Living in isolation has been tough on all of us, but to people like my “different” older brother, it can be especially lonely.
I called Alex as soon as I heard the good news. “The restaurants will open again,” I said. “We will still have to be careful, but we will be able to eat out.”
“Can I choose the restaurant?” he asks.
“Any place you want.”
Finally, Alex has something to celebrate.
Living in isolation has been tough on all of us, but to people like my “different” older brother, it can be especially lonely. A big, intense guy who’s never held a job or lived on his own, he needs things to be definite, predictable. Like the average 8-year-old, Alex struggles with the ambiguous and the abstract.
He takes refuge in routine, like riding the special bus that stopped at his group home in Pontiac at 8 a.m. every weekday and delivered him to Visions, a friendly “psychosocial clubhouse.” Unlike many autistic people, he enjoys talking with others, though his conversation usually concerns dates. He possesses an amazing inner calendar. Tell him you were born on Oct. 3, 1952, and within seconds he’ll tell you it was a Friday. Then he’ll recite the birth dates and days of the week of a dozen or more other people born that month, along with their current ages. Our mother died years ago at age 46 and our father at 50, yet last year as each of their birthdays approached, Alex carefully reported that our father would have been 99 and our mother 97.
While this gift awes people, it’s of little practical use. Aware that others have more control over their lives than he does over his, he’s always had a lurking sense that life has treated him unfairly. When the pandemic blew up his routines, his stress level mounted.
That’s where I come in. Concerned that Alex might slip into a bad depression or lose his temper and start feuding with others in his group home, I’ve stepped up my involvement in his life. While I can’t visit, I now call him every day, morning and evening, instead of two or three times a week.
“Tell me what you ate for breakfast,” I’ll say. “Did you like it?” “Have you gone outside for a walk, Alex?” “What did you watch on TV, besides the news?” Because our parents watched the nightly news, he does, too — to my chagrin, on the ambiguity-free Fox network.
To help him stave off boredom, I go online every week to order books to be shipped to Alex. It’s not easy. He reads at an 8-to-12-year-old level, and he likes biographies of people he studied in school, particularly presidents. I think I’ve sent him five different young-adult books on Thomas Jefferson.
Alex also writes letters — to relatives, family friends, a couple of guys at group homes where he’s lived previously —and lately that, too, has increased. I keep him supplied with stamps and writing materials. He doesn’t receive many responses —in fairness, his handwriting is hard to read — but he loves to read the occasional response aloud to me.
Alex’s pre-pandemic life wasn’t exactly blissful, but it offered him a few steady pleasures. When the clubhouse assigned him to act as receptionist, he enjoyed greeting visitors, paging staff and making announcements over the public address system.
He could decide between a couple of simple choices at lunch, take his turn to talk at the daily group meetings and sing “Happy Birthday” at the monthly celebrations. He looked forward to his monthly and holiday visits to my house, with their promise of dining out, celebrating Passover and Hanukkah, getting ice cream, and visiting longtime mutual friends.
That has all stopped now.
Mealtimes, TV and my phone calls are the only breaks in a long, monotonous day that otherwise is as blank as the spiral notebooks I provide him. No wonder he thrills with excitement at any hint of an ending date to our isolation. Yesterday, he said, “On TV I saw people with signs saying it’s time to go back to work! I think it is, too.”
As a sociable woman well into the vulnerable age range, I’m distressed also. My constant reassurance to Alex that “things will eventually get back to normal” feels increasingly hollow. His “when-when-when” echoes loud in me, too.
Unlike Alex, though, I know how fortunate I am. I’m not on the front line, risking my life to treat people stricken with this awful virus. I’m not upping my odds of contagion by delivering food to the quarantined or working in a daycare. I never learned to sew, so I’m not even making masks as some of my friends are. I’m just another scared person sitting at home. In this strange sliver of time, reaching out to Alex is the most useful thing I do.
Yesterday, Alex called to say he heard his clubhouse would open up in July. Before I could say anything, he corrected himself. “It might open,” he said. “We can hope.”
“I’m hoping, too, Alex,” I replied. “We’re in this together.”
“Together,” he repeated.
Eve Silberman is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor.