Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bands of Brothers- Dodged Bullets

The message showed up on my phone very early this morning - a name I recognized and just a short phrase.  "Dumped the bike yesterday.   Still in the hospital with 7 broken ribs and a broken collar bone."

It was Borepatch.  I called and he picked up. We spoke, he was a little groggy from the pain meds but he was OK, and would be OK, though he'd be seriously hurting for a while. 

I'm the baby of the family and the only girl. Borepatch is as close to a little brother as I have, though we are not related by blood.  I said a thankful prayer he had not been hurt worse; that no one else was badly hurt and he would recover. Those that ride, be it bikes or motorcycles, eventually spill, it seems, but it can often be much more tragic.

We said goodbye and I went looking for a horrifically tacky and politically incorrect floral bouquet to send him (teleflower, you are MUCH too tasteful, all you had were beautiful flowers in lovely arrangements, I couldn't find anything involving cactus, spent brass and teletubbies).
Tonight, for Ted, a story of bullets dodged, and some that weren't. 

I realize I am not your stereotypical woman. I own two pairs of shoes, one purse and one dress.  It's black, it was bought to accompany one of the IND bloggers to the symphony as his "non date" with Midwest Chick while he was going through chemo and didn't have a date for that special concert he'd looked forward to.  I love that dress, that memory of a fun night with good friends.

When I was young, I mostly hung out with "the guys". I never fit in with the clumps of popular girls who giggled and posed and used their bodies to attract before they were even old enough to figure out what the attraction was. They clustered together in their own little gatherings in which dolls and accessories and small fluffy toys held sway. Their interests were foreign and their forced interactions with me were tinged with derision. At that age their scorn had the finality of a curse.
My best friend was always my brother.. We were adopted together, coming out of a less than ideal home situation and we bonded before we could speak. Mom and Dad had planned on just adopting one child, as they were of an age where all their friends were already grandparents. But given their older age, adoption wasn't happening and they thought of being foster parents. Out of all of that, they ended up with not just one, but two of us, and we never left.  Though my brother likes to tell the story that on the drive home, he, being older, got the lone child booster seat "because they liked me better".

I apparently was put in a box with padding and seat belted in for the long drive from Seattle.
We bonded together because we were survivors of survivors, and we took on the world like the Great Santini said . . ."eating life before it eats us". We played Secret Agent and Storm Trooper and Soldier, staying out until the mountain sky was washed with charcoal and we had no strength left in our limbs. He once fed me a dog biscuit, telling me it was "candy", but I stole his Rat Fink ring (which he'd send me a funny little note every year or so about "stealing it back".)

But we never argued or bickered. Ever. For two redheads, that says something. There was a code between us, that we would always be there for one another and our parents, as if we both knew how important the bond of family can be. If the girls at school were mean to me, because I was geeky and too tall for my age, someone put a possum in their bathroom. Not sure who, probably the same person who sent them the toad in the box. They might still not have liked me, but with my brother in tow, they respected me.

We grew up and continued as survivors, he as a Submariner . . .. . . and  me?  A few years later I was out playing with various aircraft that wanted to kill me.
One of us underneath the sea, one far above, both of us drawn to the blue and to the precision of order and honor. Though as adults, with much distance between us, the bond remained strong.

That cord that connected us developed its first fray on 9-11. The images of the burning Pentagon on TV, a building in which my brother spent some of his time. It took me hours to verify his safety. Hours, for I was someplace in gear, a dark place that my education had prepared me to enter but my innocence had yet to acknowledge was possible. But he was in another state that day, safe. My boss relayed the message out in the field that he was OK, and we were strong, invincible again.

Then there were the motorcycles. He was always big into riding. Myself, not at first glance, but after one year where I lost pretty much all that mattered, he took me on my first long ride. I didn't want to go. I had little energy for anything and I was more than a little bit nervous. . . .but he said he'd take care of me. He always took care of me.

By the time we got back, miles and miles, with us both in leathers, myself wearing the lone helmet, smiles as wide as the road, I was hooked. It took about 3 days to get the grin off of my face. That was 20 some years ago and we had many more rides together, cruising the high roads, racing down steep grades just as we did as children on our bicycles, plummeting down, fast and breathless, as if banshees themselves were at our heels. We road all day long, the brisk Fall mountain air whistling around us, past us, burnishing our checks, tickling the back of our throats as we laughed into the wind and were not cold.
I remember particularly one summer, after our very last long ride together. We went for a walk out into the warm summer air to talk into the openness of a country night. As we headed back to the house he was suddenly engulfed in tiny bits of brilliance, a swarm of fireflies that we disturbed as we moved through the grass. For a moment he was all I saw, laughing as the glow of those small lights surrounded him, tiny dots dancing around his face. Then just as quickly, they moved away, leaving us there in the dark. With the darkness, came an unexpected chill.

The call came just before that Christmas.
I knew something was wrong before the phone rang. There was that chill again, tickling along the back of my neck, a heaviness at the base of my skull.   I just knew. I called my Dad to see what was wrong. Dad said all was fine as far as he knew.

Fifteen minutes later the call came in, my brother had been badly hurt, no head injuries, with the helmet and luck, but a lower leg was crushed, among other serious internal injuries. The cold stunned shock of it flowed through me like current, sorrow rising into questions. Where is he? Does he need blood? Is he aware? And a thousand miles away, in disbelief, I lay down on the bed and felt the pain of my inability to protect him. After a round of surgery that stabilized him and six hours on airplanes, I was able to finally see him, hugging on the parts that weren't in a cast, feeling his large body gone soft and shaky, afraid that his ribs might break, like a snow man on the first warm spring day.
In ICU for Christmas, I bought him a tiny little crystal angel ornament that hung above the bed. It drew in whatever light could be gathered in that place, fragmenting them into tiny spots of light that shone around his face as he lay breathing, gathering strength as I simply sat next to him, praying the light would not fade.  For if I could not be his little sister, who would I be?

But he survived, after almost a year of  constant hospital stays and surgeries trying to save the leg, myself, there as much as I could.  In  later years, though we couldn't  always be together, he'd find a way to remember, including a couple of years back, finding a very old Christmas stocking with my name on it in ancient glitter and filling it for me, with things that he knew I liked and most people never would think of. The M and M's are sort of an inside joke between he and I, best left for another story. The next such call came on New Years afternoon, 2013. I'd been asleep, taking a nap as I'd not felt well earlier, with a pounding headache that wasn't from New Years celebration as I had a single scotch and was asleep by 10:30. But I wasn't feeling right and after I'd taken a casserole I made to a colleague playing single parent for a couple of days, I crawled into bed and slept for a couple of hours, only to be woken by the phone. I thought it would be Partner, who lived in another city than I.  It was my Dad--my brother was in the hospital.

He had an "episode" while driving. Seizure or just passing out, I'm wasn't yet sure, but his friend with him got them stopped and got him to the ER.  He'd lost a bunch of weight that year, saying he just had no appetite. He'd always been a tall hefty guy, and he'd needed to lose about 70 pounds but he attributed the loss of appetite to a change in his type II diabetes meds.   He looked great with the weight loss and had no other complaints that we knew of.  Apparently there were other symptoms, ones he didn't pass on, not wanting anyone to worry.

It was cancer.  They thought it was Non Hodgkin's lymphoma at first, but it turned out to be esophageal.  The biopsy of the mass in his throat would confirm it, but they had already planning on aggressive  chemo and radiation.  A very heavy smoker since his teens, we knew how that could stack the odds against him, not to mention the many months this had likely gone undetected.  It was stage IV.
He fought it as aggressively as he could, but a cure or a miracle were not cooperative. So, those last days while my brother was alive were difficult but we talked as much as we good even if his speech was halted and painful. I was worried but he always told me not to worry.  Indeed, his last words on this earth at the ER started with "doctor. . ." to which my Dad replied that the doctor was there and my brother responded, with the last of his strength  "your Doctor, Dad, your appointment Wednesday, don't forgot"  his last thoughts, not of himself, his pain, or his fear, but taking care of our Father. 

That was Good Friday of this year, only weeks after Barkley died.  As I laid Big Bro to rest, I thanked the Lord for the extra time He gave us, for after coming so close to losing him in that accident, I realized that these extra years, were an extraordinary gift.

Because of that, I will not remember him in those painful final moments, I will remember him always laughing, always upbeat, always strong for me, the one that kept things together when we lost our Mom, when we both found ourselves, years later, unexpectedly alone, manning the lifeboats, together . . . survivors.
This year, Christmas there will be no gift from him, no stocking.  But there will be memories seen in my mind's eye, while the many funny and inspiring cards he got for me in the final weeks of his life line the shelves.

I will have as much joy as I can wring from my days; with those share my life and my dinner table.  There will be my family and my husband, who my brother thought was the best guy on the planet. There will be my friends; those I hold dear and share His Grace with in quiet moments of food and fun around the table.  Each day, I thank the Lord for their continued breath, for they are that extraordinary gift we often don't realize we have, until they are almost lost.
- Brigid