Friday, September 3, 2010

Frank, I Love You

Thee be fairly warned: This post may strike some people as a bit of a downer.

Two bloggers — Sarah (D-MI) and Barefoot Kanadian Neil — tagged me to play this "Cherry on Top" game. I don't often play these games, but the main part of this one —

Answer the question: If you had the chance to go back and change one thing in your life, would you and what would it be?

— appealed to me, so I'll play:

Teh 'Dad, whom I often blog about, is schizophrenic. I don't mean that in the marketplace sense of the word, where people use it to mean something analogous to "having a dual personality" (which is kinda the opposite of what schizophrenia actually is); I mean it in the sense that Teh 'Dad, when he's not on his meds, hears voices, detaches from reality, and lives life totally inside his head where he's thinking ... well, God knows what.

But Teh 'Dad's story is basically a story of triumph, because he found Teh 'Mom, who stood by him through many trials (he'd be the first to tell you this) and they raised a family of seven kids, myself the sixth of the brood, and managed, despite it all, to give us a pretty normal and unremarkable (in the good sense) upbringing.

For Teh 'Dad, just leading a normal, quotidian life was — and is — a spectacular triumph.

Not so for my eldest brother Frank. Because Frank inherited Teh 'Dad's schizophrenia and Frank did not have quite the same coping mechanisms as my father. Frank died when he was 30. In fact, he committed suicide right after his 30th birthday.

And when Frank first started showing signs of this illness in early adolescence, Teh 'Dad was racked with guilt for having passed this curse on to his eldest son and did everything to try to help him, and was always saying to him, "Look at me! You can have this thing and still lead a normal life!"

What Teh 'Dad didn't quite get was that poor Frank was kinda hit with a double whammy. Because Teh 'Mom used to say that Frank also inherited her near-paralyzing self-conscious shyness, a predisposition Teh 'Mom overcame ... but then she was not schizophrenic. Just as Teh 'Dad overcame his schizophrenia ... but then, he was not pathologically self-conscious about it.

Frank, however, was acutely aware of, and self-conscious about, the fact that he was different, and not just "different" in the way all adolescents are; but different in that he heard voices, he was paranoid, he was not always in touch with reality.

But he was a gentle soul and just a GREAT older brother (his taste in music became mine, and even though I have different personal associations for lots of the songs I listen to, almost every song from the sixties that I hear reminds me of Frank) and so most of the anger he felt over being so different was directed inward and by the time I finally learned, when I was 15, what the actual deal was with Frank, he had already tried to kill himself multiple times.

But when I was 15 and Frank was about 21, we found him in the basement with multiple self-inflicted knife wounds; and my parents' attempt to shield their younger children from the reality of what Frank was going through could no longer be maintained.

It's amazing I never suspected anything before that, part of which can be attributed to my general obliviousness, which I still have in spades. But even though I knew my Dad tended to talk to himself at times and laugh uproariously at nothing funny that I could detect, little 7-, 8-, 12-year-old Glaven had no idea his own Dad was mentally ill. I thought all Dads laughed at nothing, because that's what my Dad did and he was a typical Dad and I loved him.

But after Frank's suicide attempt when he was 21, the veil came off and the rest of us kids finally knew what the deal was with him, with our family; because it couldn't be hidden anymore.

And both my Dad and Mom would tell Frank, from the time his symptoms first presented, "Just hang on! All the doctors say that by the time you're thirty, there will be new and better meds that will enable you to cope better and you'll be able to lead a full and normal life."

But in the meantime, Frank suffered and continued to try to end that suffering the only way he knew how — by attempting to kill himself. And his body became ravaged by his self-inflicted wounds — one suicide attempt caused him to have a stroke and left him partially paralyzed on his left side and made him slur his speech somewhat — and the boy who was so self-conscious about how he looked to the outside world that he would spend hours lifting weights in the basement and wouldn't leave the house with a hair out of place became an overweight, defeated man who just stopped caring and "solved" this problem by just never leaving the house.

And just before Frank turned thirty, he was living in a room in a halfway house out in West Philly; and he was impossible to talk to because he hated what he'd become and anything you said to him might cause him to launch into a verbal rage over what his life had become and how unfair it was. And what do you say in response to that? Because it was unfair and cruel and just profoundly wrong.

And one day he needed something from home brought out to him and I volunteered to do it. And I actually had a really good visit with him. I mean, by this point, it was typical just to bring him what he wanted, talk for maybe a minute or two, then leave either before he got angry or because he just had gotten angry and verbally abusive.

But on this particular occasion, I stayed for about an hour, and we talked, mostly about music, and I had a really pleasant visit with him.

And of course it was just a few weeks after this that he hanged himself and died ... two days after his 30th birthday, the promised miracle drug having never arrived.

And my greatest regret in life is that, while Frank was alive, I never really told him what he meant to me. Not even in that last conversation, which I, of course, did not know would be our last.

But he was just this great older brother, and as a kid I really looked up to him, because he was never mean-spirited like a lot of older brothers, and he was protective of us and he was just incredibly generous — he'd regularly go through his stack of old 45s, for example, and determine which songs he now had on albums and then give the duplicate 45s to either me or one of my other siblings; and I remember specifically, in 1968, he gave me his 45 of The Who's "I Can See For Miles" b/w "Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand" — and he did all of this while suffering incredibly and suffering silently and suffering alone.

And I never got around to just saying to him while he was alive, "Frank, I love you."
Added a little later:

We buried Frankie with the sheet music to this song (below) because he used to play The Who By Numbers, and this song in particular, over and over.

And I distinctly remember my sister Virginia's reading the lyrics to "Slip Kid" to herself just before Frank's viewing and remarking how appropriate they seemed as a summation of Frank's life:


  1. Oh, G. This post broke my heart.

    I'm sure your brother knew you loved him. And he obviously loved all of you.

    Big hugs to you, my friend.

  2. Such a powerful post. Thank you so much for sharing!
    How many times do I read something so amazing, and then go on to skip chances to say "I Love You" to those in my life I cherish.
    Thanks for a reminder. Today I'll call.

  3. It pisses me off when I see "normal" people complaining about life's little trials. So many people don't understand just how good they have it now compared to every other time and place in the history of Earth. They seem to think that someone "stealing" their parking space, for example, is a big problem, suitable for ruining their day.

    Within our society there are I don't know how many people that are suffering from various afflictions that prevent them from leading a "normal life." Some can cope through the use of drugs or prosthetics. Others just have to suffer along. Unfortunately it sounds like your brother was one of those who just had to suffer along. It's so sad that we'll never know what he could have become. It's tragic that so many others are spat out to the margins of our society like used used chewing gum, when with the right treatments could become self-supporting. Many times people say they could be "productive to society", but that implies that being productive to society is our highest goal. I would rather say, productive for themselves, meaning they can discover who and what they are, and chase self fulfillment like all the rest of us.

  4. Thank you for sharing that with us today.

  5. Very nice (but yes, sad) tribute to your brother. And I'm 100% sure that he knows you loved him. It couldn't have been easy for any of you. It is a reminder to be kind and supportive to families who are in situations like this -- in fact, to anyone who suffers in some way.

  6. Not a downer. Tragic and heart-wrenching, but also beautiful and inspiring.

    You told Frank you loved him many times over. In my opinion, those particular words are felt not heard.

  7. I was going to go to work his morning all bitchy and whiny about some trivial shit. Instead I'm going to go with appreciation the people closest to me, and being thankful for all the great things in my life. including you Heisenberg!

  8. thanks for being transparent, gavin.

  9. An appropriate comment here would take me all day to write. My first girlfriend was schizophrenic - and died at 21, having starved to death - and the way I dealt with it has been a constant source of problems for me, though I know deep down I was just a kid and couldn't be expected to handle things any better than I did. So I sort of know what you've gone through (and it sucks).

    And then there's my own "personality quirks."

    One of the biggest problems with mental illness is that, unlike most physical illnesses, there's nothing obviously wrong that one can see, unless one's looking for it. And when the problems become physically manifest, it's tragically late.

  10. One of the things you're supposed to do in these games is tag someone else. As I tend to badmouth the people who've tagged me ad nauseum as I respond to their tags, I don't get tagged much any more, but I kinda want to do this one, so I'll consider myself tagged by you.

  11. Oh, G. :(

    Your brother definitely knew that you adored him. There is no hiding that hero worship that we younger siblings feel for our big brothers. He knew, Glaven, and that's probably what made him hold on as long as he did. I feel certain that you brought joy to his life. Imagine how cool and generous he must've felt when he gave you his old records, and how good he felt to know that he was shaping your musical taste. Big brothers LOVE that kinda thing! If not for him you might be listening to something really lame, right?

    You are the man you are because of Frank's presence - and now, absence - in your life. I just know that Ian feels treasured and adored every single minute of every single day. Your brother's death taught you to be demonstrative and to take the time to say (and show) "I love you". And everyone who knows you is better for that.