Most people, I knew, would be coming to the service not to memorialize Robert, but to comfort me, and—as I knew from messages I’d been receiving—to praise me for what I’d done for Robert. More than ever, my instinct was to deflect praise. Over the years I’d written about my brother and our relationship, and in question-and-answer sessions following talks and readings I gave, individuals would ask how and why I’d been able to stay the course for so long. My answer had always been the same: because he was my brother. What other answer was there? The more important question was not why I’d done what I’d done, but why others—family members as well as mental-health professionals—had not stayed the course. In any case, what I desired to explain to the guests at the service was not what I’d done for Robert, but what Robert had done for me.
I talked of how, blessedly, he’d had a peaceful ending to a most unenviable life, and of how in that life he’d outperformed and outlived all prognostications. I talked of his incomparable resiliency. One measure of that resiliency, and of his remarkable courage, was that despite more than fifty years in and out of mental hospitals and psych wards, he had somehow lived, with brain, memory, spirit, and sense of humor largely intact, to the same age, almost to the day—seventy-two years and six months—that our father had lived. And he had done so despite the abundance of medications that had been poured into him, despite a multitude of medical problems—many brought on by medications and abuse—and despite having been abandoned by parents, relatives, friends, and mental-health professionals.
To conjure up Robert’s presence and his distinctive sense of humor, I told stories. I talked about the time I took him for a stress test at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, of how terrified he was, and of how, once he was on a treadmill, he kept shouting, “I’m not a mouse! I’m not a mouse!” I talked about the time we were visiting on New Year’s Day, and I said that I thought we had a lot of things to be thankful for. Robert defied me to name three, and when I began with, “Well, first of all, we’re still here,” he smiled his most mischievous smile.
“—and mother’s not!” he exclaimed.
I spoke of how Robert raged against the forces that beat him down, and how he never fully submitted, either to the demons within, or to those individuals and institutions that exacerbated the wretchedness he endured. I said that I was not on this evening going to rehearse the heartlessness and dysfunctionality of those institutions and systems that shaped Robert’s life—or minimize how difficult, and nasty, he could sometimes be—but would simply state that Robert was always more human than those who had done their utmost to dehumanize him.
There were, of course, individuals who, through the years, had worked to give him a better life. I talked about Doctor Alvin Pam, Director of Psychology at Bronx Psychiatric Center who, two decades before, and against the consensus of his staff, had believed that Robert did not have to live on locked wards for the rest of his life; because of his good offices—and a treatment plan that included once-a-week, old-fashioned talk therapy—Robert had come to live outside hospitals and psych wards for a dozen consecutive years, with a room of his own, able to get around by himself in the city he knew and loved. They were his best and happiest adult years.
Stating the obvious, I noted that our relationships with our siblings were generally the longest of our lives. Contrary to what some might think, my relationship with Robert had never been a one-way street, and I listed gifts I’d received from him: first, and most essentially, that he knew me better than anyone, and that it was a source of ongoing strength and love to be truly known. Starting in childhood, Robert and I had been best friends and allies. Although like all brothers we sometimes fought, we both knew (and bragged to one another) that we were far closer with each other than any of our friends or cousins were with their siblings. And in knowing me, Robert was able to put aside whatever disappointments he’d felt about his life, or resentments about mine.
Thus, three months earlier, when we were eating dinner in his room at the nursing home, and he was going on and on in a manic soliloquy about Adlai Stevenson, Ed Koch, Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, summer camp, and childhood friends, and stopped for a moment, I commented on how good the dinner was, and said that perhaps, since I was getting on in years, I might someday move into his nursing home. Robert’s mania disappeared instantly. “Oh Jay—” he said softly “—you don’t ever want to live here, believe me.”
Nor were we blindly supportive of one another; just as I would often tell Robert he was talking nonsense, so too, when I talked nonsense, he would correct me with a simple, “Oh, come on, Jay—who do you think you’re kidding?”
For a multitude of reasons having to do with what information I sensed Robert could or could not tolerate on any given day, I’d learned that it was often best to withhold certain thoughts and feelings; merely because I felt and thought something did not mean I had to express it. When our mother was in her eighties, and Robert in his fifties, she was still asking him when he was going to get married, have children (she seemed unaware he was gay), and get his college degree. I could sense both the frustration her unfulfilled hopes caused her, and the pain that her voicing them caused Robert. So I tried to appreciate Robert for who he was, and for the rich life that he in fact did have (even if, at times, it was rich mainly in madness and misery), and not to talk or even think, more than was necessary, about the life he did not have. In time, such learned responses, not doing or saying what I might otherwise have felt compelled to say or do—and not asking questions that would be perceived as accusations—served me well in my own life, especially as parent to my children and, above all, in the years when I was a single parent to them.
By the pride Robert took in the book I wrote about us (Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival), and in other writings that revealed his history of breakdowns, hospitalizations, and furies—mad acts of which others might have felt ashamed or humiliated—he helped set me free from things in my life about which I might otherwise have felt ashamed and humiliated. Once, at a book signing, when a woman asked Robert if it embarrassed him to have me write about his life as a mental patient—“as a madman is what she means,” Robert whispered to me—he shrugged, and said, simply: “This book gave meaning to my life, and I hope it can give meaning to yours.” By his generous acceptance of my life and achievements, Robert taught me how to accept my own frustrations, and to curb the envy of others I sometimes felt. By the fact of his survival—his recovery again and again from circumstances and experiences that would have done in most people—he taught me about the vast reserves of courage, humor, and resiliency that lie within us. And he taught me about the damage anger can do to oneself and others, as well as the ways anger can, in the service of survival, become one’s friend.