It’s a matter of public record that my brother has been in and out jail recently on numerous offenses. Beyond the occasional speeding ticket, my brother’s run-ins with the law and his subsequent incarcerations are a first for our mostly law-abiding family.
It’s a few hours drive for me to visit him in the small county jail where he is locked up. Beyond the drab municipal buildings and razor wire fencing surrounding the courthouse, it’s a sad depraved little town whose people seem to have not enough to do and not enough resources to do it with.
Jail visits are surreal for those of us not behind the bars. It’s difficult to know what to say or do. The thoughts that pass through my mind do not seem so appropriate or helpful. I wonder what does one wear in order to look like the little sister of a man who would not break the law? I have never been a fashionista, but it seems important for me to make a good impression, like I am a reflection of my brother’s guilt or innocence. I thumb through my assortment of formless sweaters, omitting the black and white striped one for the obvious reason. I gravitate instead towards neutrals, colorless putty tones that will not show soil or make me stand out too much as a visitor. A scarf adds some cheer and hides my ample bosom from lewd gazes. Then, my mind shifts from my wardrobe to that old familiar comfort of food. Shouldn’t I bake a cake for the occasion? Folks always did that on the old television shows, right? I think how I would not hide a weapon inside, honest I wouldn’t. I just think it would be so very nice to take him a cake and share it with the guards. Maybe that would earn him some television time or a walk outside for fresh air.
I ride down with my nephews, my brother’s grown children. We all lead busy lives with family and work in our places of too much to do and not enough time to do it in. I enjoy catching up on their lives. We stop to eat, of course, either lunch or breakfast at a local diner or barbecue restaurant. My nephew says “Aunt Susie, this would be fun if we didn’t have to …” His voice trails. He doesn’t have to finish the sentence; I know what he means.
I am angry at my brother, angry at his choices and actions. At times I can barely contain it; at times I do not. There is a feeling that like a contagious disease, he has brought an undesirable element to our lives. I want it to go away. I do not want our family poisoned.
At the jail, my nephews and I huddle around one of three small windows just off the lobby, attempting to talk to my brother via a menacing telephone that appears left over from the 1960’s. I regret not bringing antiseptic wipes, but my mind was on other senseless matters like the outfit and the cake. The telephone line is filled with static. My brother somehow sounds miles away instead of two feet behind the glass. What cannot be heard or spoken in words is evident in the setting of the jaw, the cold dullness of blue eyes, everyone’s aching to get out of there.
Later, I make small talk with the guards. Some of the female guards remind me of that old character “Pat” on Saturday Night Live; I am left questioning much about their sexuality. They laugh good-naturedly about my brother, who can be humorous and quite charming when he is not armed or drunk. These are traits I share with most everyone in my family, the humor and charm, that is, not the drunkenness, although many folks back home are armed to the hilt. I finally succeed in endearing the guards to please pass my brother a pair of my old reading glasses and a pen with which he can read and write. Along with a few dollars in his canteen, it is all I can offer, this weak but real connection to the outside world.
I miss the brother that I knew, my brother who is all but lost from his family and is now starring in a tragi-comedy of his own doing. His role is both antagonist and victim. The numerous charges against him include assault, making threats, discharging a firearm in the city limits, however the real crime is a life gone missing outside this jail cell.
My brother has always been a fighter but rarely, until his old age, did it get him in serious trouble. One of my earliest memories of my brother is when I was three or four and I insisted on staying up past nine o’clock to watch the I Love Lucy Show. Daddy would put me in bed and I would immediately crawl out. When my patient father finally threatened to give me a spanking, my older brother met him in the hall, one fist repeatedly slamming into the other. “Don’t hit her daddy. Don’t hit her, ” he said. I still remember him saying that. I never did get a spanking that night although I probably should have. I hold fast to this memory of my protective older brother. I would like to return the favor now but I cannot and he will not listen. There is little I or anyone can do to protect him now against himself.
It occurs to me that whereas my brother is a fighter, I am a flyer. Over the years, this behavior has imprinted itself on me as sense of worthlessness, of being a secret self-loather, a weakling unable to take charge of her own destiny. A woman whose very wonderful and blessed life can feel as sparse and distant as breadcrumbs dropped on a path through the woods. Most days I know the crumbs are simply the negatives of life that for years I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed. These things sit and ferment in ones stomach, then eat you from the inside out. The truth is I fear loosening the lid on my own Pandora’s box. I fear what might emerge. I fear it could be the madness and rage that has taken over my brother. I realize then that beyond charm and the same color blue eyes, I share something else with my brother. I too am both antagonist and victim in my own life. There are many crimes I commit, but what gnaws on me most is the same, that of leading a life of unrealized potential.
It is the hardest thing in the world to do, isn’t it? To free ourselves from whatever it is that imprisons us. It is so difficult to walk away from behaviors that are self-destructive and no longer serve us well, even when we know we should. We are all incarcerated, each in our own little cell, searching for a means of escape.