He was my brother, but I did not know how to love him well.
Born two months before my 11th birthday, he was a beautiful baby, and a fussy one. Colic, they said. All I know is, I spent many evenings walking around our dining room in the dark, gently singing into his ear while he wailed in pain. This small person had two hernia surgeries before he turned two, a harbinger of tough times ahead.
He was a different sort of little boy, easy-going in some ways, stiff and overwhelmed in others. Terrified by sudden noise, his own voice was often uncomfortably loud. He was fidgety yet owned observational skills that would occasionally astound us. He saw details, lots and lots of details. But he so often completely missed the big picture.
We were a church-based family, singing hymns, serving on committees, attending worship services. But Ken? he never found a safe place, even there. He was bullied and bruised, teased and taunted. It broke all our hearts and mystified us. Why couldn’t he find his way? What could we do to help?
When he was a troubled and misfit teen, my dad drew a line in the sand about counseling. Mom was desperate for it, but Dad was the boss – and usually a very beneficent one, but on this issue? He wouldn’t budge. So Mom did the best she could, pretty much on her own, worrying and praying and wondering.
He had three major episodes of bleeding before he turned 18, the last one when my parents were out of town. I lived 30 minutes away with my 3 small kids, and when Ken called for help, I drove him to the hospital where they discovered a hereditary bowel kink, cut him open and removed it.
At last, we found something we could fix!
But there would be no more fixing. Instead, there would be years and years of struggling, some of it obvious, more of it hidden.
He married briefly – long enough to father a fine son and informally adopt another. But he struggled mightily with how to father those boys when he could barely care for himself. My husband and I provided two of years of counseling when his wife kicked him out; I don’t know that it helped much.
I wonder now why we didn’t see all of the pieces more clearly. He began self-medicating with alcohol in his 20’s, so a long-ago friend told me at his funeral three years ago. We had no clue about that until about 18 months before he died. There were so many unanswered questions about everything. He lived alone, in fetid apartments, using furniture that I or my other brother or my parents gave him. He held a couple of jobs for long periods, then mysteriously left them and showed up in another town, all possessions lost in the ether.
After my dad died, two emergency hospitalizations in a three-year period finally brought all the pieces of this sad puzzle together. Each desperate time in the hospital brought frantic searching through his belongings to get the information needed for admission. And it was these terrifying discoveries that began to unravel the deep sadness of my brother’s whole story. Unopened mail, including months of bills, eviction notices, job suspensions – these sent us to a diagnostic psych exam. Results? Asperger’s syndrome – an autism spectrum disorder not even identifiable until the 1990’s, when Ken was in his 40’s. He was 50 when we found a name for his lifelong struggle.
The second, far more serious hospitalization, revealed the alcoholism. Excessive nighttime drinking, which he hid very well, not only added pounds to his frame, but also destroyed a heart valve. He had open-heart surgery, went to a sober living residence and for the first time in his life, made true friends and found a sense of purpose. I will thank God until the day I die for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was there that my brother finally found community, re-discovered his childhood faith and learned to accept the redeeming power of God’s love.
I remember picking him up for lunch one day, and having him turn to me and ask — for the first time that I can remember — how I was doing and how my kids were doing. Just typing that sentence makes me weep. Something deep and good began to happen inside him while he lived in that house and went to meetings twice a day. Slowly, slowly he began to recuperate from the horrendous assault on his body wrought by both his own abusive use of alcohol and the surgeon’s knife.
About four months after that memorable lunch, the manager of Ken’s residence called me in the early morning of October 2, 2009, his voice shaking: my brother had died in his sleep. One of the saddest things I’ve had to do in my life was to take my 88-year-old mom into that house and pack up his worldly goods. They barely filled 2 black trash sacks.
We held his memorial service at my mom’s church, a lovely group of people who knew Ken and welcomed him whenever he worshipped there. He sometimes added his lovely baritone to their choir. About a dozen friends from AA came and gave witness to his kindness.
One year after his death, my mother was ready to bury his ashes and we discovered that California law allows this to happen on residential property. So on what would have been his 55th birthday, my mom, my brother and his wife, my husband and I, laid Ken in the ground at our home in Santa Barbara. It’s a beautiful spot, a stone’s throw from where I sit and type this day.
I am grateful he is nearby. And I find myself talking to him from time to time, as I go about my day: “I hope you know I loved you, Ken, though I truly did not know how to do it well.”