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Brother Love: April Fools, Night
Getting dinner, getting emotional, getting my brother Phil out of the cold
My eldest brother, Phil, has been homeless for much of his adult life.
He moved to Chicago in February 2012, got a studio apartment a half-mile from my home and began doing carpentry projects — he’s got extensive skills and experience. However, within a year, amid heavy drinking and drug use, he slipped back into homelessness.
Over the next eight years, I would see him sporadically, each time wondering if it would be the last time I’d see him alive. He would fall out of touch (often with no phone) for weeks at a time, then I might see him two or three times in a week.
At various junctures, I would provide updates on his status to our two siblings in New England, where we grew up. In October 2020, what began as an e-mail update to those sibs turned into an essay that I devoted significant time to think through and write.
If you’ve not yet done so, I suggest you read that essay (linked immediately below). It helps set the context for the next installment of Brother Love further below, about our three hours together on the evening of April 1, 2021.
1995 Flashback: `Wanderer flies onward’
Before getting to that next installment, two notes:
First, I dashed out this second “chapter” five months after the first one, The Other Side of the Tracks.
Unlike that one, which I took more time to develop, what follows is much less contemplative. I recall cranking out the play-by-play details before they fled my memory, as well as before my life sped onward to the next day. (These were the closing weeks of my time on the high school board and our twin children’s senior year of high school.)
Second: thank you to all who have offered such supportive, encouraging feedback on the heels of reading my first Brother Love essay. Reflecting on your comments the past few weeks, it came to mind that it wasn’t the first time I’d written publicly about Phil and my relationship with him.
In September 1995, almost precisely half my life ago, I wrote a column in The (Elgin, Ill.) Courier News, headlined “Wanderer flies onward on wings of brother’s prayer.”
By this point in the mid-1990s, Phil was in his late 20s and his alcoholism and drug addiction had already taken deep root. My relationship with him was marked by uncertainty, concern for his well-being. and a sense of helplessness.
Those feelings persist in June 2023, as Phil maintains his heavy drinking and heroin addiction from one day to the next.
If April Fools, Night reads more like a rapidly created e-mail to sibs than an incisive essay, that’s with good reason: think of it as a collage of snapshots as Phil catches up with his kid brother and seeks warmth against a cold snap.
April Fools, Night
April 1, 2021
It’s past 10 p.m. as I begin writing these reflections. I just spent nearly three hours with Phil, who rang me a minute before 7 p.m.
I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks (the marvelous hair-cut day), only receiving about three or four largely indecipherable voicemails in that span. Last time chatting was the evening of March 17th, when he had called about 10 p.m. to say he was getting the vaccine in a few moments (from volunteers serving the homeless and others in varying points of plight) and inviting me to come get it.
He picks the perfect time to call. Some three hours earlier, we had returned from a 30-hour excursion to Bloomington, Indiana, to check out the IU campus as a family. It was a great time to catch up with Phil, who I could tell had been drinking heavily, even by his standards.
I pick him up at Thornton’s, the gas station near the highway entrance/exit where he panhandles. We head to a Chinese restaurant in Forest Park, order food, then realize he hasn’t gotten medication for his heart arrhythmia that brought him again to the hospital a few days ago. We skedaddle to Walgreens, but they don’t have any of it in stock. Nor do two other nearby locations, we learn as they call around.
Back to the van, then comical misadventure ensues with the seat belt in the back passenger seat getting tangled in the automatic door. We extricate it after much effort, and about five minutes. Phew. We get back to the Chinese food. Then I take him to CVS, where I go in to get his medication. They fill it but we don’t purchase it when they say, “Only Walgreens takes his insurance (Medicare). It would be $159 through us.” (Phil eventually gets it at Walgreens.)
Good news on the medical front: Phil confirms that he indeed was vaccinated a few weeks ago. It’s the Johnson & Johnson dose—one-and-done, perfect for people who are hard to track. Phil refers to it as Janssen. Same thing—J & J owns Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
He has a dark “V” imprinted on the back of both hands—he reinforces it with marker every day. He also a sweatshirt on which he has scrawled, “COVID 19 vaccinated.”
I ask him if he does it to reassure people he approaches while panhandling—no, it’s not that. Not clear to me why he does it; maybe it’s to reassure himself?
I drive Phil to our church’s new home---we see lights are on inside and go to the door, thinking maybe folks are in there. Alas, nobody around. We take a few photos.
At the Lake/Austin intersection, a car has smoke coming out it and is stalled in traffic with a few guys pushing it slowly—I put the car into park and jump out to join the effort. Phil joins in mostly in a supervisory role. Once the impromptu mission is accomplished, we jump back into the van, hazards blinking. We get through the light in time. Having earlier hoped to get to the club to shoot hoops, that exertion will have to suffice for my exercise on this night.
We stop near my home, where he stays in the van while I go inside to give Bridgett an update on my night and let in our cat, Alvin, from the cold. After about 10 minutes, I go back to the van…. he tells me it was a good feeling he’d had, in those minutes, to know that I was nearby and would be back. He’s a kid inside, seeking support and love. I tell him that I love him, and that there are lots of others who do, too.
“I don’t give a f--- about those people,” he says. “I only care about you, and Andy and Judi.” A few moments later: “And my nephews and nieces.”
Then to the tobacco shop, where he buys his tobacco, rolls a cig, and smokes it as he shares more stories, from the distant and recent past. Some revolve around our stepmother’s brother, Jack, and Phil living with him, taking care of the property and horses after Jack’s heart attack and being there when Jack suffered his fatal stroke. I bring up Vida Blue and he reminisces about how nice and low-key Vida was when they met at a Bay Area bar; when I tell him about Vida’s Major League exploits, Phil is moved. He had no idea of how great Vida was.
Throughout our visit, Phil returns a few times to what sounds like a harrowing time to me, but perhaps was another day in the park for him: six teens who were picking on him and threw his backpack over the train two nights ago---and he challenges them to fight.
Nobody makes a move on him, though they more than a few times go through the motions as if they will do so. Finally, he lies down and dares any of ‘em to kick him. Nobody does. This spans a half-hour, Phil relates, though it’s hard to tell how accurate any of his senses are, whether time or space or otherwise. (Note: he later recovers his backpack.)
The last few months, one thing that I have noticed is he’s drinking a whole lot. He was drunk as a skunk by the time I came along tonight. Much vodka, which he swigs on occasion during my time with him. He’s drinking more than ever, but not doing heroin, he says—which I mostly believe. That’s progress, of a sort. I gently encourage him to drink less, and to drink water more.
He gets tearful at times, says Dad would be proud of me, says that I sound like Dad when I tell him, “It’s OK” when he cries. He’s a puddle at times, then composes himself. A few times, he says, “I’ve got so many stories to tell you.”
Finally, after the tobacco shop and the temp drops to 33 degrees, I take him to the hospital, where they provide a warming shelter when it’s 32 or under. At first, the security guard says it’s not yet cold enough…but then he goes back in, checks again. A minute or so later, he waves us in. Thank God: Phil has a warm, safe place for the night—away from the perilous CTA Blue line that has been his go-to overnight spot for months.
He gives me a box of crackers that someone handed him from a car today. He had opened it but realized that he couldn’t eat ‘em without any teeth. I suggest he could give the box to somebody else overnight, but he points out that he wouldn’t be able to stand hearing them eat. “That’s right,” I say, chuckling at how easily I forget how much he can’t stand that.
We hug and I tell him I love him.
“I love you,” he replies. “Go home and love your family.”
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My goal in sharing these stories: for as much good as possible to flow from the struggles that Phil has endured and, to a much lesser degree, that I have experienced throughout this journey. Every month or so, I plan to share subsequent Brother Love pieces. May each one offer encouragement to those in similar circumstances and insight to everyone else.
Phil was in desperate need of a haircut. Sleeping on the train or in a tent, without access to a shower, his hair had become an incredible tangle.
This episode reflects a recurring challenge for Phil: navigating the ins and outs of various “systems,” whether medical, social service or otherwise, to get the care he needs.