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My Turn

by Dmae Roberts

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #12 (November 2, 2020), page 6.

Into the unknown

We turned on the gas furnace late last month. The smell of burning lint permeated the house for a few minutes then dissipated. This symbolic first stoking of the fire signals the approach of winter.

Despite some days of sunshine, weíre deep into fall and the cold it brings. I put on more layers of clothing and look longingly at the sun through my window. Every few minutes, I clasp a mug filled with hot tea to warm my chilly fingers. This familiar ritual feels comforting on one level. When it gets dark earlier, we donít feel compelled to be outside. Hopefully it will help people better adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

This will be the first winter during the coronavirus pandemic and our journey into an unknown future. Many will turn their attention to the holidays, the usual remedy for dealing with a cold, darkening sky. The holidays bring a season of togetherness and hope to many families. For some, itís an interval of introspection, depression, or wanted solitude. Unhoused persons discover more difficulty during wintry weather to locate a place for warmth and nourishment.

For others, November could bring hope or despair, depending on the outcome of the presidential election. Itís been a year of strife and challenge, a period of financial and physical uncertainty. Perhaps with different leaders in our country, we might find more compassion for those who are already struggling, before the frigid weather arrives. New leadership could mend racial disparities, offer economic stimulus, and put us on a path to a trusted vaccine.

For many years, my holiday season has included only my husband and younger brother. Until this summer, my brother had been stopping by our home a couple days each week to eat a meal and watch our favorite sci-fi shows together. In June, unfortunately, my brother went back to his obsession of foraging for bottles and cans from the recycling bins of strangers or dumpsters at grocery stores.

Heís acted on this compulsion for decades, but promised to stop during quarantine. For a while, he did. When warmer weather arrived, though, he listened to ultra-conservatives ó including the president ó who balked at wearing a face covering, pushed for re-openings prior to meeting public health metrics, and downplayed the health risks of COVID-19.

My brother doesnít need the income from finding and returning cans and bottles for the deposit. Itís an obsession heís had for decades. For him, itís a need to hoard. He usually wears his most tattered clothes and pushes a shopping cart on garbage days, starting in our neighborhood and roaming about a mile or so away.

Whenever I witness him digging through trash and recycling, my heart sinks. He canít stop himself. It somehow gives him comfort. He says he wears a mask and gloves. My husband once saw him at a recycling vending machine; through his mask, my brother was blowing up a dented plastic bottle like he would a balloon. He does this to puff up the containers so they fit into the recycling machine.

I attempted to work the situation out with him, but, of course, there was an issue. My brother had been regularly visiting our home to watch television while wearing masks. One night I asked him where he got the mask he was wearing. He said he "found it on the street. It looked clean," he said.

I fear for his health as well as ours, so I gave him an ultimatum. He chose the bottles and cans. Itís been more than a month since heís been to the house. He promised to stop collecting the containers sometime in November. Even if he does, heíll need to quarantine before we can even think about having a family dinner.

Social gatherings are a staple during the holidays. They encourage us to celebrate light amid the darkness. Re-imagining celebrations through Zoom meet-ups might comfort some. Perhaps itís a good thing to have less commercialization and fewer social obligations. Maybe itís an opportunity to consider what really matters in oneís life, catch up with loved ones, re-prioritize careers and work life, or finally decide to retire and start a third act.

I hope my brother will honor his promise and stop putting his own health and ours at risk, but itís hard to find that trust. He has a mental health issue that wonít release him from his need to scrounge around for bottles and cans. We tried to get him therapy, but mental health professionals declared his illness "not that bad." Now thereís no way to help him unless he values holiday meals more than his obsession.

The pandemic has made interactions with my brother more complex. Similar to many families, thereís added uncertainty for my husband and me as we enter the cold and flu season and this time of the unknown. I wish you and your loved ones a healthy holiday season. Please wear a face covering and stay safe.

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