. . .for enlarging my brother's world
My brother's birthday is in March. I try to visit him each year to do what I do best: take him shopping, inventory his needs, make him feel special. And not stay too long before I fly home. This year his birthday coincided with the release of Apple's iPad.
Bro - he would not want his name used - lives pretty much the life of a recluse. He was diagnosed 40 years ago with schizophrenia. In the many years he was untreated, he bounced in and out of hospitals from one end of the country to the other, and slept under the stars on park benches. He has been robbed, cheated, and victimized by predators. He also has begged for handouts, pawned family heirlooms, alienated relatives, and exhausted the patience of neighbors whose kindness he exploited.
Then his life got better, remarkably so. After coming to the attention of outreach workers in his community, 25 years of thrashing ended when he finally received services. A local agency coordinates a social worker and a psychiatrist, and arranges for trips to his cardiologist - a saintly doctor who is willing to take the local Medicaid reimbursement rate. Another social worker takes him to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and to Staples, where he purchases art supplies for his drawings. Yet a different agency provides him with meals.
Whatever this costs the state, it saves as a result of his living independently in a tiny one-room apartment in a nice, not fancy, neighborhood. Crammed into his space is everything he cares about, everything he owns including an iPad. On my last visit, we went to the nearby Apple Store to shop for his birthday present.
The store is sleek, bustling, hopping, and filled with young people. When he crossed the threshold into the Apple Store, for a moment Bro too seemed young again. His eyes darted from MacBooks to iPhones to salespeople wearing logoed T-shirts. Like a kid in the neighborhood candy store, Bro was focused, cautious, and excited. When a salesperson handed him the box with the iPad, Bro opened it slowly so as not to tear the outer wrap.
Once the box was open, he was guarded, yet anxious to explore the standard apps -- maps, email, phones, messages, contacts, YouTube, Safari - which come preloaded. Each was a highway to adventure. Unlike the candy behind a glass window, this he could not taste. But he could touch them. And when he did, I marveled as he absorbed the magical explosion of color, shapes, and sounds he could activate with his fingertip.
I asked the salesperson for a tutor who would demonstrate this new universe. I do not own an iPad, and wanted to make sure my brother was informed by someone with up-to-date know-how. I asked that the person be kind and patient. He was both.
Bro was most frustrated by the idea of an email address. We chose Gmail, but why the "g" when it was "e"-mail? When told it meant Google, he wanted to know what that was. And who were they to be giving this to him? It was hard to know where to begin as he dove in to learn a mindset it's taken most of us 20 years to assimilate.
The tutor was painstaking in his explanations; shoppers crowded to listen and watch almost as if they were bearing witness to someone climbing out of a time machine and dusting off the cobwebs. A few seemed annoyed as they brusquely reached across the workspace to grab boxes of software. Others, however, smiled, realizing this toothless, balding, shrinking man, who kept dropping his cane, was determined to learn and to fill in the gaps of his knowledge about the past two decades.
After an hour or so of tutoring, Bro wrapped his new treasure in the original cellophane that he insisted nobody discard. "It's mine, and it will keep this clean," he said, picking lint from the darkened screen as his tutor carefully explained that no, he should not use Windex on the iPad. Only special softened cloths would be okay. "That's not a problem," my brother said. He would buy a new box of Kleenex just for this! No, no, no, said his tutor.
Walking out, I pointed to a restaurant sign announcing "Wi-Fi".
"Will I have a sign in my house?"
"No, but you can bring your iPad here when you go for a walk. You can use it anywhere you see the Wi-Fi symbol. In any store or restaurant."
"Oh no, I'm not taking it out of the house."
And so it was as my brother crossed into the digital age. He wouldn't take his new treasure out of the house, but he could now leave his apartment virtually. He could visit museums without standing in line. He could explore countries he hadn't seen since his days as a college student hitchhiking through Europe. As he did then, he could now spend one day in an Italian village, a week in another. National boundaries dissolved, and fresh news, movies, music could be delivered to the small room he rarely left. And all through a screen on his lap which has done more to end his isolation than the medicines, the doctors, and all the hospitalizations of a lifetime.
Thank you, Steve Jobs. Thank you for this gift of travel and adventure. Thank you for a reason to get up every day, which your iPad gives my brother who, without leaving the safety of his space, can be engaged in today's world.