And it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them completely without complete understanding.
Norman MacLean A River Runs Through It
There are slimy chunks of hotdog pieces in my sweatpants pocket as I sit here writing. They’re leftover treats from the walk I took this morning with my new puppy Theo.
It’s a good day.
The minutes are quickly ticking down until I need to free him from his crate.
I need to shower, to get to the grocery, hell to do something productive rather than continuously tugging on a ratty rope toy with my rather (ahem) distractable friend here.
I’m attempting a new routine, one that is entirely tethered to my new canine companion but that also allows me some time alone.
[He’s howling pitifully now in his big-boy, hound-dog way].
Anyway, I’m catching up with my writing. It feels good to do something creative.
And today in this quiet moment I’m thinking about my brother and feeling the pain of his loss.
He died suddenly last September from a heart attack.
He was finally in a stable place. He’d found the perfect woman to love and he’d built a cozy home with his dogs and plenty of time for fishing.
Of course I wanted to have more time with him.
But mostly I wish that he hadn’t had such a hard life. I wish that he had found more peace through the years.
He was three years older than me and our lives were very different. We didn’t really have a lot in common. But as kids we were close. He was protective of his little sisters, gentle, brave, big-hearted, so generous, even when he had little to spare.
He always had a cool plan – for a leaf fort, an Estes model rocket, a homemade boogie board. He loved speed – flipping across wooden ramps on his skateboard, flying down the breakneck Bridge Road on his Schwinn, popping wheelies on his Honda 50, and later churning up waves in his speedboat. He loved Evel Kneivel.
He wanted everything, and all at once. Like the Halloween he had me tie Hefty garbage bags to the handlebars on my bike and pedal all over the adjacent neighborhoods to get the maximum loot. It was touch and go, trying to balance and go fast and get home in one piece.
But I always trusted him. He was the only one I would ever allow taking me on a motorcycle. For an ADD type he was the only one with enough patience to teach me a stick shift.
He was outrageously good-looking, blonde and well-built, without a trace of vanity about it. When he walked into the room he was like a magnet, we were pulled in by his huge Hollywood smile. His energy took over the room.
When he hugged me he always lifted me off my feet and twirled me. When he grabbed me he never let me go. When he had every reason to be jealous or threatened by me, he never was.
But he could get really mad at me on a dime, especially if I acted prissy, or I wasn’t on board with his scheme.
He hated pretension. I remember him crashing the Charleston Country Club with ease, looking like a member, of course. He enjoyed playing with the preppy All American look with a devilish smile of irony.
He was so funny, with outrageous, highly exaggerated stories. And he never left anyone out of his orbit, we were all in on the joke.
Because the joke seemed to be life. The only problem was he had a hard time fitting his huge spirit into a conventional world. He had obvious gifts, but his temperament could never quite find a niche – in school and later in a solid career.
He always had to test the limits – to peal out on his motorcycle, to surf against the ocean rip-tides, to push the numbers on a sales deal. He was always late – to school and dinner, even made me late to our wedding.
That day I had to drive into Ann Arbor with him to buy a tie for him for the event, he smoked in the car the whole way, I was in my wedding dress and complained, and he yelled and fumed at me, just moments before the ceremony.
But I am still so glad that he was the one to walk me down the aisle.
But under all of the charm was a different reality. He wrestled with demons like I did. We were so alike in some weird way. Mine was bipolar II, what was the deal with him?
Throughout the years he would fall in and out of my life, over and over, staying away when things weren’t good, returning with manic enthusiasm over some new job or deal or scheme when things were looking up.
But he was so full of shadows and defense mechanisms I never really truly understood what his mental and emotional issues were.
And sometimes I felt like I didn’t have a brother at all. People would ask about him and I couldn’t explain. His life seemed contradictory: such a talented man, but what was he actually doing with his life?
At times I felt like I had to gloss over things because I believed that he was never the sum of his circumstances. But mainly I didn’t talk about him because who likes to talk about messy stuff? I was figuring out my life with my own diagnosis and just prayed he was doing the same.
One things that never changed: deep down he had such a gentle, generous soul.
He hid his life from our family like so many of us do. And while I never knew exactly what his diagnosis was or what kind of treatment he got, I suspect it wasn’t a lot.
Even so, our physical similarities always felt like a blood familiarity. Our hardwired physiology, our DNA, whatever, felt so similar. We made such different choices, but our brains seemed alike: quick charging, creative and emotive. We were dreamy, with ideas that were pretty undercooked.
Growing up I idolized him but I wanted so desperately for him to own his problems, probably so I could too.
I wanted him to feel safe enough to be imperfect so he could get help from Mom and Dad, from anyone. He was so smart, so charismatic, so talented as an athlete and sportsman.
Why couldn’t he get it together?
During his teenage years and afterwards, he drifted and blurred in my understanding of who he was. I didn’t like some of his questionable friends. But he wasn’t around much.
He became intent on creating ideal fantasies – he wanted perfection and love and respect, like we all do. But he wanted life to be as big as he was, sometimes unrealistically huge. He was a natural salesman – real estate, cars, even Bob Evans sausage. He was a living hyperbole.
He could make you believe, even when you had doubts.
Where my brother was ebullient and self-confident, I was self-conscious and watchful.
How I loved him.
His life was full of so much pain, some of it self-inflicted and it makes me cry to think back.
I remember when he was in high school the nights I could hear him fighting with my mom, she was angry and frustrated, he lashing out, explosive and reactive.
I remember his hair-trigger temper – kicking through a screen door, lashing out with his scary moods.
How he would take off at odd times and we didn’t know where he was.
I remember trying to be excited for him about his decision to go into the Navy. And how when he came home on leave, he smoked cigarette after cigarette in the lawn chair in the backyard, looking out at nothing, for hours.
He was back home but moving even further way.
I remember sleeping in the chair by his hospital bed the terrifying night he crashed his motorcycle and shattered his femur.
I remember being part of a family intervention when he struggled with addiction.
I recall witnessing the vicious fights and custody battle with his ex-wife.
I saw the pain he suffered when he lost his kids and how he had to go to jail in the nasty dispute.
But there is this: I see him on the Tuscarora river bank in West Virginia. He’s around 13, wearing Levis and with shaggy hair in his eyes. I stand beside him as he reels out his line with a cheap drugstore rod.
He is using a huge lure that I gave him for Christmas but it is the wrong kind, a bulbous day-glo yellow and orange monster, meant for the ocean, deep-sea fishing, not for coaxing shy rainbow trout. It’s 12 huge hooks are baited with wads of baloney.
He knows it won’t catch anything but he wants me to think it’s the perfect lure. And on his first cast the bloated mini torpedo snags in a tree above our heads, snarled and hanging on sadly.
But I watch as he patiently un-tangles the thing and tries again. His arm extends with such focus and grace to cast the line. I stand and watch and the way his torso and his shoulders move together, with such agility, it is so perfect. A smooth motion that uses his whole body.
How did he learn that?
Over and over he drags the line back with expectation. And even then, when there’s nothing hooked, I feel the joy, the delight in seeing my beautiful brother slipping gracefully into this habitat. He is calm and focused in the afternoon sunshine. His gaze is clear and so is my own, as I study him.
It feels like the whole world around him blurs, he becomes a part of the rushing river, part of the sky, part of the trees that hang over us. He is natural and at peace, unspoiled by self-consciousness.
For once, the world is being kind to him, loving, generous, as I always wanted it to be for him. This is his perfect world, this is where he’s supposed to live.
It is a good day.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t attend his funeral. I recognize that showing up for things is important, but I want to believe that not showing up is okay too. And I’m really trying to be honest about why I didn’t go.
It was just too much. Having to talk about his life that had so many shadows and secrets, didn’t feel right. I wanted to have those conversations with him, not about him.
Honestly, I was shaken. I didn’t want this heavy emotional event to trigger me. Last year was rough as it was.
A few years ago my brother and I actually had a conversation about mental health – he knew that I was open about my bipolar II. He told me about a medication he had been trying, unsuccessfully.
But I wish that we’d had the chance to have more conversations in those unguarded moments.
I simply wish we’d had more time.
And as I write this, I know it gets tedious constantly talking about mental health – like it’s beside the point.
But to me it is, and always will be, the point.
It is what makes my life what it is. It is who I am. Or at least a big part.
And it was a big part of my brother’s life too.
And these days, one after another, the good and not so good, and the pretty damn horrible, they fly by anyway.
I try to keep up my running – huffing up the trail and waddling down the fleeting flats. Life is sweet chasing a new puppy and Spring is almost here. The crusty sweat on my brow and the cold drink of water when I’m done, they baptize me with humility.
Because I’ll never be able to run from the bad mental health days, they are real and close at hand. I can’t run from pain.
My brother is gone but his death makes me want to be clear, to be honest, to try to articulate the shadows that threaten to throw us off the path.
To know myself better.
As for him, I knew him and I didn’t. We avoided the painful truths and questions. We came from the same place but struggled differently. Why? Why did we have to struggle all by ourselves?
As the years went by, I think we just wanted to be done with the past, to move on even without real tools. We were both tangled up in shame, products of stigma.
He loved my writing and encouraged me because he thought I was talented. But he was a beautiful writer too. He wrote me from prison and it was hard to reconcile my errant big brother with this witty, self-deprecating voice that flowed from paragraph to paragraph.
All those years for him to find his voice. But maybe I just wasn’t listening?
There is so much more to say, to try to describe my brother.
I just know I loved him.
This is what I think about today, a good day.
[the dog whines pitifully in the crate]
A good day.