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Jewish Journal

My Brother’s Keeper

by Yehuda Lev

May 27, 1999 | 8:00 pm

My brother, who at 70 is younger than me by two years, has a world-class collection of the mysteries of Agatha Christie and a complete set of the novels of Anthony Trollope. They are being joined, gradually, by the Greek historians and Galsworthy's Forsythe Saga.

These volumes, together with the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, the Economist and other publications to which he subscribes, sit on a bookshelf and rolling table by his bedside in a nursing home about one mile from our home in Providence, RI.. My brother never married or fathered children so on the wall over his bed are pictures of our parents and my wife and daughter. If I could locate them I would also find place for his doctoral degree in economics from Harvard and his law degree from New York University.

But they have been lost over the years of his illnesses, which began in his 20s with schizophrenia and now include Parkinsons, some dementia and occasional seizures. These have so debilitated him that he rises from his bed now only to shuffle slowly behind his walker to the bathroom.

I visit him three or four times a week, bring him another book, straighten out his bookshelf, give him news of those of his friends who still call me to ask of his condition, and sit for a half hour or so by his bed just to let him know that I am there. There is little verbal communication between us since he finds it difficult to understand what anyone is saying and often simply doesn't respond.

For half a century we had no contact with each other. I lived as an adult first in Jerusalem, then Los Angeles and now Providence. For some of those years he was institutionalized. When schizophrenia became controllable by drugs he began to write textbooks on economics one of which, on anti-trust legislation, is still in the libraries of many universities.

Later my brother moved to New Zealand where he was an advisor to the government on economic matters.

I did not hear from him until several years ago when, babbling incoherently, he wandered into a doctor's office in Manhattan and was placed in a hospital. He remained there for a year, during which I visited him weekly and finally succeeded in having him brought to Rhode Island, having found a nursing home both clean and compassionate.

When he came here last year, my wife outfitted him with an electric typewriter, paper, a small desk, a dictionary and a thesaurus. He spent several hours each day writing charming little stories about animals and even began a memoir about his years in New Zealand. I hoped that we might be able to publish some of his writings but gradually he lost interest and also the dexterity required to type. Today the typewriter gathers dust as do the TV and the VCR, neither of which he can operate or in which he has any interest.

Often when I visit he is sleeping, the effect I imagine of some of the drugs he takes. I try to rouse him just to let him know that I am there but he rarely awakens. I place the newest book on his table, spend a few minutes straightening out his things and leave, guiltily relieved if truth be told, that I have the half hour free to attend to other matters. If he were in a coma or otherwise near death I would stay, hold his hand to let him know he was not alone, and read by his bedside although neither Christie, Trollope nor the Economist are my preferences.

He has support in addition to my visits. The Rhode Island Jewish Federation sends a rabbi to visit him and supplies him with religious objects necessary to observe the Jewish holidays. And the nursing home staff bought him some Christmas cookies and chocolates so that he would not feel left out of the celebrations. I would like to be able to ask him about his life in New Zealand, his opinions about the Microsoft anti-trust case, and other matters about which he has some expertise. As the only Republican in a family of liberal Democrats, his thoughts on impeachment would be interesting to hear and to discuss.

But he is past all that now. His days and nights are spent in bed, moving restlessly from a lying down to a sitting up position and back again. The doctors tell me that this is a symptom of his illness and that all of his problems are progressive; that he can remain this way, his mind functioning but his body helpless for some years to come.

In the meantime I note a slight improvement. He has remembered another author he would like to read, Angela Thirkell, a British novelist. I have checked with Books in Print; Ms. Thirkell's novels have recently appeared in paperback. There are a good number of them; my brother's reading schedule is set for several months to come.


Yehuda Lev writes from Providence, Rhode Island.

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