Some people come into your life in attack mode, like a storm trooper or a terrorist. Perhaps it is unfair for me to hold that analogy when speaking of him, but my brother Wayne was one of those people. Devious, amoral, likable and unlikable at the same time, he assaulted our lives in ways we were never prepared for. From the time he first joined our family, he had a shit-eating grin that would drive me absolutely crazy every time I saw it. He was adopted when he was seven and I was ten.
I remember sitting at the breakfast table eating cereal. My sisters and I were huddled around the table, slumped over our oatmeal when my parents came into the room and asked us if we would like a brother. Paying more attention to our bowls than to them, we droned, “yeah, yeah, sure”. It was the sum total of a family discussion about such an important issue. My sisters were far more accepting of this stranger than I.
The hidden agenda of my parent’s game plan (I’m not even sure they voiced it to themselves) was that he was supposed to be the son my father never had. It was only voiced to me once, right in the beginning. It was a sorry proposition from the start. Not that Wayne wasn’t sweet – he certainly was – but that boy could lie like no tomorrow, looking you straight in the eye and smiling. He would hold a broken vase in his hand and say it was whole and nothing had happened. You can’t really blame him. His life was torn apart at a very young age. His parents were driving one night and the car crashed, killing both of them and her unborn child. There were twelve siblings and they were shuttled from relative to relative until all of them ended up under their uncle’s roof. Seven girls slept in one room and the five boys were in another. Kids were exploding out the walls. Even my ten-year-old mind cringed when I saw that crowded bungalow with mattresses everywhere and a bare, postage size yard with no toys to play with.
His uncle was a member of my father’s congregation (Dad was a minister). He was a good man but overwhelmed with the responsibilities of all those children. Members of the parish talked it over and decided to adopt some of the children. One brother went to a politician in Washington’s family; a sister to a loving family nearby. The oldest was almost of legal age so he stayed with the uncle as did the youngest boy. The older boy ended up in prison, perhaps Wayne was more like him than not. The rest found homes all over the tri-state area. To the extent it was possible, the siblings were kept in touch with each other. The siblings lost regular touch with the oldest once he hit seventeen.
But Wayne . . . he was totally unique. He hit our family like a tsunami; we literally didn’t know what walloped us. As the years went by and the incidents heaped one on top of the other, we would shake our heads in disbelief. As adults, when someone asked us about our brother those unspoken glances would slide between us. One of us would begin, “Do you remember when . . .” and as the incredulity grew on that person’s face, our Paul Bunyan-like tall tales would flow out. The sad part was that all the stories were true. Sometimes we would laugh so hard tears would roll down our cheeks. But at the time, when we were going through it, those times were anything but funny.
Mom told me once about when Dad decided to proudly take his new son fishing. Dad put his fishing hat on and bought a new rod for Wayne. Mom packed a lunch . . . a thermos of cocoa, one of coffee, sandwiches, and fruit for dessert. She stood at the boat launch and waved from shore as she watched the skiff row out . . . and then watched as it turned around and came back to shore. Wayne had wet his pants. Dad never took him fishing again. I think he began to give up on Wayne from that day on. They always had a tenuous, strained relationship. Sometimes Dad’s frustration would leak out when Wayne pulled a stunt, but Mom gave him everything she could.
When he had been us for a few months, he was hit by a car in front of our house. Because adoption formalities had not been completed yet, we had to go to court to determine if we were a fit family. (Hmmm…. They may have had something there.) It wasn’t that we weren’t fit so much as we were at completely opposite ends of the spectrum in social, behavioral and cultural preferences. The linkage connecting Wayne to us was often frayed, tattered almost beyond recognition. My father and I seemed most frustrated with him whereas my sisters enjoyed being with and playing with Wayne, he was their brother, plain and simple. But those determinations were eventualities and not pertinent to the court processing on that day. We were cleared, something I questioned at times in later years. We were, by no means, at fault, but looking back I think Wayne would have been happier in a different family.
Wayne had bladder issues. Seriously. He was a bed wetter for years after he came to us and while it certainly wasn’t his fault, it made for a set of challenges none of the rest of us had dealt with. It wore my parents down. Every time we went anywhere in the car they would ask him if he needed to go to the bathroom. Of course, he would say no. But 10-15 minutes later, halfway between a couple of exits, he would have to go NOW. So we would have to pull over and let him run into the bushes. Every time. Or else. And this would continue again and again throughout any trip over a half hour.
I just could not get up in the morning. Now, to be fair, my Dad and I were not morning people either but this was something completely different, alien. My parents would call for breakfast and he’d sleep through it. They would enter his room and remove his covers – nothing. They would drag him out of bed – still nothing. Many times they would have to resort to throwing water on him and even then if he didn’t want to wake up, he didn’t. Once his feet were moving, they did so at a beat far slower than the rest of humankind. If there were chores to be done, they were not done by him.
Then there was his room. I know, I know, boys have different smells than girls, but this was farcical. Showers had to be forced on him. His room carried a lingering stench, even when all dirty clothes and sheets had been removed. Broken toys were strewn every which way. A couple of tattered posters hung crooked on the walls. No care was taken for his or others’ possessions. One time he took some of my favorite records and left them in the hot sun where they baked in rippled, warped ruin. I missed Cat Stevens “Tea for the Tillerman” and when I tracked down where it was, I was furious at its damage. That may not seem like a big deal but we were a Minister’s family and Ministers do not earn much money. It was not going to be replaced. Fungus covered dirty dishes were pushed under the bed. Wayne never threw out the garbage. When his door was closed, you could almost see the malodorous vapors curling out through the cracks. His room had a personality of its own. It was corrosive, blinding, mind-numbing – offensive had a whole new definition.
Wayne loved to take things apart. The problem was he didn’t know how to put them back together, and my father wasn’t mechanical, so they were never put back together. My mother began buying appliances at thrift stores and yard sales for him to work on to his heart’s content. The problem came when he thought he was an expert and still moved on to the household machinery. One time he took apart the washing machine – it made Mom really happy.
There were times when my parents had to have thought he was possessed by the devil. He did so many destructive, crazy things – ones that didn’t make any sense at all. In the summer, our family went to our summer cabin in upstate New York for the entire summer. Dad would come during his two weeks off which meant Mom was alone with us and given no respite. Wayne was like a Brillo pad rubbing on her nerves. So when he did something completely idiotic, she would send him out to the garden to remove rocks. See the thing about New York and New England is that when God created North America, he stood in the west, lifted up the continent, and let all the rocks roll down into the Northeast, so Wayne had his work cut out for him. But the result was a great set of biceps and still no understanding of right and wrong.
My parents went to Europe for a second honeymoon when I was a sophomore in high school. During their three-week absence, Wayne decided he didn’t want to have to get out of bed to throw out leftover food he was eating so he did the only thing that made sense. He knocked a foot wide hole in the wall next to the bed so he could drop leftovers down and save himself the effort of movement. My parents knew something was up when they returned and Wayne had rearranged his room. His hole made sense in a Wayne kind of way.
We were a family of swimmers . . . a throwback to our Norwegian heritage. Wayne, of German extraction, hated water . . . to bathe in, to swim in, and to horse around in. The only way Wayne liked his water was to cook his pasta. He would stand at the edge of the swimming hole, shivering uncontrollably, in fear more than in cold. He never learned to swim beyond the doggie-paddle. Dad was a firm believer that we know our way around the water. He must have tried a thousand times to help Wayne dive. Finally, his patience in short supply, he held Wayne over the water by his ankles and then let go. It might have been a crude method of instruction but after a few times, Wayne finally became able to enter water head first.
My Dad simply could not understand Wayne. He tried. He wanted to love this boy but couldn’t quite make himself. I understood. I felt much the same. He defied comprehension. His ways obliterated thoughtful kindness. Every time you would try to give him the benefit of the doubt you would learn, real fast, how wrong it was to do so. My father’s frustration would seep into his handling of Wayne’s discipline, I think he hated himself for that – it showed his humanity in ways he wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t forgive himself for either.
I used to get so angry at Wayne . . . as the eldest, I carried the greatest measure of responsibility. At a young age, I was babysitting my siblings. Mom would leave to do errands and give us a list of chores. I would send them outside to play or stick them in front of the T.V. and do all the chores; it was the only way to get them completed. When they began messing up the house right away, before mom had even come home, I went nuts. Wayne would look at me with this impassive, mocking, careless stare of his and my blood would boil.
I was stepping in for my parents while they went on vacation for a week. Wayne sneaked out with the car, driving it over 100 miles an hour. The car was the only family vehicle and necessary for my parent’s business. I can only state that I went temporarily insane. I was sweeping the floor when he came in and when I started yelling. I smacked him on the arm with the broom. All those years of moving rocks paid off. The broom snapped in half – he didn’t even sport a bruise.
Wayne joined the Army when he was seventeen. My parents thought the discipline would be good for him. Actually, they hoped the Army could succeed where they had not. What they didn’t bargain on was for the Army to fail just as much as they had. His grades in school were atrocious and he refused to put any work into studying. The Army assured them Wayne would get his GED through them. A couple of months after Wayne enlisted, his Sergeant called my Mom for help in how to get him up in the morning. They tried water, blowing bugles in his ear, dropping him, not giving him blankets, giving him extra chores but nothing worked. The sergeant had never encountered someone like my brother.
Wayne was assigned to the garage. Here Wayne would disappear during his shift where they couldn’t find him. He went in the back; curled up in the huge truck tires and slept the day away. The Army psychiatrist did an evaluation and determined Wayne was a sociopath. Once they realized they had an unfixable incorrigible in their midst, he was discharged.
The Army left its imprint though. Life among all those men made him look at circumstances differently. He came home realizing his sisters were not blood relatives. As such, he had no problem drilling holes in the walls of the shower, bathroom, and their bedrooms to have a peek whenever he chose. He considered them sisters when convenient, but not when it came to sexual titillations. Even when we discovered what he had been doing, he didn’t understand he was doing anything wrong.
Once Wayne found an old television and thought he had struck gold. His room was on the top floor. It still carried the fragrances of old. Clothes were strewn everywhere. He had broken most of his furniture, so his room was otherwise quite empty save for a mattress and box-spring, a beat-up, cheap boom-box, and a small table. The television needed better reception so, logically, he knocked a hole in the ceiling drywall and ran hanger wires up through the hole. You think it worked? My parents flipped when they saw it – all the wiring already up there could have been compromised. There could easily have been a fire.
Mom had a keen business sense. She made astute real estate decisions. After years of seeing Wayne destroy one thing after another, she decided to purchase him a small home which would act as his inheritance. (It also served as a way to get Wayne out of the house and on his own) The house was fully paid for and taxes for the site were low. However, he did not pay the taxes ever. When he lost the house, it was a simple back tax problem. He also had a flair for decorating. For instance, the kitchen and the dining room were separate rooms. Wayne wasn’t happy with that. He took a sledgehammer to the wall but after making a sizable hole, grew tired and stopped, leaving the gaping hole there from that time forward. He would find some paint and begin a wall, then change his mind and leave it with brush strokes glaring in accusation. Garbage was never thrown out. Beer bottles and cigarette butts littered the table surfaces. He had a special way of making a house a home.
We celebrated Mom and Dad’s 25th wedding anniversary at a hotel suite in New York City because it was convenient for family and friends to congregate there. Wayne had just started renewing contact with his birth family and had been them that weekend; he brought three of them to the party. It was a freaky experience turning around and seeing that same shit-eating grin on another face. The threads of lineage were so clearly drawn it was shocking. I sat and talked with his sister; I liked her. I tried to fit Wayne into the life she was talking about, to see what he had lost. I always thought we were doing him a favor adopting him, now I started to wonder. I looked at my family – with alcoholism running rampant within it and the syndromes of being a minister’s kids thwarting our behavior. He had common interests with them he never had with us. He seemed so at ease with his natural brothers and sisters, so “in place”, it was clear he belonged with them. What were his missed opportunities?
When Wayne was twenty-three, his world changed irrevocably. One day he was fixing his truck at the side of the road, his head under the hood. A drunk driver speeding down the road hit the back of the truck which in turn hit Wayne and sent him flying backward. The truck was hit with such force that it continued moving forward, hitting Wayne again. Wayne was in a coma for the next six weeks. He suffered tremendous damage. I was in California at the time and it was several months before I saw him again. I was shocked by the change. His right eye bulged from its socket. He had difficulty walking; one arm still didn’t work right. It was a miracle he lived at all, and the person who did this to him faced few repercussions. The drunk driver didn’t have any auto insurance, leaving many of Wayne’s medical bills uncovered. He faced few repercussions for causing the accident. He was sentenced to seven to ten years but was released after six months “for good behavior”.
Two major things happened as a result of the injury – Wayne did not have any short-term memory and that part of his brain which created the sociopath was removed. When he awoke, Wayne was a gentler, kinder, person who was always telling jokes (okay, okay, so it was the same joke over and over and over again.). That sneaky, conniving side had been excised. One time Mom sent him out to rake the yard. A couple of hours later she remembered and went to see what had taken him so long. Wayne was four yards down. No one had told him to stop so he just kept on raking.
The drain on my parents’ emotional and mental resources was heavy. My mother was adopted herself and her experience was far removed from the daily one she lived with Wayne. After his accident, Wayne was home living with them and they were starting up a new business so finances were tight indeed. The family lived in a little apartment. Wayne’s disabilities were increasingly difficult to work with and he had gone through as much rehabilitation as possible. He was as well as he was going to get. My Father and Wayne could not escape each other. My mother, it seems, had even greater problems with Wayne. She used Wayne much the way one would a servant – filling his days with meaningless, menial chores. Her frustration spilled into anger which flowed into outright rage.
My younger sisters have a different perception of Wayne. As they become older in age, their esteem for and love of Wayne directly increases. My cousin, thirteen years younger than I recalls she loved Wayne. “He may have been smelly but he was a good guy. He always treated me well. I would take him out with my friends after his accident. Okay, maybe it was so he could buy the booze but I still liked him around.” My youngest sister, just five years below me became angry when I asked her a couple of questions about Wayne’s accident. “You never liked him. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” They have led me to understand Wayne wasn’t as bad as I felt he was. Nevertheless, they were always eager to join in on “Wayne stories”, leading me to believe latent feelings might not have been as positive as they wanted.
None of us escaped the years with Wayne unchanged in fundamental ways. I think my parents and I, the more responsible ones in the growing up years of the family, felt by turns, rage, personal humiliation at our feelings and sometimes behaviors, frustration, confusion, and hopelessness.
Finally, my parents called Wayne’s natural siblings and asked them to help out. He moved in with one sister, then another. Finally, Wayne moved out to Iowa, to live with his brother’s family on their small farm. He obtained a job washing dishes at a nursing home where his sister-in-law worked. She was able to watch over his performance, ensuring his success. Since then, he has been living happily with a certain amount of autonomy. He comes to visit the family every year or two, staying loyal to the family who tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to give him a chance at a new life. It is a workable solution. My brother of the shit-eating grin needed both his families to grow up – one to give him a space to grow in and the other to welcome him back home.