My brother Mike, the youngest boy in the Wyatt part of our diversified clan, died recently. Tall like my Grandad, he stood about 6’4 or 5″ and weighed over 400 pounds at the end. He is the first to pass amongst me and my siblings. When you’re young or even old and healthy, dying seems improbable, something that happens to other people, not you. But eventually death grabs each of us by the throat and chokes the life out of us. When it chokes someone you grew up with or perhaps someone you love, it punches you in the stomach, wakes you up, makes you realize that your time is coming. It’s right around the corner.
This story is nothing close to a compendium of Mike’s life story. I am not qualified to write that. I was really not that close to Mike. Some of the memories I plan to write about include Mike, but will appear separately. Perspectives are our truths and this story is my perspective; my truth about what I recall about my baby brother Mike.
My dad was a teaser. I have no doubts that I learned to be a good teaser from him. I do not tease to harm though; I tease to be funny, to entertain. If I tease you, I like you. I wasn’t always like this though. As a child, I used my quick wit and sense of humor to tease, both in fun and sometimes with intention to harm. I don’t have any memories of ‘attacking’ anyone, but when I was teased first, I could usually come out on top in that game. The trick is to quickly identify a personal trait or characteristic that you think the other person might be sensitive about and then exploit it. Making up names that rhymed with another person’s last name was always an easy one. For instance, if your last name was Wyatt, (like mine), you might be called “Diet”. For the record, I hated to be called Diet. The best defense though was to strike back or to act like it didn’t bother you.
Mike could never stand to be teased as a child. I understand this today and would be much more sympathetic if I could go back, but as a child I saw teasing as fun. My Dad did it all the time so it must be ok. The routine I remember best was when Dad would play trivia question and answer time with us. First, he’d ask me a question he knew I would know the answer to.
Robbie – how much is 12 times 12?
Me – 144!
That’s right! Steve – what was Einstein’s theory of relativity, was it E=MC Squared?
Steve – he would say yes or shake his head in affirmation. Steve knew the game.
Ok Mike, your turn. What famous president was the Washington Monument named after?
Mike might not even have been in Kindergarten or First Grade at the time so of course he was not going to know the correct response. Most times when confronted with this challenge, he’d get red-faced and flustered; “you always give Steve the easy ones!” And at that, he’d often fly off to the bedroom for a quick cry. Meanwhile Dad, Me and my brother Steve would be chuckling. It was funny then, (not so much today).
Then there were the evening wrestling matches.
Some evenings for entertainment, me and my brothers would all pile up on Dad and try to wrestle him to the ground. He’d let us pin his arms down, me on one side, Mike and Steve on the other. Of course we couldn’t wrestle him down, but we didn’t know that. He let us think that all three of us could take him. It was a lot of fun…until Mike got hurt. He couldn’t have been more than six years old at the oldest point because we moved away from Goodman when I was in 4th grade. Being the smallest, Mike was always seeming to be the one to get hurt during the matches. When he did, he’d storm away and head to the bedroom where he’d take a brief cry and regain himself. When he returned, invariably he’d attack Steve, (Steve being close in size to Mike at the time and much more passive), to take out his frustrations. Dad would have a good chuckle over that as well. (For the record, I wrestled with my two oldest boys too, but I made certain no one got hurt or teased. It wasn’t conscious, perhaps subliminal?)
Kids can be cruel and when a parent uses a big word to describe a child’s behavior, sometimes siblings will use it to tease. Such was the case with chosen nicknames for poor Mike. One day when we were very young, Mom made some kind of statement to Mike about his “erratic” behavior. I don’t recall if it was during those wrestling matches or some other event, but we kids picked up on the word “erratic” and used it against Mike. Erratic became one of his permanent nicknames. I’d like to think one of my brothers or sisters came up with it, but probably it was me. Later, as a teen, it spawned another nickname from one of us, either siblings or neighborhood friends – “Whacky”. I’m sure Mike didn’t like the name at the time it was given but it stuck and in fact was used rather as a term of endearment by some of us as late teens. My friend Joe used it all the time for Mike, we all used nicknames for each other and that part of them was very harmless, funny to us. We all got nicknames but in hindsight, I wish we had chosen another for poor Mike.
Teenage years, growing up in general can be very difficult for most of us. Likely Mike had some of his own growing pains when I too was experiencing lots of my own personal angst in my teen years. I wish I had been more sensitive to his, but I was pretty wrapped up in my own pains to notice enough in order to be more sensitive. Resulting, (or more likely, coincidentally), we grew apart during those brief few years. Mike would tell me that he hated me on more than one occasion and I would repeat the blurb right back at him. I grew to hate Mike, not knowing there might be something serious going on underneath that was perhaps helping to drive his behavior.
I guess I’m what you would call a passive aggressive fighter. I hate to fight. I also have a need to be sought out. If you are making some kind of effort to stay in touch with me, I reciprocate and we will hit it off. If I am the one however having to always be the one who reaches out, we will very quickly fall away from each other and I will forget about you totally. To me, love and friendship needs to be a give and take by both parties. I have only a few people in my life I would call a very close friend, someone who reaches out to me every now and again over the years. If we are close friends though, I will be extremely loyal. But back to fighting – I do hate to fight, never liked it but when verbally attacked, I can be a tough competitor. Even as a kid, I don’t recall starting many verbal fights, but when I was provoked, you can bet that I usually would come out on top with the nasty teasing quips. It didn’t help for my siblings that I was the oldest….again, we come back to that pecking order thing I’ve written about several times. (Read me)
I was married very young, only 20 years old at the time. Luckily, my wife and I have survived the test of time, but as I sit here now and think back on ‘getting married at twenty’, I think – were we nuts? Around the age of 19 my girlfriend and I were engaged and we were planning a Fall wedding, soon after turning 20.
Wedding planning is a women’s event. Pretty much all the guy has to do is to gather together a few of his friends and then show up looking like a raccoon in the headlights to say “I Do”. Not too much earlier, my friend Joe’s big brother Mike had gotten married. I looked up a little to Mike, thought he was cool. He was very intelligent, driven, good looking and funny. His best man was his brother Joe who he was very close to. I thought that was cool too. When it came time for me to choose people to stand with me at my wedding, I asked my brother Steve to be my best man. Steve and I didn’t have the same relationship as Mike and Joe, but being young and impressionable, I thought it cool to do the same thing. I chose Steve and two of my close friends at the time, Joe & Rob. I didn’t ask Mike.
After my Mom found out who I was planning on having in my wedding party, she did come to talk to me, to try to reason with me to ask my brother Mike to also be in the wedding party. She told me he wanted to be in the wedding. Actually, I was surprised by this. Surprised isn’t really the right word, vindicated might be more appropriate. I’m not proud about this but Mike hated me and I hated him. That is how we both acted at that time and so I was actually glad that I could dish out some revenge for how he made me feel. Today it’s apparent to me that he still looked up to me as his oldest brother. My behavior was petty, childish. If you ask me what my single largest regret in life was, it might be that. I had an opportunity to be a real man and I blew it, pathetic. The guy even rented a tuxedo for himself. If we could all live fast and die young, we’d all possibly die without regrets.
High school came and went for Mike. He worked for his grades and wasn’t a bad student, but college wasn’t in the picture for Mike. He didn’t seek me out for advice and naturally I was too wrapped up in my own life with a new job at the foundry. A year or two later, Mike came to me and asked if I could get him a job at Deuscher’s. By this time we no longer hated each other. I had moved out of the house and I think this helped our relationship. Nine kids cramped into that space really was too much for some of us. I see that now.
I really didn’t want Mike to work at Deuscher’s. It was hot, dirty and since the only criteria for getting hired was a strong back, there were all sorts of degenerates working there. Deep down I cared for the guy and was afraid he might get hurt or exposed to some really nasty elements. But he really wanted that job and wanted the money so I spoke up for him and told him then to come down to put in an application. He was hired and like all new employees, sent to the grinding department to stand in front of a heavy duty grinder all day, grinding flashing off of castings; a dirty, back-aching job, especially if you were 6’5″ like my brother. Someone gave my brother the nickname of Lurch and it stuck.
Mike must have been maybe 20 years old at the time of working at the foundry, possibly 21. We didn’t like hiring younger people – we all knew there were better places for young men. I’m fuzzy on the timetable for Mike’s degeneration in behavior and I’m not seeking out input from others on this story so I’m sure I’m mixing up some facts or some timelines. You’re getting this as I can recall it and what I recall is that Mike began to show signs of more erratic behavior around the 18-25ish time of his life. What I remember very clearly is that it coincided with his time for experimenting with drugs. I knew for certain he had become a pot smoker and I did try to reach out to coach him. I warned him never to come to work high, not because I was afraid of his getting fired, but because it was an extremely dangerous place to work. Then I used the moment to ask him to consider dropping the pot all together. I think he might have been into some other heavier stuff, (like pills), at the time and his response was that I had tried it and “did just fine”.
No…(I told him)….I did NOT do just fine. It damn near wrecked my young life. I told him that my wife and I never touch the stuff (marijuana) any longer. I was honest with him and told him that we had used a couple of times at concerts, but nothing more. At this time Mike was using pot almost on a daily basis. I didn’t know exactly what else he was using but I was really afraid for him and did my best to try to influence him to change his habits. On this chapter of Mike’s life I’m very clear. I had this conversation with Mike more than once since I was now seeing him on a daily basis at the foundry. Sadly, he did begin hanging out occasionally with a couple of low-lifes. It really pissed me off and made me worry for him.
Mike didn’t last long at the foundry. I remember walking into the office area one day after making my rounds in the shop. I was wearing my green Army jacket that I wore there to protect my shirts and my blue hard hat, (blue for management, white for hourly). Mike was sitting in the small hallway of our office. We had a small office without an empty space for private conversations so the hallway was most often used for meetings like these as well as for sitting down to speak with vendors. If someone needed a very serious, private conversation, sometimes they’d ask to use Bob’s office in the back. Bob was the president and oldest brother in the family running the business.
So there was Mike with Kenny. Kenny was our HR manager. I intend to write a nice long story soon about all of my coworkers from my foundry days, so for now just know that Ken did all the hiring and firing. Mike had come up to resign. He had told Ken that he thanked him for hiring him but that he had decided that the foundry was not a good place, at least not for him. I was relieved he was leaving.
I was a busy man. I had an important role at the foundry, I had begun evening classes three days per week at the University of Cincinnati and I had a new son at home. The period from 1979 when I began employment with Deuscher’s to 1987 when I graduated evening college and took up employment with P&G was a hectic time for me. My entire focus had become scratching and clawing my way out of the socioeconomic class I had grown up in and working hard to create a different way of life for my kids, one filled with opportunities for them. I had little time for my ‘old family’. My new family had completely dominated my focus…..and I was very good at planning and execution. Not that I could have altered the course of events for Mike, but I had little time for Mike or anyone else that required additional coaching. We would get together for special family events like birthdays maybe, but otherwise only my sister Lori and her husband Matt really got much of my time. Like many of you out there reading this, I had become a machine.
One day I stopped by the house on Prytania to visit and there was Mike, out in the middle of the street yelling and making hand gestures to drivers as they navigated by him. This was it; this was the day Mike ‘went crazy’ in my mind. I tried talking him out, but it was no use. The next recollection I have is of visiting him in the hospital where he was fairly well sedated. This was the first time I heard my mom say he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic and manic depression (today they call it bipolar disorder). I remember being very angry – angry at what or at whom, I wasn’t sure, maybe angry at Mike. The doctors told my mom that he would have been genetically predisposed to become the way he did, but for me, I was convinced that the drug usage helped trigger it. No one can convince me otherwise. It still pisses me off when I think back on it – anger when I think on the effects the illness had on Mike.
The years began to roll by and Mike would navigate through cycles of being good at taking his medication, then feeling that he didn’t need it, causing him to have a relapse for which he would require a brief hospital stay followed by time spent in a supported living facility (I think of it as a halfway house). When he was on his meds, he was really in decent shape. Here’s a clip from a family gathering. It’s one of my favorite memories of Mike because he had been accidentally caught on film making a comment about my dad’s wife. After realizing it, he tries to squirm out of it. It makes me smile.
You don’t have to watch the whole thing, but that’s Mike at the very beginning of the clip and his apology occurs around 1:15.
I don’t remember what year this would have been but I’m thinking it was before I moved to Louisiana in 1989, Mike was brutally attacked (it could have been after ’94 when I moved back). He had been living on Main Street in a cheap apartment. My recollection is that some younger punk beat him up badly for a few bucks. I don’t recall what happened to the punk as a result or if Mike had witnessed this himself or if it was his suspicion. What I do remember though was that I came ‘this close’ to hiring someone to exact revenge. Even though Mike and I weren’t all that close, he was my brother and I felt really sorry for him. He was a mess. Good judgment guided me from doing something stupid and I sat on the sidelines, feeling helpless.
Sometime, (I think around the mid 90’s), Mike actually met a girl and was married in a small chapel ceremony. Kari had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t know for certain but I’m assuming they each met at the assisted living facility. They got to enjoy perhaps a decade of living together on their own. They always required a little bit of assistance, but in general I think they were happy together for awhile. My understanding is that eventually Kari had to go back to assisted living due to the disease worsening with age. I think Mike visited her a few times, but I’m thinking they eventually got an annulment. On that point, I’m not sure, just speculation. It was nice to see that there really is someone out there for everyone.
Other than a few family gatherings during ’94 to ’04 before I moved to California, I had very little contact with Mike. I was wrapped up in my own life, trying to get promoted at work, raising kids, (especially our new baby), extremely busy at work and then personally adjusting to my new life after breaking my leg in ’97. I remember spending time also trying to help my mom get adjusted to living without Joe, my stepfather.
When I did see Mike, I could no longer relate with him. That wasn’t his shortcoming, it was mine. During the middle 80’s period, I did much better with him because he appeared to be more lucid to me. Later in the 90’s, after I moved back to Ohio, Mike appeared mostly ‘glossy-eyed’ when I saw him. I guess from his medication. A couple of times I had to interject myself between him and my oldest son as Mike was trying to ‘offer advice’. I had no clue as to what Mike thought he was advising Mitch about, but the conversation always sounded too ‘adult’ to me for Mitchell. I didn’t like him being around Mitch but as long as I was nearby, I felt I could contain him. I even bought a shotgun from Mike once because he was selling it for money and I just didn’t want him owning a gun (I still have this). Most times though, Mike was generally well behaved.
When 2004 rolled around and we relocated for work to California, I knew that contact with my siblings would be even more sparse than they already were. I think I only saw Mike 4 or 5 times, (at most), after we moved out west.
If I’m to sit here and try to perform a little bit of psycho self-analysis, I’d have to say that, looking back, I was extremely focused, almost obsessed, with being something my dad was not – a good father to my boys. I had very little time for Mike and frankly speaking, didn’t want to be burdened with a ‘parenting’ role for him, which is what I was afraid might develop after Dad and Joe both died. My boys were to get all of my quality time. The scary part of it for me as a parent was this – my boy Mitch reminds me of my brother Steve and my boy Corey reminds me of Mike. Some of their qualities are so much like those of my brothers that it really scared me for Corey. I remember on several occasions I shared Mike’s story with Corey, (and note here I accidentally typed Corey’s story and had to back up), in order to stress with Corey how worried I was of what might happen should he ever decide to experiment with drugs. It scared me to death as Corey was going through his teen years.
Our experiences in life play a huge role in helping to form who we are. My own personal experiences with Mike taught me a few things. Firstly, it taught me that having regrets in life is a real bitch. I know I was young at the time of my marriage, but where were the father figures then to explain to me how I might possibly regret not asking Mike to be in wedding? Didn’t my Dad or Joe sense that I was being childish? Maybe Joe did, maybe he felt it was better that I learn from my mistakes?
Secondly, I learned that role models have a responsibility to be better than they really are. At some level, I’m sure Mike looked up to me. I did come to this conclusion many years ago and I tried to remember it at work as I was potentially showing up as one who was helping to teach young managers how to conduct themselves around others there. My final several years at P&G I spent most of my time focusing on just that – helping others become better in their roles.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, Mike’s affliction taught me that we are all so tiny and fragile. Any of us could have ended up like Mike. You, Me, my other brothers and sisters; all it takes is a misguided gene or our stupidity to take us to places we shouldn’t be in. I’m sure my boys consider me to be “paranoid”, too controlling or too worried about their well-being. One day maybe they’ll stumble upon this little story about my brother and realize why I acted the way that I have and why I still today worry for them in regards to their choices in life.
I didn’t attend Mike’s funeral. Perhaps I’m odd in this regard, but I don’t like using a funeral to ‘say goodbye’ to the dead. Funerals are for the living and I just did not feel from anyone living, a need to receive comfort from me. I come back to that need to be sought out – no one asked me to come, no one called me to ask if I would be present and I am not upset about that. The closest act was from my brother Felix who simply asked me to think about it before deciding not to come. Felix is an ordained minister and performed the memorial ceremony for Mike.
If there really is an afterlife, then I’m certain that our spirit must be able to see the truth in who we all are as individuals within these bodies of ours. Mike – I’m sorry you had kind of a crappy life on this planet. I hope that there were lots of pockets of peace in between the sorrow. I’m sorry too that you and I went through a rough time together as kids. I hope my choices didn’t negatively influences your choices. The best thing about getting older is being able to see just how much of an idiot we were when we were young. Knowing what I now know, I would not have been one of the teasers and would have instead stuck up for you. Knowing what I now know, I now see that being in that wedding party of mine meant much more to you than it did to anyone else on my side. If you can see into my soul, then you know I’m speaking the truth when I say that because it meant something to you, you should have been my best man that day. What can I say, I was a childish idiot. Goodbye my brother.
Mike wrote a poem for our Grandma on Mom’s side, in ’93 after her death