24 April 2007 – 24 April 2017


I’m feeling some anticipatory trauma, if there is such a thing, as we approach the tenth anniversary of the mishap which would, soon thereafter, take the life of my brother Craig. Maybe it’s a heightened sense of awareness that this sad anniversary is upon us.

It was April 24, 2007, his partner Claude’s birthday, when Craig fell to the sidewalk,alone, outside their condo in Montreal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood. The extensive damage to his brain immediately apparent, Craig would never fully regain consciousness. He clung to life on a respirator, while his near-zero brain function was evaluated, until one last attempt to see if he could breathe on his own failed on the ninth of May while Claude and my sister Lynn stepped out for a break.

Mom dreads the month of May. (I’m just glad it is as pretty as it is.) It was May 4, five years earlier in 2002, when Dad collapsed and died in his beloved garden, so all the attending rituals were in May. Oh and Craig’s birthday. And Mother’s Day. So it was that on May 13, 2007 – Craig’s birthday AND Mother’s Day that year – that we (my sister Janice, husband Randy and their young family) drove Mom down from Perth to Montreal for her eldest son’s funeral the next day. Followed by his burial in Perth the next evening.

While the rest of us admire her strength and still try to acknowledge Mother’s Day,we understand why she would just rather have May slip by quickly. I’ll never think of May again without remembering Mom’s journey through it.

The certainty of uncertainty


In my ongoing quest to get to the bottom of my annoyingly reduced sleep, I received the results of a recent MRI of my brain when I visited my family doctor yesterday and the report was clearly not written for me to comprehend.  Even my doctor was at a loss with some of the language but he concluded, “At least you don’t have a brain tumour,” which was more than I could deduce from this:

MR brain

Clinical history: New onset central sleep apnea.

Multiple sequences were performed through the brain.

The splenium of the corpus callosum is absent and colpocephaly is present.  There is a 1.2 cm gray matter heterotopia along the lateral wall of the trigone of the left lateral ventricle.  There is thinning of the optic nerves, optic chiasm and optic tracts.  The fornices are also quite thin.  The mammillary bodies are small.  The pineal is quite small.  The entire ventricular system is larger than normal.  There are mild microangiopathic changes in the hemispheric white matter.  There is a prominent cisterna magna.  There is mandibular hypoplasia.  There is reversal of the cervical lordosis.

Conclusion:

There are numerous developmental abnormalities of the brain as discussed.  The predominant abnormality is colpocephaly with absence of the splenium of the corpus callosum.  Of note is the presence of a gray matter heterotopia.

*****END OF REPORT*****

Some of the ‘abnormalities’ may stem from my prenatal and first couple of years of life.  ” Hydrocephalus Arrested” is how my mother recalls the episode being summed up by doctors at Montreal Children’s Hospital.  (Hydrocephalus is accumulation of too much cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.)  Outwardly my head was disproportionately larger than my infant body, leading me to sitting up and tipping over, occasionally knocking my head.  That it was “arrested” was of great relief to my parents because two children of two different cousins of my mother had been born with the same condition.  One died, the other spent his shortened life in a wheelchair so one can understand how worried Mom and Dad would have been for me in my early months and years..

I’m guessing the brain’s way of retaining all its history may be partly responsible for the gobbledygook in the MRI report but I’d like to hear it from a neurologist’s mouth, rather than via the cryptic language quoted above.

Five Years Since a Critical Day One


It was an early night to bed on Tuesday, June 19, 2007.  I had absolutely no more drinking to do and decided that the last day of this particular spring was a bitterly appropriate day to reach out again for sobriety.  Ruminations of suicide the past few days signalled to me that it was nearly past time to get help.

Fortunately I had been down this road before, so I knew where to turn, but I had never been trying to also recover from as tragic a circumstance as the traumatic brain injury death of my brother Craig.

I was certain that I should have been the one to die, as if it was as simple as trading places.  Such was my state of self-worth.  I was sick of hearing anything – anything at all – about “God’s will” even if all that was meant was that, had he survived, Craig surely wouldn’t have had much of a life.

I was inconsolable, yet with a familiar reserve of  just enough life energy not to give up.

I had survived HIV, even a serious AIDS-related illness, since at least 1989.  Burying so many friends and acquaintances I had good reason to believe that I wouldn’t be far behind.  Yet I took every possible medication, right from the start, and as the more promising combination therapies came along I responded well.

In 2003 I had been struck by a cab, fracturing a femur and a wrist, and been hospitalized for five weeks during what became known as Phase Two of SARS in Toronto.

Then I developed signs of Type-2 diabetes, quickly becoming insulin-dependent.

In 2005, though, I took a rail and bus tour of Canada’s Maritimes provinces.  I count it among my trips of a life-time, completing my journey across Canada from the west coast to the east.

I had been clean and sober since 1998 but, in recent years, had not sought the support I needed to maintain my sobriety. I politely declined the offer of champagne as the Halifax-bound train departed Montréal.  A couple of days later in Halifax, however, following up on a wish to tour the historic Alexander Keith’s brewery, I made a conscious decision to accept samples of various beers and ales being offered at a most enjoyable céilidh.  I quickly became that single guy on the bus tour whose exploits provided morning entertainment for fellow travellers.  I could see the progression within days and will never forget the story of how I got lost in Charlottetown.  You know you’re loaded when…

2005 rolled into 2006.  I carried my bottles in a gym bag, lest any of my former acquaintances see me.

When I received news of Craig’s fall on April 24, 2007 (his partner Claude’s birthday), I sobered myself up and left Toronto.  The family was not going to see how I had fallen in my own way.  After staying with my mother for a couple of weeks following Craig’s death, I changed my train ticket to First Class (free booze) and headed back for Toronto.

That was May 24, 2007 – the beginning of the end of a month of hell until June 19 (my last drink) and June 20 (my first day of sobriety).

The first years were in the shadow of grief and loss.  Other than psychiatric help, which has shown good results, little else stands out for me aside from a lot of inner work.  Things have improved, certainly, to the point where I am looking forward to whatever I can make of life, having said goodbye to the worst ideations of death.

I begin a new day, a new year, with hope and gratitude.

There’s enough insanity to go around – and then some


Gun control activists are not just concerned about the criminally insane having guns. (Such diagnoses are too often only made after a shoot-’em-up anyway!) Otherwise sane people can act violently, too, and guns just make things that much worse.

When I hear criminals dismissed by news-jockies as “crazy”, “unbalanced”, “off”, I sometimes take on those stigmatizing labels – and I may be a lot of things but I am not paranoid.

Even some of my best friends…can be described as having, at least, a nodding acquaintance with mental illness.

While, as far as I know, a police check would not flag me as mentally ill, I probably owe that more to the fact that my only direct personal contact with police has been cordial and no investigation into my mental state, from their point-of-view, has been necessary (again, so far as I know).

In this blog, I have made no attempts to hide my interest in, and my personal diagnosis of, mental illness – beginning with major depression shortly after being diagnosed HIV-positive in 1989, then post-traumatic stress disorder, which was the result of a cab running me down in 2003, and – in more recent years – bipolar II, just one sobering assessment of which is here.

Bipolar II, which may have gone undiagnosed for years, manifested itself in me as a prolonged absence of depression.  I can look back at events in my life which coincided with a similar feeling.  First an absence of depression, then a sense of elation and euphoria in measures disproportionate to anything happening.

A search of this blog proves that I have no secrets.

The stigma of mental illness, characterized by an inability to talk about it intelligently, a tendency to mischaracterize and stereotype it and, therefore, a reluctance on the part of clients to speak about it, is pushing some of my buttons this weekend in the wake of Saturday’s terrible shooting spree in Tucson.

From this Canadian’s perspective, anyone with a grudge and a gun is dangerous. Yet it seems so hard for Second Amendment-obsessed Americans to see past someone’s mental illness and look critically at his ability to own a 9-mm Glock gun (and gain access to two 31-round clips). Are they afraid that mental health means testing might weed them out?

Six people were killed, including U.S. District Judge John Roll and a nine-year old girl the media likes to point out was born on September 11, 2001. Fourteen others were wounded.

Getting the most publicity, however, was the gunman’s clear target – Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. – who was holding a constituency event at the time outside a local supermarket. While there will no doubt be wide coverage of the funerals of the dead in forthcoming days it is the targeting of Giffords by the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, which dominates the news as her prognosis of recovery from a “through-and-through” bullet wound to the brain is described as precarious.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik says Loughner has a troubled past with the law and there is reason to believe he may have a mental issue. (There was news in there somewhere.)

As seen in previous examples of high-profile medical issues in the news, there has been no shortage of armchair analysis, reminiscent of other prominent health cases.

“Physician, heal thyself.”

Variously described as “mentally disturbed” and “a madman”, Loughner has had the presence of mind to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights (silence). His internet presence is being examined with the cyber equivalent of a fine-tooth comb. It is the questions about his mental health which allow many Americans to rationalize their citizen army mindset. The sanity of the most liberal gun laws in the world, for which Giffords herself has strongly advocated, is not up for much discussion.

Loughner dropped out of high school in 2006, after his junior year. In 2008, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but was rejected.

Media shorthand: he was a nut-job who became a loner. The mentally ill are dangerous. Guns are fine. Don’t blame the over-the-top rhetoric of Sarah Palin or other whingers.

As I tweeted after turning off CNN at noon, “Final seg of Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz, Rachel Sklar & Steve Malzberg: is there any sand left in that sand-box???”

Here’s some great further reading from

Gail Collins

Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic

Jill
at Feministe

Slate’s Vaughan Bell
with “Crazy Talk”.

The happy, and the dreadfully sad, of April 24


Does anyone in Toronto know where I could get French-language greeting cards?

Well, one more time, I had to mail an English birthday card to Craig’s partner, Claude.  Now he’s always up for anything that will improve his second-language skills but, as a gesture, I just think French-language cards for him would be nice.

April 24 is now so inextricably linked to both Claude and Craig.  My brother was carrying bags of stuff home to celebrate three years ago today when, right in front of their beautiful old walk-up in Montréal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood, he stumbled and fell to the pavement.  A shopkeeper across the street saw it happen and called 9-1-1.  Craig hit his head so hard, and was unresponsive, that it was to the Montréal Neurological Institute that paramedics took him (lower hat-pin), just a short walk from the United Theological College to which he made a bequest of a memorial gift.  Canadians might remember the Montréal Neuro for one of its famous founders Dr. Walter “I smell toast” Penfield.  Craig was in the best possible hands.  Unfortunately he never regained consciousness nor, for that matter, did he breathe on his own.  That’s not to say there weren’t many days and nights of hoping.

Map picture

In the whirlwind of that late afternoon Claude had called my sister in New Brunswick, second only to Craig in the family as far as proficiency in French. She immediately flew to Montréal, alerting my other sister what was going on who, in turn, called me that evening. We decided to take on the role of being with Mom in Perth while news from Montréal was still fluid.

Mom took our collective advice to stay at home. She didn’t fight us on that, having just recently spent Easter weekend with Craig and Claude. A few days later, with news not getting any better, my sister and I went to Montréal to see the lay of the land for ourselves. I must say one of the lasting impressions I have of that visit was how the respirator seemed to inflate his slim belly to the point of nearly breaking. I’m not sure any of his “thumbs up” responses were anything more than something involuntary pulled from his memory. The next day there was virtually no response and, as my sister and I returned to Mom, I was pretty sure – or in dread – that I had seen Craig for the last time.

But that was somewhere between April 24 and May 9. April 24 is still for Claude, whom we all love as a brother and son. I can’t imagine being in his head and heart on this date any more, but I know that a friend of he and Craig is making him dinner tonight.

Bonne fête, cher Claude!

A few pictures from Montréal and Perth in April and May of 2007:

   The iconic view from Mont-Royal

 Speaking of icons: Schwartz’s Deli on “The Main” in Montréal

  Beautiful blossoms at Perth’s old fire hall tower

  Coutts Coffee at Code’s Mill in Perth where I tried to blog my way throughout this period

A year


It was one year ago today, April 24, that my brother Craig fell, outside his home in Montreal, and suffered severe brain trauma.  He died the following May 9, four days shy of his fifty-second birthday.

We’ll be honouring his memory closer to that day.

Update: I went and had my blood work done this morning, after procrastinating for a while, figuring that was something proactive I could do to honour Craig for today.  Then I went and sat on two different cafe patios, with two different Cafe Americanos, and watched the eclectic mix of Church Street people walk by.

This day last year was the beginning of a long, difficult vigil.  While memories of Craig will, no doubt, be on my mind for the next few weeks I don’t need to be focused on his last days during which we couldn’t communicate much anyway.  There is a lifetime of memories to think about.


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A bit of my perception of reality


For the past ten days or so I’ve been sick with an antibiotics-required cold (sinuses, chest, the works).  It’s the third or fourth of the winter.  Oh wait, it’s now spring.  Thank goodness Mom didn’t catch it when I visited her Easter weekend.

I don’t feel like talking to people just for the sake of reaching out. 

Besides, I can’t talk without coughing. 

It’s depressing, reminding me of my fragile health, not to mention this past year of such sadness.  April’s beginning reminds me that it was April 24 – Claude’s birthday – when Craig fell last year, dying days later on May 9. 

There is something to look forward to – the presentation, for the first time, of the award in Craig’s name in May – so maybe if I can pick a time to be down this should be it.

Gratitude?  Yes.  I’m sober.  Day 285.


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