Checkmate

Minutes before the holiday of Shavuos, we were informed that my husband’s youngest brother had just been  diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.  It had spread to his bones, liver, and brain; the prognosis was about 4 – 6 months without intervention.   The family (my husband and his other brother) decided to treat him palliatively; aggressive treatment wasn’t really an option.  We thought about when my husband would fly out to California to visit him. But on Monday, June 3 – – just 3 weeks after his initial cancer diagnosis – –  we got a call that he had died in his sleep.

And so, rather abruptly, we’ve temporarily left our home in Maine for our home town, for the thirty-day mourning period for a sibling, known as shloshim, so my husband can say kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) in a daily minyan (prayer quorum).

How do you sit shiva for someone you didn’t really know?

My husband’s youngest brother was nine years younger.  My husband had left home at the age of 18 and lived in a different state, and then a different country, so he really didn’t have much contact with his youngest sibling.

But there were other factors.

My brother-in-law had lived in a board-and-care home for more than 30 years, the result of devastating mental illness that left him a shell of the person he used to be.

My husband called his brother on the phone, but the connection was usually poor and his brother was not really interested in talking.  My brother-in-law didn’t really enjoy visits, either.  He was always in his own strange delusional world before cancer struck, and it had been no different these past 3 weeks .

My brother-in-law’s schizophrenia was especially devastating because of the person he used to be.  At the age of 5 or 6, his father taught him to play chess, and that became his passion.  He wasn’t just good – he was a chess genius, a young Bobby Fischer-in-training.  He played in tournaments all over the place, and by the age of 14 he was the US Western Division chess champion.  He became a chess Master and by the age of 18 his only game  losses were to Grand Masters.  He was just shy of reaching the Grand Master designation (based on points accumulated through tournament games via the US Chess Federation) when mental illness reared its ugly head.  Tragically, at age 20 he stopped playing chess forever.  On meds, he was a zombie and couldn’t play; without meds, he heard voices that confused and distressed him, and got him into all sorts of troubles.  He could no longer care for himself.  Three things were constantly happening to all his possessions – – from stuff, to clothes, to bed linens, to personal hygiene items:  either they were stolen, lost, or he gave them away.  Once, my mother-in-law was horrified to find him laying in a bedsheet so dirty it was black; in the winter he was shivering with cold because he didn’t have a coat.  He only had one pair of underwear.  She hurried to replace everything anew, with several duplicates to spare, at great expense with money she didn’t have.  But within a day or two they’d once again be gone, and once again my brother-in-law couldn’t really say what had happened to them.  He just couldn’t keep track of his possessions.  Nor did he seem upset or distressed by their lack.  He always just said, “It’s okay.”  He also couldn’t drive, though in the initial phases of his illness, before he was admitted to the board-and-care home, he still did.  Years ago, he got ticket after ticket, but paying them wasn’t something he could do, not because he didn’t want to, but because they just weren’t part of his reality.  So one day when he got yet another ticket, the police saw that he had a warrant out for his arrest due to all the unpaid tickets, and he ended up in L.A. County jail.  It was only when a missing persons report was filed that we even knew he was in jail.  He simply couldn’t remember a single phone number of someone to contact to let them know what had happened, so he sat in jail – – this poor, sick young man – – amidst murderers, gang-bangers and rapists – – until we found out about it and could get him out.

It’s easy to judge someone who seems to be uncaring towards a family member who suffers from mental illness.  How could we let him be in a board-and-care home instead of bringing him to live with us?  Well, we tried (we lasted 2 weeks) and my husband’s other brother and sister-in-law tried (to their credit, they lasted a few months). His mother tried and even bought him a small mobile home in a trailer park not far from her place of residence, with her very last bit of savings (she thought if he had something nice he would take pride in it and take better  care of it and himself) but he ended up burning it down.  Was it during an attempt to use a toaster?  Or perhaps caused by careless placement of a cigarette, one of a 4-pack-a-day smoking habit?  (Interestingly, studies have shown that cigarette smoking provides some relief of symptoms for schizophrenics, which perhaps explains their subconscious, widespread  prevalence of cigarette smoking, which of course leads to nicotine addiction not to mention lung cancer.)

No, I don’t think we were heartless by admitting him to a board-and-care home – – just heartbroken.  My brother-in-law  – – who could play TWENTY opponents in simultaneous chess games; and who could play chess blindfolded; and whose chess games were frequently reported and studied in the L.A. Times, in books, and US Chess Federation newsletters, was in a world of his own, one that we could not share.  The day after he died, his niece googled his name, and was connected to a chess forum.  She noticed a query posted the day before he died, which was more than thirty-five years since his last public game(!):  “I wonder whatever happened to (my brother-in-law)?  You used to hear about his games all the time, and I never hear about him anymore.”

His niece responded, reporting that he had died only one day after the post-er’s query.  Word spread quickly via the Internet, and the accolades began pouring in.  It was such a nechama (comfort) to us, that his legacy lived on.  Imagine:  it had been thirty-six years, and even without playing a single game since then, he was currently ranked #414 out of the entire USA!

Needless to say, when we found out the news of his death, we high-tailed it back to our home town.  I drove my husband to the Portland ME airport so he could be back in our home town by that same evening; I continued driving with the car the many miles so I could be there the next day, in time for the funeral.  We flew my brother-in-law’s body to our home town, so that he could be buried with most family members present and with a minyan.

My husband’s other brother spoke emotionally at the graveside funeral, and he really did honor his memory.

Because despite his tragic life,  my brother-in-law was not a bitter person.  He was a gentle man.  He never had a sour word for anyone.  He was truly a nice person.  If someone did something to him that wasn’t nice or even downright cruel, he just let it go and said, “It’s okay.”  And he meant it.

At the shiva we recalled a story we heard many years ago from my mother-in-law about my brother-in-law:  When he was a young kid, he would sometimes walk to the park where older adults would sit at picnic tables and play chess.  Soon, he was winning every game, much to the embarrassment of his elderly opponents.  One day he came home crying to his father, saying that the men had cheated.  He knew where he had placed the chess pieces, but when he looked away briefly, one of the players had discreetly moved a piece so that my brother-in-law could not win.  My brother-in-law realized immediately that his piece had been surreptitiously moved by the opponent (he had a photographic memory of the board, as well as previous and possible future moves), but the opponent denied cheating.  My father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor and fierce partisan warrior who had zero tolerance for injustice, was outraged when his son came home crying and told him about this course of events, and accompanied my brother-in-law back to the park.  “How could you cheat a little kid?” my father-in-law screamed at the opponent.  But even more telling:   we heard this story not from my father-in-law or my brother-in-law – – it was just not their way.  As my brother-in-law always said, “It’s okay.”

Many of you are probably thinking that I am guilty of lashon hora – – speaking negatively of the dead – – by speaking about my brother-in-law’s diminished, very ill self.  But I believe mental illness is a very tragic illness that none of us understand and few of us tolerate – – but it’s not shameful.  Despite many trials with different chemical cocktails, none were able to really help my brother-in-law.  Typically, one is  afraid of what others will think if it’s known that someone in the family is mentally ill, and this segues into the scary possibility that no outsider will want to marry into a family beset by mental illness.  The family is also concerned that they will be judged for their care-taking decisions.  But each mentally ill person’s situation is unique, as is their family dynamics.  Unless you have walked in those shoes, you cannot imagine the difficulties, the pain, and the heartache.   Perhaps you could do better –  –  and I honestly hope you never have to find out.

My brother-in-law was a good person, and in his own way, in better times, he made a difference; in worser times he wasn’t a complainer or angry at his fate of years of illness.  He was happy with nothing – – and I mean literally nothing, and I guess that is a middah (character trait) that we can all learn from, zichro l’bracha (may his memory be a blessing).  HaShem’s chesed (kindness) was that he didn’t suffer, and wasn’t sick for long, because who knows how he could have dealt with it alone in L.A. and with his confused mind.   It was also a chesed that of the brothers, he died first, so that my husband and his other brother could take care of things and see that he was buried properly and in a kavodik (respectful) and expeditious manner.   Hopefully my in-laws and his grandmother, who predeceased him,  are now able to have the full nachas from him in shamayim (Heaven) that they were sometimes denied on earth.

Written in memory of David ben Yisrael, may he rest in peace.

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