My late brother Chris and I were having a conversation one of those many times at the end of the day when he needed a toke. I would light up the joint, hold it to his lips, then pull it away after he inhaled. He would hold onto the smoke for a minute, exhale, then take a second, then a third. I’d puff on it sometimes, but home was twenty to forty minutes away by car. He lived up in the Oakland Hills, and I had to get back to San Francisco. Nowadays, you can count on an hour or more in travel time anytime you have to cross the Bay.
I don’t know how he persevered with such kindness and grace. He was the best one of us three, a healthy normal boy until the accident that left him a quadriplegic at fourteen. We passed the time with gallows humor.
I’d say “Hey you, here’s the good news, at least you’re not a blind quadriplegic – that would be worse.” And Chris would say “I feel lucky, oh so lucky.” and we’d snort-laugh.
With the award he won against PG&E in the lawsuit over the fall, he bought a house and moved up the hill with a live-in attendant. Eventually, my mother and stepfather moved into his big house after selling their bungalow down the hill for a profit. They built in an artist’s studio, a formal dining room, and separate quarters with the proceeds. It was a symbiotic arrangement, they relied on each other. It worked because Chris was so easy to get along with.
Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know before: I was The Normal One. I stayed in school, did my homework, did my chores, went to college on scholarship, earned a Master’s degree, worked in banking, made a good living, married well.
“Third time’s the charm, man. Mom finally got it right when I popped out,” I would jokingly brag to my brother.
When we were kids, Chris and I ran away from home together. The first born, our older sister was an emotional maelstrom of destruction. She would hit us until we bruised. The family was always walking oh so carefully on the shattered glass of the broken trusts she never apologized for. Being only five and seven years old, we managed to trudge the few miles to Grandma Benjamin’s house. She of course finked us out to Mom, who was frantic. For a little while, Valerie withheld her blows, but never really stopped.
When I was twelve, Chris was severely disabled, needing attendant care every day, a tough responsibility to put on a kid, but (there will always be a psychic but in this story) I loved him and we had this mutual disregard for our older sister and super corny jokes we’d tell each other and snicker over as I was rolling him over and changing the linens on his special medical bed.
I distinctly remember this conversation, one of those nights when there was nothing on TV, we chatted about this and that while I fished out the roach clip and we finished that joint getting more and more real as the Zig Zag paper curled brown around the edges. I had killed a spider in his bathroom earlier and we were parsing the finer points of just where such a mighty huntress should carve her notches, when he asked, all serious,
“So Catherine, what are you afraid of?”
“Being average” I declared.
“No, REALLY afraid of? I know it’s not spiders”, he asked, then he slid into patiently waiting mode while I squirmed.
“Really, really, deep down”?
“My own anger.”
“Now that is truthful, how come?”
“It’s poisonous Chris, I’ll slice and dice your heart and hand it back to you all fricasseed. My anger could burn bridges, decimate towns, ground planes, trains and automobiles. I think it’s why my tummy is so upset all the time, all the anger I’ve swallowed, ‘ya know, it burns.”
He nodded sagely and reassured me that I could never do or say anything that would keep him from loving his little sister. He’s been gone nearly ten years and what I know now that I didn’t know then is how much insanity is inheritable.
If two suicides in a three-son family isn’t proof of bat shit crazy, I don’t know what is. Grandpa Benjamin killed himself at 54 years old, July 5th, 1952. His brother Lawrence had done the same six years earlier on June 20th 1946. They both fought in both World Wars. Imagine fighting in The Great War, the War to End All Wars, it was called back then, only to find yourself re-enlisting for the SECOND World War. Great Uncle Lawrence was a soldier all his adult life and survived less than a year after his honorable discharge. Grandpa Benjamin was an undiagnosed manic depressive who inherited the straight razor that Lawrence had used to slit his throat. He then proceeded to abandon all four of his children and his wife to attend Clemson University. He had a fresh GED diploma, and with nary a thought for his family, proceeded to lie to the local paper about how he was interested in meeting the “pretty ladies”. He finished one semester, then went missing. After seven days of searching, their oldest freshman ever was discovered in the woods, throat slashed, straight razor still in the grip of his right hand. The same one. I know that because he bragged about having it to a roommate in the men’s dormitory, and that guy was interviewed.
Of course, I didn’t know all of this back then, neither did Chris because nobody talked about mental illness, the VA did not acknowledge PTSD as a condition and the burden and the blame was laid upon my grandmother an underpaid Registered Nurse, a healer who in the end couldn’t heal her husband. I am angry and I am afraid of being too angry – how far is homicide from suicide? And how far is one woman’s angry outburst from her being hauled off to the Looney Bin?
Us Benjamin women, I suppose, need a calm counterbalance to our too-easily wounded souls. We cope, we love with reservations, jump in when the whole shimmy shimmy ko ko pop, devil-may-care dances come along, and we spin, sweat and forget. But the devil does care, and he takes our men to hell after first driving them crazy.