Witness. Writer. Voice.
(an excerpt from Chasing the Merry-Go-Round)
I inched down the street trying to find a house number on any of the homes with boarded-up windows that looked like they should be abandoned and condemned but actually had people living in them. Most of the homes on Munsell Street had numbers missing. This wasn’t going to be easy. This was the last address I had for Bobby. It was 1993, and two years earlier he had left home at sixteen years old, long before sixteen-year-olds or anyone else had cell phones. He’d call me collect every few months and tell me where he was and what he was doing. I’d say, Come home. I’ll come get you. You can stay with me. You don’t have to go back to school. You can get your GED, a job. Nobody’s mad at you. He wouldn’t say much. The phone calls were fast. I took notes while he talked—streets, house numbers, people’s names—information that would be useful on my next trip to Binghamton when I needed to find him.
This was also before GPS technology had replaced maps. I studied a map of Binghamton, a city in southern New York that sits near the border of Pennsylvania, and learned all the streets of the neighborhood he was usually in. If too much time went by between phone calls, I would drive to Binghamton and cruise Robinson Street or Lyon Street or Front Street. I would pull my car up to people on the corner and ask if they knew Robert. I didn’t have to give a last name or description; I could usually find him this way. He had a way of meeting people. Wherever Bobby has lived, his neighbors knew him. I found him on Thorpe Street once, on his birthday, when he was staying with someone named Sharon. I took him to eat at Friendly’s and then to Kmart for some jeans, socks, T-shirts, and other things he needed, like a toothbrush and deodorant.
I pulled my car in front of a dark green three-story house. Two Doberman Pinschers were chained outside the second story window. They were pacing on top of the porch roof, which had obviously served as their toilet as well.
“I think this is it,” I said.
“You’re going in there?” my live-in boyfriend at the time, Kevin, asked as I opened the car door. “Kel. I don’t think it’s a good idea.” He thought it was dangerous to walk up to a strange house in a strange neighborhood and start asking questions. He was probably right. Kevin readily accepted my relationship with Bobby and knew that I wouldn’t stop until I found him. He had come to love Bobby too by then, and while he wasn’t necessarily at ease with my plan that day, he did what he could to help me.
I got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk. The dogs on the roof pulled on their collars, barking. I wondered if the chains would hold. I saw faces in windows staring at me. Neighbors in their front yards watched. The dogs barked louder and louder the closer I got to the front door. I knocked and a skinny, old rat of a man answered.
“I’m looking for Robert. Bobby. He’s my brother.”
“He’s not here.”
“Do you know where he is? Where I can find him?”
“Nope. Haven’t seen him for weeks.”
I knocked on a few more doors but didn’t find him that day. Kevin took over driving for the ride home from Binghamton while I shoved my Soul Asylum cassette into the tape player, turned it up, and choked out the words to their hit song at the time, “Runaway Train.”
I stared out the window at a blurred slideshow of empty fields, billboards promising a different life if you shopped here or vacationed there, houses built before the highway came and bypassed them and left them to stand alone in their stubbornness, and I wondered if there was any hope for my brother. When the song finished, I rewound the tape and played it again. And again. The lyrics and aching melody of that song still take me back to those days of chasing and running, with Bobby always just beyond my reach.
The best way to describe what life is like for Bobby is an old-fashioned merry-go-round, like the one I grew up riding at the North Bay Elementary School playground. This merry-go-round was an octagon formed by wooden benches held together by steel bars radiating from the center pole. Metal grates covered the opening in the middle. Two hand-foot pumping stations, usually manned by fourth-grade boys, stood on opposite sides. They would push and pull on the steel bars, slowly at first, until they found their rhythm. Then they’d pump with as much speed as their feet and hands would allow. The rest of us held onto the wooden benches and ran in a pack. Our hands stung with splinters as we pushed as hard and fast as we could. Our sneakers pounded in unison, forming a deep rut in the hard dirt as we tried to keep up with the kids pushing, pulling, and setting the pace. If you faltered or lagged for even a moment, you lost your footing and risked falling. Kids that fell were stepped on. No one slowed down. There were no adults, no referees to guarantee fairness. It was every man for himself.
For Bobby, most of the time the world spins like this merry-go-round with the rest of us running in a pack at a pace he’s not capable of. His brain is on cruise control, set at a speed that can’t keep up with those who push and pull, make the rules, set the speed. The recorded voice when he calls Social Services or the gas and electric company, repeating option five, berates him to make a choice and threatens to hang up on him when he’s still trying to figure out option one. The daily newspaper, job applications, forms for government assistance, and cell phone contracts—all geared for those with an eighth-grade education—are no match for his third-grade reading level. The bank teller who refuses to cash his paycheck because he doesn’t have a checking account can’t be bothered to take the time to listen to him explain why. The cashier at the grocery store rolls her eyes and sighs loudly when it takes him too long to count out his dollar bills and coins.
At the playground, once the merry-go-round reached top speed, we jumped onto the moving bench, clutched the bar in front of us, and leaned back into the wind. Silky, white milkweed seeds blew across our faces and got caught in our hair and mouths. Intoxicated with speed, we looked around at all the other kids who made it. We considered ourselves worthy of the ride and breathed a sigh of relief. Once on, you had to focus on your grip. You couldn’t relax or look down at the kids who fell. If you did, you might be thrown off by the sheer force of the spinning, tossed three feet in the air to land on hard ground, maybe get the wind knocked out of you or a scraped knee or split lip depending on your landing.
Some kids knew they wouldn’t be able to run fast enough. They saw the rut and the fate of those who tried and failed and decided to stand on the sidelines instead, watching. The rest of us laughed and screamed as if we were the only kids on earth, as if all that mattered to us was that we had a seat on the moving bench. We’d enjoy the ride as long as we could. Other kids couldn’t bear to watch and not ride, so they’d walk to the other side of the playground to ride the swings, the teeter-totter, or the slide.
Most of the time, Bobby is one who stands on the sidelines and watches the rest of us go ‘round. I tried for many years to help make him fast enough and strong enough to climb onto the merry-go-round. When that didn’t work, I tried running for him. I tried carrying him while I ran. I was sure that if I could just get him up on that bench, he would be okay. Instead, he has shown me what it’s like to stand on the sidelines.
And though I will always try to convince the ones pushing and pulling to slow down every once in a while—let people like him on or off, give someone else a turn—when he is on the sidelines, I will stand with him. When he walks to the other side of the playground, I will walk with him.
When I tell people my brother’s story, our story, they always ask me why. Why did I take on the responsibility, the burden of my brother? Why am I so devoted to him? They ask these questions with their eyebrows raised, their puzzled faces pinched with judgment. Their next question is usually, “Where’s your mother? Isn’t this her job?” The truth is, my mother was there, still is. So is my father. My parents are the ones who rescued Bobby in the first place. They are the ones who fought for his life and didn’t give up until he was safe, until there was no chance he would return to his biological parents. My mother raised him. She fed him, clothed him, got him to school, all the things a mother should do. My relationship with Bobby wasn’t created out of necessity or because my mother was deficient in her job.
My therapist, Dr. Marsha, had uncovered many years later that I had a considerable need to make sure those I loved were happy. She thought I learned at a very young age, when my family life was in turmoil, to be a good girl. She based this on a story I told her of a night I stood at the front door with my older sister, Shelly. It was very cold, and the icy air blew up the matching flannel nightgowns that my mother had made for us. It was a dark night and we should have been in bed, asleep. I suppose they thought we couldn’t hear, but in our small one-story house, in the middle of the night, secrets were hard to keep. My mother was in the car in the driveway. My father stood at her window talking to her. I screamed. I cried. I begged her not to leave. I promised to be better. I promised to be good. The car stalled in the driveway. My father popped the hood to see if he could fix it. My mother eventually came back in the house.
I was pretty sure that scenes like this happened more than once in my first seven or eight years. I guess in that moment, and other moments like it, my fate was sealed. I would do whatever I could to keep my family together, to keep my mother happy, to keep her from leaving. To keep my home.
And so I was good. I cleared the table when it was my turn. I washed the dishes and did my homework. If I knew company was coming over, I would vacuum the pet hair off the couch and carpet. I would clean the bathroom, even when it wasn’t my turn. I folded the clean laundry. My room was neat. I remember hoeing every row in our garden one afternoon in the hot sun while my brothers and sisters swam in the pool. I tried to keep my two sisters from killing each other. If I could keep peace in our home, then my entire world would not fall apart.
I was good at keeping the peace. I developed negotiation skills that could have been used to end world wars. One night, my parents were out and my older brother, Tim, who was twelve at the time, was babysitting the rest of us. Shelly was fighting with him, which wasn’t unusual. He punched her; she punched him back. He pulled her hair; she dug her nails into his arm. He dragged her to the kitchen and pretended he was going to grab a knife out of the drawer. My younger sister, Patti, was five and hysterical, sobbing, and begging him not to stab Shelly. I knew he wasn’t really going to get the knife. As I hugged Patti, trying to convince her that everything was going to be okay, I negotiated a truce between Tim and Shelly.
My world did not fall apart after all. My father stopped drinking; he didn’t die. My mother got a little happier; she never left. My parents loved me. My sisters still fought and probably always would. Yet, I seemed convinced our family hung in a fragile state, real or imagined. I listened for slammed doors and raised voices. I didn’t hide or run from them. I ran to them. Like how a barometer takes in atmospheric pressure and tells you whether or not a storm is coming, I could walk in a room and tell you who was unhappy, angry, depressed, or sad, and why. I absorbed other’s feelings like a sponge. Over time, my family accepted my self-assigned role of keeper of peace, keeper of emotions, keeper of our home. So by the time Bobby came along, keeper of baby brothers was an obvious path for me.
I honestly don’t know the answer to why when people ask me about my relationship with my brother. I don’t feel like I need one, and I don’t spend time thinking about it. All I know is that a baby showed up at my house one day, battered and bruised, needing someone to love him. And so I did.