What with doctor's appointments and trying to finish the actual quilting of a quilt for a birthday present which is far too quickly approaching (May 2nd), I've been a bit of a slacker in blogging lately. A bit of a slacker in even thinking about it, which actually proceeds blogging, at least for me. I have to keep my eyes and ears peeled to the presence of the Holy in the ordinary, and I'm afraid that lately all I've seen in the ordinary is...well, the ordinary. Sorry to say.
But last night, while sitting at my sewing machine, watching its needle move redundantly through rows of fabric, I was listening to NPR, the radio station I always have on in my sewing room. The interview last night was with a Berkeley professor who is also a poet laureate, who has a new book of poetry out. He was asked by the interviewer to read the poem he'd written after his brother's death, two years ago. It turns out that this highly educated, undoubtedly well-housed man had a brother who chronically lived on the streets, who, despite his brother's efforts both gentle and tough, repeatedly returned to the streets, even though he (the brother) professed to hate such a hard-scramble, scamming life almost as much as his well-heeled professorial older brother hated it for him.
The interview, which was all about their relationship, about the poet's feelings and subsequent work about his brother, inevitably made me consider my own homeless brother also now dead. The differences, of which there are many, certainly, starts with the one that haunts this professor most: the question of whether his brother took his own life. That is not a question we have about my brother. Because we have a blow-by-blow (which is an ironic turn of phrase to use because if Andrew could just have blown that piece of food out of his throat, presumably I wouldn't have known anything about the incident, since he wouldn't have died!) account of the last minutes of his life, we know he struggled and fought to breathe--to live! So his desire to live is not in question. However, so much else is. Everything else.
I couldn't help thinking, as I listened to this interview, of how fortunate this poet/professor was that he had an adult relationship with his brother, a man who liked to ponder and think, a man who'd call him up and ask him some cosmic question because, "he didn't have anything else to do all day." My homeless brother was not of such an ilk. Yes, they both had accomplished, well-educated siblings. Came from a well-educated, upper middle-class home. But Andrew struggled in that environment. He fit there like a fish fits in air. His brain wasn't hard-wired for intellectual pursuits.
So, as soon as he could, he took the money and ran. If that makes sense. Yes, his is a biblical story. Like the younger son in the gospel story, my father gave Andrew money and Andrew left with it. Didn't apply it to what he'd been given it for. Dropped off the face of the earth as far as our family was concerned. I've written about this before, and suspect I will again. It's a troubling part of my family's story.
As I listened to the Berkeley professor speak of how he couldn't live with his brother's homelessness, how he had to make sure his brother had a room in which to sleep at night, for his own peace of mind, I thought of how I dealt with Andrew's absence all those years. His silence. I ignored it. Yes, that's what I did. And, I suspect, that's exactly what the elder brother in the gospel story did. He just went about his day, doing his father's bidding, ignoring his brother's absence. Maybe he resented it, groused about it at times because he had more work. I didn't. Not once. No, that's not quite true. For my father's sake, it was upsetting. But only for his, never for mine. For myself, life was easier without him around. There was no question of when the other shoe might drop. The other shoe that meant he'd done something else to hurt my dad, upset my mom, harm someone. And...yes, here's the truth: we (my other siblings and I) didn't have to worry about our children being in his presence. And, unfortunately, as it turned out, there was reason to worry.
So was I the older brother in the prodigal son story? Yes, obviously I was in some essential ways. I worried about my father continually bailing my brother out. I wanted Dad to stop, to practice 'tough love' with Andrew. I wanted Dad to admit that Andrew was 'broken' in some essential way and needed help beyond Dad's finances. But I also saw that Dad's love made a difference in Andrew's life, that it had made Andrew a better person than he might have grown up to be otherwise.
At the same time, it also isn't as straight-forward as our story simply being 'the Prodigal Son' or even 'the Older Sibling'. It isn't as straight-forward as the story told by the Berkeley professor. A couple things struck me as I listened to that story, though. First--there are probably more stories like this than we can imagine: an accomplished family with one 'black sheep'. And that family member--in jail, on the streets, struggling with addiction--is still our brother, son, sister, father, mother. They are who they were. And our feelings about them are every bit as complicated. Secondly, we each have our own story. And they're all unique. Therefore, there is no one solution. Not in human terms. How this professor responded, I couldn't. What I could live with, he clearly couldn't. What my father was compelled to keep trying, my mom couldn't continue. We can only do what we can do.
When my children were small and going up to the front of church for children's moments, every Sunday J was the first to raise his hand when the adult asked the children a question. And he always answered, "Jesus." No matter what the question--in fact, likely he hadn't even listened!--his hand went up, and he said, "JESUS!" Finally an adult asked him why he answered "Jesus," even when the question was something like, "What did you have for breakfast?" And J answered, "If you're in church, the answer is always Jesus." Of course the congregation laughed, but we've also re-said that to each other many times in the last 20 years. "The answer is always Jesus."
I couldn't love my brother, or even help him. I couldn't have welcomed him back home as he was. Fear and worry would have kept me from it. The answer, for both Andrew and me, is always Jesus. To change him, and to change me. Yes, it's too late for Andrew on this earth now, and what has become of his soul, I will leave to God. But my heart still needs changing--and, I fear, even about my homeless brother. My heart needs changing on a daily, hourly basis. By the minute, I need to be changed by Jesus. How about you?