By Fred Dickey
Originally published October 22, 2012
It’s easy to scorn a seedy image in the media or laugh at a bum on the street, but when that person is someone’s brother, when a sister reaches out with love … well, then, our laughter becomes awkward and fades away. And when we are reminded that every family is dysfunctional in some way, we grow thoughtful.
Michael McGinley, 54, was profiled in this column four months ago. He was a homeless alcoholic I encountered in Balboa Park, where he had lived for more than a year. I looked at him, talked to him and wrote what I saw. Then I went on to the next column.
That’s what we all do — we move on.
McGinley was forgotten by you and filed away by me. However, he never stopped being a brother to his kid sister, 53-year-old April McGinley of National City. He had told me in the interview that she tracked him down from time to time to check on him and bring him food or a few dollars.
“I’d just find him and say hi, give him a few bucks and urge him to get a shower and cleaned up. But I don’t think he ever did,” April says.
April McGinley will never walk a fashion runway. She’s a hardworking environmental supervisor in the ship-repair industry. She dresses for function, and her bluejeans are faded only because she labors in them. Her hair is clipped because it can get dirty in her job. But her blue-collar appearance cannot mask her tears when she talks about her brother. Tenderness does not require gingham.
About the time the column ran, Michael disappeared; at least, April could no longer find him. She searched Balboa Park, police arrest records and vital records; contacted hospitals; talked to the homeless; and explored every other resource that might disclose the whereabouts of a street person. To my astonishment, she says that most of the homeless people she met during this search had read my profile of Michael. April hopes that if he sees this story, he’ll contact her.
Her search has been fruitless. Michael has disappeared. Finally, she turned to me. I had no idea where he had gone but was curious about where he had been — not in the past few months, but in the half-century before. I asked what had turned Michael from someone’s apple-cheeked, laughing little boy into a stubborn alcoholic adrift on the streets of San Diego.
Life for the kids started normal, then turned bad. Michael, April and two older sisters spent their early years in Coronado, children of a Navy career man and his wife. When Michael was 10 and April was 9, their father died of leukemia. Two years later, their mother died of breast cancer.
The parting with their mother was as abrupt as a slap to April. “The last time I saw my mother, she was going to a doctor’s appointment and asked me to light her cigarette for her. She went to her appointment and never came home. She went to a nursing home.”
Shortly after, social services came calling. “When we woke up, a stranger was knocking on the door saying we had to pack two changes of clothes, and then we were going to another home. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know where our mother was other than ‘in the hospital.’ We didn’t know we were being split apart. They dropped Mike off at one foster home and me at another. Our two sisters went to a different one.”
They didn’t learn of their mother’s condition or even see her again until the funeral a few weeks later.
The family was torn apart with the speed and sharpness of a cleaver, never to be brought together again. “I wasn’t around my sisters and brother, so in terms of getting really close to them, I didn’t,” April says.
“Mike ended up going to Pennsylvania to live with our grandparents. My oldest sister ended up in an orphanage in North Carolina. Me and my other sister went to live with my uncle and aunt. That didn’t work out. Their agenda was that we were there to be their maids.”
April fondly recalls the brief days of normalcy in the family. “When we were together as a family, that was great. Me and my brother used to go everywhere together. We were real close. But when we were split apart, that was hard on all of us.”
Michael enlisted in the Marine Corps in the ’70s and served four years. The years after his discharge are mainly a mystery to April. She learned years later that he had married or lived with a woman and had two children. She has never known anything about the woman or the children.
In that same decade, he fathered a son in San Diego whom he saw on rare occasions. April does not know exactly where her nephew lives and has no way of getting in touch with him.
When I interviewed Michael in June, he was a cheerful fellow, but strong emotions surfaced about three things: deep anger about his childhood, a tearful reference to his son, and an unapologetic love for alcohol. I got the impression that he didn’t much care if he lived or died.
He wasn’t always that way. Though he would go on drinking sprees from time to time, he mainly stayed employed. He worked in shipping and receiving for Sears, and then at a gas station.
April believes that his deep down slide was precipitated by heart surgery a few years ago. “He ended up in bad health. I got him a job painting Navy ships where I work, but the medication he was on made him incontinent, so he quit.
“Mike’s a great guy, a really great guy. He didn’t drink for a long time. At one time, he went through a program; he didn’t drink for over 10 years. He was sober and working.”
April refuses to quit on her brother. “I told Mike all the time that he needs to get his life together, and he’d get really mad at me — but just for a minute — and tell me he’s not stupid, he knows what he needs to do. I’d lecture him all the time, but he just didn’t want to hear it. But right now I just think he’s got a lot of pain inside of him, and he doesn’t know how to get out from under it.”
She says Michael told her he has to drink at night so he can sleep. However, he told me he drinks before bed so he doesn’t get delirium tremens. Maybe that’s telling the stranger what you don’t want to say to your sister.
“I would like to see Mike back to being Mike — working again, supporting himself, a roof over his head, living the way he’s supposed to,” April says.
“Is that going to happen?” I ask her.
A sad, silent glance at me, and then away.
April McGinley is no fool. She knows what she’s up against, but she won’t give up. And I reflect that any day I meet such a person, one who will give love without end, is a day that strengthens me.
She’s tired from the demands of her own life, but drives the streets patiently — doggedly — looking for a bedraggled, bearded man who may have made the choice of suicide by bottle, but hoping that he wants to give life another go.
Love says, try one more street.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.