Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Visit with My Cousin

Well, we got back in one piece. The flight home was slightly adventurous, leaving late for some unknown reason, and hitting a little turbulence en route to Boston.

The cruise was good- very relaxing, especially for Tina, who stuck with her early-to-bed style and stayed up a bit late twice, but got plenty of extra rest. I read two books, and started two others. I polished off yet another Andrew Vachss "Burke" novel, "Down Here". I read my first John D McDonald book, The Lonely Silver Rain, which is one of a large series of books revolving around a sort of semi-retired investigator named Travis Magee. It was pretty good, for what it is.

We landed Friday, and didn't fly home until Saturday morning. I realized my cousin Bill had moved a few months back, and thought he might be on the close side to where we were, which was just outside of Miami. I called my sister, and she confirmed that Bill was, in fact, less than thirty miles away.

I rented a car, and Tina and I headed east to Dania Beach, and Bilmar Gardens, his current residence. It was a little complex of twelve apartments or so, not like the last place I visited him at, which was a huge complex with many residents. At first, I thought it might be an improvement. I fondly reflected when Bill lived at Manor House or Arlington House when it was owned by an old guy named Jack, and run by his daughters Penny and Barbara. They loved Bill to death, or really, to life. They gave Bill a chance to earn a few bucks and feel useful, helping some of the elderly men, shaving them, etc.

But mostly, they just loved Bill. When he moved to Michigan with his girlfriend, Bill had a good couple of years, but with mentally ill adults, twpo good years is like forty, it was a terrific success. Unfortunately, after helping each other stay well, one slipped a bit, got out of sorts, or maybe the meds stopped working for a while, and the wheels came off. I remember talking to Barbara, and how happy she was that Bill was coming back to Florida.

"Could he come back? Of course! Bill is always welcome here."

Unfortunately, when they retired, things changed drastically. The Manor and Arlington Houses, as well as other mentally ill or disabled adult facilities were purchased by a man named Andy. Since this happened, Bill just hasn't been the same. He has had a few good stretches, but mostly has been in and out of the hospital, and occasionally, incarcerated. The violence at these facilities seems to be constant, if not always severe. There also has developed a disturbing trend of Bill's meager monthly allowance being skimmed, or palmed altogether. (He has about $30 left from Social Security ater paying his monthly rent.)

Because of Bill's condition, it is hard to tell exactly what is real, and what's in his head, so I sometimes have to take some of his reports with a grain of salt, though often there is some validity to it.

Saturday, when we pulled in, Bill came running out, jumping up and down and high fiving me hard to break a wrist. I had never seen him so excited. It wasn't long after I saw him that I noticed he had been beaten up pretty badly. There was dried blood on the porch near the door to his room, his nose was still a little bloody, and his lip was still bleeding, though the incident happened that morning.

I could barely look at him.

I tried to play it cool and went into his bathroom where I began to sob immediately. I wondered what my mother would think, knowing her nephew lives like this, and I have gotten too comfortable to help him get out of there.

The bathroom was gross, the shower creepy, and he had no toilet paper. Bill claimed they wouldn't give him any, but that is another of those things... what is real, what is in his head. Is he afraid to ask, fearing they'll say no or yell at him, or is he imagining part of it? You never really know. I can tell one thing- Bill was lucid, he wasn't kilter, or not making sense. Apparently, he objected when he didn't get his money. He probably more than objected. The result was four or five staff and clients pummeling Bill. I'll spare the details, but they involve a metal chair, and it is disturbing to say the least.

I developed a stiff upper lip as quickly as possible, and pulled my sunglasses over my eyes, heading back out and acting as cheery as I could. I knew my job for that afternoon was to give Bill a good time, cheer him up, get him some basic things he needed and some decent food.

The thing that hurts the most is the firm belief that if the situations were reversed, I don't believe Bill would allow me to stay in a place like that. We are very much alike, Bill and I. Our mother were sisters who died a year apart at the age of fifty, from breast cancer. I was ten, Billy was fifteen.

The difference was that my father was a decent guy who took care of his family, and whole bunch of brothers and sisters who cared about me. My sister Debbie had always been like a secondmother to me, and my sister Barb stayed home and took care of the cooking and cleaning around the house after my mother died. There were always people who let me know I was important and would be taken care of. As terrified as I was, I had a pretty good set up, all things considered.

Bill's is a different story. His dad was a much older man when he was born who always kind of resented his existence. He was an alcoholic and extremely abusive, though to this day, Billy focuses on all the things his father did well, the times he took him fishing, taught him things, how interesting a life his father had lived as a young man, how he fought in World War II, how he was a fantastic chef, and amazing physical specimen as a young man.

He skims over the beatings, and how he was abandoned shortly after his mother died, sent to Boy's Town, or the streets of Miami to fend for himself before he turned sixteen years old. One day, when he was around seventeen, something inside him just snapped. He had a nervous breakdown/psychotic break which triggered paranoid schizophrenia, and he has never been the same since. When thinmgs are going well, when his medication is right, he is a wonderfully gentle, generous person. In spite of having very little, he is always trying to do something for someone else, praying for others, speaking well of others, trying to contribute any way he can.

I don't believe anyone really deserves to be victimized by unscrupulous scumbags, especially people who are mentally ill or handi-capped. I've got to believe there's more money in ripping off wealthy widows or land barons or something than robbing people who already live in poverty, but I guess any time there is an easy victim, a dirtbag will appear to scab whatever they can from whomever they can.

The first order of busniess was getting in touch with a place Bill stayed at a while back which was safe. It wasn't really the best fit for him, too many old people, and it was more of a rest home than anything else. Bill didn't like it, in spite of the caring staff, good food and clean conditions, because his freedom was somewhat limited. There were curfues and stuff, and he couldn;t just walk out and smoke a cigarete any time he wanted.

I called those folks, at least hoping to get him somewhere safe while I started doing my homework to get him into a better place. They will be in tomorrow, and I will call and see what we can do.

Selfishness is sneaky. I believe it is at the core of all evil, all character defects, all things that rot a person's character and, well, soul, if you will. It masquerades as harmless things, things that are perfectly acceptable, and before you know it, you;ve become someone you aren;t too crazy about. It can always be traced to selfishness.

Selfishness itself isn't evil, it's just selfish, about self, self-centered. It puts me at the center instead of God, or you, or someone else. It makes everything about me, about what I can get, instead of what I can contribute.

One of the subtly self-destructive things I do is isolate. I get lazy, I make my world smaller, and the first to go are the people who require effort on my part. Okay, not always. I am a good son, and generally, a pretty good friend. I am not a bad person, but I am, historically, lazy.

Bill is an easy person to slowly cut out. Oh, I always send him a few bucks, now and then, or try to call occasionally, but emotionally, he is not in my head or my heart much of the time. It is painful. His life is so difficult, mine so easy. It is easier to become busy with things that aren't really important, if not downright time-wasters by nature and design, than it is to become more involved in someone's life.

Especially when that life revolves around so much suffering.

Standing on a filthy floor, staring into Bill's dirty bathroom mirror, tears streaming down my face, I asked my mother and my aunt to forgive me for letting Bill live like this. I asked God to help me be family, to be his advocate.

My ego has a strategy for dealing with moments like this. It is called guilt, or shame, which is more severe. My mind gets me focused on feeling bad, blaming myself, blaming it all on myself, and so you see, selfishness has a new root, a new game. As long as I can dwell on me, my ego is happy, even if all the dwelling is of a negative variety. My ego mind wants me to focus on where I screwed up, wants me to feel bad as though the "feeling bad" part is the action. As long as I feel terrible, I don't have to take any actual action.

Realization that a good percentage of people who may stumble across this blog willhave little idea what the hell I am talking about, but this is really the natire of alcoholism, of what my "illness" is- selfishness of a zillion varieties, of a kajillion forms, and if I don;t stay on it, I get sick, in the head, in the heart, in the soul.

Awareness is my opportunity to change things. I don't feel bad about seeing Bill Saturday, about feeling like shit about it. Who would see someone in those straits and feel good about it? I do feel grateful that I am aware of what I've been doing...shutting myself off, coasting, cruising, sliding, and I am enthused that I made the effort to rent a car and drive to see my cousin. I am glad Tina and I spent the day cheering Bill up, making him feel loved, liked and cared about.

He was actually in good form, too.

The more I think about Bill, the more heroic he becomes to me, enduring, surviving, plugging onward. Always believing in the good in people in spite of what befalls him, always hoping for the best in spite of witnessing much of the worst.

If you are the praying type, pray for my cousin Bill tonight, and tomorrow and the next day, if you would be so kind.


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