Brenda Gaba lives in Dallas with her husband, two dogs, two fish and the two empty bedrooms of her 20-something sons. Her poetry has appeared in The Texas Observer and Language, Uncanned, an anthology published by The Writer's Garret in Dallas. The first in her family to graduate from college, she grew up in a small town in the Texas Panhandle. She is a mentor in the Writer's Garret Writers in the Neighborhoods and Schools program, has worked for The Fort Worth Press and was once the communications officer of The Dallas Housing Authority. She loves photography and travel, and has spent time in China, Japan, Germany, New Zealand and Argentina.
The phone rang. I picked it up and heard at the other end, "Hel-Lo," very loud and slow, the syllables equally punctuated with the strained effort of a person whose right vocal cord is partially paralyzed—one of the effects of a stroke that struck Max five years ago. It could also be the vocalization of someone who has already had several drinks by 11:00 a.m., which is possible for Max. Sometimes people think he's drunk when he's not. Max is my fifty-six-year-old younger brother.
It's ironic that a man who has spent much of his life under the influence of alcohol would have to live his post-stroke, sobered up life responding to people who think they are talking to a drunk. He refrains from drinking for months at a time, but I know it's never permanent.
"What are you up to?" I ask.
"It's a pretty day—the sun is shining. I'm about to go outside and take Cyrus for a ride on my scooter. He loves riding on my scooter."
Cyrus is Max's cat, his companion in his 453-square-foot efficiency apartment.
"Great," I say. I imagine Max's six-foot frame, his halting walk as he holds onto his cane with his left hand, his right hand unable to write. I wonder how he will manage to steer the motorized wheel chair he calls a scooter and hold on to the cat.
Is he sober? Should I have picked up the phone? When he asks me how I'm doing, I'm pretty sure now that he has not been drinking. I pause and ponder. I am skeptical. I am hopeful.
"You're taking Cyrus?" I ask.
"I put him on my lap, and he sits still," he says.
I imagine the two of them cruising down the tree-lined sidewalk in the posh neighborhood overlooking the river across the street from his apartment: Cyrus's fur fluffed back by the forward movement, Max's once handsome face slightly askew, but with a satisfied look because he's driving. He's in control.
He gets to the point. "Did you get a copy of my SSI statement? I'm going to get $13 more a month, so I'll have $711 a month for everything. My food stamp card used to be $147 and now it's only $91. What happened?" His lucid questions confirm what I suspected; he has not been drinking.
I explain that he is reassessed annually and that he is paying less rent out-of-pocket thanks to Section 8. Therefore his food allowance is being reduced. "Well, I guess I'll have to eat the cheaper things now," he says. So much in his life comes down to nickels and dimes, and uncertainty.
Two months ago he called me at 3:00 a.m. to report, "I'm vomiting blood—what should I do? Should I call 911? They probably won't come. Last time I went to the emergency room, I had to sit for four hours, and it made me mad. I had to piss, and I couldn't. It wouldn't come out. That's why I called them. I started cussing because I needed help. They finally catheterized me and then called the police to take me away. The police brought me home and were really nice when they saw where I live."
"Is there a lot of blood?"
"Call 911," I said. Later I found out that he had already called my mother and my sister. He had wanted my confirmation.
Max was in the hospital for a week and received several blood transfusions. He returned to his apartment vowing never to drink again because he doesn't want to die by bleeding out of the mouth.
However, my brother is an alcoholic. Having a stroke made him want to drink more. He has struggled for years with this dark bugger bear. In his crib, he'd scream and cry, "the bugger bear is going to get me." Daddy would tell him he was going to kill the bear, and Max would quiet down a bit. I was about six years old at the time, but the bugger bear still lives.
I'm the oldest of our clan of six, and Max's go-to person when there's a problem. Two of my siblings will have nothing to do with him. My dad, whom he still calls his best friend, was his drinking buddy and died twelve years ago. My mom is eighty-two, and not as strong as she used to be. My only living uncle, the one who claims in a Texas Panhandle Mafia style that "family is everything" will not talk about him or to him.
It's me he calls when his home health aide goes to the grocery store and returns without a receipt and only a few items on the list. "He didn't bring me any change; I'm short $10," Max says.
So what am I doing still caring if my little brother's home health worker is ripping him off? I don't know. For a long time I didn't particularly like Max. I didn't want to be his friend. I didn't approve of him and his inappropriate behavior. I have been frightened of him when he's been drinking, when his mean, crazy side takes over. But I always answer his phone calls, even if I end up hanging up after less than a minute of conversation.
Sometimes I don't talk to him for weeks. If he hadn't had a stroke, I imagine it would be simpler to let go. To let him fall. To let the bus pass him by, as it has done more than once in the early stages of recovery when he was beginning a new life on his own. On a sober day, while waiting for the bus, he stumbled and fell on the ground waving his cane as the bus passed by. The driver assumed he was drunk.
I've grown to like Max. He calls to read me a poem he has found or to tell me a joke. He listens to me as I read one of my poems to him.
My friends don't understand. I know he still drinks, but I am pleasantly surprised when he isn't. I know I can't control his actions. Still, I've wanted to make sure he has the opportunity to get better. That his basic needs are met. When he moved into his new apartment, I made sure everything was unpacked and put into place, working under the assumption that it is easier to maintain order when it has already been established. After a previous move, the people helping him left boxes, clothes, books and paper all over the place. He was never able to find what he was looking for.
Max now lives in a newly renovated high rise apartment that has allotted a percentage of its apartments to Section 8 for Elderly and Disabled persons. My sister and I jumped through hoops to get him approved. He is fortunate to have these benefits as well as Medicaid. It has made all the difference to a stroke victim who was homeless after being kicked out of a nursing home for leaving without signing out, a street person relying on emergency room medicine. Now he only goes to the emergency room when he is in great discomfort or thinks he could be dying, which is about once every other month.
"Thank God I had the stroke," Max said to me one day. Though his stroke wasn't enough to stop the drinking, it has been a blessing-in-disguise. Max gets taken care of.
It has required tremendous effort and perseverance to navigate the social services system. But there is a system. And it has helped him.
Now that he is afraid of dying via suffocation with blood, maybe he will stop drinking. I have no idea how long his sabbatical from booze will last. I'd like to think the drinking is over. That the Big Daddy has scared away the Bugger Bear. But I have to be realistic. For many alcoholics, the stopping point is death.
Post script: Max resumed drinking. No surprise here. Last time I visited him, he called a social worker about getting counseling. He said all he could think about was getting his next drink. He's drinking about a quart of cheap vodka a day. It's been a month and the intake person still has not shown up, the last time I checked in with Max.