Compassion: A disjointed story without beginning, middle or end and no clear protagonist

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This post is part of the 1000 Voices for Compassion project. You can read more posts here.

Louis presented each of my two children with a giant (and I mean really giant) teddy bear when they were born. Many gifts followed over the years, including influential birthday gifts like portable CD players with classic R&B CD’s, and even their first cell phones. There were also many small, spontaneous gifts like drawings and re-gifted trinkets, given to Louis by charitable groups but more appropriate for my young children. Community mental health workers were surprised and often suspicious about his interest in my kids. They saw him as a large, black man who was chronically mentally ill and prone to violent outbursts that landed him in restraints and required mega-shots of Thorazine to keep him under control – not the sweet voice calling to ask about “those babies”, or the gentle man who could barely bring himself to pat the children’s heads when we got together.

My mother, Sissy, is 5’2” and dainty, a lawyer who watches Fox News and insists that it’s quality reporting. Almost every morning for about 30 years, until he died this past summer, she received a call from Louis that would begin with a mundane report of how well he had slept and how his bowels were moving, but too often segue into a bombshell report about the latest upheaval in his life. Many times he had landed back in the state psychiatric hospital but was being transferred into a group home, losing his most recent apartment and all the furniture that he and Sissy had bought and moved in during his last change of residence. Other times it was a report of his being kicked out of a group home and all his belongings being stolen, and his sleeping at the mission, or worse. Sometimes it was a tale of being arrested. Once he had been released from the hospital to a shelter, during winter, with only a pair of house shoes on his feet. During later years, it was reports of heart attacks and hospitalizations for chronic heart disease.

He usually asked her for something simple – some chicken, because he was hungry, or help getting money from his account so he could buy toilet paper and soap. The rest of Sissy’s day, between depositions and court filings, was spent buying new shoes, bringing food, calling mental health case workers, or driving Louis to the bank to withdraw his money. She often helped him gain access to his money since he was deemed incompetent to manage his own finances. Louis was like her part time job, without pay, for almost 30 years. Yes, really. 30 years.

Rewind those 30 years, to the time when my sister, who I have written a bit about here, was sent to the state psychiatric hospital after our family health insurance ran out. She was frail and young, helpless from the severity of her illness and the chemical straightjacket she had been prescribed. This was the 1980’s, when psychiatric institutions were undergoing reorganization, poorly funded and understaffed – dangerous places for disoriented young women.  This is where she first met Louis, who protected her, like a part time job, without pay, until events outside his control took her.

And so I know that compassion is all around us, often unexpected and unrecognized, but sometimes contagious.