“A nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Dad says to me.
Mental illness runs in our family. And though we all have our varying degrees of idiosyncrasies, so far my big brother is the only one of us that is prescribed anti-psychotics for schizophrenia.
John is almost ten years older than me. When my parents divorced, he chose to stay behind by himself with Dad. He was a gentle spirit of twelve years.
One Sunday dinner around then, Dad got drunk and threw a beanbag Mum had bought into the fireplace and set the kitchen on fire. The fire trucks came and went but the scorch marks still blacken the bricks of our kitchen’s hearth.
As a kid, I only saw John every second weekend, if that. My childhood memories are of us wrestling on Dad’s bed and fighting with Ian’s thrift store fencing swords in Mum’s living room.
As a young man, John was tall, dark and handsome with a dry wit humour and flare for the absurd. He dated foreign girls, played a pink paisley telecaster, and watched Wimbledon and the Canucks.
In grade three, he picked me up from school on his motorcycle. In grade four, he drove his mint condition 1967 white Acadian Canso to my summer camp car wash. And, for my birthday that year, he gave me Dark Side of the Moon and The Final Cut from Lyle’s Place on Yates.
In white Levi’s dyed purple, my big brother was cool.
“When’s your birthday?”
Asked the nurse in Emergency, the first time I committed him.
“December 6, 1966. Anti-Christ.”
As far as I know, John first got sick in Morocco during his two-year stint living abroad in Europe. I remember saying goodbye at the ferry at Ogden point when he left carrying his backpack with the Canada flag patch on it. He sent home a postcard of an old-fashioned, black and white photograph addressed only to me.
When I was in grade six, John flew home unexpectedly. Our foster sister, Veronica, was in the spare room so he had to bunk with me for the first while. I remember John lying in bed banging the back of his head against our bedroom wall, crying to Mum that he wished he hadn’t been born and listening to John Lennon singing ‘Crippled Inside’ and the rest of Imagine on my ghetto-blaster.
A motorcycle accident to gather and expel evil, a naked stroll through Fairfield, mad laughter, loud whispers that don’t resemble English, and nervous looks from strangers best characterize my experience of John’s schizophrenia. But, the hardest part of being a suffering schizophrenic’s little sister has been the paranoia.
In grade eight, John gave me an electric bass guitar for Christmas. I screamed when I opened it. In 9th grade, when I opened his gift, it was a pair of his old underwear. I spent that Christmas crying.
From 1991 on, John hated me. Ian played a kind and high family counsellor but conflict resolution is more difficult when mental illness is involved.
Driving home in my 1976 Pinto station wagon, I wouldn’t stop if I saw John’s car in front of Mum’s house, and by seventeen years of age, it made sense to move in with my beloved skater punk boyfriend.
Then, some four years later, I walked into Dad’s house for Sunday dinner and John was playing pool with a friend in the basement. He invited me to join. I played and waited for the cutting remarks but they didn’t come.
Since then, our relationship has fluctuated through different phases: playing tennis, listening to records, watching concerts like Joe Jackson at the Commodore and Elvis Costello at the Malkin Bowl; or, barbed comments on my birthday, false accusations behind my back, and long periods of separation.
“I like who I am.”
Said John at a Sunday dinner when I was in college. The debate on the table was the ethics of screening DNA for genetic disorders.
Out in the world, I sometimes recognize mental illness by the look in someone’s eyes or the symptoms of anti-psychotic medications. For John, the weight gain and shaking hands resulted in diabetes and the end of playing guitar. Lifestyle, like smoking every hour on the hour, resulted in cancer, which brought surgery and chemo.
Before the cancer, John worked part-time as a janitor for the Masonic Lodge. He took Tae Kwon Do classes too. Now, he sometimes practices Tae Kwon Do on his own in his garage. He’s not working but he’s hoping to get riding his bicycle down the Galloping Goose when the weather gets better.
As I have relinquished myself of Dad’s daily care, I have taken on responsibility, in partnership with my mother, for my brother’s health and home. Home renovations and doctor appointments to scan for cancer are among my tasks.
Says Mum on the phone.
Halfway through writing a private piece about my brother, complications due to diabetes have led to his sudden death. My poor mother found him.
I fly home to Victoria.
After police, coroner and victim services, I drive Mum to the farm to tell Dad. He points to the dusty bottle of Glenfiddich and we raise our glasses to John.
“We named him John because we kept him in the john.”
Says Dad, referring to the Swamp, a bachelor cabin on the waterfront where my parents lived when John was a baby.
John was named after my mother’s father, Jack Austin.
“It’s a bugger to outlive your child.”
Says Dad, his face white with a single wet line down his cheek.
“I guess we won’t be going to the Japanese Village anymore.”
Heavily sedated, struggling to get his chopsticks from his shaking hand to his mouth, bonding with John usually involved going for coffee or a meal. With barely enough motivation to get out of bed to flip a record, twenty something years of schizophrenia left John without many things to talk about. A semester shy of a sociology degree, he was a quiet man.
“You’re right. We WILL keep going to the Japanese Village.”
These past few months, I’ve seen John more often than I have in the past few years. More than anything, I had noticed a change in his walk. Leaning forward and almost sideways, his balance was off and his strength declining. It seemed the weight of the illnesses that plagued him was too heavy for his gentle spirit to carry.
“We named him John because we kept him in the john.”
Says Dad, going in circles.
Watching his little sister with all the opportunities he didn’t have, it’s no wonder John hated me for it sometimes. He could be cruel, but life had been cruel to him.
I feel sadness and guilt about not having done more for John and for having the opportunities he never had.
I also feel grateful that I had time to install the new windows and stop at Starbucks for a quiet coffee before his doctor’s appointment and sit on his bed while he wobble danced to Bruce Springsteen, showing off for me.
Leaving to take Mum home, Dad calls out her name, opens his arms, and his face flashes red exposing only for a few moments his true heartbreak.
With a kiss and a tight hug (the most beautiful of all time),
“Joan, we had to name him after the john.”
Sitting with Dad that evening watching Matters of Life and Death on TV, Dad keeps asking the same question.
“Your mother’s with her friend Sheila tonight?”
Shuffling to bed, he says,
“Keep an eye on your mother.”
Rest in peace dearest brother, John Alexander Ormiston 1966-2013.
This post is dedicated the very best friend my brother ever did have. Thank you so much for your enduring love for him, Teri Ted. You were the love of his life.