I have only my own childhood and only one brother as a sample set, but that unscientific basis has not deterred me from a simple conclusion – brothers fight. And not just when they are 6 and 4 years old. it’s a lifestyle choice. Tom and I enjoy the adrenaline rush of potential annihilation just as much 50 years later as we did then. The difference is only that we now don’t wrestle each other to the living room floor and slam doors in each other’s faces – we’ve learned more subtle and effective techniques.
I’m at a launch prep meeting at NASA KSC – Kennedy Space Center in Southeast Florida – never the toughest duty – and staying in the pre-Apollo era, and never since upgraded, Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach. (Notice how much classier that sounds than Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn – which would imply just another hotel in Cocoa). As the song said, it’s only words. Fact is the HICB is the only place on the beach with rates as low as the government per diem. You can choose between going deaf via the whining of the air conditioner grinding its shot motor bearings to dust all night, or prop the door open and sweat while the mosquitos feast on your ears. But after a hot and sweaty day in meetings and maybe crawling around the shuttle bay, you can slip into running shorts, get even hotter and sweatier running on the beach, then dive into the Atlantic, which makes the rest of the HI experience totally worth it. To me, anyway.
Except today a solid East wind had been blowing. I was only in the water a few minutes when I realized my skin was tingling, and a few minutes more of swimming and thinking about the strange sensations, I realized why – jellyfish. Lots of them. My arms and legs were covered with red streaks.
I made an adrenaline – fueled sprint back to the beach, ran up to the hotel and jumped in the freshwater pool – hoping to wash off some of the toxin – then retreated to my room and the company of my Anophelic room mates. Things were looking, and feeling, genuinely painful by then. My skin was burning, itching, red and swollen all over.
I was panicked – I know about as much about medicine and first aid as your average man on the street knows about building microsatellites – which is to say nothing. It occurred to me to call Tom. Granted he’s an orthopedist and doesn’t treat a lot of patients with toxic marine creature encounters, but he’s got to know more than I do. Should I head for the ER stat? Ice? Antihistamines? Steroidal skin cream? Soap? Topical alcohol? I have no clue, but am beginning to wonder if I’m going to die in this little room.
This was way pre-cell-phone, and I had to dial in to my Sprint account, then try Tom’s numbers at work – answering service – and then at home. My fingers hurt just to punch the sticky buttons on the room’s phone. Caught him just coming home from the hospital. I laid out my dire situation.
One nice thing about MDs, they mostly don’t lecture you on what an idiot you are. I guess they realize their patient’s idiocy is making their house payment – or do they actually have pity on us unfortunates? Maybe they know patients will migrate to MDs who withhold truth in favor of dignity. I tend to doubt the more generous interpretation, but I’m glad to get to the point and save the lecture for later – if I live.
He starts rattling off advice. I have to get a pen and paper. He starts over – salt, alcohol, soap, salves, cotton gauze – all sorts of stuff. I have two hotel notepad pages of medications. I think I can manage putting on shorts and a T, and driving, though it’s going to hurt. Toughing it out is one of my specialties. OK, I tell him, I’ll give it a try. I planned to hang up abruptly, anxious to get going before things got much worse.
By the way, is this going to work? I ask reaching for the phone’s cradle. Tom is a man of few words. Just do it. Call me back later.
I’m out the door. Get in car. Stifle desire to speed to CVS, a manic man on a mission, scanning the shelves under the florescents. Visa card, keys, drive back. Pour most of my haul in the bathtub and soak in it for 15 minutes. Then pat dry and apply the rest of the contents onto my wounded skin.
An hour later, $55 poorer, wetter, dryer and now covered with creams, things are no better. But maybe no worse. I’m suffering, but I’m no longer as certain I will die before morning. I pick up the phone and call Tom with my update.
Is any of this stuff really going to work? I’m desperate for, lacking relief, at least reassurance.
“There really isn’t anything you can do for Jellyfish burns. But by the time you make the list, run out to CVS, soak, dry off, apply creams, it will start to go away by itself.”
You mean I could have skipped this whole exercise? Silence is his response.
A shopping bag full of pharmaceuticals, an hour of running around and an hour in the tub to learn “time heals all wounds?”
My brother is clearly enjoying this moment of non-communication over the long distance line. The great surgeon finally offers: “You’ll be fine in an hour. Watch TV, go for a walk, soak in the tub, swim in the pool, go buy vegetables or whatever it is you eat. Watermelon – if it makes you happy.”.
Score one for the big brother. I spend the next hour walking to Publix for a watermelon and a knife, planning my revenge. Maybe I’ll save the knife.
When the person you love dies, there are so many things you can do – and I’ve done all of them. Cry, get mad, light candles, write books, set up memorial funds, erect shrines, pray, talk with friends, families, counselors and clergy, read books on death and dying, go for long long bike rides, and walks – alone and with friends, buy yourself something your loved one would have wanted you to have, invite everyone on the planet to a memorial service, sit in a room with all their stuff and recollect, have nightmares and dreams, or don’t sleep at all, get a dog or a cat, love the remaining people in your life more than you used to, challenge yourself with something new, try to appreciate life more than you used to, stop doing stuff you never wanted to do and start building a new life you like better, realizing this is the only one you’ve got, beat yourself up for being inadequate, or because you should have died instead, play what-if games until you can’t stand them anymore, imagine you’ll reunite with that person when you die (which does reduce the fear of death at least one iota), speak with your departed (who won’t answer), speak with your pet (ditto), sing out loud, set up a charitable fund in their name, put on your game face and go back to work, travel, throw yourself into projects, spend time alone, contribute to the departed’s favorite churches and synagogues, give all their stuff to the needy.
All this Doing will take months, if not years, and will be exhausting. Like my alcohol, bath salts, creams and salves, bandages and pills, none of it works. But it’s something to do while time erodes the acute emotions into a palette that redraws your world in new, maybe darker, but also richer hues. You’re not going to be 8 Crayola colors anymore – you’re more of a Rembrandt. You are being reborn – your old self died with that person, and neither of you is coming back. Your old skin is shed and everything hurts. New skin only grows back slowly, and for a long time it’s thin and fragile.
No injury is fun, but its paradox is that when you heal to a certain point, your confidence blossoms. You walked through the valley of death, or in the case of injury, through pain and disability – and you survived, recovered, better than you thought you would.
Nobody thinks they can do that, that they have the strength. Not that they’d want to try. Not that you had the choice. You’re suffering, but you’re keeping alive. You don’t want to be happy, your sadness is your memories and you have every right to keep them and to celebrate them through a measure of misery.
Its bitter, but it’s yours. Bitter can be nourishing too.
I never found happiness in a broken clavicle – a mere nuisance by comparison. But you can find confidence in your ability to make that journey, and with a new You that can never quite go home again. The new You will wander, a nomad without country, possibly forever. The new You knows: to wander that desert is our shared human condition.