Code Red Lockdown

Let’s talk about Lockdown Drills.

We’ve been doing them longer than some might think. I remember the first year we began implementing them—the year after 9/11. I don’t remember if the reason was because of 9/11 or if there had been a rash of school shootings, but during an early staff meeting, we were told that everyone was to begin lockdown drills in addition to fire drills.

I thought: they can’t mean me. How am I supposed to do a lockdown drill with kindergarteners? What do I tell them?

The kids already knew how to do a fire drill. We heard the bell. We got up from our desks. We lined up at the door. We walked out to the fence line and waited for the bell to ring again. Done. It was…like a parade. They behaved like it was a parade, anyway. There was a certain bounce to their step. They waved shyly to siblings and friends along the way. Everyone behaved very well, but it was a parade. Not a real fire.

The lockdown drill was to happen the next day. I thought long and hard about what to tell my little ones. I decided to make it as much of a game as I could because the reality was we’d probably never have a school shooting. Why traumatize them?

I told them when we heard the speaker say, “Code red,” we were going to make a game of hide n seek in the classroom—the best we could. I gave them permission to have as many as could fit in the class bathroom. Extra treats for cooperation in squeezing whoever wanted to be in there. They could even stand on the toilet, something that was normally completely against the rules. We could hide in the little book library in the corner. Together we came up with ways we could hide. The giggling was contagious.

“Under desks?”

“Yes!” I said.

“Under your desk, Teacher?”

“Yes! See how many of you fit there.”

I told them I would have to close the blinds and I would have to turn off the lights. Because we were hiding. Pretending like no one was home. I allowed the whispers and quiet laughter. What harm was there in shielding them from the truth of preparing for a horror show?

That was the best I could come up with that first practice drill. The kids were nearly celebratory as they took up their places. The whole drill lasted about 5 minutes. Afterward, I let them play. Teacher needed a mental health minute to process what we’d just done.

I thought long and hard about what I had taught them. That rules can be broken for unclear reasons? That it was okay for the teacher to lock them inside in the dark? That school wasn’t always a safe place? What trust boundaries had we crossed in those moments?

Fast forward a few months and we had a real “Code red.”

I wasn’t prepared for it. I was in the middle of a lesson. The kids were quietly going about learning.

“Code Red,” said the speaker.

I jumped up from my reading group. The real thing—this was it. I didn’t know what the danger was or where it was coming from. I didn’t know which door to lock first. My hands shaking, I went to the door nearest to me, and began speaking to the children, “This is our Code Red drill, guys. Who remembers how we do this? Are we ready to play our hide n seek game?”

I went to the front door. Locked it. The kids were a whirlwind, a mass of noise, going to their respective hiding places. Some of them remembered. Some of them didn’t, and stood in the middle of the room like lost puppies. I lowered and closed the blinds. “How about under your desk, Brandon? Can you hide there?” Off went the lights.

A minute passed. Then another.

I crawled over in the direction of soft crying. A little boy grabbed me around my neck. “I don’t like the dark,” he said.

“It’s okay. I won’t leave you,” I said.

Another child hugged onto me from behind.

The minutes ticked by. More weeping as children emerged from the bathroom to huddle next to us on the floor. Pretty soon I had all of them in my lap, clinging to my neck, touching me in some way. A corner of my dress balled up in small hands. It seemed to take forever. Where was the “all-clear?”

Finally, finally. The all-clear came.

We had a playtime. We talked about the dark. We talked about what had just happened and how we could make it better.

That time, no one was actually shooting up the school. It was an armed suspect running through the neighborhood and a police chase. We were lucky.

But it seems like we had one real Code Red every year.

And during that time when I was taking care of someone else’s children, hoping no gunman would come to us—I worried about my own son in another classroom. My daughter in her classroom. I prayed they weren’t at recess or they hadn’t left the classroom to go to the bathroom, or the library, or the speech therapist, or to take attendance to the office. I hoped no child was left wandering out alone as the doors were being locked across campus.

And now, looking back, I wonder, if we had been armed teachers, at what point was I supposed to get my gun out of the small storage box where my purse was kept? When would I have loaded it? While I was on the floor in a dog pile of children?

I can’t even fathom this when the lockdown by itself was so traumatizing. I’m still left with the shocking memory of waiting out those moments in the dark wondering if a blast of gunfire would break the windows and kill us anyway.

Human Backpack

The unique thing about Junior is that he’s an identical twin. Identical. That means everything should be the same for the both of them. Does the other twin have any problems? Yes and no. The other twin, we’ll call him Eric, is socially awkward but he doesn’t have any of the serious problems Junior has. I would even argue that his social awkwardness comes from living a life wearing his brother on his back.

Let me explain. Junior used to do something that bothered me even way back forty years ago. Eric was a happy-go-lucky baby. The kind of baby who would entertain himself for hours with a couple of Matchbox cars or sticks, or even rocks. He loved rocks. Eric was deep in an imaginative world doing his own thing.

And Junior, who always seemed to look pained would hang onto his brother from behind in a weird backward bearhug. They looked like Siamese twins, and poor Eric was forced to play with this human backpack weighing him down. Literally he would drag around his brother as he walked. The thing is for a while, the whole family thought this was funny and we laughed at Eric, who happily went about his business with his brother hanging around his neck until finally, he’d lose it, and scream until someone came to get Junior off him.

Perhaps the saddest part. As soon as you turned your back, Junior was right back hanging onto his brother.

Soon enough it wasn’t funny.

I began to see it as a symbol, especially the older we got. Junior was always the one hanging on us. With Junior, no one had a life. Every ounce of attention had to be on him always. He’d tantrum everywhere. He was kicked out of pre-school for peeing in the drinking fountain. He was kicked out of the elementary school in first grade for throwing chairs at his teacher. He chirped like a bird. He cussed. He wouldn’t wear shoes. He bit and kicked, and ran away. He was always on our minds and hearts, ever more creases in our parent’s faces. Junior took over the whole family.

But even worse, is how the story ends. Eric and Junior are over forty years old, and Eric has never had a life outside of caring for his brother, our brother. Eric has never dated, never lived away from his childhood home, never gotten away from his brother. Conditioned from the womb, from toddlerhood, it’s all he’s known. He’s still wearing this human backpack. His brother.

Bring your Big Gulp

Fire Fire Fire!

The house where my family lives is on fire. I can smell the burning char and the smoke all the way from here, in the safety of my own home over 1,000 miles away. They’re burning.

What would you do if it were your family? You love them dearly, no matter what. You can’t bear to hear the pain in their voices over the telephone. Wouldn’t you go straight to them?

I’m sure you would want to, as I do.

At the very least you’d tell them to hang up and call the fire department. Or let you call.

Wait. They don’t want the fire department to come. They say they have this fire under control. You see, they’re using Big Gulps from 7-11 filled with water to throw at the fire. They don’t want any outside people coming in with fire hoses and such.

I say to them, “Uhhhh…but you’re all going to burn.”

“No, no, no. We’re calling another agency. We don’t like that one. We want you to come, though, and help us. You’re so good with aiming a Big Gulp. We need you. When can you come?”

“Uhhh…”

This is where it gets tricky. How do you say no? You can see that the whole house is going down, and no one, not a single one of them is leaving. They’re sweating with the efforts of filling their Big Gulps at the kitchen sink and dumping the water on the flames. The house will definitely cave in on itself. Do you go down with them? Are you willing to burn alongside your family?

I’ve heard that every fire has its own life, its own personality. That is true with this one. This fire has been burning forty years. For most of that time my folks have been able to keep up with it. Barely. They were young and in mostly good health.

But over time, the fire grew up and morphed, and morphed again. My folks aged. Like embers in a forest fire, the embers floated into all the corners of the house until one day, say, in January 2018, the house was engulfed.

That fire is my brother, Junior.

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he is a raging inferno of a fire. He is taking down the whole family, and they are going willingly, in the name of love.

Junior was in the hospital intensive care unit over the holidays. He had pneumonia. My brother cannot walk. He is non-ambulatory. He’s been this way for about fifteen years. No one is exactly sure why.

You read that correctly.

No one is exactly sure why.

We all have our theories. I’ll share them with you in the future. But for now, back to the fire.

For the last fifteen years or so, my brother can’t walk and he aspirates on his own spit. All day he has a long rope of drool hanging from his mouth. The viscosity like a bungy cord. It doesn’t break.

The hospital needs beds and they kick Junior out of the hospital. Or release him. However you want to look at it.

The doctor says, “Yeah, we know he still has pneumonia and his health is fragile, but there’s nothing more we can do. We’ll send a nurse out once a week to check on him.”

My folks, fragile themselves, in their 70’s with multiple health problems of their own take their fire home. They blend his food, thicken it, feed him, shave his face, brush his teeth, hold him on the toilet so he doesn’t fall, wipe his butt,…and now they have a nebulizer and other hospital equipment necessary to take care of him. They’re overwhelmed.

Then the fire needs a shower and somehow, they get him in the shower-chair and bathe him. But they can’t get him out. He’s retaining a lot of fluid. His feet alone are heavy as rocks in steel-toed boots. He’s too heavy for my dad, who has severe Parkinson’s symptoms. Dad can barely walk. He shuffles along bent forward looking as if he is going to fall at any moment, and my mother, who now at 70-something years of age, has shrunk down to a solid 4’10” and weighs maybe 120 lbs. The youngest brother who still lives at home hurt his back getting Junior out of the car and he can hardly move.

So we have a naked Junior in the shower-chair shivering and he’s still sick with pneumonia.

My mother runs down the street and flags down a neighbor she has waved to once since they lived there. He is virtually a stranger from half a block away. He agrees to come and help get Junior out of the shower.

I don’t want to visualize what that looked like. Junior, naked and shivering in a shower-chair, drool draped across this stranger’s shoulder as the man tries to wrap him in a towel before lifting him. I’m grateful to this neighbor, this man, who so willingly dropped whatever he was doing on a Sunday afternoon to bring his Big Gulp to help my family throw some water on the fire. But I bet he won’t be back. It’s too much. There are professionals for this kind of backbreaking work.

“Dad, are you taking any of the medication the doctor gave you for the Parkinson’s? Half of my friends have a parent with Parkinson’s and they say the drugs are amazing. Makes them almost like new again. Have you, Dad? Have you tried the medication?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

If I was a stronger individual, I’d say, “Do you see the house is burning down, Dad? That we need you as whole as possible? That you are only making things worse by not taking the meds. Or even trying them out. Dad! How do you plan to take care of Junior if you won’t take the medicine?”

“Well, I got my Big Gulp right here. It’s all I need.”

I try my mom next. “Mom, please place Junior in a facility where they can care for him. You and dad are getting older. If something happens to you, what will you do? Please go look at some of these places. You need help with Junior.”

“Your father and I agree we can’t live without him here. You know those places won’t take care of him like we do. They don’t care if he’s clean and shaved and eating well. They’ll just medicate him and that’s not the life we want for your brother.”

I don’t know if they realize it, but Junior hasn’t had a life for quite some time already. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at six years old along with autism, bipolar disorder and some defiant oppositional disorder. He’s been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD. He has had it all. And here’s the clincher.

He was never medicated.

Why not? Because…the Big Gulp. No interference from any government agency ever. My folks had it under control. They would take care of him themselves.

Junior has suffered so much. Forty years of suffering. If I was Junior I would welcome some drugs.

If I was a stronger individual I would say, “But mom, you guys can’t take care of him now. You couldn’t get him out of the shower.”

And her answer would be, “Don’t worry. I got a Big Gulp right here. We’re fine.”

If I press the subject, I’ll be back in the situation I was in back in September with my mother screaming at me Jerry-Springer-Style, “You’re never here! You can’t come here and tell us what to do!”

We didn’t speak to each other for three months after that. So I guess I won’t be that stronger individual who pushes them to do the right thing to save themselves and my other brother who can’t seem to pull himself out of the house and away from this fire.

The other brother.

Perhaps he’s doing the right thing by being the loyal son who stays and helps in whatever manner mom and dad want. But I see a man who has never lived his own life, always sacrificing to take care of his brother. To my knowledge, at forty years old, he has never dated, never even had a first kiss. He lives at home where he can be “on call” at all times. His role in our family is the caregiver. He is absolutely committed to going down in this fire, and I fear there is nothing I can do to save him.

There is nothing I can do to save any of them.

But no. I’m not going there. I’m not leaving my home and little family to fly there and get burned. I have no desire to go down in this fire, no matter how good my aim is with a Big Gulp.

Why Fruitcake and a box of nuts?

This Christmas, I sent my parents a gift box of nuts and a fruitcake. This isn’t because I’m making fun of dysfunction or mental health. It’s because I’ve gotten my dad a fruitcake every year for as long as I can remember.

“A fruitcake for the fruitcake,” my mother has always said whether my dad is in the room or not. Actually, no matter who was in the room, she’s said this even as he pulled out his buck knife and cut away the plastic and ribbon to his fruitcake. Even as he sliced a piece for himself and offered to share the rest all around.

You see, we’re not just being irreverent or politically incorrect when we can be secretive. It’s all out there like laundry waving in the breeze on a clothesline. This family laundry is more like underwear and we may have forgotten to wash it. No, more like the washing machine is broken because true story…it is broken. And somebody had to reach in there and swish the underwear around with his hands and then squeeze out the excess water, and then, pin it on the clothesline, each pair of fruit-of-the-looms heavy and hanging low, low enough for the dogs to jump up and grab ’em and drag ’em around the yard, giving them a good shake with his head, tossing them in the air with glee. This is not just a blog about family dysfunction, mental illness, dirty laundry, a broken washing machine, or even Christmas presents.

This metaphor is my family in a nutshell. The fruitcake, the dogs, the mud, the swish. All of it.

But I digress. The fruitcake is legitimately explained. Why the box of mixed nuts?

Well, obviously, my mother is diabetic and I can’t just send them a tin of cookies and a box of candy like most families do at Christmas. I was trying to watch out for her sugar levels so I sent protein and healthy fats.

We’ll get into the story about healthy and non-healthy fats later because this blogger is among other things, a flawed fitness enthusiast always looking for the way to better health. For now, it’s important my reader know I had not spoken to my parents since September, and when Christmas rolled around I wanted to offer a way in to forgiveness, an olive branch so to speak. What better way to do that than food? And the Christmas spirit?

Did I get a response? Did anybody call and say, “thanks?” Did I expect anything in return? The answer to all of these questions is: no.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not speaking now, currently, in January 2018. We are. Were there apologies all around? Nope. Was there any resolution to the fight from September? Nope. Did we mention the fight in September? Nope.

Do I have hope for my family’s well being and mental health?

Here’s the thing. I always have hope.

Always.

Christmas 2017 is so last year. But the fact is and will always be we’re a family of mixed nuts and a fruitcake.