How many guys, single, over sixty and living with schizophrenia do you know of who could fill a church at their own funeral, complete with a choir and a kilted bagpiper!! Remarkable right! But at St Augustine’s of Canterbury Anglican church, on a beautiful summer’s day in August 2017, a full congregation of friends and family had come to show their love for my brother Terry.
Can one live a meaningful life with schizophrenia? Was he loved? Did he love?
Terry lived with the tyranny of mental illness. He remained connected to those who would have him, by phone calls, visits, emails and finally any way he could, to stay in touch with those who had meaning in his life. He attached intense significance to coincidences and dates. He even communed with our dead relatives.
It was of no consequence to persuade Terry grandma was dead. Instead hearing him report back on details of Chou Chou, her poodle, and grandma’s health was more interesting and less confrontational. He went to every funeral from his past and knew all of our birthdays. This is no small feat, considering he was third born in a family of nine siblings.
Often an important gift from Terry would be an email of a voiced-over rendition of Willy Nelson or James Taylor. Before his breakdown, in the late 1970’s, he was one of the first computer nerds! He always sent a little something to show you he was thinking of you and he cared. His self-taught musical talents kept him amused and us too. In the three short apartment years on Bayview, Terry joined the choir at St Augstine’s, where he made friends and helped out with the gardening.
My intention is not to romanticize mental illness. My brother, Tim, reminds me; “It’s not all good!!” Around the time Terry had his first psychotic break, he lost all of his friends, his job and was restricted from seeing his wife and his daughter. He never met his daughter formally. He subsequently ended up living on the streets for over 20years.
Our father was a mental illness denier!! He thought all Terry needed to do was to straighten out his ‘crazy logic’ and ‘pull up his socks’!
There was no mention of mental illness in those days. I am referring to the early eighties, where people were referred to as ‘a little odd’ or they had a ‘nervous breakdown’. He chose to refuse his meds. The medicine made him dopey and unable to live fully. In those days, living indoors brought out his paranoia. Thus he chose to live in the open air, in a field, rather than any place with a roof or a place full of ‘crazies’, as he put it.
I often wonder how he would have fared today knowing what we know now about how to treat and diagnose mental illness. He was a bright, talented guy, robbed of his health by a disease no one knew how to treat.
This fall I went to the St Joes/Michael Power reunion to reconnect with classmates from my year. There was no one from my year. Instead I was recognized as Terry’s sister! I heard great stories of his glory days in track and field. One friend, Paul Gilkinson, told me that as soon as he saw it was, McDonough & Glynn, in the starting blocks, he knew his fate would be a distant third.
Terry had a big story and he impacted many. He was our canary in the coalmine. His humanity was a reminder of what could happen to any of us.
Sadness, fear, numbness and anger, we felt all of these emotions, in varying degrees, when we realized our brother had a disabling mental illness that would never allow him to fulfill his dreams. And so we learned to just love him on his terms. His bad luck gave us the opportunity to open up to our compassion, our empathy and to have an understanding for ‘the other’.
We used to talk about all being in the same boat and that ours had a leak in it. The McDonough dark humor, it allows us to distance ourselves just a bit from the problem, thus lessening its hold on us. I can’t imagine facing mental illness without my coping strategy, called humor.
There is no hiding schizophrenic behavior…no veil or filter of politeness and pleasantries. He believed one of my sister’s boys had the devil in him and so he refused to visit anymore. She had been incredibly supportive of Terry and at this point was a bit relieved to hear his proclamation.
We all put forth great efforts to do what we could to make things as smooth as possible for him. Frustrating yet rewarding. Stubborn, irrational and downright self-destructive behavior, were qualities we all had to deal with when helping our brother. The reward of knowing you did your best to make things better outweighed the downside of Terry’s lack of insight for your feelings
His hardship opened up our compassion to be kinder to each other
Our big Irish Catholic family is a mini society unto itself or more like one big community. In that we are fortunate. Everyone settles into his or her role. There is no ignoring, ‘the other’. As my sister Jane, puts it: “We are like a box of Crayola crayons. There is not one color better than the other. If you remove one, then you don’t have a complete set.” We are all interdependent upon one another in ways only each of us knows in our hearts.
And then, one day, just like that, one of our crayons was taken. The music stopped. Now we are eight.
We knew something was up when my sister, Erin, tried to reach him and there was no response. The superintendent of Terry’s building relayed the inevitable.The fact that the Ikea catalogue had not been picked up from the front door for days and no music could be heard through the walls, were warning signs of no life within. One lady, whose son used to jam with Terry, noticed there was silence where there used to be guitar playing and singing.
The harsh reality of living in his field with colo-rectal cancer for years, came to an end when my sister, Erin, and her boys trekked out to Finch & Keele to help Terry dismantle his camp. Thanks to family help and medical intervention, Terry’s last three years were filled with indoor comfort and purpose. He was able to ‘live the life’, and make happy choices, while recovering from Cancer surgery. He had gathered so many friends in his short time, living independently, in his bachelor apartment overlooking Mount Hope Cemetery.
In our family culture, we know how to behave around death. We talk about grief and share our mourning with each other. We have had lots of practice. Our brother, who went to everyone’s funeral, was going to have a damn fine send off! We planned a funeral Terry would have been proud to attend. In fact, the minister agreed to include a self-recorded version of the Irish Blessing, rendered in an Irish accent. So, in fact, Terry was there, in spirit!!
My heart is filled with gratitude for those who offered their generosity of spirit and compassion towards my sister Erin and I while planning Terry’s celebration of life. From the funeral director, to the pastor, to the choir and even Terry’s choir mate, Jamie, who piped the coffin in and out of the church, you gave us gentle leadership.
Big families, big surprises!! My sister, Maria, had kept in touch with Terry’s estranged daughter, Kate. Imagine meeting your brother’s daughter at his own funeral! So many hugs and tears. The girl cousins couldn’t be more thrilled to add a new family member to their mostly male clan. Both Kate’s parents suffered from schizophrenia. Is it no wonder she has gone into genetic counseling?
We were all a little more comforted having her there. Kate was grateful to hear all the endearing funny stories about her father.
I will no longer have the excitement of spotting the canary in the coalmine, wearing his infamous yellow raincoat all around town. Terry’s life dimensions were seamless. He talked with everyone, alive or passed. He was entertaining, full of grit and possessed a curious spirit. Judging from the tears and the stories that day, I’d say he was loved and did love. Our rainbow of colors shines a little less brightly, but we are grateful for his colorful legacy.