Saturday, January 11, 2014

My keeper

It is somewhat difficult to pin down the particular memory that I can claim to be “my first”.  Like the other “firsts” of a man’s life, I find mind myself trying to separate fact from glorious fiction as to the origin and details of the event.  When it comes to my early childhood in Vegas, there are quick glimpses of places, sounds, and smells that I can call up to piece together a rough collage…like walking through the editing room of my mind and finding my life a few frames at a time.  There are the short adventure clips of the desert lot across from our home where we would search for snakes and scorpions, the sight of red mountains dancing on the horizon from the heat of the midday sun, and the steady buzz of cicada bugs sounding the alarm that dusk was approaching.  But, no matter what memory I pick up from the back room of my mind, there is one unifying theme that has caused me to earmark an event as “memorable”; I was with my big brother, Paul.

The early years of our life are somewhat of a blur.  We lived in Las Vegas, had a home in Sun Valley Idaho, and a very nice boat in the O.C. (don’t call it that!) California.  There are snapshots of all these places but, in the mind of a youth with no reference point, they all seemed to be “home”.  I have fond memories of trying to seek out and destroy red ants in the neighboring lot by our home in Vegas, searching for small critters in the mud at our Sun Valley, Idaho place in order to wretch them from their muddy homes and toss them at my brother, and finally combing the docks of Newport Beach for crabs that I could snatch with my dinosaur-shaped grabber and smash against the docks…and no, I did not go to therapy, why do you ask? Regardless of where I was, I think at an early age I realized I had a partner in crime that was strong, much stronger than I.  In times of distress, it was clear that Paul would always be a pillar of strength to lean on and the person in my life who I could count on no matter what.  There are many examples of his strength thought those years, but one sticks out among the rest as “memorable”, probably because it rides the coattails of my mind as the first time I heard the verbalization of the “F” word.  You know it, I know it, but 6 year old Jock knew it only as “that word which shall not be named.”

 It happened on a typical weekend; no school, just a couple days filled with as much adventure as the adjacent desert lot had to offer.  Paul and I were doing our perimeter check of the lot, making sure the red ants had not staged an offensive against our home-team black ants, when all of a sudden a group of neighbor kids appeared in the distance.  Our block had a social hierarchy that would make Sun Tzu proud, and this day raised the red flag of newcomers that had not been a part of our past military etiquette, leaving us vulnerable and defensive.  We tried our best to reason, but when push came to shove, these heathens did not accept our olive branch and an all-out dust battle was waged.  We were frantically hurling stones and slabs of dried earth comprised of rocks and sand, which lay at our feet like peanut brittle baked in the scorching sun.  Between offensives, we hid behind stationary bulldozers and backhoe’s, laughing and reveling in the somewhat entertaining war game between neighbors.  And then, it happened.  A rock the size of a holiday ham hit me right in the temple, knocking me to the ground and sending a stream of blood into my eyes.  Before I knew it I was being dragged across the street from the desert to the tall gates of our home.  With dirt and blood caked to the side of my face I remember looking at my brother who was desperately leading me to safety and seeing a fire behind his eyes that I had never seen before. He had a look that did not belong to a child having fun or playing a game…this was a look of a protector with both compassion for me and utter rage towards my attacker.  When I finally asked him what they did he looked at me and, with hellfire in his heart, said; “FUCK them!”  It was that reaction that made me realize what it meant to be his little brother. 

                Paul and I were left to grow up under my fathers’ reignited hope to raise a doctor and a lawyer.  He was a great man, our father.  A graduate of Columbia university, he was a captivating man and arguably the hardest working and most revered general surgeon in Las Vegas.  He held a presence wherever he went with his infectious charm and obvious intelligence.  When I look back at a prized memory of him; such as lying on the couch in his den while he sat at his empty desk telling me stories, I have to pause and wonder if such events happened, or if my imagination simply filled in the gaps I had as a result of his all-consuming career.  Perhaps my memory betrays me in an attempt to protect the young boy who would sit in an empty den staring out at the driveway or lay on that couch while the best doctor in all of Las Vegas sat in silence at a cluttered desk wading through stacks of journals and papers.  Maybe these memories are an unfair representation of the truth and, as a result, are more likely to be among the first examples of a rich imagination rather than memories.  It is fair to say, however, that even those blurry and unclear events are memories I would not want to forget, whether they be fact or fiction.  All parents are teachers; they bestow knowledge and character on us through all sorts of lessons and events…some are pleasant and some sting.  But, in the end, the piece of armor tempered in fire comes out stronger than that which has not felt heat.

Sometimes I find myself inside my own head, reflecting on fragments of a memory and desperately trying to piece them back together.  Most of the time it is to reconstruct wonderful events such as playing with my old dogs or places like the secluded stream we named “Stoney corner;” a peaceful little refuge where Paul and I would skip stones as our mother would sit on the exposed roots of a giant willow tree, watching us with eyes filled with pride and love.  I never subscribed to the image of heaven as some floating pillow in the sky, a white and sterile place amongst the clouds devoid of the color and life with the ability to form tapestries in my mind from a single visit to the waters edge.  There was no need to supplement the idea of heaven in my heart…not after spending those many afternoons at Stoney corner.

      There are, however, times I seem to dwell on a memory that is less than divine.  Just like that scab you can’t help but pick at, these memories are scratched to the surface in an attempt to see just how red and angry they can get.  Shortly after my parents divorced we celebrated our first ever Christmas abroad.  Our mother had fixed up her cozy flat on the outskirts of Edinburgh with all the holiday comforts.  Decorations adorned the living room and the soul embracing smells of spiced teas and sizzling breakfast meats woke us on Christmas morning.  There was a rustic feeling to that place which cannot be recreated without the brick roads and quaint village down below our drive which captured all the simplicity and beauty of an old impressionist painting.  Under our tree were a mound of gifts, spilling out from the corner of the room and covering the floor like a big, shiny throw rug made of ribbons and bows.  Our mother was a master of the “Norman Rockwell holiday;” she has always had the knack to make every holiday feel like the most important day of all time.  Paul and I began ripping into the shiny sea like sharks on a feeding frenzy.  Our mother sat back in her chair enjoying the only gift she wanted; spending time with her boys.  We finally came to the gifts in the corner our dad had sent us.  Paul opened his to find a build-it-yourself model rocket or building kit…I can’t remember exactly.  All I know is he looked a little confused as this was not on his, nor any kid his ages’, list.  Attached was a note: “To my future architect!”  I remember being nervous as I peeled back the paper to my gift, hoping it was not do-it-yourself tax worksheet or a stack of graphing paper.  What I found instead was the one and only Nintendo Gameboy!  Oh, how happy I was and teased Paul for his dud gift as games like “paperboy” and “Metroid” were spilling from my tiny hands like square silver bullion.  The bittersweet lining came much later, as an adult looking back.  I had no note attached, no lofty ambition present in the subtext of my gift.  I pick at this memory because I wanted to see our reflection in his eyes; two sons…the doctor, and the boy who plays games.  Two boys; Calvin and Hobbes.

It is easy to let a memory like this twist and fester in your side. My conclusion was routed in a self-deprecating mood I happened to be in when I decided to call the memory up.  That is the dangerous thing about memories; they are objective…we are not.  The truth is, I got exactly what I asked for, and Paul got something very similar to his usual box of Legos.  I seemed to always get what I wanted, even on Pauls’ birthdays our parents would also get me a gift, so as to be “fair,” leaving him convinced I got the better gift and thus I was the “favorite”.  I was, but that is beside the point.  The close proximity of his birthday to the holidays would also result in the occasional single gift with a note that would let him know “this also counts as your birthday present”.  A more accurate account of what those two gifts represented would be an example of the pressure put on Paul at such a young age and the freedom I was given to follow my own path.  Paul had the grades and study habits that would surely lead him to big things; such as being a doctor…which he is.  I, on the other hand, would drawl all the wrong kind of attention from my early teachers and boarding school administrators.  There are plenty of stories and examples I could go into, the best of which is “the boards.”  At Loretto, the boarding school Paul and I attended while in Scotland, there were two boards posted in the common area listing everyone’s name next to a grid.  One board had red marks filled in next to the names which were awarded for outstanding academic achievements or an act that exemplified the conduct of a young gentlemen, which Loretto prided itself on producing.  The other board was reserved to make an example out of trouble makers…those who did not make their beds in the morning, argued with the teachers or would sneak out after dark.  The two years we went to that school Paul and I were constantly at the top; he lead the red board, and I the black.  You could put that board up at any point through our adolescent life and it would tell the same story.  Two young men; Apollo and Dionysus. 

                          Last summer I had a chance to look back on our past and spend time with memories such as these.  It was just a few days before Paul and Jamie, his amazing fiancé and wonderful sister in law, were to be married. Being the A type personality that he is, Paul was busy combing over the many details involved with the wedding.  In front of him lay a seating chart made of construction paper and color coded name tags which he was shuffling and evaluating with the concentration of a military general.  I sat on his couch and watched as he poured what seemed to be 100% of his energy into ensuring all these names sat at the ideal table based on their relationship to one another, their age, their interests…ect.  He always seemed to pour his entire being into small details like that, a trait I admire in him, although, judging by the stress and anxiety it caused him, he surely saw as a curse.  My only duty was to give the best man speech.  Any attempt to fit my words on note cards or in bullet points was quickly abandoned, as I have no problem recalling memories or positive words about my brother.  I thought about the journey we have been on together and how lucky I was to have his guidance through life and, when the time came, I spoke from the heart.  Standing there at that table looking down at my brother and sister-in-law, then across the room at all the smiling faces brought together to celebrate their future, I felt overwhelming pride for the life Paul had led.  His worries for a little brother with a star gazing personality that might impede a fulfilling career were no longer needed, as I had found my stride in life.  My worries that he would work and study his way through life and miss out on the more important things were long gone as we all watched he and Jamie take their first dance.  The night left me with a memory that I will surely call on for the rest of my life.  Two men; equal in fortune and fortitude.  

Also, today is his birthday…so this counts as his gift.

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