Ever the one for introspection I have been doing some reminiscing of sorts recently. You see I have finally got around to clearing out our loft room and my study.
One of my goals in the new world of Christchurch post-earthquakes is to de-clutter my life. Reducing the ‘stuff’ I have. One thing that is common for those who have experienced the trauma we have shared in this city is that we reassess what is truly important.
During the mass clearing out I stumbled upon two large boxes of photographs, one a collection of loose photographs of my own and the other an assortment of albums of my mothers.
Well one cannot but stop and go through a box of photos really.
I believe it is a human universal that people smile when looking at their photos. It’s a bit like the opening and closing scene in the movie Love Actually where we are shown images of the emotions people display greeting loved ones at the airport. Looking at photos is the same for me; I inevitably find myself smiling and being taken back to a place and time.
But this wee entry is not so much about the photo experience (and those who follow me on Facebook will have seen many of the gems I have uncovered) but rather a reflection about my brother Dominic. I found a few photos of him.
I am one of seven children and Dominic is the brother immediately older than I. He is the fourth born. Third son. Dominic (full moniker Dominic Francis) was born March 7th 1962. He was born in the UK and came to New Zealand as a wee fellow; my parents and older siblings sailed to New Zealand on 4 December 1962 arriving six weeks later in January 1963. Dominic currently lives in Wellington.
At this point I should also acknowledge that the other trigger for this piece was the recent death of Wellington’s ‘Blanket Man’ whose real name was Ben Hana. He died at the age of 54.
You see Dominic suffers from schizophrenia and has for most of his adult life lived the very hard existence of the mentally ill. He knew Ben and shares a similar sort of existence albeit not so publicly and without the alcoholism.
He has lived in a series of hostels, institutions, hospitals, and prisons and undoubtedly in periods of acute symptoms on the streets. I know on one occasion he slept in a house under construction in Sumner. Interestingly the (very nice) house was being built for Katherine’s current employer. At the time Dom stayed there it was really only framing and tarpaulins.
Approaching his 50th birthday this March is no small feat for a man who has survived day-by-day and week-by-week for 30 odd years with nothing. When last I saw Dom at Mum’s funeral in September 2010, he had aged considerably. The niceties we take for granted such as regular dental care, doctors visits and haircuts are all a very different reality for Dom. He has a pretty interesting diet at the best of times and part of his world has been to shun certain types of food because of some theory or another he holds of that food type. He is pretty much a vegetarian.
He smokes like the proverbial chimney and has an incredible capacity for instant coffee. He simply does not (and has not the means to) look after himself.
Now there are more than a few memorable occasions in Dominic’s life thus far. He has done some interesting, sad and funny things over the years. But the reason I got thinking about him was when I was flicking through the photos of him as a boy.
He was, as my mother would have undoubtedly attested a beautiful baby. He was a lovely wee kid; the photos capture a bright, sporting and cheerful young fellow. In fact to this day Dom has a very infectious and unique laugh. Almost a giggle and he is pretty free with it. In better days he was always ready with a joke or anecdote.
More recently Dom has become focused on his health and mortality. I suspect this is in part due to our mother’s death but also due to some poor health he has experienced. Dominic was always legendary for his ability to walk long distances; part of his self-management was to walk all across Wellington or Christchurch.
Sometimes this was because he couldn’t afford any other form of transport and was headed to a mate’s to scrounge a fag. Other times he was just wandering around talking to himself. Sadly he is not able to do so anymore. For some reason not entirely known to me he has trouble with his balance at the moment. He collapsed in the doorway of a shop in Courtney Place, Wellington, last year. He felt unwell and tried to get into a shop to call an ambulance. It is a sad testament to his condition that rather than come to his immediate aid the shopkeeper berated him for being drunk (which he was not). He collapsed and was unconscious. A kind passer-by telephoned the ambulance and he was admitted to Wellington Hospital. He suspects he had a seizure.
He has been on a very potent combination of antipsychotic drugs for near on thirty years. I believe they are taking their toll.
I confess I have not always been the gentlest to Dom. Mum was a soft touch for him when he needed cash. She was always forking out money she could ill afford to provide, and from time to time I would step in and tell him to bugger off.
I have sent him to Wellington on more than a few occasions just to create some distance between he and mum so she could relax (or recuperate) knowing he wouldn’t be knocking on her window late at night in search of a bed. She’d always give in and he (particularly when unwell) was not the model houseguest. Mum just wasn’t well enough in latter years to manage Dom for long periods. On one occasion mum had a mini-stroke the day after he left.
Some readers will be surprised at this approach. I am unapologetic. Dominic is an adult and while he is not capable of holding down employment he was not the responsibility of my elderly mum.
In fact I could go off on a tangent and have a crack at all the (predominantly right-wing) politicians who would have you believe that Dominic is a beneficiary who should get a job. Dominic the survivor will tell you that even he knows it is cheaper for the Crown to put him in a prison than a hospital. In fact he has been known to seek incarceration over the winter months in order to get to somewhere warm with food. Sadly he doesn’t do well in jail as his illness and frequent self conversations draw the attention of bullies and he has more than once been assaulted while in jail.
Mum of course loved Dominic unconditionally, as only a mum can. Mum always wanted to know where he was. She was great at keeping in touch with his psychiatric nurse and caregivers. She was forever popping parcels or envelopes with $20 notes in them into the mail.
When Dominic stood up to speak at mum’s rosary (the night before her funeral) he spoke from the heart about how much he would miss her. He articulated his recognition that she had always stood by him and that he hadn’t been the easiest son she had. I was profoundly moved and felt his loss as well as my own. My kids still talk about the lovely things he said, so simply and so well.
My dad never really understood mental illness. He was very impatient with Dom. I think dad thought he should just snap out of it. Dad loved him I have no doubt but as is often the case with men (and certainly can be for me) if there’s nothing we can do to fix something we get a bit frustrated. Men can be more focused on the fixing than the understanding and accepting.
In my old job with the government I got to travel to Wellington very regularly. I would often bump into Dominic down on Courtney Place and come away my wallet lighter, we’d go a buy him some cigarettes and get some cash. I remember one call where we agreed he’d walk to my hotel and I’d give him $40. I found out later that he had forgotten he’d left a pot on the stove at his flat so used $30 to cab back there!
I would always report back to mum that I’d seen him.
I have an 0800 number attached to my phone. I originally got it because mum while living in Wellington had used the excuse of a “rather steep toll account that month” for not having called me when she had her first heart attack!! It is great though as it means that Dominic (who has an excellent memory for numbers, particularly his bank account) can call me anytime. And he frequently does.
Families are interesting things. Our one is every bit as interesting as the next. I hope Dominic is happy in his own way. I am grateful for the care he gets from the professionals assigned to him.
I’ll get a call in a few days no doubt. It’ll probably include the line “ you wouldn’t happen to have a lazy tenner?” Of course I do. Oh and I shall buy him a carton of fags when next I enter the country and that’ll make his day.
Oh and for my next post I may turn my thoughts to a piece on my older brother Neil who (despite a successful career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and being decorated by Her Majesty) behaved like a right prat in several family photos….