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  • Joe is Joe. That’s the phrase that was used to describe my oldest brother’s odd behavior, which we later found out was actually caused by acute schizophrenia.

    I didn’t think my oldest brother was odd. I was just happy that at fifteen I had my shit together more than someone five years older than me. For twenty-three years, everyone shrugged their shoulders when my brother struggled to keep pace in school, when he would smash his head against walls when something did not go his way, when he stole my mother’s car and drove it into a swamp. On Mother’s Day. When dad died, that was the trigger that brought my brother’s mental illness into full bloom. We could no longer shrug our shoulders. The bridge in Joe’s mind that allowed safe passage of all the synapses in his mind was very fragile at that point. Trying to find the logic behind our father dying at forty-six was too much and that bridge seemed to have collapsed; now it only allows a steady stream of mildly acute paranoid thoughts to travel back and forth.
    I was sixteen at the time. A sophomore in high school. Solid B+ student. The thing that nobody tells you when your parent dies is that the hardest day will not be the day you get that phone call or the day you bury him or the day you wake up and realize that you are different from everybody who still has both of their parents. It’s the day that it hits you that you have to carry on with your life as if it’s a natural thing for a parent to die early. I always felt that there was no choice in the situation. Suck it up. Carry on. But I think my oldest brother got it right when he made a choice that he wasn’t going to pretend that losing his father wasn’t something to just keep a stiff upper lip to. His mind raged. Joe accused the rest of the family of conspiring to kill him, claiming that we had poisoned our father and were now after him. He began to shadow our mother, always standing no more than two feet away from her. He kept a police scanner radio always on and attached to his belt. Eating my chicken pot pie, my favorite meal mom cooked, the crackle of the local police dispatcher let Joe and everyone within ear shot know the location and activity of the local police. We lived in a small mostly Catholic suburb of Boston where the biggest issue the police had to deal with was keeping their officers sober enough to respond to the petty theft calls. They’re coming to get me Joe would say after hearing that a cruiser was passing by our neighborhood.

    Returning home from his three to eleven shift at Sweetheart Plastics, the local packaging warehouse, Joe would sit in his most prized possession, a 1978 Cutlass Supreme with a Blaupunk stereo blaring, trying to drink a case of beer by himself, just to see if he could do it he’d tell me. Joe would have worked a twenty-four shift if they’d let him. He loved the warehouse. The dance of freight from factory to fork lift to shipping container to eighteen-wheeler to train yard to the shipping docks to a cargo ship to another country to another factory to another train to another truck to another factory to another regular guy just like him operating a fork lift in another shitty warehouse. For Joe, it was more than just helping move his tiny cog in the machine. I think he felt fulfilled like how I feel when I know I’ve hooked a reluctant eighth grader to read a book. He would follow the shipping containers loaded with the boxes, his boxes, to the train yard and wait for them to be loaded onto the ships by a massive claw that plucked the containers from the trucks and stacked them a dozen high on the ship. He was fired from the job when he couldn’t keep pace. Maybe he should have accepted his co-workers invitations to do lines out back behind the warehouse instead of writing down the serial numbers of the shipping containers.

    He had found a copy of my father’s will and felt that because he shared the same name as my father, that this made him the sole heir of our father’s meager estate. He began to carry my dad’s old brown leather briefcase to his job at Sweethearts and I’m sure he scouted out our father’s old job, a factory that made those thin styrofoam pads that meat sits on in the supermarket, and was tempted to walk in there and pick up where our father had left off. That would have been fun to watch because I never had any idea what my father did for work and would have liked to see if Joe did. When Sweethearts told him to see a counselor or switch to a warehouse with a slower volume of packages, his reaction did not surprise. He had once put five crisp one hundred dollar bills on the kitchen table after one of his paydays. My kleptomania was peaking at the time and I couldn’t resist taking one of the bills. He never yelled. Politely, he asked me if I had seen his money. I lied. He smashed his forehead against the laundry room wall and put a huge hole in the quarter inch paneling. Ah, that felt good he said right afterwards. I wonder if people in other families would have gone to their parents and said, that big hole in the laundry room...yeah that was Joe smashing his head against it. Is there anything you want to tell me about him? I’m sure they would have just shrugged their shoulders and said Joe is Joe. And how hard is it to replace paneling?

    With no job, he locked himself in his room. I had seen the give-away-everything-I-own-roll-up-my-carpet-and-cower-in-the-corner-of-my-room routine a few times, kind of enjoyed getting first pick of his stuff. But this was different. Days passed and he hadn’t left his room. The air conditioner hummed on its max setting. In December. She made the call. There was nothing in the yellow pages for response team to diffuse a child from losing his grip on reality so she called the local police. Sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea, she explained how she feared for her safety and was at a loss for what to do with her first born son. I always hated the sound of my mother’s voice. It lacked so many things. Listening to her tell a pseudo-sober stranger our crisis, it was the absence of genuine concern that angered me most. She stared into her tea cup, hoping it would all pass. I broke into the room by climbing up on the garage roof and prying open the window that the air conditioner was in. Joe lay balled up on the floor. The police scanner crackled, “Ambulance pulling up with Unit 13 at 25 Arlington Street.” I opened the door and he bolted from the room and ran out the back door of the house. The police gave chase into the woods behind our house. Two officers out-flanked him, cuffed him, and put him in the back of the ambulance. The swirling blue lights of the cop cars and the flashing reds of the ambulance transformed our lawn into a carnival. It would be six more years before I realized who were the clowns and who were the tightrope walkers of institutionalized health care.
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