Sometimes, especially growing up, we accept things, even the abnormal, as normal, and its by- products may not be visible to the human eye, or felt by the human heart for years to come.
Children who live with abuse, abused women, alcoholism, addiction, etc, accept the evil that enveloped them their whole lives, and the scars that remain indelible are either interred with their bones, as William Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar, or addressed much later in life.
Whether those scars are turned into life lessons about love, and recognizing love, or never worked through, is up to prayer and fate.
My brother Mark, who passed away in 2015, was a paranoid schizophrenic.
Schizophrenia in its most rudimentary form means….
A fragmented mind.
Mark and I were not contemporaries. There was a fourteen year difference between us, and that meant, truly, little sister.
I was not aware of what was to be or become later in his life and mine, but there was some kind of sweetness to your brother teaching you the lyrics to the Doors and Jim Morrison when you are four, playing the Let it Bleed Stones Album over and over (I loved the cover…the birthday cake and the pizza looked amazing), blasting Jimmi Hendrix and just making me repeat stupid shit.
I did learn to love music from both my brothers, Stephen buying for me when I was about eight, this tiny transistor AM radio that looked like a red ball. It was the prototype for a Bluetooth speaker when I think about it.
From what I was told, Mark started to have mini breaks as a child, before I was ever born. Odd behavior, bed wetting, repeating phrases, but nobody addressed it as mental illness back in the day. My father attributed it to Mark’s mom, Kathleen passing and the transition time of being cared for by my paternal grandmother, Dora, and remarrying my mom, his stepmother.
My oldest sibling, my sister, Chris and I were 16 years apart, and Steve and I, the closest in age, 12 years apart. This put me at home, and the older ones in college when Mark started to have adult “breaks.”
I remember vivid fights in the family room about Mark not cutting his hair at Bergen Catholic, my father in a wrestling match with him because Mark was resistant to anything and anyone with authority.
My parents moved him to Rockland Day School, where he eventually graduated and to Skidmore college, and Fordham University where he completed a B.S. in PolySci, and like every other brilliant Perillo man, on to law school, Fordham of course, where my Uncle Joe was a professor.
Typically, schizophrenic breaks occur in early twenties and the pressure of law school compounded with mental illness proved unbearable. The brilliant mind took to LSD to suppress voices, and law school would be a distant memory.
My teenage years saw Mark bounced in and out of mental institutions in the hopes of saving his mind and keeping him on medication.
I began to understand the pressure on my parents to float his life, and the sadness of watching him, a dear soul, truly, I believe, survive. When he took meds, he was brilliant, charming, conversive and sweet.
When I could drive, I would visit him at Rockland State and bring him food. When he was on a policed treatment regimen I thought he was fun to hang with, and the other patients, were, well, interesting. He seemed so normal compared to the guy who kept asking me for my autograph because he thought with my curly hair as a decoy, I was Stevie Nicks.
Somewhere between the normal and the frenetic, unthinkable memories like being a young witness to Mark hurling everything out of the refrigerator because he thought my mother was poisoning him, or pulling the new alarm system out of the wall because he thought the FBI was spying on him, (both which warranted calls to the police because my mother and I were alone in the house,) lie the tender and poignant.
My father made sure Mark was taken care of with supportive care and finances. He eventually moved him into my grandfather’s house in Pearl River, which was next door to my house on Highland Avenue. He lived horribly in squalor, the house aligned with paper bags from various supermarkets. Without medication, there was no hope for normalcy.
Unless provoked, Mark remained in his own mind. His own realm. He would travel from Pearl River to Port Authority carrying a black garbage bag. It was almost like he was in the Witness Protection Program…last seen at…and someone would say with coy inquisition, “Hey, I saw Mark today…he was carrying a black garbage bag on Central Avenue….” Looking for a juicy subtext or conclusion. There was none. That’s what he did.
The movie a Beautiful Mind recollects the story of John F Nash, a brilliant mathematician who could decode and retain information like a robotic Russian spy. Mark, in the same vein would never forget an event date, a birthday, nor a generous gift. He would lumber into a family party and remain sequestered on the couch with no movement. And after he had enough, usually an hour later, he would say his monotone goodbyes and leave. He arrived with a gift, always monetary, and when the recipient opened the envelope, the desire of a softhearted, wildly misunderstood soul to be incredibly generous with what he had, was understood.
My desire to understand my brother over his lifetime went from absolute zero to boiling in the 48 years I knew him. I accepted his norm as a child, but as an adult, my heart broke in reminiscence, frustrated with sympathy I unknowingly lacked.
When I graduated college and my father took me to lunch, alone, at Valentino’s, he said, “Can you promise something?” I’m thinking what could this creative genius, mega millionaire want from me besides a buttered jelly toast and coffee I used to bring him when I was a kid…
“Anything…” I remember saying. “Promise me they will take care of Mark, “ was the ask.
What has stunned and stung me for my life since that martini moment was this powerful icon, this block of Leo persona, of steadfast commitment to wealth, ego, family and success was watered down, humbled and rendered powerless as only a parent could be with a disabled child. “The mind, the mind, the mind, Linda.” And I cried because I finally understood what we had all been absorbing our entire lives, and the lingering pain of a powerless parent reaching out helplessly and to no avail to help his child.
Mark had many health issues, including diabetes and a really bad ticker, forcing him into a quintuple bypass around 2005. One of my favorite stories, and I admittedly giggle when I recount it, was when Mark was found in the subway unconscious from a diabetic coma. First responders asked him who he was when they were able to communicate with him.
Multiple times he said to call Perillo Tours because Mario Perillo was his father. Apparently the officer on the scene laughed at him, as I am sure you do with a “crazy” person you find in the subway. But, apparently someone acquiesced and called the office, tagged Steve who said, “yeah, he’s telling you the truth.”
On August 8, 2015, I was going to New York to see a show with the kids. Steve called me…I’ll never forget the moment of looking for the garage, and like, “What do you want, Steve…did Harry get loose again…”. The phone call was direct and somber.. “It’s Mark.” I knew. The moment we had all been waiting for…the culmination of the beautiful life and beautiful mind had finally met its greatest limitation…death.
He had just returned from his Highland Avenue home’s garden, where he harvested all sorts of vegetation, like my grandpa, and fell backwards in his doorway. He was alone. A neighbor saw his feet sticking out of the front door, akin to the WWW in the Wizard of Oz, and called an ambulance. His weight and his diabetes overtook his compromised heart.
It was finished. I think it was finished in the way Mark would have wanted it finished…alone, quiet, in Pearl River and close to his garden.
As my life moved on from that moment, I did more research on the life and obscurities of a schizophrenic. Mark was classic. But the moments that defined his disease from my childhood until today, are now more clear. Understood, indelible.
The stages I retain and maybe blew off as a child, or adolescent have now become the pieces to a mosaic I have constructed of the understanding of mental illness, disability, and moreover the unsinkable love, and frustration for a parent who cannot move their child from despair, change their future, or simply put, help them.
Mark’s life has entwined, even posthumously, with mine in a beautiful way that I could not imagine would ever cultivate from the time he imparted Doors lyrics or Hendrix riffs on what were then young ears, just learning the scales on a piano. I asked my piano teacher at the time, Miss Williams, “Can we try Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky…”. She laughed the most jolly laugh of a chubby coiffed blonde woman with intense perfume and pointed me back to my scales.
I eulogized him at his funeral mass, and recounted his imperfect life, because we needed to recognize those imperfections rather than blow them off just to get a gooey eulogy. Those imperfections, his nemesis, his cross is what made him beautiful, albeit invisible to him.
I said there was more beauty in Mark Joseph Perillo because of those imperfections, and loved more by God than those without them.
Thank you Mark, for the gift of patience and love that needed years to cure, but will remain with your little sister for the rest of her life.