Jeni Booker Senter
“Jeni, you have to come home—it’s your brother. He is sick.”
I imagined a million possible illnesses. I asked my grandmother what was wrong, and she only told me that I needed to come home. My husband and I packed up the girls and started out on the eight-hour drive to check on my brother. When we got to my grandma’s house she answered the door crying.
“Granny, what’s wrong with Jason?”
“He’s sick. Real sick.”
“Just tell me what is wrong with him. Is he dying?”
“You need to take him to the hospital.”
I pushed my way into the old house. I didn’t see my brother, but what I did see scared the crap out of me. The mirrors in the hallway and the living room were shattered; the clock on the wall over the sofa was broken apart, the hands of the clock pulled off and tossed onto the floor—the batteries lying on the threadbare rug.
“What in the heck?”
I called for my brother, “Jason, where are you?”
My grandmother walked into the living room saying, “He is in the bathroom.”
I walked through a bedroom to get to the bathroom. I tapped on the door. “Jason…” No answer. I pushed the door open and saw my brother sitting fully clothed and backward on the toilet. He was writing on a scrap of paper lying on the top of the toilet tank. My grandmother had followed me into the bathroom.
“He tore up the house and now he won’t leave the bathroom. He has been awake for three days, and he won’t unhand that damned Bible. I have had that Bible for over 50 years, and I don’t want him to tear it up, but I am scared to take it away from him,” my grandmother heaved, out of breath.
“What exactly is wrong with him, Granny? You told me he was sick. He doesn’t look sick. Is he drunk?”
“No he ain’t drunk. He’s done gone and went crazy. He’s been acting a might funny for a couple of weeks now. I thought he might be on that pot or something, but I think his head’s screwed up.”
All this time and Jason didn’t say a word. He just kept scribbling away on the scrap of paper.
“Jason, can you hear me?”
He looked at me with the strangest, glazed look to his eyes, and he just stared at me.
He looked at me a little longer, and then he just started giggling at me. Not a normal giggle either. He was making the weirdest sounding giggle that I had ever heard. And there was absolutely nothing at all funny about the situation. My husband looked at me through the open doorway.
“What’s going on in here?”
“I am not really sure. Jason is acting very strange.”
“Danger angel, danger angel, danger angel,” said the man sitting on the toilet.
Jason was born one year and eleven months after me. Our parents were poor and young. My mother, Linda, was only 18 when Jason was born—blue and with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. My father, Billy, who was 19, was present for his birth. I wasn’t, and I cannot remember my brother’s birth; I was too young. But I do remember his early childhood.
As young children, my brother and I were inseparable. I remember playing together outside in the mud-filled ditches after a summer rainstorm. We would swim in the murky water, our skin soaking up the mud. When we tramped inside, we left muddy, wet footprints across the bare oak floors of our wooden house. The floors were unfinished like most of the rest of the house. We would strip off our soaked clothing throwing them into the bathroom floor as we walked by on our way down the hallway to our rooms,. Our rooms were adjoined. Not in some fancy way that you might imagine—there was a child-sized hole in the closet wall that opened up a passageway between our rooms. We would travel back and forth through this crudely constructed tunnel to each other’s rooms after we were supposed to be in bed at night. We shared everything; we especially shared a mutual love for fighting with each other.
My brother and I used to fight about everything. I remember a particularly vicious tussle we had in which we wound up outside in the front yard in what felt at the time like a battle to the death. I had a handful of my brother’s hair, and I kept raking the nails of my free hand down his back leaving bloody trails. He bit me—hard—on that free hand. My father did not referee our fight. In fact, he was the one who sent us outside. “Go on. Get out there and fight it out. I don’t want ya’ll back in this house until you get it out of your system,” he had said.
At the time, we thought that this method was the greatest way to get whatever was bugging us resolved. We tumbled on the ground, hitting, scratching, and spitting in a bloody contest to determine who would be the victor. I don’t even remember what we were fighting about. I don’t think it was even important, but it sure felt like it at the time. I don’t remember who won that fight; I don’t really remember who won most of the fights that we had, but I do remember that when it was all said and done, I still loved my brother passionately. It didn’t matter how many fights we had, we still stuck up for each other when any other person challenged one of us.
One night when we were supposed to be asleep—our cousins Allen and Marquieta were staying the night, as they often did—we decided to pack up some Vienna sausages and crackers and a portable spotlight and take off on a long walk to try to scare up some deer. It was late, probably around midnight, and Allen and Jason climbed through the hole in the closet and wound up in my room. We opened my bedroom window carefully, avoiding the huge crack in the center pane, and climbed out. One by one we hit the soft ground under the window and climbed over the sagging chain link fence in the side yard. After that it was only a short trek to the red-clay dirt road. We started off on our journey excited and ready to see some deer. I don’t think we knew what we would do with the deer when we found them; we hadn’t thought that far ahead. We had trekked about two miles up the red clay road before we turned off onto a small, brushy trail. As we tried to walk silently so as not to scare the deer, Allen started to make silly grunting noises through his nose. Jason began to get angry. He really wanted to see a deer.
“Cut it out,” whispered Jason in an angry tone.
“Shut up stupid. Why don’t you make me stop if you’re so tough?”
As they bickered back and forth, I began to get very angry with my older cousin.
“Leave him alone,” I threatened. “Come on, Jason, let’s just go home.”
My brother did not want to go home, so he hauled off and punched Allen in the side of his head.
“Oh crap,” Marquieta sighed. “Here they go.”
I told her that she’d better call off her brother before he got hurt. It didn´t take long before we were all four tumbling about in the scrubby brush beating the holy snot out of each other, quickly forgetting what we had even set out to do in the first place. The only things I could think of were protecting my brother, and keeping everyone as blood-free as possible so we would not get caught when we got home. After we had fought until we were sweaty and breathless, we all kind of just tumbled away from each other, panting and staring daggers at each other.
We assessed each other for damages that might get us in deep crap. Allen had a bloody nose; Marquieta’s hair was a tangled, red mass of weeds and dirt; I had a scratch across my cheek; and Jason was—oh no—bleeding from his busted lip. Every injury could be wiped away except for my brother’s. Someone would have to answer for how he wound up with a split and swollen lip.
We sulked quietly back down the road toward the house, no one speaking. The only sounds were the screeching of fruit bats and the mocking cries of the whip-poor-wills. We snuck back into my bedroom window, and Allen and Jason crawled through the hole in the closet to Jason’s room. I knew that tonight might be a quiet night, but tomorrow morning someone would have to explain so I knew what I had to do. I crawled through the hole and told my brother to start crying.
I told him to just shut up and do what I said. I reached out and pinched him hard on his arm, and my brother started wailing. A few minutes later we heard the thumping sounds of my Aunt Carol’s and my parents’ feet coming down the wooden hallway.
I took a deep breath and started yelling as loud as I could at my brother: “You snotty little brat. I’ll knock some sense into you!”
My brother looked at me with wide eyes as he realized what I was doing. I was saving his hide. I knew I would get a spanking for busting his mouth, but I also knew that we would not get a worse one for sneaking out tonight. I had learned at an early age to create a distraction to cover up what might be considered a more offensive act.
Jason and I went on to get into many more fights, both with each other and with other kids. But we always took each other’s side when it came down to choosing. My father went to prison for 13 years of our lives, and our mother slowly cracked up over trying to raise four small children with only food stamps and a small welfare check each month. We would go visit my father in prison occasionally, and I always gave Jason my quarters for the vending machines in the visitation room. When my mother would tell us that she hated us and that she was going to leave us all alone, I was the one who would comfort my little brother—and my sisters as well. When my mother left us for another man I was sixteen. Jason was almost fourteen, and my sisters were eight and three. I did my best to be a mother to my siblings. I had to quit school and get a job to take care of them. We couldn´t get any assistance from the state because if we did, they would come and put us into foster care. I couldn´t let us be separated. Eventually, I moved in with my grandmother and took my sisters with me, and my brother stayed behind to live in our house with my grandfather.
I married way too young and made plans to move to Central Florida with my husband and my two sisters, but before I left I visited my brother to tell him that I was moving away. That was the last time I saw my brother Jason or my grandfather. My grandfather disappeared and was listed as a missing person. Twenty years later, we lost hope in finding him, so we had a funeral without a body, and now Jason was gone, too. After 20 years of illness, we figure he is gone for good as well.
“Jason, are you okay?”
“Danger angel. The navy is coming for me. I have money in the bank from my trip overseas to Arabia, but nobody ain´t givin’ it to me. I been reading about it in the book. Are you here about my money?”
“Jason, I am Jeni—your sister. I am here to check on you. What is going on?”
“Oh, you are here about my navy check. I need some cigarettes, too.”
“Okay, we need to call someone. Something is very wrong with him.” I looked at my grandmother and told her to get some of his clothes together; I told her that I was going to call Bridgeway Center to see if someone could tell me what I needed to do about the situation. She looked at me like I was the crazy one.
“You ain’t sending him off nowhere, are you?”
“Granny, something is wrong with him. Why did you call me if you didn’t want me to do something about it?”
“I just don’t like the idea of sending him off like your Daddy.”
“It is not the same thing.”
“Well, I just ain’t going to be no part of it. If you want to send him off, then it is all on you.”
Great, my grandmother was like a stone wall. She was not going to yield, even though I knew deep down she was scared to death and didn´t know what to do. I looked at my husband and told him to bring me the phone. I called Bridgeway’s Crisis Line and told them what symptoms my brother was having. The nice lady on the phone told me that I had to call 911, and then I would have to sign paperwork to have him Baker Acted—involuntarily committed. The lady told me that two people from the family would have to meet at the hospital to sign the paperwork. I got off the phone with Bridgeway, and I called 911. The police came to take the man who looked like my brother away.
I signed the paperwork to have him committed against his will to the mental facility. Two weeks later, my grandmother went to his competency hearing and demanded that he be released into her care—and he was. I wanted to wash my hands of the whole deal. The boy who was my brother was gone. There was a stranger living in his body. I mourned over the death of Jason, and I had to learn to love the new brother that had arrived into my life. I may sound like a coarse, heartless woman—maybe I am, but it is not easy to look at someone who looks just like the brother whom you grew up with without hoping that he would just go away and Jason would return.
Twenty years of medications have not brought my brother back to me. But, I have learned to love my new brother. He is a demanding man; he smokes cigarettes constantly and he never cleans up after himself. Every day when I am exhausted from school and work, he meets me at my car asking me what I have bought for him. He also asks me for cigarettes because my dad, who is his caretaker, has to ration them out to him, and he doesn´t like that at all. He walks into my house without knocking and goes into my kitchen whenever he wants. I feel invaded sometimes. Sometimes I feel violated by his constant presence. And most of all, I feel sad when I look at him because he can never be my Jason again.
My brother had died, and a stranger had appeared for me to take care of and learn to love. My father came home from prison and blamed me for the numerous times Jason has been hospitalized against his will. Sometimes it occurs yearly. He helps to take care of him now, and he realizes how difficult it is to look at this man every day and be reminded of the old Jason—the little boy who loved to look for deer, loved to fish, loved to crawl through the closet into my bedroom at night and just talk about our loneliness and pain. Sometimes I am envious of his departure. Sometimes I wonder with fear if I will become sick like he did.
And sometimes I wish I would.