Bent Words

Bent Words

July 14, 2010

My brother was clutching the side of an Emergency Room door when we arrived, wearing a hospital gown over a pair of shorts, and staring at my parents and me as though he expected us but didn't altogether care that we were there. Although he was heavily sedated, his eyes darted from left to right, returning back again occasionally with an expression of childish amusement.

He grinned.

"You better take off your shoes," was all he said.

It took some convincing to make him release his hold on the door but finally his wife, Sarah, was able to pry him gently away. The nurse led the way to one of twelve beds in the Critical Care Unit while Chris held tightly onto Sarah's hand. I walked on the other side of him with my hand on his shoulder. My parents followed behind.

"You know they've remodeled the place -- we should go explore," said Chris.

"We're going to get a few tests done first, Chris," said the nurse.

My parents and I were told to "relax" in a small waiting room with square blue chairs and bad coffee while we waited for Chris to be admitted and seen by a doctor. This took what seemed like hours. I stood at the frame of the door, watching as they led him into a large glass room and put him into a bed. There were nurses at their stations, patients groaning in all the rooms surrounding us and a guard seated just before the door to Chris's room. I know we talked amongst ourselves. I know we rattled newspapers, played with the remote to the TV (World Cup, local news, Forrest Gump, mute) and paced the room because I can recall the squish squish squish of my sandals on the tiled floor but none of that seems real to me.

All I could see was the smile in his eyes when he popped out of the water at the Lake. The way he whisked the water from his face with a quick flip of his head. I could see him propelling himself out of the water and onto the pier with one quick motion, followed by an exaggerated back flip back in again. No hesitation. I could see the look of anger and defeat in his eyes, coupled with a few fresh scars, from the day he biffed it on his skateboard attempting to do a handstand on it down our street. I remember him being embarrassed by the cherry on his nose. I could see the fear encompass his expression when Dad yelled at him -- the only time I can recall him seeming truly frightened. I could see the distance that separated us when he returned one day from the Marines. He wasn't sure who we were anymore and we weren't sure of him. We didn't know what to say. We didn't know what to do. We don't know how to act.

We just knew we loved him.

Those things I could see standing there at the edge of the hospital's waiting room door.

When we finally got to see him, his face possessed none of the familiar expressions I have witnessed in the last thirty years. There was no fear, no happiness, no defiance, no anger, no uncertainty. There was just an ever present and ambiguous restlessness about him. Although his hands could not be held still, his eyes could not be held true and his mouth could not formulate what I imagine he wanted to say, he seemed oblivious. Vacant. Gone.

"Well it was the strangest thing," he said. "I was standing at the top of our stairs at home when I heard the toilet flush in the basement. I started to walk down the stairs to see who was flushing toilet since the girls were all upstairs in the living room and, halfway down, I realized I was standing on a land mine. Before I knew it there were all these kids with whispering voices reaching out for me through the basement door and then the whole thing just exploded."

We all looked at him.

"Dude, that's strange," I said in the most normal, yet concerned, voice possible.

"I know. I didn't think the flight was going to leave this early," he replied.

I changed the 'subject' and talked to him about things that we had done that day. After all, we had been waiting for him to arrive at the Lake so we could celebrate his birthday. I told him about the dinner that Mom cooked. "She even made pasta salad without the olives for you." I told him how I had hurt my back and he gave me advice on how to fix it. "You just need to get a set of rollers and add a twenty-five pound weight to each end. You have these washers separating the two and then you just lie down on it and roll back and forth and that will fix your back." I nodded my head as though I knew what he was saying. I talked to him about his presents and the water balloons I got for us and his kids. This all seemed to calm him down and, for awhile, he almost seemed normal.

"So how are you feeling right now?" I asked.

"Oh, you know. I'm tired as hell. I haven't been able to sleep. I've been awake and I thought it was Sarah playing tricks on me. And then the lights were just out and all I could hear were the girls running up and down the hallway, giggling. I was talking to Sarah on the phone for 45 minutes but she was sitting in the kitchen and there weren't any calls listed on my phone and she just didn't get it. We had to pull over right away because I couldn't find the brake pedal. And some idiot kept whispering to me to 'take the keys'."

He said all these things as though they were making perfect sense to him. He didn't pause, he didn't stumble in his speech. He just kept going on as though he couldn't stop. Every so often he lifted his blankets and looked about underneath and then acted as though he was trying to remove his gown. Sarah asked him what he was looking for.

"Those specialty knives. I know they're here somewhere. We have to find those, you know. They're rare."

Then she had to convince him not worry about the knives and to keep his bed clothes on.

"We can get the knives and buy that white machine gun I was talking about and have target practice in the back yard. You can be the target," he said grinning at Sarah.

He called for people who weren't there. He looked beyond all of us and asked the nurse if she had enough staples. And when my father mentioned work, he about went ballistic. He began pulling off his IV, trying to sit up in bed. He started shaking and making remarks about what had to be done at the building he works at. I quickly hugged him and told him I loved him and asked him to remain in bed. I had to escort my mother out of the room just before she lost it.

The doctor quickly made her way past us and told Chris about the deal they made.

"I'll make you better, Chris, but you have to keep your IV in."

The rest is a blur.

Chris was experiencing severe delirium tremens as a result of sudden alcohol withdrawal after a prolonged period of consistent drinking. About one in four people suffering this degree of alcohol withdrawal actually live to tell about it. By all reasonable statistics, he should be dead. He now has hepatitis because of the liver damage but, luckily, he's one step above actual cirrhosis -- complete liver failure. He endured two full days of complete delirium, much more severe than what we saw at the hospital, mixed in with many other traumatic symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. And while his liver is badly damaged, it is not entirely beyond repair.

Yesterday morning, he called me from the hospital.

"Laura? I'm sorry. But I am back."

I'll never know how to explain what I saw. I'll never know how to fully describe how terrified he was or how fully terrified we were. All I know is that when you don't know what to say, when you don't how to act, when you don't know what to do, you have to say something. You have to do something. You might be wrong in saying something -- anything -- you might be wrong in what actions you take but it's so much better to be wrong than sorry you never tried. I never knew how much or how often he was drinking but we suspected and we never called him out on it. We all just discussed it in our separate corners of the earth. We all just kind of let it go when we didn't see him drinking at our family gatherings anymore but Sarah knew. Sarah was there with him, drinking with him, every night, never mentioning to anyone how she felt about "our family's drinking habits."

I don't blame her in that sense. I don't judge her that way. He put the drinks to his mouth with his own hands. No one forced him.

But apparently this isn't the first time he's gone through this kind of reaction to the cessation of alcohol. This isn't his first drive straight down the path of destruction. It has come to light, in the last two days, that he has been there before. And none of us were let in on it.

So when I received a text message from Sarah on Saturday afternoon stating that she would like for me to keep this "situation" under wraps as it isn't her "proudest moment," I snapped. It's not just her moment. It's not just her situation. It's not just her this affects. Fuck her embarrassment -- I just want my big brother not to die! She's not above this. She's not better than what happened to my him. And she's not the shining example of the sudden church going, proponent of cleanliness, Drug and Alcohol Counselor for kids that she'd like to think she is. She promotes it all but never practiced a pinch of it. She's the first one to pour with heavy hands. She's the first one to take a puff when no one's looking. She's the first one to roll her eyes at her husband when she's heard the story before or believes that he's wrong and she's right.

She's the first one in line to antagonize and ridicule. Because none of this happened to her. Because she can point a finger. Because she wasn't on the other side. Because she will never not be better than the rest of the world she peers out at everyday.

And NOW she comes up with this whole sob story as to how it was so difficult to be accepted into our family when they first got married and the only way to be accepted was to drink as much as we do. WTF?! Is that really how all this happened? Is that your best shot? My father is 70 and has had a cocktail hour everyday for the last how many fucking years. He's not dead because he doesn't abuse it. His brother, however, six years his junior, suffered a stroke this past year because of smoking, drinking and obesity. Yes, my mother is a different story. Yes, maybe I am, too, but if she was so vehemently opposed to such vulgar behavior, you'd imagine, in the last ten years, she would have been able to remain her own person and stand up for what she NOW so earnestly (suddenly) believes.

Go ahead, honey, and keep shoveling the shit onto some else's yard. If that's what makes you feel like the bigger person, go for it. Give her. I'm almost proud to call a back stabbing, model of society, bitch like you my sister-in-law. This isn't YOUR problem. This is OUR problem. This is our responsibility. This is our challenge and our strife. And we will get through it as a team -- not as YOU against US. If you're only roll in all of this is to sit up high on your horse and judge, we will not be nearly as successful as we could most certainly be.

And while my mother and my father stood there, stoic, before him, not knowing what to say and not knowing what to do, I talked to him. I reached out and held his hand and I listened to him and let him talk and try to be understood. I didn't look at him as though he were Satan standing before me. I didn't inch away while he tried to undress himself in front of everyone. I didn't slink away at the first sign of spookiness. He's your fucking SON for God's sake! Talk to him. Reach out to him! Stay strong for him for one fucking hour and love him despite all that IS. You don't have to get it. You don't have to understand it. You don't have to have the answers or the magic wand which fixes all -- you just have to try. You just have to not shut down. You just have to be proactive.

I know you'd like it to be but your world can't always be wrapped into a great big fluffy ball of everything you want. You can't snuggle up to it every night and sleep well. Sometimes you have to fight and struggle and punch or back off and find your resilience and reach out to make it different or to accept that it just is different. It's horrible sometimes but you shouldn't be so fucking scared of that that you cannot react! You have to do something. You have to say something. Sure. Pick your battles. But do it wisely. Do it bravely and do it with your whole heart. Stop being so afraid.

I'll spill my feelings of angst here. I'll get angry now and then I'll talk about it later sensibly. But, for now, I'm just pissed. Obviously. I needed to get that out. I love my family and all their quirks dearly -- my parents are my best friends in the whole world -- but sometimes they just piss me right the hell off. Sometimes we don't seem as much of a team as I'd like to think that we are. I know how deeply the feel, I know how entirely they love, I see who they are beyond what they can easily give off. It's just that sometimes I wish they could show to others as much as they can show it to me. Their own son included.

Because this is about him. Not your fear or your righteousness. Your wrongs or your rights. Your opinion is unnecessary. Your analysis doesn't matter. Your definition doesn't apply.

All that matters is that he is alive. He is home now with his children. He's not fertilizer. He's safe and others around him are safe. That's what matters. The rest of it -- the part that comes next -- well, we'll get to that. For now let us just thank God he's alive and kicking. Let us feel humble that we did everything we could. That we didn't turn our backs or fall down in the face of adversity.

You're not always great. I'm not always great. We're not always great. Nothing about us will ever always be great.

But, Big Brother, you are AMAZING.

And I love you with all my heart.

Written at 9:30 p.m.