The little guy in this picture, my brother, is now 58 years old. On Thursday my wife Gaye and I took him to the hospital to have cataracts removed from both his eyes. Normally the procedure is done one eye at a time, in about an hour.
The general anaesthetic and double eye procedure my brother required is because he has autism and a significant Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
As my brother sat on the bed being prepped by a kind and understanding staff a question came, “How are you feeling?”
If he heard the question the invitation was certainly not one he was about to accept.
His mouth was clamped tight, his jaw solid, eyes straight ahead.
“I’m scared,” was his only comment.
As he was being taken to the operating theatre and we walked to the waiting room, my wife said, “Wow, when faced with stress he really withdraws, everything goes into making the container strong.” And then she added (lovingly) “you’re both the same.”
I didn’t engage, unintentionally validating her observation.
My focus was somewhere else, wondering “What did he need from me this day?”
Certainly there were logistical matters – getting him to the hospital on time (no small task!), helping him answer questions about allergies, medications, family history.
My sense though was that there was a responsibility beyond the operational details.
Sitting in the waiting room I realized that my major role was to bear witness to the multiple dimensions of what was happening.
Cataract surgery has now become one of those miracles taken for granted. Thousands are performed each day without complication or significant trauma.
For my brother the mountain was steeper.
Much of my brother’s life is built on predictable (and consequently safe) routines. Modification of those patterns creates great anxiety. This experience would move the trepidation needle to “immense.”
That he was here, in this city, in this hospital at all was a significant milestone. For 40 years he lived safely, surrounded by his practices, in “the house” with my parents. For decades Thursdays were the only day he would venture out and then only to visit his beloved Walmart. The rituals required to leave the store could easily take an hour.
Yet he was here, working hard to answer the questions and to cooperate.
So let me bear witness.
Though the experiences of our childhood were often of the apple and orange variety, we both grew in a similar eco-system.
I share the genetics, the geography and the stories. I know how the desks in Laura J. Morrish elementary school used to feel and how he never fit. I remember the steps he used to climb to Central School and the hill to “the Crowe” he used to ascend to be part of the “special program.” I only have a few peepholes into the gauntlet of ridicule he received but I know that scars born of ignorance and mockery run through the walls of his stoicism like rebar in concrete. And I know the religion, the absolute prohibition against drugs and alcohol and the skeptical attitude towards “trained professionals” that was the atmosphere of our youth.
So I am to bear witness that this event does not just carry “normal” nervous anxiety but that deeper struggles are going on.
Part of the role of witness is to advocate on his behalf if the larger system seems inattentive or ill-suited to his peculiar needs. My wife fulfills this role exceptionally well. Being dissimilar requires attentiveness and assistance in the swim against the current.
As we sat by his bedside, holding the glasses with Coke bottle sized lenses that he soon would not require, I also realized that he would not be lying here except that he trusted us. For in his mind he was doing “OK.” He could no longer read but he still had a sense of what was happening on the TV.
Even despite the many examples of my impatience, frustration and bossiness he knows we are “for him.” In the end, he chose to trust that over yielding to fear.
Mid-afternoon we shuffled home exhausted. His eyes were covered with clear plastic shields; I saw through other lenses.