a long overdue story, and a recipe for blueberry cobbler

I want to tell you a story. It’s an evolving story, so I can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out. I’m hopeful that it will turn out just fine, but I am a realist, so I’m not getting my hopes up. I won’t share everything with you. But I do feel that I need to share at least some of this story.

For now, I’m just going to tell you the beginning.

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It was 1995, and I was home for the summer, having just finished one year of graduate school in Georgia. I was getting a Masters degree in psychology, and I had recently decided that I was not on the right track. My new plan was to live with my parents for a short time while I took the undergraduate science classes necessary to take – and hopefully pass – the medical school admissions test (the MCAT). It was going to be some time away still, but I thought I might be interested in psychiatry, or maybe even neurology.

When I moved home, I had a room next door to my brother. He was 18 or 19 at the time, and he couldn’t seem to get his act together academically. Despite being a very smart kid, once he was in high school, his grades began dropping. He could have graduated from high school if he’d made up one class in the summer following his senior year. He chose not to.

Those first few weeks home were difficult for me. I was commuting about 45 minutes each way to attend my classes. I was looking for – and eventually found – a job to pay for those classes. In between, I made time to study for physics and chemistry and biology. At night, I went to sleep with formulas spinning through my brain.

And every night, for what seemed like a very long time, I would awaken to hear my brother next door in his room. He was awake and talking to himself, laughing, and occasionally arguing. He never seemed to sleep. Which meant that I got very little sleep.

I was fed up with him, with not sleeping, with all the pressure I was under in my coursework. Mostly, I just wanted to sleep at night. I assumed that he was just acting like a jerk and purposefully trying to keep me up. One night, I went next door to my brother’s room and confronted him. I yelled at him and he yelled at me. It was the worst argument we’d ever had, and I don’t remember much of it. What I remember is that he stormed out of the house and left. The next day, he still had not come home.

This is what we were told by the medical personnel when we ultimately got the phone call: He was alive but in the hospital. He was in a single-vehicle accident on a rural road in a neighboring county. He was acting bizarrely and it was felt that he was high on hallucinogenic drugs of some sort, maybe LSD or PCP. He was flown in a helicopter or taken by ambulance [the details are fuzzy this many years later] to the major hospital in the region. A drug screen was done and was negative. He was not on drugs. He was in full-blown psychosis.

That was his first hospitalization for what became a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

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People don’t talk much about schizophrenia. There’s a stigma attached to having a mental illness or loving someone with a mental illness. My family and I have been dealing with my brother’s schizophrenia for over 16 years, and WE never talk about it in public. I’ve never really discussed it here, even though I talk about other personal things that affect me profoundly. Only a few close friends know about my brother’s diagnosis. Our extended family know some, but not all, of what we’ve been through.

I don’t want sympathy. I just need to tell this story. Mental illness affects so many people – both those affected and the family members and loved ones of those with the illness. We should be helping each other more, supporting each other. We don’t talk enough about it.

I’m ready to change that.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

A few weeks ago, on Memorial Day weekend, we drove out to my parents’ home to have a cookout. My parents still live about 45 minutes away, in the very rural one-stoplight town I grew up in. My mom and dad live in an old farmhouse that they remodeled many years ago, after I moved out for good. My grandmother has lived with them since she was diagnosed with lymphoma about 15 months ago, and my brother – younger than me by 4 years – lives in a little house just behind theirs and connected by a deck my dad built.

I brought a homemade blueberry cobbler, made with the fresh blueberries we picked earlier that weekend. My mom requested the cobbler. She never asks for anything, so I had no intention of telling her no.

My mom has been a caregiver for the last 16 years, when my brother was diagnosed.  She became a caregiver for a second time when my grandmother was on chemotherapy and radiation for lymphoma. In January, she became a caregiver for my father, too.  She has the hardest job of anyone I know. It’s a physical, mental, and emotionally draining job. She never gets a day off. And she never asks for anything. Except blueberry cobbler.

So I delivered.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8.

Blueberry Cobbler

Ingredients:

Filling
1 cup packed light brown sugar
5 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
6 cups fresh blueberries (or 30 ounces frozen blueberries, not thawed)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon

Topping
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions:

Place oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil.

Make filling: Combine the filling ingredients – light brown sugar, tapioca, cinnamon, nutmeg, blueberries, lemon juice, and lemon zest in a bowl and stir well to combine. Place fruit filling in a 9-inch deep dish pie plate or a baking dish. Place the baking dish on the foil-lined baking sheet and bake until the fruit begins to release liquid (20-30 minutes if using fresh blueberries; 40-50 minutes if using frozen).

Make topping: While blueberry filling is baking, whisk the flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. In a second bowl, whisk the buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla together. In a third, small bowl, combine the cinnamon and 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar together and set aside.

When the blueberry filling has begun to release liquid, stir the buttermilk mixture gently into the flour mixture with a rubber spatula, until the dough is just combined and there are no dry pockets remaining.

Remove the blueberry filling from the oven and stir. Pinch topping dough into 8 equal pieces and scatter evenly on top of the hot filling. Sprinkle dough with the cinnamon sugar. Return cobbler to oven and bake until the filling is bubbling and the topping is brown on top and cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let the cobbler cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes prior to serving.

Cobbler adapted from the recipe for Fruit Cobbler in The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.