Wednesday, February 3, 2016

OT: On Finding Out About A Brother

This is another story in the saga I have come to refer to as "who are these people?"

As I've mentioned before, late last year I was contacted by a stranger who turned out to be my cousin, the daughter of one of my father's sisters. She'd been born and raised in San Mateo, and currently lives in a little Sierra foothill community east of Lodi. This is close to where I lived for many years in California. We knew nothing about one another, neither hint nor clue. This was largely due to the fact that in my father's family (my mother's too, but that's another story) there were and are certain things one does not mention. Turnts out, I had other cousins living close by in California as well. But I knew nothing of them nor they of me. No one ever said.

I did know, however, of the existence of a half brother, the son of my father and his second wife (who I had always assumed was his first wife, but I found out last year that he'd been married previously). My half-brother's mother died tragically shortly after his birth, and my father was in mourning for her the rest of his life. His devotion to her memory was one of the reasons for my parents' divorce. (My mother was my father's third -- and as far as I know, final -- wife.)

I knew my brother was mentally challenged. The phrase I heard used was "idiot savant." These days his condition would be referred to as "severe autism" or something along that line.

After his mother died, he was taken in and cared for by my father's older brother and his wife. I knew that as well. What I didn't know was how badly my brother was disabled. My new-found cousin shared some family letters with me. My brother is mentioned in several of them. When he was nine or ten years old, it was mentioned that he could briefly stand on his own if he was supported by a chair. He could not, however, walk. He was getting better, and it was thought he would be able to walk... soon. There was mention of him at an earlier age, at five or six. He could not stand, he could not walk, and at least some of the time, he could not talk. At other times, he was apparently very talkative and active but unable to perform the simplest movements or tasks. It sounds from the descriptions that he was paraplegic, at least at times, but I previously knew none of that.

I have no recollection of ever seeing him. My sister and mother, however, did see him during their brief time in Iowa when my parents were married and I was conceived and born. They described him to me as a fairly typical boy (he would have been twelve or thirteen at the time) who had a learning disability. They never mentioned or suggested a physical disability.

I recall my father taking me to see him at the home of a family friend who had taken over his care after he could no longer be cared for within the family (another long story for another time.)  I remember going to the door of a neat little house in town and a woman in an apron answering. She said that my brother was sleeping and she didn't want to wake him. She suggested, too, that I might be very disturbing to him in any case, and that it might be better for his sake and mine if we didn't meet.

My father took her advice, and we never went back.

When my father died in 1969, there were questions about what to do with my brother. I didn't know where he was at that time. All I was told was that the family that had been taking care of him no longer were doing so, and he was in a "facility." Whether I was told or merely assumed it was a state facility, I don't recall. My memories of what was going on at that time are pretty chaotic as were the times themselves. I was probably told the name of the facility, because "Mount Something or Other" stuck in my mind, but I had no clear idea what or where this place was. I was assured he was being taken care of, however. When our father's estate was finally settled, the attorneys got a third (actually it was more, but that's another story, too), I got a third, and my brother got a third. That was that.

I didn't try to track down my brother or find out about his care and well-being. I was satisfied with the assurances I received that he was well cared for. I didn't imagine he was happy, however, because one of the things I'd been told about him was that he was terrified of going to a state hospital.

Some time later, I sensed that he had passed away, but I don't recall being told he had died. I just somehow "knew" it. I pegged his death in 1972, though I had no certain knowledge of it.

Once I was convinced my brother had passed away, he became part of the misty past, a member of that shadowy family I never knew.

When my new-found cousin and I were sharing documents, letters, and memories, I dug out some of the papers I'd saved from my father's house or that had been sent to me by the attorneys for his estate. One was a court filing regarding my father's estate and claims against it by creditors. I barely remembered reading it long ago. But I found to my surprise that the facility where my brother was living when our father died was named: "Mt Alverno," run by the Sisters of St. Francis. Oh. My vague memory of "Mount Something or Other" was based on that, no? It must be, but as I say, I have hardly any memory of reading this document before. I didn't even remember that I had it.

Turned out the facility -- or rather a successor using the name -- was still in operation, and I contacted them last month to see if there were still any records of my brother's stay and ask if anyone could tell me what happened to him.

I was informed that the current operators of the facility didn't keep those records, but the Sisters did, and their convent was next door. My query would be passed on to them. When I had heard nothing after several weeks, I contacted the Sisters through their website form, but once again, I heard nothing back. After a suitable interval, I found the direct email address for the Sisters convent and I tried again. I heard back almost immediately.

They had not received my earlier communications they said. They would look into the records they had, but they weren't sure that there was anything specific about former residents or patients; most of what they still had records of were financial matters.

An hour or so later, I got an email:

Dear [Ché Pasa]
I was able to get some more information regarding your brother....  [He] was admitted to Mt. Alverno on May 14, 1968, from Calamus Nursing Home in Calamus, Iowa.  The record indicates that he was a resident of Mount Alverno until his death at Iowa City Hospital (I assume that was The University of Iowa Hospital) on October 27, 1972. 
Sister Marilyn 
Oh. My.

I thanked her profusely, and then I got this email back:

Dear Mr. Ché,  
I’m happy that we were able to assure you that your brother was well cared for until the end of his life and to give you a sense of closure in his regard.  He will be waiting for you when it is your time to join him.
Blessings of peace,
Sr. Marilyn
Yes. Well.

My time, no doubt, is not that far in the future, is it?

Somehow I never thought of it like that before. I've long been a fan of Franciscans, though. So.

There we have it. Now we know...

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