Any minute now, it will begin: first one car, then another, then another will drive into our cul-de-sac and park in front of the house across the street. As they do on every holiday, the Bishop’s children are coming home.
There are six of them, all adults now, several with children of their own. They clog the street with their SUVs and economy cars, and no doubt clog their mother’s kitchen with welcome laughter and unwelcome fingers picking at the platters of food still under construction. I imagine the scene, and I smile. If I’m lucky, it will be my future.
Our nearest family members live 800 miles away. In some of the years past, my husband’s parents have made the drive from Portland to share the holiday with us; a few times we’ve driven to them. But this year, like last, we’re home for Thanksgiving–the nine of us cozying up on a drizzly day with the smell of roasting turkey driving us mad. The air is rich with content. I am grateful, more than those eight letters can really signify, for the family within these walls. But then I think about my brother, and I am sad.
The call from Church headquarters came a month or so ago. “We have the records of (name),” the quavery-voiced woman said. I could picture her, white-haired and wrinkled, sitting in front of a computer monitor with my brother’s information glowing onscreen. “We would like to send them to his current ward. Do you have a street address or phone number for his place of residence?”
My mouth ran dry. “No,” I said. “I don’t.”
“Is there someone we can contact who might have that information?”
“Not that I know of.” I swallowed hard. “None of us has heard from him for almost two years.”
She paused. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Yes. I was sorry, too, to hear the words spoken aloud. It had been months since I’d had cause to speak of my brother, and my sense of loss amplified anew. After I hung up the phone, I wept and wept.
My brother, my only blood sibling, two-and-a-half years older than I. Throughout our childhood he was my mind-twin, or perhaps, more accurately, my heart-twin, understanding things nobody else understood. He alone could comprehend the unfillable void in my chest that had yawned wide ever since our parents’ divorce. He alone shared my particular parcel of pain in the troubled blended family created by our mother’s remarriage. We didn’t speak our understanding aloud very often. We didn’t need to.
But while my life took an upswing after leaving home, his continued along the slow downward spiral we’d both been following throughout adolescence. His drug use became drug addiction. He was homeless for years, sleeping on friends’ couches and enjoying, at least some of the time, the freedom of uprootedness. He visited me once, ten years ago, when I had three small children in a tiny house. He and his friend, the delightfully odd bearded man named Jelly, arrived in a battered VW van (natch) and stayed for the afternoon, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and filling our washing machine drain with dirt from their incredibly filthy clothing. That was the last time I saw him.
Then came the car accident. Two people died; a strict new DUI law held him accountable. He received two prison sentences, each two to twenty years. After serving his minimum four years, he was released on a writ of habeus corpus due to controversies surrounding the new law and his attorney, who was disbarred soon after his trial. But after eighteen months, the state’s appeal was granted, and he was summoned back to prison to finish his 36 remaining years. Instead of complying, he ran.
I heard the news two Decembers ago. The children and I were decorating gingerbread men for Christmas when my mother called to tell me my brother had disappeared. I stood in the middle of my kitchen, hands dry and itchy with flour, apron smeared with butter, and felt utter rage. How could he do this? I thought. How could he do this to our mother? How could he do this to me? It was a betrayal of everything he’d been given over the course of his thirty-seven years–love, nurturing, compassion, forgiveness, encouragement. It was a betrayal of Home.
My rage is gone now, for the most part. It still flares now and again when I see and hear the effects of his choice on my mother, who grieves a certain yet ambiguous loss. “He could be dead,” she says. “And whenever he does die, I might not ever know.” But I believe that no matter how thickly brewed the pain can taste for all of us who love my brother, his is greater still. Even as my mother and I spoke that December evening, with my children chattering in the background and gobs of frosting hardening on the countertops, I was standing in the midst of everything warm and good, and he was moving farther and farther away from the chance of ever regaining it.
I don’t think of my brother often. I’ve had to close the door on his memory in order to minimize the impact of his choice on myself and my family. But on days like today, the door swings open. I remember holidays past, when he and I would be shuffled from one family gathering to another, trying to bridge the gap of a severed marriage. I remember our psychic closeness, which I’ve never experienced with any other person, not even my closest girlfriends, not even my husband. I wonder where he is right now, and who he’s with, and what he’s doing. And as I look around at my children, praying that one day they will eagerly return, like the Bishop’s children, to the heart of their upbringing, I pray that my brother can still hold and touch and feel a small piece of his own.
Thanks for sharing this Kathryn. I didn’t know.
I got the same phone call a month ago, asking for the current address of my daughter. I didn’t realize how difficult a call this must have been for some. Hugs and tender thoughts to you and all those who felt this pain.
A poignant essay. Words sort of fail me right now….
That must be so hard, Kathryn. My mom has a similar situation with one of her brothers and it has been really tough on their mom– the not knowing really is the worst.
God bless you and your mother, Kathryn – and God find a way to bless your brother.
I am so sorry for this pain.
I have no idea if this would be of interest to you or if you are already aware of Marilynne Robinson’s recent book. It is, very coincidentally, also titled Home, and it is about a woman who’s brother returns home after years of painful absence. The title and content of your post just reminded me of the book, which I enjoyed very much.
All the best from Germany.
I think I know, in small measure, what you must be feeling. I have a brother who has strayed from the gospel and his family. He left his family for an overseas job and has broken many hearts, most notably his wife and children.
I pray daily for my lost brother and his family. May God bless and comfort those who mourn the loss of their loved ones.
:) so sorry, Kathy…..those who “run away” from their families have no idea the pain they leave in their wake.
I’m thankful for posts like this, that tell me about family, about the power of redemption, and about strong, inspiring friends like Kathy.
God bless, Kathy. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.
Not knowing must be awful. At least I know where my brother is. He chose to run by taking his life. God bless and comfort you and your family. All will be well in the end.
Sending you love, Kathy.
Gosh, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry. I pray that your brother has found peace and happiness in his new life, though he’s unable to return to his old one.
Thank you for your kind comments, all.
I hesitated to serve up a melancholy post on Thanksgiving. But holidays can be bittersweet or downright painful for those who have suffered/are suffering deep loss in their family relationships, and I hoped it would be helpful to acknowledge that.
Brian and Kathy, thank you for sharing pieces of your own experience. Throughout the holidays, my thoughts will be with you and others in similar situations.
Gina, I have indeed read that book, and thought of my brother from cover to cover. Thank you.
And speaking of books, Kathy, you might enjoy _The Tender Land_ by Kathleen Finneran, a memoir about the author’s family life and how it was impacted by her brother’s suicide.
Thanks again, everyone.
What a timely essay for me to read today. Before reading it, I was just re-reading the long-neglected blog of my little sister who cut off contact with our family after going back to her abusive husband this time last year. It has been one terrible, soul wrenching year of mourning for us. Your story, while sad, felt hopeful as well and I thank you for that.
It is one thing to grieve when a family member leaves the church but continues to try and live a decent life, hold a job and pay taxes, etc. But your brother, Kathryn, is in so much more trouble. This is a different kind of pain. My heart goes out to you. Even if he is a genius, they will probably catch up with him some day and 36 years in prison is a life sentence for anyone who is past about 30.
I had a cousin who went down this path. I still think of him as sort of an older brother. He was a street fighter and on drugs as a teenager. If you have ever viewed the old movie Raising Arizona, he looked exactly like the big dude on the motorcycle in that movie. He went to Vietnam 4 times. He told me he loved it over there, where he could sneak out in the jungle and just kill “gooks” anytime he felt like it. He also told me he loved the free heroin and slapping around the mousy little oriental prostitutes. He married and divorced 4 times and produced 6 legitimate children and 4 illegitimate ones, if certain of his “concubines” are to be believed. He rode with the Sundowner motorcycle gang for years and killed some of the Hell’s Angels’ leaders. Then he got hacked off at the Sundowners and killed one of their leaders. He disappeared into the mountains for many years.
One time when I was younger, he rode by our grandmother’s house at the front of about 40 of these filthy hairy beasts straddling their stinking loud “hogs.” It brought to mind the Gadianton robbers. He gave grandmother the one finger salute for no reason at all except she just happened to be sitting on her front porch. My brother and I were of high school age at the time and were picking grandma’s apples for her. Like a couple of idiots, we hucked a couple of rotten apples at him and one found its mark, right to the side of his head. He turned around and beat the crap out of both of us and broke my brother’s arm before the police sirens caused him to flee. He was being nice, if we had not been kin he would have cut our throats and strung us up like deer.
He was convicted of some minor robbery charge and spent a few years out at the point of the mountain or “working in Bluffdale.” (Bluffdale is where the Utah State Prison is located). I saw him when he was on a weekend furlow and asked him what he was doing. He told me, “going to law school.” (I supposed he was reading the books at the prison law library.) Eventually he was released. A few years later he was killed in a shoot-out with the police. Prison was a safer place for him and for everyone else; letting him out was no favor in the end.
At his funeral I remember many things. But one I would like to share. His mother, my Aunt, never gave up on him. She knew the good that was in his heart and always thought he would some day repent. She never stopped loving him or believing in him. She told me something like this: You know the life he lived and what he did, I am not going to pretend otherwise. But I still believe he had a good heart and that there is hope for him on the other side. There are quite a few people in the family who are still praying for him and hold out hope for him.
Here in Georgia one of the big news stories is about Brian Nichols, the guy who murdered a Judge who was sitting at the bench, a court recorder, a police officer and another guy. This was during his rape trial. He turned himself in and narrowly escaped death in an anticipated hailstorm of police bullets after holding a woman hostage who claims she was able to get him to turn his heart over to Jesus. (I think he has also tried Islam since that time). It is hard to imagine a more vicious criminal. We should never forget what he did and those who’s life he ended and take steps to never allow it to happen again. But we must not forget that he is our brother and a son of God. He has a mother who prays for him.
Jesus taught us that we should visit those who are in prison. (Matt 25:36, 39, 43) He didn’t mention whether they deserved to be there or not. I presume it doesn’t matter. I pray that your brother, Kathyrn, is among friends who care about him like he was family.
mike, I have the same prayer.
Thank you for sharing this story.