I recently spoke with my niece and nephew about their aunt Jane, whom they never knew. They were living in Asia at the same time that Jane was in a mental institution. Jane was a few hours away from them. But they did not know it at the time. Jane was a prisoner of mental illness in a country that commonly housed the insane far away from mainstream society. Jane had become a victim of decisions made by two men in her family. These men controlled her fate after our mother died.
My mother was a shrewd woman and she was ill for a year before her death. I imagine that she knew that Jane would be institutionalized after she perished. I hope that my mother had a role in choosing the private facility where Jane languished for 20 years. I hope that it was not a horrible place, but I think that is a pipe dream.
When I talk to my niece and nephew about Jane, the narrative is generally G-rated. But during this recent visit I intentionally wanted to paint a more realistic picture. I know that their father has spoken very little to them about Jane. This time I let my nephew know that my social work career is dedicated to the memory of Jane. Jane, who was sweet-hearted, emotionally fragile, and neurologically diseased. Jane, who was an accomplished classical pianist. Jane, who went to university for a couple years and who studied engineering.
I want them to know that Aunt Jane existed. She walked this terrible earth. She went to school and did her homework. As an adolescent she made her bed every day. She learned how to ice skate. She liked to eat raw onions with a soy-based sauce. She never went skiing with the rest of her siblings and her father. She never had a date. She never had a boyfriend. She never learned how to drive. Her last paying job was at a Pizza Hut in a god forsaken rural town in Pennsylvania. In her bedroom I remember seeing her uncashed paychecks crumpled and strewn on the top of her dresser. One night while I was home during college break, my mother and I went to pick her up after her evening shift. Our aging orange Subaru had a busted tail light and we were pulled over by a cop. Oh great, I thought. I cursed my father for not maintaining the old Subaru. I cursed the mean little white town where my parents were living at the time. I cursed the mental illness that had reduced my eldest sister to working part time in a Pizza Hut. The job would only last a few more weeks since her illness prevented her from functioning in a job. She only had that job because my mother had pushed her to apply, so she could get out of the house and interact with other people. It was the last paying job she would ever have.
Before my mother passed away in Asia, she tried to get Jane involved in an adult center where she could engage in arts and crafts. My mother was tenacious. She was a role model for me. She taught me the value of community inclusion for people with disabilities. Many years after she passed, I would intern and later work for an agency that served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Yes, my dearest nephew, my social work career is dedicated to the memory of my mother and my sister.