Mental illness took my brother’s life on numerous occasions, most recently and for the last time when he was 58.
He was 22 the first time he died, six years to the day after my father’s yahrzeit. His obituary noted that Gerald M. Jacobs died at home, but funeral arrangements were incomplete. Contributions could be made to the American Cancer Society.
At the time, Gerald had already been hospitalized at two mental institutions. The first was a private facility in New Canaan, Conn., that cost my widowed mother, a Holocaust survivor, over a thousand dollars a week. The second was a state hospital in Middletown, N.Y. He signed himself out of both places. He was sane enough to write his own obituary. But because he never signed release forms, his doctors could not tell us exactly what was wrong with him.
At the time of his first death, he had already spent time in college and jail, and lived as a Jew and as a born-again Christian. He had a budding writing career as the long-lost brother of Emily Brontë. His friends knew him as Jeremy Matthew Harrison.
After several arrests for shoplifting, nine bounced checks, and serving time in jail for criminal possession of stolen property, he moved to a homeless shelter. Neighbors said it looked bad and smelled. The house manager quit shortly after he moved there. She complained that there were no benefits, no holidays off, no medical insurance and no vacation.
He then camped out in my college dorm room for a while and fell in love with one of my friends. He gave her an engagement ring that he said was a family heirloom, and left on a bus to California.
He got baptized in San Bernadino, Calif., at the John XXIII Center Newman Apostolate, after which he returned to the Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. Its billboard promoted the school as a two year solution to a four year problem. He studied hotel management, but never graduated.
He had intermittent part-time jobs at McDonalds, a dude ranch and a day camp. He got a scholarship at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. He misplaced a writing assignment lamenting his trials and tribulations as a suspect in a statutory rape case. The owner of the day camp found the essay and fired him on the spot. He worked at a printshop north of Westchester County, N.Y. and was fired again when he was caught stealing.
Somewhere along the line, our mother told him that she no longer had a third child, yet he continued calling her and sending cards and letters. Some were menacing and vitriolic, others filled with love and remorse. Depending on his state of mind, he reached out on the High Holidays, Christmas, Easter, Passover or her birthday. At times he begged for reconciliation. She never responded. Knowing that his mother sat shiva for him was another painful death.
He called our sister when he had access to a phone. He said that he was a caseworker at the Gay Mens Health Center for 15 years and took online classes at the University of Phoenix, where he hoped to get his doctorate. He told her that he had breast cancer, colon cancer, and was HIV positive. He had a wonderful therapist who specialized in counseling the children of Holocaust survivors. He gave updates about his living arrangements. Sometimes he was in jail, homeless, or in an SRO. Sometimes he had better accommodations. He told her about his neighbors, some of who were mean to him. Social Security screwed him out of over $60,000, but he brought the case to court, only to lose the windfall because of red tape and larcenous bureaucrats. A friend from Belgium stole over $137,000 from him and ate all his peanut butter without cleaning the spoon. He and his partner, John, were planning to get married. They always lit the Sabbath candles together.
Calls to me were infrequent. I never introduced him to my children. He mailed flimsy handcrafted necklaces to my wife. He sent my daughter a Precious Moment doll when she was born. He once overnighted me an expensive wrist watch. His calls and emails were generally one-sided. I knew without asking if he was taking his medication. An astute student of the weather in my neighborhood, he never failed to advise me on the appropriate attire. He hated Mayor Bloomberg and held him accountable for New York’s inadequate snow removal services, and for the high cost of living. He liked making jewelry and he developed a flock of customers. He was forced to tell the fussiest ones to take their business elsewhere. They could be fickle, and he didn’t need their bull. Two years ago, he lucked out and got a top floor Brooklyn apartment in a Hasidic neighborhood, with parquet floors, a living room, an eat-in kitchen, and a decent sized bedroom.
In May, my sister got a call from his landlord. My brother was two months behind on his rent. But my brother assured her that it was a misunderstanding. In fact, things were going well for him. Neiman Marcus was quite interested in featuring his line of jewelry, and the friend from Belgium got three life sentences for his misdeeds. The Belgian’s mortified parents called to apologize.
Gerald’s sagas waxed and waned like the moon. The last one eclipsed all others. His partner called my sister out of the blue. He hadn’t heard from Jerry — John called him Jerry — for several days. Usually they spoke eight to 12 times a day. John was worried. Jerry had bad asthma. He had lost over 20 pounds in the past few weeks. John had no key to the Brooklyn walk-up. The landlord wouldn’t let John in. He filed a report at the police station. They broke down the door and found Jerry’s dead body.
My brother’s therapist called me the next day to express her condolences. He had made great progress during their weekly sessions, but she wanted to know if he really had a wife who committed suicide and two children who died of AIDS?
My sister and I flew to N.Y. to identify his body. Gerald was a hoarder. Boxes, unpaid bills, dozens of watches, strings of beads and unfinished bracelets, empty shopping bags, an un-mailed 50 page letter to the Belgian visitor, a silver-plated menorah, Sabbath candlesticks, scores of empty toilet paper rolls, Social Security disability paperwork, rent receipts, and dozens of bars of soap littered the apartment. We found none of the family heirlooms that he told John were safely stored away for posterity. But we did come across a Precious Moments certificate of authenticity.
We needed a death certificate for the undertaker. A temporary one was issued stating that my brother’s cause of death was pending further study.
But we already knew what had happened. My brother died several times — from a life of mental illness.
Jackie Jacobs is executive director of the Columbus Jewish Foundation in Columbus, Ohio.