Friday, September 02, 2005

Tradition

I was tagged for a meme by Deputy's Wife, but I have something I want to write about first, so I think I'll put that off until tomorrow.

When I was a child, my family had an annual tradition every Labor Day. We went camping with a large group of families from our church. Labor Day weekend, as far back as my memories stretch, is filled with the smell of campfire smoke, of evening sunlight through trees, of mosquitoes and smoky-tasting hot dogs (before I became a vegetarian) and burned marshmallows. Some years, it rained, and we woke up in our tents on the swimming-pool rafts we used as sleeping pads floating in muddy puddles. Some years it was so hot we were tempted to swim in the lake next to the campground, despite its pollution and the fact that anyone who went in it came out of it with rash. Some years the bugs were so bad they chased us into our tents, where we sat with cramped, crossed legs playing rummy and Uno for giggling hours.

In 1996, I was 19, and my brothers were 16 and 13. I was a sophomore in college, a student full time, working two jobs. I lived at home and commuted to school. I was too busy to go camping that year. On Saturday morning of that weekend, I woke up early to the sounds of my dad chopping firewood; he'd come home to bolster the family supply of things to burn for the weekend. A few hours later, the phone rang; it was someone from one of the camping families, calling to tell us that my brother, the 16-year-old one, had fallen from a tree and was hurt. It was unclear from her call how badly he was hurt. My dad asked her, did he break his leg, what is it? She kept saying, I don't know, I don't know. He asked if he should come over to the campground. She said "not yet, I'll call you when I know more." My dad took the phone outside and continued chopping wood. Ten minutes later she called back to tell us to meet them at University Hospital; my brother had been airlifted there.

We drove downtown to the hospital in silence. There was nothing to say. When we arrived, my mother was mute, her face white, her hands twisting over themselves repeatedly. He was in emergency surgery. We waited an hour. Two hours. Three. Five. The time in the waiting room stretched out into the belly of God; the decor was blue, the carpets blue, the vinyl-coated chairs blue, the color of hazy pain, just tinged with green and gray. All that blue. Everywhere. It felt like the blue was swallowing me, swallowing us as we sat in our puddles of individual apprenension and misery. Another family was there, the family of a car wreck victim. They were crying. I couldn't cry; I can never cry when situations call for it. As if it were at the other end of a tunnel, I heard a nurse talking to the man at the desk: "Seventeen hospitals in this city, and they bring them all here..." I looked at my hands. They held a wooden crucifix and my brother's teddy bear that he'd had since he was four. I barely remembered grabbing them just as we were leaving to come to the hospital. My hands had nothing to do, my eyes had nowhere to go to avoid the blue, and so my hands gripped the crucifix, my eyes ran over the metal Jesus, dust coating the top of his head and his outstretched arms from where he'd been hanging on our wall as long as I could remember. My hands kept moving, and I realized that they'd opened the crucifix. I didn't even know it was openable. Packed neatly inside were the necessary accoutrements to perform Last Rites. I put the crucifix under a chair, stood up and paced.

Six hours later, someone finally came out to tell us my brother was alive. We were told his injuries as though the tired doctor were reading a list of items he had to pick up for his wife at the grocery on the way home. The impact with the ground had bruised his brain, as it had slammed into the inside of his skull. Both lungs had collapsed. They'd cut a hole in his side, over his ribcage, and put a line in to reinflate one of the lungs. They had to remove one of his kidneys because the artery leading to it had ruptured and the kidney had died. Three of the vertebrae in his lower back had snapped. He'd lost so much blood from internal hemorrhaging that they'd had to replace nearly all of it with transfusions. His neck was broken.

We stood staring at this exhausted man who had just performed six hours of exploratory, emergency surgery on my brother, unable to even know where to begin asking questions. I heard someone calling our priest. The words were muted.

Later that evening, we were allowed into his ICU area to visit him, two at a time. He was unconscious, and they didn't know when or if he would wake up; his future existence on the planet was no longer a given. I stood over him in his bed, his body covered in white blankets, an oxygen mask over his face, tubes coming out of every part of him. I touched his hand. It was cold. I squeezed it. It was so swollen, twice its normal size, they said from all the blood transfusions and the fluids being pumped into him...despite myself, I started to think about a new reality, one without my brother in it. I could handle it for myself. I eat my pain and I live on. I could not handle it for my brother. Sixteen years old. I could not handle it for my mother, who I learned later watched him fall and in fact ran to try to catch him as gravity sucked him forty feet down to the earth and onto a twisted root, which is what broke his back. I could not handle it for my family. I had stopped believing in God the minute teen angst had set in, but I prayed in that room, holding my brother's cold hand, listening to his heart monitor and the oxygen tanks hissing and the pumps on his legs to keep his blood circulating. I don't remember my prayer. But it was the most honest one I've ever prayed.

My brother survived this. There is no real way to describe the hell it was for him to live when by all accounts he should have died. Over a Nerf football. He'd been trying to retrieve a Nerf football that got stuck forty feet up a pine tree in the campground.

But he lived. And thanks to the doctors at University Hospital, you would never know without seeing the scar that stretches from his clavicles down to his crotch that this had happened to him. His recovery from this, though long and at times nearly impossible, is more complete than anyone could ever, ever have anticipated. He's a mountain biker, an avid backpacker, a hiker. He works construction.

Enough time has passed between the accident and now that he jokes about it. When the people in the air care helicopter arrived to fly him to University Hospital, before they put him in the helicopter, their first priority was to get his lungs inflated enough that he could breathe, and they performed that lung-inflation bit in the field, so to speak. He says of this: "Man, can't a brother fall out of a tree without another brother stabbing him?" A few years after the accident, he decided the tree he fell from needed to bear something of him, and he carved the first letter of his name into its bark, as you can see in the picture.

Some of you know from my former blog that the girl he married in May turned, well, shockingly different after the wedding, saying some very nasty things to my parents and more or less rendering him prisoner from his family. I saw him for the first time since the wedding last night--the longest, by far, I've ever gone without seeing him. He seems well. He has two dogs now and he and M and I and my other brother and his wife met up at the farm of a family friend and let the dogs play. He didn't bring his wife. I was fine with that. We didn't talk about anything of consequence. Seeing him again didn't feel strange. It felt like getting something back I thought was lost for a while.

Tonight, I saw him again. He and his wife are at the Labor Day weekend campout with the rest of my family. They're camped on a site away from the church group, but they're there. I saw his wife and she didn't speak to me. She kept her head down and didn't speak to anyone. I have nothing to say to her yet, as my anger at her for how she hurt my parents is still too recent and raw. I'll be civil to her if she decides to speak to me, but I am fine right now with her not speaking to me. I believe that she is embarrassed; I have it from my mother that my brother finally set the record straight with her and told her she has no right or ability to keep him from his family, especially after everything I wrote about above. I hope that one day we can be as whole again as we were before he met her, but in the meantime, I'm just happy to see my brother again. I'm happy to see him up and walking around and alive.

It's all I need, really.

12 Comments:

At September 03, 2005 9:27 AM, Blogger deputyswife said...

You wrote your story beautifully. After surviving a serious accident, I know your brother appreciates everything you and your family has done.

 
At September 03, 2005 9:29 AM, Anonymous E said...

"puddles of individual apprenension and misery"...you see, that's the kind of writing I'm talking about. I'm glad to hear that your brother is taking strides towards healing the family. There's obviously a lot of love and history there.

You're a good egg, J.

 
At September 03, 2005 11:10 AM, Anonymous Suley said...

Just another example of how well J. writes. It's "instupituous." It's beyond dope. Just grabs hold of you and won't let go.

And all for a Nerf football.

-Suley

 
At September 03, 2005 1:53 PM, Blogger cmhl said...

wow. that is an amazing and powerful story. I hope when the time is right, you guys can reconcile..

 
At September 03, 2005 2:13 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Beautiful story, and it's good to read that your brother's finally not standing for what his wife dishes out to your family. I hope things change for the better with them. Have a good weekend!

 
At September 03, 2005 2:17 PM, Blogger Mr. H.K. said...

Thanks for this post!

Cheers,

Mr. H.K.
Postcards from Hell's Kitchen
And I Quote Blog

 
At September 03, 2005 3:12 PM, Blogger Sangroncito said...

A beautifully written story. I'm glad I stopped by your blog today. Strange that I'm about to sit down and write something about my own brother for my Tuesday post. You've given me some inspiration here. Thanks for writing this.
hug, sangroncito

 
At September 03, 2005 4:36 PM, Blogger d.K. said...

I'm happy to see him up and walking around and alive.

It's all I need, really.


Amen.
A beautiful story beautifully written. The strength of the human will to overcome adversity is really miraculous. Thanks for sharing this, now.

 
At September 03, 2005 6:45 PM, Blogger Raehan said...

J.Star,
I've tried to write about this kind of stuff, but I can't do it well.

You can. Very, very well.

Did I read you at your former blog. The story sounds familiar? I have a bad memory, don't be offended.

 
At September 03, 2005 10:47 PM, Blogger Heather said...

It's funny. I just talked to my brother yesterday after being out of touch for a while. Your story made me want to be closer to him.

Excellent post. I am so glad your brother made it through all of that.

 
At September 05, 2005 4:43 AM, Anonymous Fitèna said...

J, am impressed! It's so very beautifully written I just can't think of anything else to add. You're gifted to be able to put thoughts so beautifully on paper. Glad it all tirned out well for your brother! Cheers!

 
At September 08, 2005 8:22 AM, Blogger Kross-Eyed Kitty said...

Wow.
I'm quite behind on my blog-reading, and am sorry that I missed this last week. It is a beautiful story, and honours your brother in a wonderful way. I am glad that he has finally stood up to his bitch-wife, and she SHOULD be embarassed.

 

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