to leave. I’m okay. I’m coming with you. We can go swimming this afternoon.”
            When I got up to leave, he tried to follow me out the exit door in his hospital gown, with the IV needle stuck in the bend of his arm connected to the metal, wheeled IV tree trailing behind him. After convincing him to lie back down in his hospital bed, his hands were shaking so much and his thoughts were so disorganized that he was unable to physically dial the phone or remember my mom’s phone number.
            I tried to calm him by sitting next to his bed, patting his arm, and reassuring him that everything was okay. But we both were beginning to suspect this was a lie. The overdose may have been just another cry for help on his part. But it was too late.
            After a few days in the hospital, my brother slipped into a coma. The sodium levels in his blood skyrocketed; he sustained permanent brain damage and never came out of the coma. Greg died.
            As I mourned the loss of my brother over the following months, I struggled to accept the reality and finality of his fate. I wished he’d been healthy. I wished our relationship had been easier to navigate. He’d expressed jealousy of my achievements, and I felt guilty for resenting that. I regretted my inability to comfort him during his last conscious days in the hospital. If I’d stayed longer hours in his room, holding his hand through the confusion, stupor, and eventual coma, would it have made a difference? And, mostly, I felt guilty for not spending more time with Greg on the phone the night of his overdose. If I had spent more time talking him through his anxiety that night, maybe he wouldn’t have overdosed to begin with. Maybe he would have made it through the night and driven to get his Prolixin shot the next day. Maybe he wouldn’t have died. If I had been a better sister, I could have done something differently, I could have exerted more effort, I could have helped prolong his life.

            I hoped returning him to Australia would finally bring me peace. I’d felt ashamed, and I hadn’t told anyone about the phone call the night Greg overdosed except my husband, and that was months later.
            “You know, Greg called me before he overdosed that night, and I cut him off,” I’d said.
            “Oh, honey, you did everything you could,” he’d reassured me, to no avail.
            We were fulfilling Greg’s wish—something he had mentioned as an aside years earlier during an especially bottomless period of depression. When he died, he wanted his ashes spread on the Great Barrier Reef.
            I understood why he had made this request. Australia represented a kind of Eden for my family. In the late ’70s, we lived abroad for one year in Sydney and Brisbane while my dad took sabbatical leave. My brother and I carefully chose the items from home that would fit in the single suitcase we were each allotted. My 11-year-old self soon figured out that stuffed animals would be impractical, but a blow-up Pink Panther figure that could be compressed down to nearly nothing worked. My brother tucked in a few Mad magazines with his portable stereo and Rod Stewart cassettes.
            Living in Australia was a time of great daring for my brother and me. We’d left our friends from home behind and were forced to make new friends at new schools, friends who listened to ABBA and Leif Garrett, wore uniforms, found our American accents curious, and asked us about Disneyland. Greg was older than me and more fearless in his approach. On our first day of school in Australia, I stayed home with a nervous stomachache while he bravely made his solo debut.
            After school most days, Greg and I would hurry around the corner of our apartment building in Maroubra to the chip shop and return home with thick French fries wrapped in newspaper, grease blotting the typeface. We learned to like steaming meat pies, flaky sausage rolls, and even the bitter taste of vegemite sandwiches. Then, my brother would be off to surf at the local beach for the rest of the afternoon. I tagged along, watching him perfect his balance on the board as I sat on the sand or body-surfed in the waves, awed by his ability to conquer his fears and master wave after crushing wave.
            It was a time before the onset of my brother’s schizophrenia. A location unmarred by psychotic episodes. He hadn’t yet hurled himself out an upper-level window into sticker bushes, obeying the voices in his head. He hadn’t yet experienced catatonia, his eyes closed and arms frozen motionless outward for hours, forming his body into a cross. I hadn’t yet heard him sing obsessively in the shower for hours, or heard him talk of his skewed perception of the distorted facial expressions of passers-by. During the two-and-a-half decades my brother suffered from mental illness, he and I would reminisce in conversations together, looking back on our time in Australia in an idealized way as a time of innocence and unlimited potential.
            Everything seemed possible then. We bonded closely as siblings, banding together as foreigners in a strange land. My brother and I attended a John Denver concert at the Opera House, held koalas to our chests, fed kangaroos pellets out of our cupped hands, learned to throw boomerangs and play didgeridoos. The peak experience of our year abroad was the week-long vacation we took to a tiny dot of land on the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island. We rode the train north from Brisbane to Gladstone, past forests of aromatic eucalyptus trees, and then boarded a boat for the two-hour crossing to the island.
            Once the boat docked, Greg and I kicked off our flip-flops, our bare feet padding on the sandy paths between the island’s cabins that required no keys. We relished the freedom of entering the sole island restaurant unescorted by our parents.
            My brother loved snorkeling. On the island, he was thrilled at the prospect of swimming with and photographing colourful, tropical fish among the coral that began just feet off the beach. “Come on, Wendy, don’t be a chicken!” he’d call as I stood at the water’s edge.
            One morning, I waded in after him with my flippers and mask on, lowered myself into the clear ocean water, kicking my legs to try to keep up. Suddenly, he turned to look at me underwater, pointing to a three-foot-long reef shark mere yards away. Jaws had been released a couple of years earlier, and I was scared by the sight of the sizable gray body and dorsal fin. I hurried back to shore and breathlessly pulled the snorkel out of my mouth, done for the day, while Greg continued on, unfazed, joyfully swimming alongside and following the formidable creature. He popped his head up at one point, and removed his snorkel to call out, “There’s no danger! It’s not going to hurt you, Wendy!” I silently shook my head no, and continued to sit on the soft bank of almost-white sand, watching as the blurry, gray, underwater shadow led my brother further and further from me.

            Now, as we swallowed ginger tablets to combat seasickness and rode the catamaran across great swells back to Heron Island, I thought about how much our lives had changed. Once he became ill, Greg was never able to achieve that heightened experience of life again. Because of his illness or the side effects of the medications he took, he chain-smoked, became obese, had to be reminded to shower and clean his apartment. My brother struggled with feelings of paranoia, anxiety, and depression, and had a hard time stringing together logical thoughts. Towards the end of his life, at 42, he was so low that it took great willpower on his part just to get out of bed in the morning.
            Landing on Heron Island, with the weight of the blue tote bag in my dad’s grip, we saw that it had been beyond our ability or the ability of current medical treatments to return Greg to a healthy mental state. But we did have the power to fulfill this one wish of my brother’s—this last, simple, physical act of spreading his ashes in the Great Barrier Reef. This was achievable.

            We walked down the stairs from the resort sidewalk to the island beach. The five of us stood together in the early afternoon sunlight, forming a circle in the sand, my dad holding the plastic jugs. My dad said a few words about how Greg loved the sea and, most of all, this place. We then waded out 20 or more feet into the aqua-blue ocean, carefully stepping in our water shoes to avoid the sharp coral of the same reef my brother and I had snorkeled years ago. Dad opened one of the jugs and poured Greg’s ashes out, jabbing a stick into the bottom of the jar to free the remainder. He then released the ashes from the second jar into the shallow reef, creating another thin gray stream on the surface. The ocean current picked them up and began carrying them away from us. I saw my son take a few steps in the direction of the current and sweep his hands under the surface to touch some of the flowing ashes. I heard him call out, “We love you, Greg! Don’t go! We’ll miss you!”
            I remembered then the last time I had told my brother I loved him. It had been in the hospital, in the final days of his life, a day or two after he had slipped into the coma. Accompanied by the beep of the ICU monitors, I’d held his completely still hand sandwiched between both of mine and said, “I love you, Greg. I’m proud to have you as my brother.” I’d watched his closed eyelids intently for a flicker of recognition that never came.
            Watching the effortless drift of his ashes now, I released the idea that I could’ve done any more to help my brother, the conceit that I could’ve somehow made everything better for him. As the ashes traveled further away into deeper water, I pictured Greg as the laughing, daring 13-year-old from 1977. I’d miss him, but I wouldn’t miss the chaos and confusion of his disease.
            As the widening stream of Greg’s ashes blurred through the tears welling in my eyes, I licked my lips and tasted salt. Greg had been brave to face his life and his illness as long as he did. He’d been fearless enough to acquire peace of mind in the only way that was possible for him. Surely, my brother would wish to grant me the same peace of mind that he so desperately sought for himself. Could it be he had already forgiven me, my weak sisterly efforts, my inadequacy?
            I watched as Greg’s ashes continued to seek deeper waters, as was his custom—always pushing himself, daring to venture further. As was my habit, I attempted to follow his example. I forgave myself.



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