Getting Mike: Part One–

A.V. Walters–

It was inevitable that sooner or later we’d have to step up to the plate to resolve this. The only real resolution was to bring Mike home.

Mike is my uncle. He is congenitally disabled–starting with a birth condition that caused brain damage, which (very common in the day) was left untreated. He did not get the kind of early intervention and treatment mandated now, that would likely have left him far more capable. My grandmother shielded him–to protect him from the bullies that taunted and repeatedly injured him. He clearly has deficits–but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s damage, what’s training and–well, when Mike is manipulating for his own ends. The very fact that he knows when he can gain advantage, hedging with the truth, means there’s more capacity there than is generally acknowledged.

Mike’s childhood in Michigan was pretty harsh. Bullying is widely recognized today as an insidious and twisted problem–one that damages both the victim and the perpetrator. Schools have special programs. Teacher and students alike are encouraged to step forward to set things to rights. Not so in Mike’s day. School was a veritable gauntlet of hazards. My grandmother would rail, and the administration would shrug. They made it very clear that they would have preferred that he be institutionalized early on. They made it Mike’s fault.

My grandmother refused to give up. She researched high and low and found a special program to maximize the potential for kids like Mike. She wanted him to have the satisfaction and autonomy that comes with work. Like most parents on mentally challenged children, she didn’t want him to be a burden–and worried what would happen when she and my grandfather died. She found a great program in New Mexico–run by a dynamic and wonderful young man–who saw potential in all “his kids.” And the program was wonderful. First and foremost they were the ones to identify Mike’s speech impediment. (When I was little I could never understand him–most couldn’t, and soon, Mike talked less and less.) As a late teen, Mike received intensive speech therapy. It worked. Mike could suddenly communicate–and he was funny–even theatrical. My grandparents were vindicated. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits, but, in the absence of communication, everyone assumed that he was far less functional than he really was. Shame on the rest of us.

The relocation was a big step, but my grandparents uprooted themselves from generations of family and history in Michigan, to give Mike a chance. It was a tough move, loaded with sacrifices. Being from Michigan gives one a love of season and lakes and snow. New Mexico, especially the high Eastern Desert, takes a special kind of appreciation. Mike bloomed. The employment training offered wasn’t wonderful–hospital orderly, bus boy, laundry worker–but they were jobs, steady jobs, for kids who were never expected to have any prospects.

After a while, the program, and its continuing support fizzled. State administrations changed, budgets were cut. Finally there were really no special programs for Mike, just a handful of advocates–family and friends who’d come to know him. Still, he lived with his parents and had a regular job. My grandparents missed Michigan. Some people have only one great leap of faith in them–that leap brought them to New Mexico. There was no going back.

Mike’s biggest problem is his inability to discern the motivations of others. He’s a genial guy. Not many people will take the time to befriend a mentally disabled person. When they do, they are either saints, or, unfortunately, predators. It’s been a problem all of his life. The “friend” who got him into stereo equipment–soaked up his savings and, after he’d cashed his commission check, vanished from Mike’s life. There was a similar scenario with camera equipment. It’s a recurring theme, and so we’re leery.

When my grandparents passed, nobody knew what to do about Mike. Mike made it abundantly clear that he wanted to stay where he was. It was his community and he had a job. My parents would have taken him to Michigan, but Mike’s memories of Michigan are full of abuse and bullies. I would have taken him to Two Rock, but California was an unknown. Mike wanted to stay. We cut a deal. If Mike could stay and take care of business–work, pay bills, take care of himself, he could stay. Long distance monitoring isn’t great. My grandmother’s friend, Mary-Jo has helped. She would call and drop in on him. Mike calls my mother every week, on Sundays. There have been slips, but mostly Mike has kept up his end of the deal. Or so we thought.

A couple of years ago, Mike had a friend who suggested that they share an apartment, to save money. We were immediately suspicious. The “friend” wasn’t interested in communicating with us–more suspicions. But, Mike jumped the gun and moved anyway. We had no evidence of trouble, so we opted for a wait and watch plan. Things seemed to be fine. Mike continued to report to work. My grandmother’s friend watched like a hawk (the woman is a blessing). At one point, when Mike didn’t call, we called the local cops–for a “welfare” visit. He was fine. He was angry with us–he’d just missed a couple of calls because of problems with his phone. Still, we worried.

Last spring Mike was going in for cataract surgery. His roommate didn’t pick him up, so Mike gave the medicos Mary-Jo’s name and number. She retrieved him from the clinic. While he was there, the doctor noted a nasty infection in his leg. These have plagued him, off and on, all his life. He started up with regular treatments at a wound clinic. His legs were too bad to continue working. My mother offered to pick him up and take him to Michigan where he could have better care. Mary-Jo reported that Mike was unshaven and disheveled. We were alarmed that the roommate hadn’t followed through, and that he wasn’t taking care of himself.

Then, our mail was returned as “not at this address.” Again, we requested that the police visit. Too late. Mike was gone. For a while we lost contact, but still, we had no evidence of actual trouble. We had nothing to report and nowhere to report it to. We’d dropped the ball.

After a bit, Mike’s calls to my mother resumed. Yes, he’d been out of communication, but there were reasons. He’d moved to a place in the country–and there wasn’t great cell reception. He was clearing part of the property and planting trees. He had a kitten. He was so excited, it was hard to be angry. But, he had no address. The trailer where he was living was new, and there was no address yet. We’d have to be patient, there was so much to do. No address meant that we couldn’t send him cards and treats and care packages. These goodies had long sustained him–the occasional box of cookies, a needed winter coat, cards–with a little cash tucked in. These outreaches meant the world to Mike. How could he not give us an address? Well, the post office had to put it on the route and they’d have to install a mailbox, out on the highway. He confided that his friend was still angry that we’d called the police previously. Soon, soon, he’d have an address.

He sounded great. He sounded happier than he’d been in years. He was working outdoors, enjoying it and proud of the results of his labors. He was so thrilled that he had a kitten–all his own. We worried. He was also keeping in telephone contact with Mary-Jo, she didn’t like the situation, one bit, and she told him so. We talked about it and we decided to let the tenor of Mike’s voice be our guide. His voice was strong and he was happy.

His birthday rolled around. My mum called for his birthday. He was missing the goodies. What could she say? Well, Mike, when you give us your address and we’ll resume the packages and cards. Tough love. Over Christmas, Mike called my mother, elated that they’d put up the mail box. He gave her his new address! Before she’d send him any goodies my mother told Mike she would send him something and he’d have to send it back, a test of the new postal address. She did, and he did. So, she sent him belated birthday and Christmas packages.

Then, after Christmas, New Mexico had a storm. We read about it but we’re from Michigan. What’s the big deal about a little snow? It was a big deal. Mary-Jo called, frantic. Was Mike going to be okay? My mother gave her the address–explained that things were fine now according to Mike. Things weren’t fine. Mike likes it there, but we’ve learned that he lives in a trailer with no heat, no water, no sanitation. There’s power, but only when there’s fuel for a generator. Winter is a big deal under these conditions. Mary-Jo, determined detective that she is, advocate for this vulnerable son of her best friend–she found out just how grim. He told her he keeps warm under a thermal blanket, he and his kitty. The “roommate” doesn’t live there, she drops off groceries. He visits at her place every couple of weeks–to do laundry and have a shower. She cashes and keeps his Social Security checks.

I am on a mission. I have contacted and coordinated with Adult Protective Services. Mike’s going to have a visit.The police will escort us. If conditions are as Mary-Jo reports, Mike and his kitty are coming home to Michigan. He’s not going to like it, but he’s not getting a choice this time. I won’t post this until he is safe with me–I don’t want to jinx it this time. I just finished a two day, 1,600 mile drive to New Mexico. I thank all those who have coordinated to make Mike’s rescue possible, especially Mary-Jo. Tomorrow is the big day.

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