This retired school teacher reflects on a year of loss, and lessons
By Mark Scott
It has been a very long and traumatic year. Like everyone else, I just want to get over 2020 and move on to a brighter and more connected 2021. We all want this, even though we know that at midnight on December 31st nothing magical happens. It is in our psyche – we just need to mentally move on so that we can cultivate hope.
Like so many of us, I’ve lost things this year. And, I’m a natural pessimist. I try to be an optimist. My dad told us to see the glass as half full. And we know the other old sayings: “Don’t wish your life away”, “Slow down; smell the roses”, “When life gives you lemons; make lemonade”. I do hope we can focus on the lessons learned from 2020. We gathered in unusual ways in order to celebrate the new babies born, the people who began life together as one, birthdays, and graduations during this very long slog of a year. This is my attempt to follow my dad’s advice.
My brother Jeffrey and I were raised differently. Neither our mom nor dad ever planned on becoming parents. However, eleven months into their marriage I came along. No instruction manual. Two young parents, in Memphis, living in a small two-bedroom house with my paternal grandparents. Three generations under one roof – a difficult way to begin a new family. My parents, neither of whom knew anything about raising babies, received their instructions for my infancy from doctors and nurses.
One, don’t pick him up just because he cries. Two, create routines, including diaper change, sleep, cradling, attention, no deviations. Three, teach him to stay on a blanket in floor and do not allow him to wander.
Terrible advice. Everyone, grandparents included, advised my parents that they were being too rigid with me, but to no avail, and not all their fault.
Four years later that all changed with the birth of another unplanned child. In 1969, my brother Jeffrey was born. The same year that celebrated the Space Age and Neil Armstrong making that giant leap for mankind by stepping on the moon, saw my brother enter this world on earth.
I first met Jeffrey in the store where my father worked. My parents actually allowed me, a four-year-old, to hold him in my arms – what sane people entrust a four-year-old with a newborn? In later years, when Jeff was being a pest, I would say “I should have dropped you then”. I could have gotten away with it. Yes, I said it. Sometimes we think and say stupid things. But it is often those silly childish thoughts that seed the negative things that lay ahead. Even when things are bad, like water to a plant we should try to remember to give what can be good the chance to grow, and breathe.
It was his birth. It got two of our grandparents to dare get on airplanes. Remember it was 1969 and planes still had propellers. However even with their fears, both Granddaddy Allen and Grandma Scott braved technology to see this new member of their family. Both expected a repeat of the child-rearing psychology that they had advised against with me. Both were surprised that upon arrival Jeffrey was thrust into their arms. The philosophy on child-rearing had changed. Holding, cuddling, and not spanking were the new norms. He was held nonstop. The only child-rearing similarity between Jeff and me was in the extreme, that in both cases our parents implemented extreme opposite schemes.
I was the quiet one – Jeffrey not so much. I was the introvert; Jeffrey was the extrovert. I was the big brother; Jeffrey was never content with being the little brother. Jeffrey was loud, demonstrative, bold and a ball of fire. He never had to study hard like me. He saw material, he learned, he excelled at tests. Even though I was a reader, grades didn’t come easy for me. Neither did adventure.
But Jeffrey, Jeffrey just couldn’t sit still. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. He would play in the spillway at a nearby lake even though it meant a punishment dealt out by our grandfather. If he was spanked for a misdeed, he gave laughter to the punisher. He just wasn’t scared of anything – not even the five-foot cotton mouth that he stoned with nothing but rocks and then carried a mile back to the house in his bare hands to show as his trophy.
But Jeffrey was terrified of being alone. During summers at day care he would not take naps with the little kids until I was brought in to lie beside him so he would stop crying and go to sleep. He needed his big brother. When at home, during the night, he often would attempt to sleep with our parents. When he couldn’t it was not unusual for me to awaken with him huddled, as small as he could be, in the small of my back in my bed. As a teenager I hated that. Now it has become a cherished memory.
We were the Scott brothers. I was the “good” one and Jeff was the “mischievous” one. To be honest we fought like cats and dogs. He usually won. It seemed we were nothing alike. He was the hunter; I was not. He was the natural musician; I couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket. He was outgoing and never met a stranger. I was a loner who was mortified when put in social situations. Jeff would offer help to a total stranger; I would avoid them. He was much better than anyone gave him credit for.
But Jeffrey was difficult.
He followed no one else’s path but his own, even if those choices turned out to be bad. He had problems with authority. He was abandoned by me as I became a teenager, and he made friends with the wrong crowd. This lead to drug experimentation and stealing to support a lifelong addiction. Our parents attempted to seek help for Jeffrey’s issues from doctors, social workers, schools, rehabilitation facilities, law enforcement, and hospitals.
They all failed. Why? Because Jeffrey had learned a behavior that would be his Achilles heel: he was a master manipulator. He could convince anyone of anything, even those all-knowing professionals. Our parents tried. They really tried. But again and again, Jeffrey would divide and conquer, skilled at getting what he wanted even from those he most loved. When he couldn’t manipulate to get what he craved he could quickly become aggressive and violent.
Time passed and things got worse. Economic instability worsened his problems. I went to college right before the first bankruptcy. I escaped many of the unbearable challenges that he and our parents went through. Those 300 miles that separated us for four years were a blessing and buffer for me.
Upon returning home it became easy to blame Jeffrey for all that went wrong with the family. Whenever there were difficulties Jeffrey was the easy target for blame. Often, he actually was. Like so many others, his addictions and lack of positive interventions stunted his ability to overcome his problems. Like a black hole, the vortex those problems created brought our parents and grandmother into a devastating spiral. It was all out of control.
I was lucky. I escaped, or so I thought. I had the ability to distance myself from the situation, an ability that was not always a positive thing. It worked well most of the time, except those times I would be dragged in begrudgingly when there was no one else to call on for help. This often happened when they needed help with transportation, finances or a place to live.
It was during these years that Jeffrey even threatened to call my boss and reveal that I was a gay man teaching students. It was a threat that he used twice to get what he wanted. He never actually did, and I didn’t give in. My reaction was to beat him to the punch. I would tell my boss that he might call and say these things, which were not lies, just to give them a heads up.
They took it in stride. They supported me professionally. There I was thinking I had to warn them about my “crazy” brother, but for them it was not a problem. My boss even had a genuine heartfelt question: Do you think that you two brothers could work things out? My answer – NO WAY. It all seemed so crippling to me, a burden, a burden that seemed that no one else had.
I don’t think that I need to explain that Jeffrey spent a lot of time in jail. Time for drugs, theft, and much worse.
Then Covid-19 arrived.
Mom called late one night in late April 2020, during strong thunderstorms. Jeffrey was in the county jail. Multiple inmates had tested positive for the Coronavirus. Jeffrey was among them.
Mom informed me they would release him that night. However, she had to get bail money to them, she couldn’t drive because he had wrecked her car – details all screamed at me over the phone after midnight – she needed to take her home mortgage payments for the bail and get him out because he could die.
I knew that I couldn’t be in a car with him because I had pre-existing conditions that made me vulnerable to also catching the virus. It also didn’t help that she had kept his situation from me, fearing I’d be judgmental – a fear that, honestly, was not unfounded.
I said No. She hung up. I worried and stewed with anger. I began looking for an uber or taxis that could get the both of them. When I called back to give her the numbers, she quickly dismissed me saying she had found another way.
The next day, I called. Jeffrey answered. He was nothing but gracious. And I learned what I had not quite understood the night before, that he was not released until the morning. Therefore, I would have never been in the car with him to be exposed. “Mark,” he said, “I wouldn’t want you in the car with me. I’m really sick and wouldn’t want you to catch this.”
Sometimes grace is given to those who are selfish. Sometimes all the hurts that made all the scars can be set aside. Sometimes people who seem to have no feelings other than for their own benefit show the love that they have for others. Sometimes that love is kept hidden deep in their marrow. That was Jeffrey’s grace given to me.
Maybe it was the addictions that he could not overcome, or a combination of those and Covid, but on the night of 12 May 2020 around 7pm I received the phone call from our mom, that Jeffrey had died. He was 51.
The world had descended into a Covid-19 Quarantine. Mom and I could not hold one another to grieve. I did the only thing I could. I spoke quietly, softly, gently to our mom on the telephone. We talked until about 4am when she agreed to lie down for a bit and rest.
I planned the funeral, a first for me as I had been lucky enough to escape the planning of funerals. Here I had to plan a quarantine funeral. I believed I could accomplish it mechanically, but it quickly became obvious that I was a train-wreck. My multiple daily calls to my mom were controlled and caring, much different than the calls to the hospital, morgue, cemetery, and funeral home, which included uncontrollable gut-wrenching sobs.
For our entire adult lives Jeffrey and I were not close. Over thirty years of blame, threats, burdens, manipulation, the addictions and the incarcerations, and the pain he caused my family. It was not surprising that the life he led ended up short. So what was this grief all about?
A dear friend told me that I wasn’t grieving the adult brother that struggled with challenges or those challenges he created for those around him. It was the two little boys who in their childhood were best friends and inseparable. The two boys that fought like cats and dogs. The little brother who couldn’t sleep by himself but was content and safe in the small of my back. The little brother that would tag along trying to be a teenager like me while still a child. The brother that was always more empathetic to strangers and willing to help. Jeffrey noticed that I pretended to not see those strangers. He noticed that I would drive by without making eye contact. He noticed but he never judged me.
Scars mark us for life, and we have all lost something in 2020. I lost a brother. I grieved that loss more than I expected. And what we choose to do with the scars and the grief can turn them into sources of never-ending hurt. Or, we hope, lessons learned. Such are my feelings of my brother Jeffrey.
From Jeffrey I learned to have empathy. I learned to give what can be good the chance to grow and breathe. I learned that hateful words and actions do not necessarily mean that love is absent.
I learned that distance from chaos may help in the moment but solves nothing. I learned that hanging on to blame only makes you bitter. And I learned to love without conditions.
The losses we’ve suffered this year are large and small – loss does not have to be tragic to be significant. We have spent 2020 in isolation from one another. At times it has been a respite to escape the daily expectations of our modern lives. However, it has also been a time that has exposed the fault lines that run through our own mental health, our families, and our society.
We all have a 2020 story, just as we all have Jeffreys in our lives. We cannot always help them with their challenges, but we can constantly remind them that we love them.
So here’s to 2021 being better than this difficult slog of a year. May we all be more enlightened to both the strong and tenuous binds that hold us, our families, our communities, and all of humanity together.
Take care of yourself and those you cherish.
Mark Allen Scott
In 2020 Mark Scott completed his 33rd and last year of teaching high school students in Shelby County. In May of this year he wrote about retiring this year with his essay “A Retirement This School Teacher Didn’t Count On.” He was a Preserve America History’s Teacher of the Year recipient in 2010, and led a historic project to save the Presidents Island One Room Schoolhouse. See their blog here.