An ode to lost souls and their families

“Your brother is dead.” Even through the telephone, my mother’s agony pierced my soul.

“He died a month ago. Janet called me this morning. They published his obituary yesterday.” Janet had known us since we were children. I googled his obit. “Wylie Brent Hastie of Calgary, Alberta, passed away on December 23 at the age of 57 years. Funeral services will be held on January 26 at 9:30 a.m. Graveside service to follow.”

It was 10:45. My brother had been buried only minutes before.

Later, my mother called his caseworker and the medical examiner. Wylie died in his sleep. He’d been seen the day before. His landlord found his body in his room when they went in to do some maintenance. There were no signs of foul play. 

His caseworker hadn’t been working with him long, but she liked him very much. “He was so sweet and polite,” she said. He’d stayed on his medication for schizophrenia for over a year. It must have helped.

The videos of his funeral service and internment brought neither comfort nor closure. No one was there except for the funeral home staff. Someone incorrectly told the funeral celebrant that Wylie went by his middle name. He spoke of the difficulty in preparing a service for someone he’d never met. He prayed for “Brent” and spoke of uncertainty. My brother seemed to be unloved.

It wasn’t always that way. He was born when I was 2 ½. Even though I was potty-trained before they brought him home, when Grandma remarked, “Aw, he’s filling his pants,” I said I was going to fill mine, too. Other than a wee bit of jealousy, I adored my little brother.

He didn’t speak until I went to school. He started communicating in sentences once I wasn’t there to do the talking for him. The only thing he liked to eat when he was young was hot dogs. We called him Wylie Wot Dog. He was loved.

He got wild as a teenager. He crashed his motorcycle and was in a coma for nearly two weeks. When he woke up, he had to learn not to swallow the toothpaste. He also made inappropriate suggestions. “Hey you. You good-lookin’ nurse. Come over here and sit on my lap.” We were with him while he recovered. He was loved.

Between the drinking and the drugs, he made it hard to love him. He got hooked on crack and became a street person. We couldn’t change his behaviour and had to protect ourselves from him. Still, he was loved.

Our father had moved to the Dominican Republic years before. Dad believed that he could fix him, so he invited Wylie to stay with him for a while. It didn’t work. Wylie ended up in jail there. Once Dad bailed him out, he put my brother on a plane back to Canada. The girlfriend Wylie left behind was pregnant. He was loved.

My brother made bad decisions. He went to jail for petty burglaries. He was stabbed by someone who broke into his basement suite looking for drugs and accused me of hiring the guy. Still, he was loved.

He was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia. I appeared to be a trigger. Whatever contact we had was so difficult that I stopped contacting him. Although it was now from a distance, still, he was loved.

Many years passed. About eighteen months before his death, he joined a program called Pathways to Housing. His new case worker helped him file for Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, the Alberta equivalent of welfare. He got off the streets and took his anti-psychotic medications as prescribed. His life was more stable than it had been for decades. His daughter flew him out to Toronto to meet his four-year-old granddaughter, Arlyn. She loved him, too.

A few months later, I got that heartbreaking call from my mother. Wylie had not named an emergency contact, and that’s why his daughter, mother and sister didn’t know of his death until after he was buried by the public trustee. Still, he was loved.

Every time we heard about a street person being beaten or killed, we feared it was Wylie. I’m relieved that wasn’t his fate. I’m grateful that my brother had over a year of stability before he died. I’m glad he mended fences with his daughter and met his granddaughter. I believe death is the ultimate healing. My brother is finally healthy and whole.

My relationship with Wylie taught me to draw firm and open-hearted boundaries. In her brilliant book Rising Strong, Brene Brown says, “the heartbreak associated with addiction and mental, behavioral, and physical health struggles is not something we talk about enough. We need to have more conversations about the protracted heartbreak that stems from feeling helpless as we watch someone we love suffer, even as that suffering pulls us down.” My fervent hope is that sharing my family’s story will encourage you to be open to discussing these difficult topics.

My treasured friends, I have one more request. When you see that homeless person on the street, I beg you not to rush to judgement on them or their families. None of us know one another’s stories, the paths we’ve walked on our life’s journey. That homeless person is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father. There may be explanations for their poor choices and questionable behaviour. Although it may be from a distance, they are loved.