It's been a while, huh? Well, sometimes we get to a point where we lose faith, lose our steam, and just feel defeated. I cop to those feelings .............BUT I'm back. I submitted a short story about John last year but received no recognitition - the fact I wrote and submitted it though is a good thing. I share it with you below. Hope you enjoy it.
Death & Faith
A Sister’s Journey of Love
All Rights Reserved
© 2010 Julie Suzanne Lantz
In the early morning hours of a bitter cold day in January 1972 the crumpled body of a young man badly bruised and beaten is found washed ashore in a New York City park. He is dead. His skull crushed, ribs and elbow fractured, the upper torso fresh with lacerations to his liver, spleen and lung. Who is this young man? What happened to him? How long has he been dead? Where does he belong? Who does he belong to? His identity “unknown”, within two weeks this Honorably Discharged Air Force Veteran was buried a pauper and indigent in the City’s “Potter’s Field” with nothing but a number to identify his remains. The young man, my brother John.
It had been nearly 38 years since my brother’s death and, deliberately, I knew very few details. I didn’t really care to know the circumstances, choosing instead to live in a cloud of denial and semi-awareness with no real acknowledgment. Over the years I did my best not to remember events, our times together, limited as they were, and when asked if I had any siblings, I would say “yes, a brother, but he died long time ago”. I would get the usual “oh I’m sorry” and my response would always be the same, “that’s okay.” Shame on me! Life intervened and fate landed on my doorstep; the time had come for me to learn about John’s death and, more importantly, his life.
Happy New Year 2009! It would prove to be quite eventful. In mid-January, I connected with a couple of friends of my brother through Classmates.com – friends I had never met. I’d been a member but hadn’t visited the site since I joined a couple years earlier and, for some reason I logged on, don’t ask me why. I noticed there were some messages, but one caught my eye immediately. “If anyone knows the whereabouts of the sister of John Turner, please call….” – the message was sent in 2007. My heart stopped, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I immediately called.
Over the next several months, Michael, Susan and I communicated almost daily sharing stories about John. I told them of his joining the Air Force in 1967, his diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1969, his departure from Los Angeles to New York in May 1971 and his death in January 1972. I also told them where John was buried. We exchanged pictures of John as a little boy, teen and young man, and shared stories of our families. We were all learning something new. The more we communicated, the more I thought about John. And the more I thought about John, well, let’s just say, from that moment on I knew he had found a way to let me know, “I’m here”.
And so like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz I set out to walk my own “yellow brick road” and a journey began…….. for John (or so I thought). For me, the most important first step was to finally acknowledge John’s death was not okay. It was not okay my brother, barely 24, was taken from life. It was not okay he was buried in a Potter’s Field. It was not okay we didn’t get the chance to know one another as adults, not to mention barely as kids. I’m learning his life was difficult and his heart heavy. Again, not okay. And, it was not okay his brilliant mind was reduced to delusional thoughts and his speech and written words nonsensical. Schizophrenia will do that. None of it was okay!
How do I start and where do I begin? Life intervened yet again and coincidences came knocking at my door. Or was it fate once again? If ever I did not believe things happen for a reason and in their own good time, I began to believe. While in the process of moving in March 2009 I found John’s military file and another regarding his death – files I hadn’t seen in over 20 years and totally forgot existed, files that would help in my quest to know my brother better. I also found one of John’s favorite songs - one he’d play endlessly - a 45 record of “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones. I began reading, searching and learning and my quest to bring John home, both physically and spiritually, began.
The tragic end came on a cold wintery night in January 1972 when John committed suicide by jumping off the 143 foot high Triborough Bridge (now the Robert F. Kennedy), a collection of three bridges connecting the Burroughs of Manhattan, Queens & The Bronx through Randall's & Ward's Islands. He was found washed ashore on Ward's Island. Also on the Island, the psychiatric hospital John called home for nearly the last six months of his life.
I can’t even imagine what kind of mental or emotional state a person must be in to think jumping off a bridge is the only answer. Could you? Having been diagnosed schizophrenic in 1969, I can only guess John was having a psychotic moment, couldn't stand the emotional pain, and didn't see another way out. It’s important to consider his state of mind and understand while in the throes of great depression and other mental ailments consuming him, he was not thinking of anyone or anything and his main and only objective was to stop the emotional pain. He didn’t even realize what he was about to do was permanent, irreversible, no coming back, no turning back. There was no "Take 2" and no changing his mind. When you hear voices egging you on to do the unthinkable, you don’t stop to ask questions, you do it. It’s said suicide is the ultimate selfish act, leaving behind loved ones with no answer to the question, "why?" Is it really selfish or a form of self-protection? Unless you’ve walked in similar shoes, who’s to say?
John’s death was always thought to be a homicide - the police told me so in 1972 – so when I found out the truth 38 years later it was a complete shock. My heart cracked a little more to know he chose to take his own life in such a punishing way. His poor little body was battered and bruised, broken bones and fractured skull. This is death at its worst. He was wearing blue "dungarees", a yellow shirt, green socks, brown lace up shoes and brown "suit" jacket. And, he was wearing his black horn-rimmed glasses, the kind "Clark Kent" wore. If only he was Superman and could have flown above & over that bridge…….. to safety.
What is schizophrenia and how, when and why does it attack? Simply, wires in the brain aren’t plugged into the proper outlets. You don't understand what's happening to you but you do know something's wrong. You hear strange sounds coming from the radio and television and hear more voices than there are people speaking. Like a shortwave radio, your brain intercepts these strange sounds, all garbled together. You're the only one who can hear these sounds. They are loud and louder and become even louder until you can no longer stand it and must act. Could you imagine this being your normal state of mind? Most people can’t even stand the constant drip of a faucet let alone strange voices and sounds from another world. Schizophrenia strikes most often in the late teens and early 20's and strikes more males than females. John was barely in his 20’s when he became ill. And while there are no definitive explanations for its cause, there are theories a traumatic event can trigger the illness.
After graduating high school in June 1966 John enlisted in the Air Force and it was during the induction process John was told by the Air Force Chaplain our father had died nearly 6 years earlier – suicide by hanging – when he’d been told for years, as was I, that dad was alive and well and living in Cleveland, Ohio. Being nearly six years older, John had the closer relationship with our dad and was more deeply connected than I - by the time I came along, our parents were divorced. I’ve pictures of dad with an itty-bitty John and the connection, love and father-son bond is obvious. John definitely loved his daddy! This life-altering news, news I couldn’t even imagine coming from a stranger, sent John into a downward spiral from which he never returned. And, thus, was born the “traumatic event”. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Schizophrenia, come on in.
John was born in Sunching, a little German village in Bavaria, on October 23, 1947 and died in a big city known as the "Big Apple" on January 19, 1972. His life in between was not an easy one but he lived it the best way he knew how. He was the typical older brother and I the typical younger sister, always pestering him, wanting to hang out with him and he always wanting to be with his friends. I can still hear him calling down to his friends in the street, “Can’t, have to watch my little sister". He was a loner, keeping to himself, thinking his thoughts and probably plotting what he would do when he grew up. Time went by and we both grew up, at least physically. Family circumstances did not allow us to live together continuously or to really know one another as I believe siblings should. We may have grown up with “Leave It to Beaver”, “My Three Sons” and “The Donna Reed Show” but we weren’t raised by those families. Ours was more like “The Fractured Fairytale” vignettes of the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.
John began living his life in New York City, a place he always wanted to visit, having left home in May 1971. He never came back! I’d learn he was not living his life at all but instead was in a psychiatric hospital in Manhattan…………… living someone else’s. Although I didn’t know it at the time, he’d been in and out of various facilities since his diagnosis in 1969. As a sixteen year old, I knew he wasn’t well but never told the extent of his illness. Looking back, I remember him sitting in his favorite chair in the corner of the living room smoking his Marlboro cigarettes and listening to his music through headphones…….. for hours and hours and hours. I now wonder what he was really hearing through those headphones. Was the music even playing?
I’d also come to learn John had only been in New York for little more than a month when, in a moment of lucidity, he realized he was not well and committed himself to Bellevue Hospital in June 1971. He would remain at Bellevue until July 1971, when he transferred to the Dunlap-Manhattan Psychiatric Center in July 1971. There he would remain until his death.
John would never know a true adult world or a life free from destructive forces –“May the force be with you” didn’t apply for John for his were unkind and deadly. He would never marry, never have children or grandchildren. He would never again play his favorite board game of chess. He would never reach that goal of being a journalist. Gosh, he sure would have loved the technologies of computers, IPods and cell phones. And, some would say he would never know how his kid sister turned out in life either. Wrong! John, in fact, does know about me - I just never had the faith to believe he’s been riding the roller-coaster of life with me. I’m learning though, and each day I believe just a little more. And, that belief does bring me some comfort and peace and a sense of safety and security; knowing that by holding John’s spirit within my heart, I will never be alone. Believing John is with me heals my heart.
He never saw combat, was never stationed in a danger zone, and did not die while serving his country. He was at war though……….. with the demon soldiers who invaded his mind in 1969, marching across his brain like boots trampling through deep rivers of mud. He lost his battle and ultimately the war in 1972. His war was not popular or news worthy - no “News at Eleven” - and very few knew of his war. So for being the hero that he was, for fighting his own personal battle in his own personal combat zone, he deserves a Purple Heart for courage under fire and the spiritual wounds he received from the bullet that struck his brain. And because he’s been in the dark far too long, he must be illuminated, to always shine brightly, another star in the sky. I will make sure of that.
Had John lived, he’d be 62 years of age. What would he look like? Would he be bald? Would his stature have shrunk through the years? Would he still be smoking? Would he still be playing chess? Would he have become the journalist he always wanted to be? I will never know. I will always have the memories of who John was though, not who he might have become, and I choose to remember him as the inquisitive young soul his childhood pictures reflect who, while not known to anyone, was not meant to be on this earth very long.
So, the question remains, why now, after so many years? The contact with his friends in January 2009 definitely put me on a journey I’m convinced John has been leading me through. There’ve been too many coincidences for me to ignore and it’s all become crystal clear to me - John’s been waiting to come home. He knew the time was right and burst into my consciousness like that bull in the china shop. He’s been behind me and above me, pushing and poking and sprinkling his angel dust upon my head ever since. So, when asked “why”, the answer’s the same – that my brother is flying around up there, flapping his angel wings, and telling me “okay, it’s been long enough, time to bring me home now”. John’s spirit has done a lot of hard work over the years so that I may finally see him, feel him, recognize him and get to know him better. This time I will not ignore him. And, you know, I think he just got tired of wandering around the after-life, alone, scared and feeling unloved, uncared for, and given very little thought. His little wings must be tired.
Life surely does work in mysterious ways so don’t ignore the road signs it puts in your path. You never know who or what may be trying to reach you.
And, like Dorothy, my goal is to reach “The Emerald City”. For now, I’m still in the land of those evil, flying monkeys. The journey continues.