In the beginning there was my brother Chris, and a little over three years later my Mom decided, “Let there be Tim.” I’m told Chris liked me right off the bat, even showed me off to his class for show & tell. He read books to me and helped me learn to read, taught me to be gentle with our toys, and sometimes if I was lucky he’d take me on adventures around the neighborhood.
I followed him around like a puppy dog. Before I was old enough to be in school myself, I waited for his bus to arrive in the afternoon. On summer trips to the Jersey shore, we scoured the shallows for sea life, interrogated the fishermen on the jetty about their days’ catch, and rode our styrofoam body boards in the surf until sundown.
But if you grow up with siblings, especially a big brother, there’s a decent chance you’ll butt heads from time to time and we were no exception. We went back and forth from friendly to antagonistic, taking turns instigating and reconciling. I once took his comic book collection to first grade and handed out issues to all the kids. Another time he chased me out of his room and I ran face first into a door jamb where I split my lip open. There were a hundred different episodes back and forth like this but deep down we were still close in our sibling rivalry kind of way.
We changed schools and homes a few times during the early years in NJ, and friends came and went but we were each other’s constants. Maybe it was that closeness that fed our incessant teasing and kept us in a state of tension. Arguments and blood flowed from time to time. If we went near the other one’s bedroom sanctuary it raised shouts of indignation. I have no idea how my parents raised us without going crazy from the screaming in the back seat of the car.
“He’s on my side!”
“No I’m not!”
“He touched my side!”
“No I didn’t!”
We went to the same summer camps and shared interests like fishing and exploring the woods. When I was 12 and Chris was 15 we moved to NH. Chris started at Monadnock High School in Swanzey. Being in the throes of puberty did nothing to help our occasional spats and if anything the tension mounted. Slamming doors and more shouting, both of us trying to assert our independence any way we could under the same roof. But despite all of it we still played catch in the yard, built snow forts together, and shared some of the same neighborhood friends.
And it was around this time that we really started to pay closer attention to what would become Chris’ greatest passion, music. We always liked the radio and listening to records and tapes since we were little, but in my memory this is when it started to get more serious. We each had our own little stereos and were taping songs off of the radio, making mix tapes of our favorites. Chris would give me a cassette copy of an album he liked. And I would pretend to turn my nose up before listening to it in private and digesting it fully.
With our family now in Keene and me in high school, our interest in music continued as we explored different genres. Chris, now graduated, found British rock and alternative artists like They Might Be Giants and he voraciously devoured magazines and different radio programs, making notes of what he liked and wanted to hunt down. Chris introduced me to the Keene State College radio station WKNH. I fell in love with dance music and rap, and sometimes while I was at school Chris would record my favorite hip hop show so I could listen when I got home.
Pretty soon we were both obsessed with radio and before I was even out of high school I was learning how to DJ at WKNH. A couple years later I’d be a Keene State student and all four members of our family would be DJs at the station. Chris had shows like Inertia, where he curated the best alternative rock to the absolute limit of his ability. While I would stack a bunch of CDs of bands I liked and play things randomly, Chris would spend all week carefully choosing just the right songs to make sure they flowed properly into one another. He’d read up on bands in his beloved Trouser Press Record Guide and other books so he could tell listeners more about what he was playing. He listened back to his shows and reprimanded himself for every missed segue or mispronunciation. And the whole time, whether I listened or not, I was picking up on his tastes.
I owe nearly all of my musical taste to Chris. The good parts, anyway. Throughout my teenage years Chris would wax rhapsodic about some band from England and even though I was too much of a brat to admit it, my curiosity would be piqued. Sure enough, I’d listen to some “strange” new band like Blur and pretty soon I’d be totally hooked. Nobody ever has or ever will share my musical taste like my brother. From our time sharing music with each other at home and our years at the radio station we developed eerily similar instincts about what was good, what was bad, and what was just plain ugly.
Even though our time at WKNH didn’t last much beyond the early 2000s, Chris never stopped loving the station and listening to it. He certainly never stopped reminiscing about it. In recent years Chris seemed to be more nostalgic than ever. We’d have a music chat with Chris telling me how the move to digital music meant kids at the station were playing songs from an internet playlist with no segues between songs. Then he’d fill me in on who was still on the air from our time there and what they were playing. He’d bring up some little in-joke we had from the old days, like the time in the 90s when I accused A&M Records of having “Tax write-off bands” with no redeeming value. There are a thousand silly things like that that I can’t share with anyone else.
I could go on talking about Chris’ incredible passion for music, like the notes he wrote about genres and influences that seem as detailed and meticulously researched as a Music Theory student. Or the fact that he had synesthesia and saw colors when he heard certain songs. I haven’t even touched on his deep love for photography (he only took a few college courses but he took Photography twice). But I need to address the other side of Chris’ life. It wouldn’t be a full picture of the man without it.
You see, Chris was still in high school when it became apparent to my folks that something needed to be addressed. Certain behaviors of his and the problems he was describing indicated something was wrong. Who wants to say something like that out loud? To see your child in pain is an excruciating pain in itself. Chris was taken to a doctor and the diagnosis came back. Among his early illnesses were BDD — Body Dysmorphic Disorder — and depression. And something that was just being studied more closely and discussed in the medical community: OCD.
Chris would struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for the rest of his life in varying amounts. This is one of the frustrating things about Chris’ ongoing treatment. Through the years of early adulthood my brother was struck with a litany of different symptoms that wove in and out, sometimes with one taking center stage, then another coming on strong.
Chris had a few short-lived jobs over the years but it seemed like there was always a new issue wreaking havoc with his ability to function. At one point he spent years fighting severe paranoia, to the point where his brain told him his therapist had a team of students helping monitor him 24 hours a day, laughing at his problems. He had times of darkness so deep he couldn’t get out of bed.
And bit by bit, the worst thing of all was worming its way into his life. Sometime in the 1990s Chris was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Years of my parents driving him to various doctors, years of different medical opinions and different prescriptions, years of my brother in torment. When he was going through a good period, maybe the medication could handle the worst of it and some of the symptoms would abate. Other times it seemed like nothing could stop his mind from destroying itself. There were times he could handle an apartment and years he needed to be in a halfway house with other adults, helping each other and sharing chores.
There were times when the voices — or “signals” as he described them — were so strong he couldn’t do anything but obey. He’d stop eating and drop to a dangerously low weight. Or the voices would tell him he had to sit in a chair in the dark for hours on end. When it was at its worst, he’d be cut off not only from the world outside but from the very thing that gave him joy: his music. There were long periods when the voices wouldn’t allow him to listen to anything. There were years we spent Christmas with him in at NH Hospital in Concord.
Here was a fiercely intelligent man, described by those who knew him as sweet and caring, someone with a burning curiosity about the world, held hostage by brain chemistry.
Mental illness took nearly everything from my brother. He didn’t have a spouse, and he didn’t have children. As far as I know he only went on a couple dates in his life, decades ago. He didn’t have a driver’s license. He missed out on so many of the things we take for granted in life.
But despite all of this pain and suffering, this litany of pain wasn’t who my brother was. He wasn’t just a broken shell of a human being lost in the system, alone and uncared for, like so many folks we met over the years of his treatment. Because every step of the way, even in the worst of times when it seemed like hope was a bad joke, Chris had his family. We loved Chris with every iota of our beings.
My parents drove him to other states for treatment more times than I can count. They stood by his side no matter the odds or the situation. They hugged him, they read books to better understand his issues, and they listened to every word the doctors said and every word Chris said, be it daytime or three in the morning. My parents have strength I can’t even begin to fathom. For thirty years they did everything humanly possible to help Chris and their hard work kept him from vanishing inside his illness.
And they weren’t alone in their fight. I’m in awe of the tireless staff at Monadnock Family Services, especially the ACT Team. Working in an area of service woefully underfunded in our country, they too were there for Chris, checking on him multiple times each week, making sure he was properly medicated and caring for himself, getting him to important appointments and of course, spending time with him. They treated Chris like a friend and I can’t ever thank them enough.
Thank you also to everyone who ever met Chris and offered a smile, wave, or conversation. Chris spent his life reaching out to everyone to share the things he loved and all of you meant so much to him.
I’m happy to say that Chris’ last year or two were good ones. He would never be free completely but his meds seemed well-balanced and he was actually enjoying life at last. The voices were mercifully quiet and despite some serious bouts of anxiety we spent so many wonderful nights at my parents’ house, our Family Nights. Chris could laugh again and crack jokes, he could watch movies and TV like his favorites Miami Vice, Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. He could read books and come out to restaurants sometimes. Most importantly, he had his music again.
The last couple years Chris was never far from his vast music collection and listening to the radio. Every time we met up he would tell me the latest music being played on The River or what he’d heard on good old WKNH. He was spending time buying and trading in music and movies at his favorite shop Bull Moose and writing to old friends. And I’d chide him for getting my folks to watch a science fiction movie he just bought when it really isn’t their genre. “You should know they weren’t going to like that one!” I’d say. He’d smile and say, “I know, I know…I just thought maybe they’d get a kick out of it.”
He was a man with a place of his own, an apartment he really grew to love, living his life and enjoying it.
Losing Chris like this isn’t fair but I take comfort in knowing he finally got to experience some genuine pleasure again after a lot of tough times. I hope it brings some sense of comfort to the rest of his friends and family, too.
The next time you hear one of your favorite songs, I hope you sing along and think of Chris. Better yet, find someone who never heard it before and play it for them. Because the only thing Chris liked better than listening to his favorite music was sharing it with someone else.