On October 30, 2014 at 11:43 a.m., my brother Stephen James Elkins passed from this world into the next, surrounded by family and his beloved of thirty years, Deborah White. His was a rough life and a rough death, another early ending courtesy of Big Medicine: first psychiatry, then the usual symptom-suppressing treatments in hospitals and nursing homes dealing with a body too weak to fight serious inflammation and infections. My brother Steve was branded “schizophrenic” as a young man, but never lost a grip on what animated his soul: math and science. His departure from this world was untimely, another statistic among the thoroughly drugged “mentally ill,” who tend to die 25 years earlier than average. He didn’t have to go this way or this soon.
Steve was The Brain in our family, excelling at physics, chemistry, and mathematics. As a kid he was always tearing around on his bike through the neighborhood with the other boys. But by puberty his changes were disturbing. He was without the social graces to garner friends and stayed alone a great deal, lost in fantasies, probably about equaling the greatness of his hero, Albert Einstein. As long as he was sheltered by encouraging teachers at school he could cope, but tossed into the world of career he didn’t last long. He worked briefly as a research engineer at Cessna in Wichita, in quality assurance at Certain-Teed of Kansas City, and taught math in an inner city school in Connecticut, where he was briefly engaged to be married. But in time the sentence “paranoid schizophrenic” was leveled, and he began his longest career as a lifer in the mental health system.
For a while Steve was active for mental-health consumers’ rights. He served on the board of the In Place in Kansas City, a drop-in Center run by CSS of the Johnson County mental-health megalith. Right up until days before his death he spoke to me about finding a cure for mental illness. Over the last two years he had developed this new, passionate hope: to be of service in ameliorating the suffering he saw around him in psych wards, halfway houses, and nursing facilities. But his failing health and substandard care prevented him from taking concrete steps. He died with many unrealized dreams.
I’m struggling with the issue of choice. My brother had some unique opportunities for healing that he didn’t follow through. This is a complicated matter when many things weigh in the balance and the mental-health system is a strong persuader against alternatives, disbelieving in real and total recovery that merits relinquishment of their labels. It also must be extremely difficult to stand up for yourself, to be discerning and objective, with large doses of Haldol and Seroquel coursing your bloodstream. I do see my brother victimized by this system, which never gave him a chance to mature. He opted not to question authority, but rather to identify with it right up to the end.
After the numbness wore off, I couldn’t get the image of Steve as a plucky, curious, slightly arrogant 8-12 year old boy out of my head. With his chemistry set in the basement, theorems on homework papers splayed across the dining room table, and his exquisite pencil drawings of one thing or another…we might say the heart holds to such images because that of mental-patient is so difficult, and it honors the dead to bring the best to mind. But I think it’s more.
I’ve looked into it, and though ultimately it’s a faith decision, I think the position that there is an afterlife makes sense. In the spirit world I imagine Steve hanging out with and looking up to our dad, who passed ten years earlier. Beyond that I don’t know how maturity of soul happens. Will it take reincarnation for my brother to pursue self-knowledge beyond doing as he’s told, or does personal growth develop as we rest in the great beyond? Whichever is the case, I join those ranks of the living who rejoice that the loved one’s suffering is finally over. Even though those torturous years could have been another story…if only. But here my speculations must end. Steve’s trajectory is his alone from this point, and only a segment of the tale in past tense is mine to mourn. My brother, I wish you peace, love, mathematical insights and scientific revelations. May you face what you need to, and forgive much. Forgive me, Steve. I could have been a better sister, that’s for sure. But despite my missteps, when I uttered these words I always knew them to be true:
“I love you, bro!”