Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, in the early afternoon, I visit my younger brother at his nursing home, a mile from my home in Providence, R.I.
I bring him grapes and a banana because he can eat only soft foods, and I also bring him the first section of the previous day's newspaper. He sometimes reaches for it, occasionally holding it upside down, but I think it important that he be aware, if that is still possible, of the world he left behind when his many illnesses struck him down. For the same reason I asked the nursing home staff to use his title of doctor so that he might be mindful of his professional accomplishments as a professor of economics and as an advisor on economics to the government of New Zealand.
The discussions we have are one-sided. I tell him what is happening with my family. He says nothing, but does look at me, perhaps to acknowledge my presence.
The degrees he earned -- at Princeton, Harvard and NYU Law School -- have long since been lost in a life increasingly dominated by the ravages of schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease and dementia. I once brought him a copy of a book he wrote on anti-trust, which is still available in several local libraries, but he showed no sign of recognition.
For 40 years, while I lived in Jerusalem, Los Angeles and Providence and he lived at Rutgers University and in Wellington, New Zealand, we were out of touch. We had little in common; I was a Zionist and much involved in Jewish life, whereas he cared nothing for either and remained all of his adult life a Republican in a family of New Deal Democrats. Even as children, our relations were not close. I was outgoing, a mediocre student. He was withdrawn, but always first in his classes. He was a lifelong bachelor without issue; I have been married for most of my life and have four children.
And then a few years ago, he wandered into a doctor's office in Manhattan babbling incoherently, which is when I learned that he was no longer living in New Zealand, but in a shabby, single-occupancy hotel. For several years, while he was hospitalized and then in a nursing home, I traveled every week by train to New York. Finally, I brought him to Rhode Island.
Everything, negative and positive, can be a learning experience. For most of my life, I have shared the common American assumption that Western democracies are unsurpassed in their concern for the individual. The nuclear family structure we live in has its problems, but it is far superior to the extended family system of more traditional societies in its creation of a safety net for the young, the weak and the elderly. After all, we have Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to support us in our final years.
I now have to question that assumption. It is not that my brother has been left to die on the street. The taxpayers, through the state and federal governments, provide for his physical needs. He has food to eat and a place to sleep and nurses to attend to his wants. If he were more responsive, he could share in the activities that the nursing home provides.
But traditional societies provide something else, the need for which we tend to ignore: a closely knit, intergenerational family. My brother would be surrounded by people he knows and loves and, health permitting, would have responsibilities and activities in keeping with his abilities. My grandchildren live in Los Angeles and St. Louis and I see them twice a year. I play almost no role in their lives nor they in mine. I miss them; I am not sure that they miss me.
My wife once asked me why, after all the years of separation, I took such an interest in my brother. "I don't believe in a hereafter," I answered, "but in case I am wrong and I should meet our mother again, she might ask me if I took care of my brother."
"If I said 'no,' she would kill me."