Two weeks after I saw my brother on his birthday, I found myself driving down Mass Ave after having run errands. When the GPS told me to turn right onto the Mass Pike, I took it as a suggestion, not a command, and drove further down to where I’d last seen Peter. I slowed, looking across the street at the alley lined with homeless people waiting for the bus to the shelter. And there, limping along sort of staggering down the street with a plastic bag in hand and not a care in the world, was my brother. If possible, he looked filthier than he had just two weeks prior. I noted with a sinking sad feeling that he was not wearing the sweatpants I bought for him or the winter coat I’d given him. I had to remind myself that giving a gift to someone does not mean you can control what the recipient of your gift does with that gift. It is theirs to do with as they please. Yeah, well, I really did like that winter coat, I gave it to my brother, not some random homeless guy. Harumph, I hope whoever has it is at least enjoying it.
A week or so later, I received a call on my cell phone from an unknown number. It was Peter, using some stranger’s phone. He asked if we could meet for coffee and hang out. So on the following Sunday I drove to the Target near him. He looked better than I’d seen him the last two times. He seemed alert and his eyes were clear and focused. He was dirty still, but not in the same un-showered filth that he’d manifested and embodied before. He was wearing an oversized stadium jacket (that he later told me he’d stolen from someone), a pair of jeans and what looked like an old hand-knit scarf. He had two hats on. One a winter hat and the other, on top, his newsboy cap. He was still wearing the surgical boot. He seemed in good spirits as he talked animatedly about himself, oblivious to the passersby staring at him in the Target Starbucks.
I’ve had a sort of peaceful calm about him. There was some simplicity in him, an integrity of what felt like a completeness that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on. I realized after much thought that it was the fact that he was happy. Probably for the first time in a long time, Peter wasn’t his surly sarcastic angry self. He was more than content, he was happy. And despite his outside appearance or the opinions I may have about how he is living his life, he really is happy. I realized too that I have held deeply negative judgments about his life and the way he lives.
To me, I guess, in my mind, he has wasted his life. He has done absolutely nothing of value to anyone. He is a leech on society. He has taken an otherwise perfectly healthy body (something people with disease would give anything for) and not only wasted it, but willfully harmed it, ruined it.
From his perspective, he has harmed no one but himself. His body is his to do with as he pleases. He is relaxed and calm and peaceful for the first time in his life. He has no demands placed on him other than his basic needs. He is his own man with no rules other than his own desires. He has friends, who are like him, who understand him, who accept him as he is, who actually like him as he is. They are not berating him, haranguing him, trying to change him or put their values on him. He is content to simply be. He is free. In fact, despite my inability to understand it, he is happy.
He doesn’t mind that he is homeless. Why should I? He doesn’t have a problem with living on the streets and begging money and food from strangers walking by. Why should I? He has no problem that he owns nothing but the clothes on his back. Why should I? And the list goes on.
As we ended our Target time together, we walked slowly outside. It was blustery and cold. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to ask him where the coat was. He mumbled that he’d either lost it or gave it to someone. I didn’t ask for clarification. I told him I was aware, and that I appreciate, the fact that he has never asked anything of me. Strangers he asks. For money for food for clothing for rides for letting him use the phone. From me, he has asked nothing. I appreciate not being put in that awkward position. He shrugged and said affably, “of course not Harry (his endearing term of endearment for me), you’re my sissy (I wanted to kill him)” I said that even though he asked nothing of me, I actually had something to ask of him. I pulled out my snap-and-shoot camera. “I have no photo of you” I said. “And I want one.” With exceptional grace and good-natured nonchalance he agreed (photos are something Peter has vehemently refused for years). And over the next 10 minutes we took smiling, laughing, silly selfies. We even asked strangers passing by to snap a few of us together. Carefree happy siblings.