Yesterday I received in the mail a 5″x8″ envelope from my sister-in-law containing some songs my brother had written and a couple of poems written by my mom. I read without emotion, pushing the thought of their untimely deaths to the corner of my heart that has learned the art of numbing itself. As I skimmed the sequence of lyrics drafted into two columns on the lined paper, I was most curious about the ones that were scratched out. I couldn’t help but to think “Come on Scott, this is so cliché”. Without the tune to go with it, the lyrics seemed somewhat remedial. I was disappointed that this is all that was left of the music career my brother never was quite able to launch.
For the past five years I have been obsessing about asking for his shiny silver trumpet, believing it was the one object that would keep me connected to him. I was heartbroken when I found out it had been donated. We had both played trumpet for years, although his interest and talent in music took him much farther than I, who used it like everything else in my life, merely as an instrument with which to nourish my social life.
Unable to register the phantom pain created by the memories of my lost brother, I read with mild curiosity the two poems my mom had written. I felt a bit uneasy seeing this vulnerable side of her. I had catalogued her as an illness, schizophrenia, for so long that the words she had written seemed more like an anomaly than something she could have really been feeling. It was much easier to think of her as some character in a scary movie than as a human being who had a wide spectrum of feelings just like the rest of us. She was the person who banged her head on the floor and spun around the family room in circles for reasons not apparent to us. The person we laughed at and made fun of for her strange behaviors like accusing the dentist of putting rocks in her head and planting a microchip to the B channel in her teeth, or telling the waiter at our favorite restaurant that she smelled condoms. It was hard to imagine that this woman who had pressed her nose up against mine, face red with rage, screaming that I was the devil, actually had a soft human side.
My mom’s mental illness was only a part of who she was. Like skin that makes up about 15% of our bodies, her illness was what we noticed most about her, and therefore we let ourselves believe we had learned everything we needed to know. Untreated, it was difficult to see past the illness, and despite my efforts to connect with her when I was younger, I was never able to break through that protective layer. That’s why these simple poems that she wrote mean so much to me now. I wanted to believe there was more to her and now I know it was true.