Chuck: My brother-in-law Larry
My brother-in-law died at the age of 47. Our family circled his bed for the several-hour vigil. While emphysema served as the official cause of his death, the Larry I had known since his teens had left us many years before.
Larry’s descent into mental illness, in his case, paranoid schizophrenia, began when he was 22. I remember that when he visited my wife and me in the Pennsylvania town where we lived, his behavior had changed. He would occasionally check out of conversations and go to a silent place where we couldn’t reach him. We chalked it up to moodiness.
A visit home to Colorado brought us face to face with the specter of Larry’s full-blown mental illness. His appearance had deteriorated. His hair was matted and dirty. He was unshaven, and his attire bore no evidence of awareness or care. There was wildness in his eyes.
More unsettling was his behavior. He spoke aloud to himself almost constantly, reporting to us what he heard and that he was afraid.
I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought I could take care of it all with a simple walk and talk. I returned from that effort much sobered and with the realization of what we were facing.
Through the course of the next 23 years, our family and the legions of caregivers who rotated in and out of Larry’s deteriorating life bore witness to our own American tragedy.
By the time he reached his mid-30s, Larry was wasting away, subsisting on Cokes and Marlboros. With the frailty of an 80-year-old, he was vulnerable to a common cold escalating into something that could kill him. Inevitably, it did.
Days following his death, our family gathered to honor Larry. In the embrace of shadows cast by nearby Lindens, we mourned a life that might have been, and held close the empathy and compassion he had bequeathed to us.
My work for Mental Health Colorado is in service to the legions of Coloradans who suffer the ravages of mental illness. For me, Larry’s memory stands tallest among them.
–Chuck Reyman is Mental Health Colorado’s Board Chairman