Exactly 15 years ago today, our mother was driving back from a meeting with government officials. The police officers stood at the door, hat in hand as they shared the tragic news. Mom was hit by a drunk driver with blood alcohol over twice the legal limit.
Sandy and I had just finished our University degrees and were spending some quality time at home. Our father was – no is – a best-selling author, busy writing his next novel in the series of crime-fighting officers on the first ever space station built on Mars.
Sandy had been working with mom and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) on a project to get our elected officials to toughen the laws against drunk drivers. A drunk driver took his best friend just 3 months before and this was a way for Sandy to cope with the grief, to do something honouring his friend.
Two months later, he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. No doubt in my mind that the emotional trauma of all that death contributed to a full-blown manifestation of this crazy disease. Only one episode though – typical of 25% of people afflicted with Schizophrenia – and Sandy never displayed any other symptoms – until now.
Sandy accepted his diagnosis, I did not. Everyone knew us, the identical twins, so brilliant and so good looking.
Our life was perfect before the diagnosis. Yes, I liked being the center of attention – for good things. Before Mom’s death we were going to solve the world’s problems – Sandford and I. We were brilliant; an IQ of 165 is pretty darn good – not the top of the scale but pretty darn good even if I must say so myself. Well, OK 165 for Sandford. I had 5 points less!
Identical? Why don’t we have the same IQ then? I ask myself, yet again. The number of sunsets in my life exactly equals the times I asked that question.
Our parents often told us, “No being the same for you. Just because the good Lord created identical twins. No siree. He also gave you free will. You have it! Both of you have it! Yup, people will compare you your whole life. They’ll see similarities where none exist and miss some that are there.” Heck, my parents even named us very different names because they thought we should be raised as individuals.
Sandy got sick, but that’s him – not me. My brain is fine. I’m using it to help the world with new inventions. My brain is firing on all cylinders. I didn’t get sick when Mom died – Sandy did! Not me! He had a best friend that died just before. All of that is a big burden to bear, but, it’s not me. My thinking is solid and strong and I’m using my intellect to help the world.
Small town Saskatchewan – where everyone knew everyone – was not a good place for me to be when Sandy was first diagnosed. I could see the pitying looks people gave us when they said hi, and then looked away quickly. It sure seemed that they never quite knew what to say to a crazy person. That, and they didn’t want to be embarrassed to say hi to the wrong twin.
Hearing the whispers at the next table in a restaurant or in a line-up at the store bothered me the most. I guess when the condition afflicts seven people out of 1,000 on average, there won’t be many people that understand in this little town of 20,000. Even though this rate of affliction is six times that of the rate of insulin-dependent diabetes, its acceptance is not. No-one understood. Nor do they understand what Schizophrenia does to a person, to their family, to me!
“Isn’t it tragic,” they’d whisper. “Such nice young men – so smart, good-looking and athletic too. Their mother just died and now one of them has Schizophrenia. I can’t tell them apart, but I know it won’t take long until the other one is diagnosed too – they are identical after all. I don’t know why the one with Schizophrenia was allowed to keep his job though. He should be put in a home.”
No, he shouldn’t! I felt like shouting. You’re talking about my brother. He’s fully capable of living on his own. Over 50% of people with Schizophrenia live on their own and most of the rest can live relatively independently with a little help.
I wanted to tell them, look at Dad, how he’s handling it. They were like 2 peas in a pod – Mom and Dad. Dad has his books to write. The tough emotions always show up in his books. In fact the scene – my mom dying – ended up in one of his books. Sure it was a favourite male character that died at the hands of a drunk driver, but the premise was the same.
His fans loved him for it and cried with him. Meanwhile, closer to home, I got to hear, “Poor things, and only 18 and all. They were so good looking and so smart. Now, this! They could have really gone far! They are identical twins and we know what that means – both of them will have schizophrenia! Tsk. Tsk.”
What do you mean, were good looking? Our looks haven’t changed! It took all I could muster not to shout at them.
The conversations could have been recorded; they were all the same. In this town with best-selling authors as parents and one of them dying, plus having the IQ of geniuses, we were small-town celebrities and I liked it. It even meant that, as we were growing up, we didn’t have much trouble working at the gas station and the local café. Everyone wanted us to work for them. We didn’t want to, but having the parents we did – they insisted we learn where money comes from. Sheesh!
The knowing nods – the judgment. Hell, Sandy could have still invented things. His IQ didn’t change! We could have been great together Sandy and James Taffering – inventors of cold fusion or graphene-based ultra-capacitors, called GMO for short. A great semi-conducting material needed for future electronics, it would make all those stories in my Dad’s books come true. Well, OK some of those stories.
We had a letter of acceptance to study with the most highly regarded physics professor in the world. She had agreed to take both of us on to study GMO. But no, Sandy wouldn’t go. He stayed right here. He wanted a different path.
I guess it was Dad’s influence that helped me to decide on a space-related career, one that took me away. I know it was the influence of our mother that guided Sandy to study mental health, why he accepted a job as the Executive Director of the local Canadian Mental Health Association.
Now, here he is – in the hospital. I walk slowly down the surgically clean corridor looking for Sandy’s room.
Aren’t you glad you don’t have that burden to bear? This thought pops into my head unannounced as I turn into my destination.
“Hey, glad to see you,” Sandy says smiling.
We spend hours sharing childhood stories. No-one talks about the diagnosis. We talk instead of when he gets out and what we’ll do as if we’ve been doing things forever. As if there was no decade divide between us. A decade when we did not talk. When I moved to another country where no-one knew me. Whereas – don’t you love that word whereas? Whereas Sandy stayed right here.
We talk about mom. That cavernous wound, held together with thin strips of fond memories, still festered for Sandy. We focus on happy stories, but it doesn’t mean there is laughter. The tears leak out of his eyes, creating small rivulets down his strong chin as he says, “Mom was the greatest. She understood me; I never had to say much and she just knew.”
Thoughts start to tumble through my mind like clothes in a dryer. The day I left, I stopped at the center to say good-bye. Someone yelled, “hey Sandy or is it James T?”
Sandford did not forsake his town, his people. He never left. Sandford worked in the local Canadian Mental Health Association organization. Organization? Hell, it was a coming-and-going of derelicts, disheveled people with slurred speech, of those that walked slowly in a stupor, medicated to stop whatever horrible demons possessed them.
I could see that Sandy saw them as those trying to find common ground, of those discarded by the world with somewhere to belong. Sandy was always patient with me. “No, not all people with mental illness are here. There are many with active lives, jobs, and families to care for, just like me.”
Yes, I had to admit that I saw smiles and high fives in front of the TV when the Saskatchewan Roughriders kicked a last minute field goal to win the Grey Cup. Wow! That was a lifetime ago – when I stopped at the center.
“A noble occupation,” Sandy called it, “to help those that are sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and cousins”.
“No, it isn’t! No. It. Is. NOT. Jeez! For Pete’s sake! With an IQ of 165, be a physicist or a doctor or an aerospace engineer. Don’t waste it on this!” Those were the last words I spoke to him, just prior to leaving so long ago.
He just smiled, gave me a hug and said “I love you, bro. Go build that space station.”
Over the past week, I saw people from the center visit Sandy. Every time those people come, you shine an inner peace, a gentle knowing. No judgment. You even said to me, Aren’t you glad you don’t have those burdens to bear?It was more of a statement than an actual question.
My father has arrived at the hospital and we are in the cafeteria, having a cup of surprisingly good coffee. It defied the standard stereotypical hospital food is crap. I ask my dad, “Why did Sandy use the name Sandy and not Sandford? If only he had kept his full name and used the brains God gave him, us. Sandford and James Taffering would be an unbeatable pair who made a difference! Why did Sandy use hearables? I am sure earables should not be used for those afflicted with schizophrenia.”
Dad listened intently. He had an aptitude for understanding what people were going through. But, I could not tell him how much I thought Sandy looked so still, alone and forlorn.
The sound of jackhammers starts up suddenly. The backfiring of a truck driving past added to the noise and he asks, “Are you OK?”
“What do you mean, OK?”
“Well, you nearly jumped out of your skin just now. It looked like you were turning inside out.”
My mind wanders. Sandford – born five minutes before me – was always my older brother, always the one I looked up to, always the one …
“What?” I whispered aloud, unaware of my surroundings. My mind keeps analyzing. OK, OK! I didn’t look up to him. I envied him those extra five IQ points! Now? Now I think he can have all the extra IQ points he wants. I’m glad I don’t have those burdens. Schizophrenia robbed me of my brother. Me, the one who is now Space Corps Captain.
Silently words slide through my mind like neon flashing, digital scrolling billboards: embarrassed…embarrassed…embarrassed….
“WAS embarrassed, I mean!” This time the words escape, muffled in my sleeve, my arm wiping my face.
Hell, who am I kidding? I ask myself. I am, was and will be embarrassed. Yes, I’m glad I don’t have a mental health issue.
That’s not it.
I’m glad I’m not crazy. Crazy means you’ll be hanging out with the crazies. Those that are a drain on society. Those that can’t keep a job because the pressure is too great.
Jumbled thoughts continue to stumble through my brain. They nose-dive from the cliff of self-control down to the abyss, picking up speed on the way down. Pressure? Pressure! They don’t know what pressure is and I’m not talking pressurized space suits. Pressurized air lock living domes. Pressurized space baubles. My niece called them that when we first blew soap bubbles across their lawn. Little and three years old she said, “Uncle James T. You live in baubles.” I didn’t correct a three-year-old.
Now I remember my dad is here. He’ll listen.
I say, “I made sure not to use hearables, earables. It doesn’t matter what they call them. Those new-fangled computerized ear-sized headphones that fit right in your ear canal. It wasn’t worth the chance that having voices coming into my brain every day would trigger schizophrenia. No siree! Not me! I knew the odds of both twins being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Statistics were always easy for me. For both of us. Sixty percent. Three times they administered the tests and observations before they allowed me to become a backup astronaut, ready to fly into space if something happened to one of the team. Sheesh! I knew what a forty percent chance meant. I was safe. There was no way schizophrenia would get me. Jeez, Dad. You know science has advanced DNA tests that predict this crazy disease. How come it takes so long for others to know this?”
Dad tilts his head to one side, raises an eyebrow and asks, “Is everything OK James T?”
“Ya. I just told you the odds. Sheesh!”
“James. James T. JAMES TAFFERING!” Sandy is standing behind me, ready to leave the hospital. His voice softens as he says, “You didn’t tell dad, did you.” More of a statement than a question.
“Please! James T. The treatments nowadays are way better than they were twenty years ago. You – need – to – take treatments. You are capable, energetic and resilient. Your psyche is even more vigorous. You always handled all the stresses that came our way. You were the strong one I looked up to when Mom died. There is no shame in needing help. Dad and I are here for you. I will be right at your side.
Going to another country to pursue your dream is admirable. We are all proud of you. But, it doesn’t matter how tough you are, seeing your friends blown to smithereens in a spaceship heading out of earth’s orbit is tough. I can’t even imagine it! A team built that ship. Not you! I’m glad you are back in Canada. I’m right here for you.”
“But I don’t want to have PTSD. And I sure as hell don’t want to be crazy!”
“No, we do not ask for our afflictions. But PTSD treatments are very effective. They are hard work James T. Treatments work when you work at it, work hard at it. I’m right here. I’ll even go with you to the treatments if you want. Just please, say you’ll go to treatments.”
“OK. I’ll go. But I don’t want to be crazy.”
“Hey James T. You. Are not. Crazy! Aren’t you glad you don’t have that burden to bear?”