Monday, January 20, 2014

He Ain't Heavy

Note:  This post is darker and more graphic than most found on this blog, and is as much (or more) for my catharsis than for your reading enjoyment.  Continue reading at your own discretion.

It has been a bleak winter for the families tied together by our deer camps up north.  We've lost two of our elders in the camps -- grandpas and husbands -- to the cold winter winds.  Solid men equally adept at fixing tractors as they were gibbering to grandbabies perched in their callused hands; they lived long productive decades, and raised gorgeous, loving families.  I will not suffer so much as those families in the face of their great losses, but I can empathize.  Death has put me in a qualified position to do so.

There is a certain conversation that happens when I run into a friend unseen by me for a decade or so now.  I'm fairly adept at this particular catching-up confab, but that does little to ease its taking place.

We make our greetings, exchange in a little small talk, and it's then that I sometimes attempt to politely extricate myself from the encounter.  Not to preserve my comfort, but theirs.  I've had this dreadful conversation dozens of times before.  If the exchange goes on long enough, though, they come to the subject of my family as anyone would in that casual updating mode, not knowing that they're stepping into a conversational bear trap.

They inquire about my parents.  They ask about my brother Josh and my great love Erin.  The fishermen sometimes ask of my exploits with longtime buddy and salmon trolling fiend, Kirk, on Lake Michigan; an ill-fated and desperate attempt to steer the conversation toward brighter shores.  Time and again I'm forced to inform them, reticking the boxes on a worn list of despair, that all these folks are dead.  Taken.  Gone.

I'm the last man standing, though I've yet to figure out what I won.

The varying circumstances of their deaths no longer matter as much as the stark reality of their absences.  That there were a few years there when I wondered if the seismic emotional pummeling would ever stop.

Sometimes these surprised friends from my past cry, sometimes they hug me right there in the frozen foods aisle (which is nice, I guess, but uncomfortable), but most often they simply stumble through a clumsy apology, and wander off looking slightly bewildered after their impromptu encounter with an emotional wood chipper.  I always secretly hope they go home and hug their families.

I should go no further without making it known that throughout those three years of bottomless calamity, while everything was falling and broken, four men in particular remained unassailable and true for me.  The steadfast and centered Frisbee of that solid up north deer camp stock, unmoving and patient.  Spanky, a font of the greatest side-splitting rants ever witnessed in this hemisphere, always present with hilarity and that plain-spoken genuineness small town guys often have.  The ferociously bright and deep Bender, smartest man I call friend, our long conversations wending and ranging over the spectrum of our combined interests for hours.  And the indomitable, irrepressible, jarringly crass and sweet at once Roadkill -- so much the other half of me that we've occasionally been accused of speaking in (often gleefully profane) "Twin Talk." 

We don't see each other as much as we once did, The Boys and I, separated by both geography and my post-traumatic predilection for running solo most of the time, but I know if I picked up the phone in need once again, any one of them and a host more, would run through a brick wall to help me.  I'd return the favor without thought.

During the time in which my loved ones were tipping over one after the other, like metal plate targets at the range, my brother's passing was sort of lost on me.  The way things went down, the order they happened in, I didn't have time to really acknowledge he was gone.  When my dad died six months after my brother did, I'm fully confident that it was partly of a broken heart.  I'd barely had time to think about Josh in the interim.  There's no shame in that, it's simply the way things happened.

With the perspective of time, though, things have a changed a bit.  The pain of all the losses dims with time, but his remains more clear to me at times because I was unable to give it proper treatment then.

Josh was just over a year younger than me, and we grew up in that classic brothers mode of bickering interspersed with laughter -- him following me around with my friends, begging to tag along; always the last in a train of bikes, struggling to keep up.  We swam at the beach down the hill from home, and built jumps for our dirt bikes in the woods up the hill.  And there were all-out wars.  I've had a straight-back chair broken over my back (they don't explode satisfyingly like in a good Western) and a hatchet whiz right by me to come to a clattering halt in the woodpile.  The boy did not mince about when it came time to throw down.

He looked up to me for almost everything growing up, starting from a very young age.  When my parents and some ambiguous (to me) health professionals were fretting at his remaining speechless well past the age he should have, I knew better.  He only spoke to me in the secret comfort of our darkened bedroom.  Later he'd whisper to me in the half acre vinyl backseat of that olive drab Impala, and I'd make his wishes known to our parents up front.  When he did finally begin to talk in public, it was with a painful, often debilitating stutter, but that did little to dampen his zest for talking... and talking... and talking.  Josh was a singularly determined and unstoppable chatterbox from then on, prone to flights of fancy, and relentless to the point that he sometimes drove normally sane and serene people, family and relative strangers alike, to beg him to please, shut the hell up for two minutes!

As we grew through elementary and middle school, it became apparent that Josh was not progressing normally.  The incessant yammering and inability to keep up with his peers in the classroom landed him in remedial classes, the offices of mental health professionals, and eventually, in the worst case, jail.  Our paths could not have been more divergent.  While I was being carted off to advanced courses and programs with my fellow nerds, he was mired and frustrated and acting out.

By the time we were in our late teens, he'd been diagnosed as bipolar, having OCD, and being mentally deficient or whatever the acceptable term of the day was.  Not to mention a entire passel of other monikers.  Learning disabled, special needs, retarded... whatever.  The lay truth is that he was a naive 3rd-grader living in a behemoth 6'8" frame.  Easily lost and confused, easily led astray by any who wished to do so, and easily provoked into violence when those two situations arose in unison.  Or when some inelegant, about-to-be-mangled asshole made fun of his stuttering.  I never blamed him for that one.  I'd beaten them bloody for him until he was old enough to do it for himself.  He was labeled a dropout, an offender, and a delinquent by the time I was in college, when all he really wanted was to ride his bike and have me visit.

He wrote me heartbreaking letters from jail and halfway houses and and mental hospitals, in his jagged childish scrawl, about how I was going to come home someday, and he was going to get a Corvette, and we were just going to drive and drive.  I sat in 262 Witte Hall B, and wept for his simple beauty, his relentless hope over reason.

In the end, I couldn't save him.  Nobody could.  But we did one day, in a different way, long before then.

We were Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts together, Josh and I, and Dad was our Scoutmaster much of the time.  Dad wasn't much for bloated organizations like the BSA, or for regulations and party lines, but he was for getting young boys out in the woods, and that's what he did.  If you pack 8 boys in a van and head for the woods on your own, you're a creepy molester.  Add uniforms and some paperwork, you're a Scoutmaster.  Simple as that.

I was eleven, one of the oldest boys in our fledgling troop, and easily the most comfortable in the woods having been raised by my father, the winter we found ourselves camping and generally running around like little imps at a Scout camp in central Wisconsin.  We'd been there before as a troop in summer, and knew the sprawling grounds well, from the lake well up into the woods that surrounded the camping area proper.  After our mandated activities one morning, we were left free to scamper about the place until dinner was to be made.  I have no recollection what those activities may have been, but I'll bet they involved canvas or leather at some point, and fire.  And pocketknives.  If you've ever been part of (or come in close contact with) a Boy Scout troop, you'll know that every one of them is fairly bristling with pocketknives.  Big ones, little ones, sharp ones, dull ones; you could fashion and outfit an entire ark using solely the knives found in the pockets of any Boy Scout troop in America.

The snow was deep and dense that day-- outstanding for sledding -- as a few of us trundled off in search of a perfect sledding hill.  Josh was smaller than the boys my age, and as usual, soon found himself bringing up the rear of our group as we trekked overland most of the afternoon, always searching for a sledding run to top the last.

We eventually found one to our liking in the form of a steep and icy footpath that cut straight through the woods down to a clearing near the river.  It was slick and dangerous enough to be cool and a little hair-raising, but you didn't let on with that to your friends.  We took it one at a time, narrow and fast as it was, and laughed as we wiped out in a pile of snow pants and stocking caps at the bottom.

Josh went last as he'd gotten there last, and was taking forever, as usual.  I was getting impatient and ready to leave him behind yet again when he screamed my name.  A sharp, frightened scream full of adrenaline and need.  Not the prolonged, whiney... Looookisss, waaaait uuuup! I was accustomed to, no, it was immediately apparent, even hidden from view over the crest of the hill, that Josh was hurt.  Another yelping and pained Lucas, Help! sent me hurdling uphill as fast as I could manage.

The first thing I saw was blood in the snow, and a lot of it.  Splashes of bright crimson against the white.  He was lying flat on his back, head uphill, his right leg essentially case skinned from just below the knee to his ankle, boot peeled off in the fray.  There was a wad of "meat" balled up around his ankle like an old tube sock, its elastic long since given way.  I wasn't sure if his foot was still attached, but when I asked him to wiggle his toes, I could see tendons and muscles trying to work behind his shin and in his foot.  I froze for a moment, and we stared each other in the eye, both panting and scared.  Then he did the strangest thing in that moment.  He let out a resigned sigh, almost relaxed, and gave me the same comforted look he often did his entire life --  I'm in your hands now, big brother.  I trust you.  You got this. 

And here's the thing.  I did have it.  If ever there was an eleven-year-old prepared for this, it was one who poured over his dad's wilderness survival and first aid manuals at bedtime just as often as he read Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and Jim Kjelgaard. 

The blood seemed almost neon red in my amped-up state, and I was worried it was arterial, but there wasn't any real gushing or squirting, just seeping and dripping everywhere.  My young mind took that to mean no tourniquet and potential loss of limb.  We spun him around so his leg was above his heart uphill, and I had my buddy Jason apply heavy pressure to the inside of his thigh by kneeling into it right at the groin.  I flopped his fake-feeling and plastic-y skin back up and over his lower leg, packed some clean snow in there, and tied it all back together with his boot laces.  To this day, I don't know if that was the "right" move, but it seemed like it at the time.  We piled our coats on him to keep him warm and maybe treat for shock a little.  I told them to keep talking to him, and Jason not to lift his pressure no matter what.

Then I ran.

Like I never have before or since, I ran.  Hard.  Through the deep heavy snow until by teeth hurt and my hands shook uncontrollably.  Until the tunnel vision and peripheral firework sparklies of oxygen deprivation set in.  Until I vomited down my front, and still I didn't stop.  I ran with the fear for my little brother's life at my back, a flat out sprint for love through rough up-and-down riverine gullies, mainlining adrenaline and hope.

I got to the campsite, and Dad drove to us to a phone to call 911.  Honestly, it gets pretty blurry after that.  I do remember the medics arrived in slacks and dress shoes, apparently fresh from a meeting.  They couldn't get him up the hill once they had him stabilized, slipping and flailing on the icy slope.  A walrus-mustached sheriff's deputy was there by then, standing next to me and exhorting them from the top of the hill (in language I'd only heard Dad use after he'd stepped on a Lego in the night) to get their goddamn heads out their asses, and bring that boy up.

Once again, my little troop of Scouts swung into action, and rigged Josh to his sled to be pulled up the slope with a rope by the cop and Dad while the medics slipped and fell all over trying to get back uphill to their rig to call for... I don't know.  Boots, a crane... a clue?

As was later discovered, some Scout from one of those anonymous troops bristling with pocketknives had carved himself a stout and sharp, nice long spear, and then, meaning no harm of course, thoughtlessly cast it aside along that trail down to the water, where it froze solid to the ground, point uphill, waiting patiently for my brother to coming zipping right over the top of it kneeling in the front of a plastic sled.

I remember he had 300-some stitches and 38 staples to close up his initial surgery, figures that boggled my young mind then, and still do today.  There were more surgeries after that, and a handful of skin grafts, but eventually he recovered fully, and had a cool story about the badass giant scar on his leg.  He always painted me the hero in the retellings, looked at me with that same fawning, completely open trust.  I shied away with a wince of the undeserving.

If this were a weepy episode of Grey's Anatomy, I'd have been there to hold his hand when he woke up from the initial surgery.  But it was real life, and we never held hands anyway.  I slept at least as long as he did in my own bed an hour or more by car from the hospital, and when I was taken back there, he simply said, "Thanks, brother."

Anytime, brother.  Anytime.

I'm not much into cars, but if I ever do find myself in possession of the means and desire to own a classic American sports car, it'll be a 1967 Corvette in Rally Red, just for him -- just like he wanted when we were kids.  And I'll just drive and drive.

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