He climbed trees not for the thrill
of the effort it took, but for the vantage point
Come here and look —
A whisper of wind licked the skin on
his arms and traveled the nape of his neck
as he sat in a notch near the top of the tree
where he could see
past the confines of his small yard,
past his small town,
to the mountains that encircled them.
Beyond that was a world he tried to imagine,
and time on the wings of birds flying past
promising promising promising
plenty more trees out there,
waiting for him to climb.
~~ For Tom, Tommy, Tomas
Begun on May 6, 2018 to mark twenty years. Still a work in progress.
The boy in the photo above is my brother Tom. My mother named him Thomas, but we all called him Tommy. At seventeen he dubbed himself Tomas (pronounced toe-mas, accent on the second syllable). He took to wearing sunglasses and being quietly mysterious. It was the first of many personas he would try on for size while looking for how he fit in the world.
It wasn’t easy for him, figuring it out. He had a handicap from the start: Youngest of seven; born colicky, and needing a lot of soothing in a busy, boisterous family. He was often lost in the fray.
At two he fell through the heating vent in the bedroom floor, bumped accidentally by another brother as they jumped on my parents’ bed. He landed in the dining room below, barely missing the table. Astonishingly, other than scaring the hell out of us, and knocking the wind out of himself, he was fine.
When he was three, I dumped scalding hot food on him. Also an accident. A pressure cooker containing what was meant to be our dinner exploded when I tried to lift the lid. Tommy was standing by my side. I was blown backwards, while lava-hot meat and potatoes shot straight up from the pot and rained down on his back. I can’t remember how long he was in the hospital, but I do remember feeding him ice cream there. The scars never went away.
After that he managed to make it through the rest of his childhood and adolescence with only the usual bumps and scrapes. But he was always kind of quiet and a little aloof. He liked to climb trees where he would sit for hours looking out at the world. I asked him a few times what he thought about up there, but he wouldn’t tell me. I think he was dreaming what life could be.
Tommy lived with me three times in my life, beginning when he was Tomas at seventeen. I lived in Colorado then. He wanted to finish his last year in high school somewhere other than where he was born. We joined the local Y and worked out together, ran around the indoor track together, then went for donuts afterwards. He wore his sunglasses and skipped classes and shared falafel with the homeless guys who hung out in the park. At the end of the year he went back to my mother.
The next time he came to live with me I had just moved to Rhode Island. He slept in my basement and got a job as a cook in a nursing home within walking distance of my apartment. Eventually he met someone, and moved in with her. He got a job at Electric Boat and learned how to weld the seams of atomic submarines. In his down time he helped my husband and I build our house.
He had a baby with the woman he lived with, a boy who looked a lot like him. He took photos and put them in an album where he wrote things like from father to son and, a man with song and dance not to mention poiseacross the pages. Then the woman took the baby out of state and had Tom sign a paper relinquishing his paternal rights. He signed it because “it was what she wanted”, but it broke his heart to do so. He never saw his son again.
He tried to fill the hole by being a fabulous uncle to his nephews. He took them for walks and held their hands and watched cartoons with them. He listened to their dreams and understood.
The last time Tom lived with me his life had begun to unravel. By then he’d been diagnosed with a disease that would increasingly stiffen his spine and cause him pain. A few days after he moved in with us, he simply stopped going to work. He was tired of smacking his head on the insides of the submarines he was welding.
When I turned 35 Tom told me that I was old, being just 5 years from 40, as though 40 was near to the end of it all. He must have believed that, since he took himself out of the equation at 33. I’ve written about that choice in a more oblique form elsewhere on this blog.
Today is Tommy’s birthday. By his thinking he would be old. To the rest of my siblings–Amy, Kathy, Jaime, S.K.–and myself, he is still and will always be the youngest, the most fragile of us all who, nevertheless, keeps us buoyed and connected to one another by the memory of his life.
Happy Birthday, little brother. Tonight the light in my window shines for you.
Right up front, I will tell you that this story is true. I should also warn you that it’s a little bitter-sweet.
When my brother Peter came into our lives my parents already had three girls. They longed for a son.
A couple of interesting points about this story: First, like all good men living in the area of the Adirondack Mountains, my father liked to hunt. Hunting season in those parts was a religion, sacred and holy; the woods, nature’s cathedral. The thing about my father was that he had never bagged a deer. He’d been hunting with plenty of other guys who had, but he’d never actually shot one on his own.
The second thing, is that shortly after the third girl was born, my father started growing a beard. It grew fast and bushy, and with a red hue that didn’t match the hair on his head at all. (Somewhere there’s a photograph of my dad at that time, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch, wearing an army style camouflage cap. He looked exactly like Fidel Castro.) My mother didn’t much like that beard. My father said he would shave when he got a son or a buck. Either one. Whichever came first.
The third point is that my mother is half Mohawk. She was born and spent the first decade or so of her life on the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, which straddles the border of Canada and the US. We would often make the winding drive to visit aunts and uncles and cousins there. One day after a visit, on the return trip, the car held my parents, my sisters and myself, and a brand new brother, named Peter. He was 18 months old at the time.
The particulars of how it came to be that we brought him home are not important. What matters is that he was ours from that day on. I wasn’t very old then, but I do remember the car ride home — I remember Peter’s little face peaking over my mother’s shoulder, watching us and smiling. Oh, how I remember that smile.
My father did not get his buck that season (nor any season, ever). But he got his son, and true to his word, he shaved. Peter grew and thrived, we girls grew and thrived, and my mother went on to eventually have three more babies – all of them boys. And we were a rowdy raucous family of seven kids who were sometimes very close, and sometimes throwing things at one another.
Except for Peter. At least, the way I remember him, and I’m telling the story so you’ll have to take my word for it. If you happen to know or run into one of my siblings, they may tell the story differently. That’s the way families work.
Peter was a quieter kid than the rest of us, he was by nature more even-tempered. And always, he was quick to smile. He loved to hunt and fish, though he mostly used his hands for the latter – he was that patient and that quick. As a teenager he took up wrestling and was pretty good and quick at that. He was no push-over if really provoked. Somewhere in those teen years, people started calling him Puck.
He tried his hand at many things. He joined the Navy, hoping to travel, but that didn’t work out the way he planned. He got married and moved back to the Adirondack town where we grew up. He raised chickens for awhile, and for awhile he worked at the local paper mill. Eventually he and his wife moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where her family lived.
Today is an anniversary of sorts. Twenty-two years ago on a day like today, full of spring and glorious sunshine, I took my then two-year old son to the park, and later for the first ice cream cone of the season. The phone rang as I was leaving the house, but I paid it no mind. If it was important, whoever it was would call back. Turned out it was my sister, and call back she did.
Peter was thirty-four years old on the last night he went to sleep. A hemorrhagic tumor was the reason he didn’t wake up. Twenty-two years is a long time. Also, twenty-two years is no time at all. It’s one of life’s many conundrums.
I believe in stories with happy endings, or at least in which there is the possibility of something honest and good. In this story I once had a brother who possessed the kindest of hearts and a sweet smile. We called him Puck. He is with me still. And that is enough good for now.
We noticed when he began throwing himself down the stairs.
“What are you doing, trying to kill yourself?”
“No,” he said. “I’m practicing to be a stunt man.”
Sometimes he’d start at the top of the stairs. Seized by a heart attack at the age of seven, he’d clutch his chest, crumble to his knees, and then roll – bump, bump, bump – down each step. Other times he’d start at the bottom and dash up – chased by a knife-wielding or gun-toting villain – only to be stabbed or shot in the back half-way up, whereupon he would crumble to his knees, and then roll – bump, bump, bump – down each step. Backwards.
When he perfected falling down stairs, he moved on to leaping over trees. Short trees to be sure, sapling evergreens, but a fair leap for a kid. Eventually he graduated to flinging himself sling-shot fashion out of bigger trees.
The year my parents took part in a local theater production of Dracula, he pretended to be the lunatic Renfield, and collected flies in a jar. He went around saying heh heh heh and wringing his hands for a year.
He had a paper route and accidentally set himself on fire. He graduated high school and started lifting weights. He grew muscles. He went to college and studied chemistry. He thought about becoming a pharmacist. He got married and had two sons, instead. When I got married he was best man at my wedding. He showed up shortly before zero hour in a car with a door that wouldn’t open.
For a while he chased demons.
What happens from there to here? From boy to man? From lost to found? Life. Life happens. And we manage somehow to muddle our way through it.
For the love of a good woman (my take on it), he has now found his way to where he needs to be. He is not a stunt man. He’s a research scientist/engineer and he would like to go to the moon. Or at least into outer space. I think that he is happy now. Which is the best stunt ever.
N.B. I started this as last week’s DPChallenge on Character. I like stories, and what are stories, but a study of character?