The Least of My Brothers

JANUARY 2, 2012. Mark Byron McDonough, age 42, of Leominster. Son of the late Margaret B. (Donahue) and James M. McDonough. Survived by his guardian, Gene Buchman and family, with whom he lived for many years, and by foster brother Patrick O’Connor. Also survived by siblings Christopher M., Sheila M., James F. and Michael P. McDonough. A funeral service will be held at Boucher Funeral Home, 110 Nichols St., Gardner, Mass., on January 13, at 11:00 A.M. Interment at St. Joseph’s Cemetary in West Roxbury, Mass. will follow.

When I e-mailed my siblings last week that Mark had died, my brother Michael wrote back, “I almost feel like it isn’t even our business,” and I certainly understood what he meant. Mark was the fourth in our Irish-Catholic family of five children, but when he was young, he had been given up for guardianship to a man named Gene Buchman. It was an unusual situation, different from the way other families were. Because it was hard to understand or to explain, we stopped trying to understand or explain it. Mark had disappeared from the family, and little by little, he disappeared from our idea of the family. If we thought about him, we didn’t really speak about him. He had gone from being a brother to a memory to some sort of palpable void. That’s just the way it was.

There were times, of course, when Mark had very much been a part of our family. I have never been entirely sure of his diagnosis, but he seems to have been autistic, with some retardation and evidence of bipolar disorder. He was certainly obsessive-compulsive, and there were a wide range of ritualistic behaviors he would engage in, sometimes to great amusement. When my mother would strike a match to light a cigarette, for instance, he would make her say “G.I. Joe” over and over again before she could blow it out. If she failed to obey his directions precisely, he would scream and take off all his clothes, usually in public. Mark’s obsession with G.I. Joe was almost total, and for years he carried around a detached G.I. Joe head, complete with fuzzy 70s “life-like” hair, as though it were a religious totem. One day, however he lost it, and though we searched high and low, G.I. Joe could not be found anywhere. Mark was inconsolable. Years later, my father would hire an Irish cousin named Noel to do some renovations in the house. My siblings and I all treasure the moment when Noel emerged from the long-disused kitchen bathroom, where he’d just removed the drainpipe from the sink. He was holding up G.I. Joe’s head, and  asked, in his thick Irish brogue, “Who’s the little man?” It really did seem to us like the recovery of a legendary item, the Golden Fleece or a fragment of the True Cross. But it was, for us, much more important than that: it was a shard of an almost-unremembered past, dredged suddenly up into the present.

So, there were certainly some surreal and humorous moments that came from Mark’s company. But it is important to remember too, that he was a destructive child, and his capacity for damage was greater than my parents’ capacity to stop it. My mother had had, for instance, a large collection of LPs that she had bought over time, starting as a shop-girl in Filene’s in the 50s, and that included albums by Elvis, the Kingston Trio, and the Beatles. Mark smashed every one of those records. It’s hard to remember, in our iTunes age, how difficult music used to be to come by, how you could not simply do an internet search and download a song you once remember liking. If you had a record, and it got warped or scratched or broken, and was no longer on sale, well, that was that. The albums were not so much material possessions as they were emblems and expressions of her youth, and I think, as such, they were hard for her to lose. While all this was happening, the bedroom my father shared with Mark was missing most of its wallpaper, since, whenever he was put into his room for time-out, Mark would dig his fingernails into the walls and rip some of it down. The room remained that way, scratched-up drywall with scraps of wallpaper stuck to it, until I went off to college. Even after Mark left, my parents did not ever really sleep in the same bedroom again.

My brothers and sister will have stories of their own, but I can recall one Christmas morning getting from my grandmother a brand-new Radio Shack pocket calculator. Some of you are too young to remember what a big deal the calculator was when it first came out. Here was a gadget every bit as cool as an 8-track tape-player or a digital watch, but with a futuristic functionality that connected it to things like MIT and Star Trek. I was ecstatic about this new toy, but, in the way of pre-teens everywhere, I left it lying around, and by the afternoon, Mark had predictably demolished it. I was furious, and made a point of seeking him out and booting his ass as hard as I could. For weeks afterward, you will be pleased to know, Mark would kick me whenever he saw me, which I can’t deny I had coming.

Mark’s impulsive behavior was not limited to our home, and he could be a real terror to West Roxbury, the neighborhood in which we grew up. In some ways, there was a cute “Dennis the Menace” quality to his antics, teasing local dogs and rolling other families’ Jack-o-lanterns down the street. To see him sitting naked on top of one of the local cars, peeing and laughing at the top of his lungs, struck me as a boy as an act of high hilarity. The neighbors did not see it that way, however. Autism was little understood or tolerated in those days, and they figured they had better supplement the permissive parenting Mark was surely getting at home with something a little more traditionally physical. At least that was what my mother thought, and she made her accusations openly. Relations deteriorated quickly, and at one point, one of the neighbors yelled a nasty name at her as she drove down the street. She responded to this by jamming on her brakes, marching over to him, and slapping him on the face in front of everyone.

Before long, an all-out war raged between us and, it seemed, every one who lived around us. Some of the teenagers who hung out on the corner near our house have grown up, I’m told, to be not such bad men, but they were very bad kids. For years, our house was routinely egged on Halloween. One year, it was spray-painted with the words “You Suck.” Another year, a cross was burnt on the lawn. It was all very threatening. The sense of insecurity in our own house certainly exacerbated the sense of disunity as a family. None of this was Mark’s fault, of course, but none of it would have happened except for Mark.

These were the circumstances in which my parents made their decision to let Mark go, or at least I imagine so. We never talked about it. We did not see Mark again after 1979 or so. For reasons of her own, my mother did not make a point of keeping Mark a regular part of our lives after he’d come under Gene’s care. If I had to guess, I would say that she felt a sense of failure in realizing that she was incapable of raising one of her own children, and in needing to admit that this incapability had had devastating effects on the rest of her family. As many of you will know, she died in 1987 after years of depression. The cause of her death was a drug overdose. She was forty-eight, the same age I am now. After my mother’s death, my father endured his grief as best he could, and spent some part of the next two decades reflecting on the problems of his own broken childhood. He turned his attention to family in Ireland and visited them a number of times. And of course, he spent most of his days traipsing around Castle Island in South Boston, his childhood home. I cannot recall ever discussing Mark with him during those years.

Photo taken by Gene Buchman

Sometime in the ‘90s, curiosity compelled me to look Mark up, and Michael, my wife, and I went to see him in the group home where he lived in Framingham. Gene was generous enough to take us out there, though he was understandably aggravated that we had not made an effort sooner. It was a good visit, but we did not follow up on it, which I am sure also aggravated Gene. The sad truth is that too much time had passed for me to reach out to Mark in any real way. My parents had decided all of this for us, with finality, years before. Mark was “the least of my brothers,” but it would have taken a stronger and better man than I am to break through all the very real barriers that separated us. I think my my failure to remain in touch with Mark after seeing him again is understandable, though it is nothing to be especially proud of, either.

It has been heartening to think, as I never have before, that my parents’ decision had been the best thing for Mark. The love and understanding Gene was able to give Mark in the years he lived with him were all that he deserved, far from the callous environment of West Roxbury. The people over the years who have cared for Mark in various group homes, and especially those associated with the Institute of Professional Practice, were able to help him develop into a better functioning member of society, and to help him direct his humor and energy to productive channels. For all of these things, my family and I are deeply grateful. To be able to feel a sense of gratitude in the midst of tragedy, to be able to feel something so positive in our hearts where for years there had been just a guilty void, is no small thing at all.

When I think of Mark, it will be his drawings that come to my mind. He drew incessantly as a boy, and quite well. His figures were recognizably cartoon-like, and the settings always distinct and easy to make out. He had a fine eye for detail, whether it was in the dotted lines that represented sunrays or the careful arrangements of leaves in a tree. There is one elaborate picture I recall in particular. It is obviously my family’s kitchen, except that everything is in disarray. The table is askew, the dishes are in the air, and the phone is flying off the hook. The people in the scene, whom I don’t recognize, have their heads tilted back and are laughing uproariously. In the corner, written in large, perfectly-formed script are the uppercase letters B, A, and D. I’m still not sure what to make of the contrast between the absolute frenzy of what is depicted in our kitchen and the exaggerated control in the lettering of the label “Bad.” Was it a description of his mental landscape, and a recognition of how others thought of it? Was it a portrait of our family as he saw it? Maybe it was a joke? All I know is that there is a complexity to the picture, something that does not immediately yield to ready understanding, but not because it is poorly-composed or badly-drawn. It is a piece from a young mind working itself out. All young people have to do that, of course. It’s just that Mark’s task was an awful lot harder.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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