This Sunday, December 9, my older brother Darren Lynard Gill turns 40 years old. It should be a day of pride, of tears of joy and long-suffering, of wondering about entering the prime decade of his life and my soon joining him there. With our relationship and my older brother’s life as such, there is only the hope that both get better before it’s too late for us.
You see, Darren had both the blessing and the curse of being the first-born son of our mother and our father Jimme Collins (they weren’t married at the time Darren was born) when he was born in ’67. It was a period in which both of our parents were still people full of hopes and dreams. It when my father was nothing more than an occasional social binge drinker and my mother was on the verge of becoming a supervisor of Mount Vernon Hospital’s Dietary Department. Darren became the embodies of their hopes and dreams.
And it should’ve been obvious that at least one of their hopes in Darren came true during his toddler years. All during her first pregnancy, according to my mother, my Uncle Sam, and a number of my mother’s friends at the time, all my mother prayed about was for Darren to be healthy and brilliant. She got what she wished for when Darren turned three. Sometime in 1971, my brother had taught himself how to read. The story goes that Darren was sitting at the dinner table in our second-floor flat at 48 Adams Street while my mother and father and me were milling about. Suddenly, they noticed that Darren had picked up a box of Diamond Crystal Salt and began reading the words on the box. Not just the letter, the actual words “salt” and “diamond” and “crystal”! If he hadn’t been moving his finger from left to right as he was doing this, I don’t think my mother and father would’ve believed what they’d witnessed at all.
This story doesn’t exactly take Darren to the academic decathlon. There was something else Darren inherited from my mother and father besides a high capacity for analytical thinking. He was also extremely shy and didn’t like being around lots of people. For both of them, this shyness needed to be taken care of, as if being shy is some sort of curse. My mother’s solution was placing Darren in Headstart in ’73 and ’74 (delaying his start in public school a full year) so that the shyness issue wouldn’t be one when he started school.
Jimme took this idea one step further and farther. He decided one day that Darren was too much like himself. After seeing an ad for a special school in Upper Westchester County called Clearview, he took us up to Dobbs Ferry (where the school was located at the time) so that Darren could be examined by a group of professionals. After a battery of psychological exams and an IQ test, they determined that my brother was mentally retarded. Darren would begin school in September ’74 at the Clearview School as a day student. Neither of our lives would ever be the same.
But before Darren became an institutionalized version of his shy and wonderfully intelligent self, he gave me the same gift he gave himself. I started kindergarten at Nathan Hale the same fall he started going to Clearview. I already knew and recognized my ABC’s, but couldn’t always make out or sound out words, and didn’t recognize them in sentence form. One afternoon between Christmas and New Years at the end of ’74, we sat down and went through sentence after sentence until I could recognize and read a sentence. He literally changed my life, and I didn’t even know it.
For years after that we remained close. We’d fight like all brothers fight. The main issue besides Clearview was my mother, who treated Darren as if he really was retarded while treating me more favorably because I wasn’t shy like Darren. Between my mother and father’s divorce in ’76-’77, my mother’s second marriage to Maurice, and the kids, poverty, abuse and bizarre religion that would come into our lives on the North Side of Mount Vernon, distance began to grow between us.
The key changes included a temper-tantrum that Darren threw in the middle of a Pelham laundromat in the summer of ’80, when my mother suggested that it was time to move my twelve-year-old brother into a “normal school.” It also included all of the abuse I took from my stepfather two summers later while Darren was off at Clearview’s summer day camp having the time of his life. By the time puberty struck, Darren was jealous of me and I was finding it hard to relate to him and survive 616 East Lincoln at the same time.
Darren would remain a student at Clearview until the year after I finished high school. For fourteen years, the state of New York covered his $33,000-a-year (in 1982 dollars) tuition, as he just slid under the public school accommodations radar for the mildly mentally retarded. I always knew that Darren was retarded, even though he now mimicked the severely retarded students he’d spent day after day with over the years. Through a dispensation granted by the Mount Vernon Board of Education, Darren graduated with the rest of the Mount Vernon High School Class of ’88, even though he had not spent a day in a public school.
From that point on, Darren was jealous of everything I did. I score a 5 on the AP American History exam, and Darren would take the CollegeBoard score sheet and dump it in the garbage. I get into the University of Pittsburgh, and Darren would enroll in college at home for a semester just to prove that he was just as good as me. If I said I was dating someone, Darren would stop talking to me altogether. Even during our Thanksgiving visit to Mount Vernon last year, Darren became angry with me because I offered and gave him a ride home in my family car, even though he wanted to walk in the pouring, freezing rain. I’ve never been able to have a normal conversation with him for fear of pissing him off or making him feel bad or him letting me know how much better my life has been compared to his.
The truth is, I do feel guilty sometimes about where Darren is in his life. For nearly twenty years, Darren has lived in a one-room flat, where he shares a bathroom and a kitchen in South Side Mount Vernon. His jobs have never paid more than $10 an hour. He’s often too afraid to say “Hi” to a woman he’s attracted to. He’s never learned how to drive and hasn’t taken a college-level course since the end of ’88. I’ve tried many, many times to reach out to him, to give him comfort and out of my hard earned wisdom and knowledge. I went through with my family intervention in ’02 in part because I wanted Darren to see what went wrong for our mother and Jimme as far as his education was concerned. Darren rejects almost all that I have to say and give him out of hand, with a smile of meanness that is praying hard for my failure in this life.
My wife says sometimes that she’s surprised that Darren hasn’t tried to kill himself yet. I’m not, if only because someone with Darren’s level of misery wants to see other people suffer with him, in this life, not in the next. That’s why he regularly visits our mother on Sundays for dinner, to remind her of one of the biggest mistakes she’s ever made. It’s why he regularly calls our father for money, to remind him of the idiotic decisions he has made on Darren’s behalf. It’s why Darren wears a permanent smirk on his face, to conceal his contempt for us all.
But I do want to remind him and anyone who knows either of us one thing. I wouldn’t be the intellectual I am today if Darren hadn’t taken the time to teach me how to read. He stepped in the breach to save me from years of catch-up in public school at a time when no one else in my life was willing or able to. Darren is a better person than me, because without him I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today. Happy Birthday Darren! I love you very much.