I sit at the veranda of my mum’s house gazing at the septic tank. “That’s where our shit goes when we flush it down the toilet,” I whisper to the air. My mind wanders as I raise my head for a second to catch our neighbour’s jackfruits dangling from across the fence. My head drops. An earthworm wriggles through the soggy soil under the orange fruit tree that’s on our compound.
I’m amazed that orange survived its infancy. Its journey started in 2014, a gift from one of mum’s friends. It’s bearing fruit now. I counted five oranges today. Christopher, my brother, would always pull off its leaves. Each time he got angry for whatever reason, hunger, a delay in giving him food, a no from me if he wanted to watch a video or listen to music from my phone, anything that rubbed him the wrong way, that orange bore the brunt of his unhappiness. He would shred off its leaves, lash out at the young ones, leaving the plant stick-naked. I’d think that was it for the orange. But you don’t write off an orange just like that.
It would find a way, growing a new branch and bringing out fresh lime leaves that smelled of newness. The tree would knock off the beating and shredding it suffered in the hands of my brother and thrive in its new found branch. But that wouldn’t last. Chris would just walk close to it and his left palm would grab a handful of those leaves, reducing its hard work to near nothing. I thought it wouldn’t make it to fruit bearing age. Look where we are now, five years later, after surviving many spells of Chris’s unforgiving left hand.
Chris has cerebral palsy. He got brain damage at birth. The part of his brain that gets things done, the one which controls speech and common sense and all things regular people consider normal got a short circuit during his birth. The wires got charred. He was deprived of oxygen.
“What happened?” I once asked mum.
“Delayed birth,” she said.
He’s 27 years old now. Chris drools and his shirts sometimes get so wet one might think he was doing the ice-bucket challenge. We’ve got to have a handkerchief(s) everywhere he goes to keep his shirt from getting wet.
Does he drool all the time? No. When he’s thirsty, hungry, or tired, the spittle dries up. When he’s sick, it dries up. When he’s overdosed and the medicine is making him weak, the drool disappears. He’s on medication every day. He’s been on it for as long as I can remember, a steady 15 years now, I think. Every day. Morning and evening. Sometimes the dosage is increased. Other times, new medication is introduced and some written off. He sees a psychiatrist once every two months.
There are times when he gets episodes of epileptic attacks, fits that used to scare the shit out of me when I was a teenager. I learnt to handle that situation; turning him to his side, helping him relax, cleaning any spit that came out of his mouth, giving him medication dissolved in water and helping him to his bed or chair when he regained consciousness.
He’s not like you and me yet he’s like you and me. He has red blood and salty tears, 10 fingers and toes. He has pubic hair and strands of beards. He goes to the toilet. He farts. He laughs. He jokes. He listens to music and dances (rather shakes whatever he can) to the sound of melodies. He watches movies although he doesn’t know what Game of Thrones is. He would never be bothered by the rave and hype it brings. He watches football. There’s no particular team he supports. To him, it’s all entertainment. He loves to hug. And he’s got a heart that’s genuinely, richly full of love.
He used to be so impatient that he was always on the move. The only time he’d stay still was when he was asleep. Something has changed. He’d never sit through a movie or anything for over five minutes without that urge to stand up and head out kicks in. When I was home for Easter, I noticed he sat through the Everton Vs Man U and Arsenal Vs Crystal Palace games. That’s progress, a tiny change in behaviour that I applaud him for.
Chris is his own kind of person. In his inability to speak, he creates conversations in ways we, his immediate family, have learned to understand. His language is in expressions and actions. He draws mental pictures for those of us listening by raising, lowering or stretching the length of his tone. Yes, he has a voice. No, he doesn’t speak. He uses his hands to point and explain things. No, if you’re thinking about Sign Language, it isn’t. It’s his own creation. He’s own genius. He’s own mode of bringing out what’s in his world to ours. He listens. We’ve got to guess and figure out what he’s communicating. It’s a unique way of keeping an interaction going. Sometimes we fail to pick out what he’s trying to put forward. That hurts him. His shoulders drop. Disappointment gets written on his face.
On a bad day, when no one understands him, he’ll run into a rage, wrecking glassware, breaking bulbs, pulling down shower heads and breaking bathroom mirrors. Kitchen ware will find their way over the fence and clothes on the wire will kiss the ground. Eggs and whatever is in the fridge will find an exit. The fridge will land on its side. Frustration drives Chris nuts. It’s sad. It’ll take a combination of force and diplomacy to calm him down. A carrot and stick approach. It’s bad. I’ve never liked it when he’s furious.
Sometimes there’s spilling of blood and bodily harm. It’s a mess. It’s strenuous. It’s difficult to keep calm and sane when he has those bouts of anger. At the end of it, there’s fatigue from the wrestle to calm him down. This behaviour has driven away so many of his caretakers. Sigh. Mum and I understand it when they decide to leave. Taking care of my brother is a truly difficult task for anyone. It takes an overdose of grace to stick in there.
On other days, when he’s point of view isn’t understood, he’ll just walk out and run to his corner at the wall fence saying stuff, stuff I’ve never understood. I imagine he’s either speaking to himself or to an imaginary friend. I don’t know. I always feel I’ve let him down when he communicates something and I fail to decipher it. It’s the kind of pain you feel when you’re powerless and a situation is out of your control, when you can’t change a thing, when you’re so close to winning yet so far from it. It’s the pain a brother feels when he can’t communicate with his brother, not because he doesn’t want to but because nature chose to put a barrier between the two of them that they’ve both got to keep tearing it down to make headway. It’s the pain of a heavy heart, akin to the pain of losing a dear one. It’s that pain that brings tears to eyes and makes you ask, “God, why?” It’s near unexplainable pain.
The beauty with life is that we always find a way amidst uncertainty, like water that creates its own path when it hits an obstacle. We stay the course and take a different tangent when we need to. We wake up every day with hope for a better day and faith that the God who allowed mum and me to have Chris in our lives will give us the grace and resources to take care of him the best way we possibly can.
P.S: That’s not Christopher’s photo.