Isolated in Our Shared Misery: Nonfiction By Lilly Ball

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”


lukasz wierbowski

For a few minutes we were going in the same direction, at the same time—the people on the train and I. A young girl wore an engraved metal badge over her chest. It was roughly the size of an office door plaque. She looked miserable. She lost her footing at Vermont and Sunset and gripped the shoulder of a man seated just in front of her. She apologized, but he was unresponsive. He continued to stare vacuously into the gray space between persons. I felt a bit deadpan myself, isolated in our shared misery.


My father picked me up from school the day it happened. He stared out the window silently, a fist over his lips and a baseball cap covering his eyes. I didn’t press him. The man could be moody, but he wasn’t known for weeping. At home my mother, dissolved in tears, greeted me with a hand on each shoulder. She, like my father, cried only on special occasions. Both were beyond recognition. Taking the first flight out to Texas, unable to say goodbye, my parents gathered themselves and left. It was then that my sister looked me in the eye and told me my brother had jumped to his hopeful death.


My father fell to his knees upon finding his first-born, crumpled and battered, attached to a ventilator in an ICU. My parents took each of his hands in their own and asked for forgiveness. My mother led my agnostic father in prayer, and for doing so—given the circumstances—he did not protest. They slept near him through the night and in the morning my father brought them coffee from a nearby McDonald’s.


In retrospect, the jump was a pipe dream; my brother lived. He came home in a wheel chair, bruised and underweight. I went to see him, but there was a fog in his eyes—an alchemy of melancholy and fear that weighed his head down to his chest. He blamed my parents for sending him away when he needed them most—when he stopped eating, when he turned to alcohol, when his hands became frostbitten from falling asleep in the snow. He cloaked himself in disdain and petulance—sometimes wearing a pillowcase over his head at the dinner table.


The doctors asked him why he jumped, and he told them the voices made him do it.   Diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 20, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I would visit him on occasion, but he didn’t say much. His body, at one time in peak physical condition, had inflated three times its size. Electroconvulsive therapy had blackened his eyes and stilled his mind. He told me there was a voice that sounded like me. Sometimes I thought he was pretending.


When he came home, he turned again to alcohol. His days began and ended with him lying in his own urine. Each day he sipped tenderly from a bottle of 190 proof Everclear in combination with Risperidone, Chlorpromazine, and Thiofluoperazine, resulting in bi-weekly epileptic seizures. I moved out of the house. My parents, ill-equipped with what to do, became desensitized and habituated to his self-induced episodes. They held his hand and placed their future in the everlasting power of love. Night after night, hands clenched, my mother stared laboriously up at her Grand Master God.


A year later, I found myself resenting my brother’s survival. Worse than death, I thought, was a life of perpetual drowning. I wished the jogger who found his flattened body would have taken an alternate route that day or decided against a jog altogether. With these thoughts, I was startled by a tremendous surge of sadness. My parents thought I should see a therapist. So I did see one. And she found me to be depressed. And I agreed.


In time, I moved to Los Angeles and began to disregard him as my brother altogether. I would tell people there were seven of us, not eight, and who were they not to believe me. During visits home, he became a shadow within my periphery, an apparition slowly moving from one corner of the house to another. Sometimes we would say hello and sometimes I would ignore him.   One day, while visiting, I heard a car horn blaring in the alleyway. After a few moments the blaring became insufferable. I went outside thinking my mother, having taken the car out earlier, was holding someone up. I curled my fist.


Outside, I did find my mother, slamming the horn down in a panicked state. Beside her was my brother, head hanging to one side, blood spilling from the mouth of his 300-pound body convulsed at the wheel. He was having a grand mal seizure.


“Your father,” my mother yelled.


In a moment I was 13 years old, looking up at my brother as a godlike creature, quarterback of the football team. In another 10, helping him build a snow fort in 20-degree weather. And we were laughing. Suddenly the moment came, and I was 23, yelling madly for my father to help. He rushed past me—equipped with years of anticipation—and told me to call 911. The paramedics asked me how I knew him.


“He’s my brother,” I said.


The night I went to L.A. I wrote my brother a note, which turned into a long letter. I hid it behind a pillow and told my dad where it was stashed just before he dropped me off at the airport. I said he could read it, but I didn’t want to talk about it. The next day my father called to let me know that my brother was happy to find I still loved him.


lukasz wierbowskiImage © Lukasz Wierbowski

Lilly Ball joined FORTH Magazine as Art Director/Brand Manager in the Fall of 2014. She is interested in writing, people, and the forest.


Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.

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