Thursday, September 09, 2010

Labor Day adventure weekend, and the death of a friend

My wife is a saint. If you have any sort of relationship with Liberty, that may not be the first descriptor that jumps to mind, but I assure you it's true. In fact, there was a time when I believed her assertion that she has no empathy, but now I know that for what it really is: a complete ruse. It's her version of my blank expression that I meet most people with, the thing that's a little off-putting and helps me extricate myself from conversations, the thing that lets me keep my distance instead of getting too involved, and has nothing to do with what's actually going on upstairs.

My problem is that I care a lot about people, and it's far too easy for me to lose myself in their struggles with life, making myself an emotional wreck over their trivial daily dramas. I suspect the same is true of my dear wife, and the "whatever, that's boring, I hope she stumbles out into traffic" she sometimes projects is her coping mechanism for a deep-seated caring for the people in her life that leads to a constant emotional firestorm.

A few weeks ago the two of us took Dave (ex-mentee, current 21 year old looking for answers, future world conqueror) out to see Inception, and he started out a little nauseous, getting progressively sicker as the movie went on, and about 30 minutes in asked us if we could just drive him home instead. Liberty never hides disappointment or frustration from her face, so I expected this to be sort of a bad scene, but it was anything but. What registered on her face was caring, and an expression of "of course this stupid movie can wait, let's get you out of here so you feel better." Over this weekend, that expression found its way to me.

We set out early Saturday to head down to Mammoth Cave, and about 2 hours into the drive, I started getting a small headache that I assumed would pass with a soda and a couple aspirin. A little later, I assumed maybe a Claritin and a couple more aspirin would do the trick. Then, no, how about a full dinner, maybe I'm short on protein. OK, 4 more aspirin. Maybe one of your prescription allergy pills, honey - at this point I knew I was in trouble; it was 4 years ago all over again when chronic sinus infections had me worried about the future quality of my life.

I ended up wracked with pain and seeking the first bed I could find, where I tossed and turned, took a hot shower, tried not to moan or pound my fist in despair and impotent rage, and finally made a trip to a nearby gas station for Tums and Advil (too many pills throughout the day leads to stomach problems, as I hope none of you are intimately familiar with). A few hours later I finally settled down to sleep, waking up about 4 hours later pain free.

Through it all, Liberty was supporting and loving, without a hint of "you're ruining my vacation, asshole" in her voice or mannerisms. At one point she even lovingly caressed me and said "should we get you to a hospital?" That's a phrase I hope I never hear again on vacation, but I was glad to hear it coming from her because of the implication: your wellbeing is more important than a fun vacation.

Day two was less exciting as far as my own health goes. I woke up at about 5am, more or less completely healed. The sunglasses I keep in my car had a film of pollen on them, explaining the source of the previous day's misery, and we spent the rest of the trip with the windows up, air conditioning on, and outside air vents closed, which successfully prevented any mishaps.

Mammoth Cave turned out to involve things neither of us was willing to stomach: tourists, being herded, bratty kids with parents who were, at best, indifferent to their complaints about the unfairness of everything. Nightmare. So we opted for the random drive-and-see-what-happens vacation instead. We ended up in Nashville, stopping at the local Flying Saucer bar (where we both added three beers to our tour), and a museum that was showing some French Couture displays, where Liberty explained all the ways the description copy on the displays was inaccurate, and how the fat American mannequins were stretching the older French clothes, ruining seams and zippers. [This is sort of our idea of fun. When it's my turn, say when we pass a big box store, digital marquee, or automated supermarket checkout line, I let loose a constant stream of "dude couldn't code his way out of a box" comments, decrying bad error checking, unclear user interfaces, and snooty voice actors. It's what we love - don't judge.]

On the drive back I checked my voice mail, and got the news that my cousin Steve had died. I was stunned. He was 30, and I had just spoken with him a month ago at our family reunion. He was a former marine who was stationed in Iraq for a while. He was dealing with survivor's guilt and PTSD, was on psychoactive medication that made him sleepy, and he had put on a lot of weight. I talked to him away from everyone else at the reunion, where he shared with me some horrible war stories that I won't repeat. Suffice to say, I understand why he felt the way he did.

Steve and I lived together for a short time when he was 9 and I was 18, and we both lived in my Grandmother's house. I was playing the role of hip older brother-figure. He was fond of bursting into my room with pronouncements or questions, or asking me to come play with him and the neighborhood kids, where I would lead them all into the woods to trek around and get lost, or have mock stick-fights with them. I taught Steve some basic fighting skills when we would spar in the backyard (mainly that position, timing, and distance mattered more than aggression or fancy moves). We would both leap from the second-story balcony onto the uneven, hilly grass below in bravery contests (neither of us breaking anything is nothing short of a miracle). He showed signs of being troubled then, but as much as I loved him and appreciated being looked up to by someone, I was caught up in the petty dramas of being a new adult, and fled back to Ohio to stake my claim on life, and we lost touch.

I saw him a couple years later when visiting North Carolina, and we went out to see Buffy the Vampire Slayer - the movie, not the show. I ended up being a fan of the Joss Whedon series, and would often think about Steve when I watched it. Steve seemed to have matured a little, maybe quieted down some, but I only saw in hindsight that things weren't going well for him.

His life was hard after I left. He joined up with a bad crowd in school, became obsessed with being cool and looking tough, and once angrily pushed my grandmother out of the way in a family dispute. His mother was, frankly, not doing her job, frequently throwing her hands in the air and complaining "I cayn't do nuthin with 'im!" and the responsibility of trying to raise Steve fell to my grandmother. In her 70s, she didn't have the skills or strength needed to deal with a kid hell-bent on being trouble. After a close friend of his from the "bad crowd" was shot and killed, my family intervened more forcefully, and got him into a reform school in another state.

I next saw him when he was 16 and I was newly married to my first wife. I gave him one good lick for having pushed my grandmother, which squared things between us (if you are familiar with Southern culture, you'll see that this is a formality which can't be overlooked - it would be improper). He embraced the lifestyle of bad-kid-turned-good, and I was happy to see that he was safe, free of the weapons or drugs that would naturally have come next had he not been moved to the new school, more polite, and less angry. He still had some of the tough-guy look, but as someone intimately familiar with anger, I could see his heart really wasn't in it.

From then on I only heard a few passing stories of his progress. He latched onto religion for a while, and seemed destined to become a pastor or motivational speaker ("How I turned away from evil" or something). He ended up joining the military, which I found a little surprising, but it would have naturally appealed to his sense of honor and penance.

When we talked at the reunion, I had no idea that would be the last time we would speak, but I don't think I would have done anything differently. I gave him a listening ear, let him know that I still gave a damn what happened to him, and we made tentative plans to meet in Cincinnati later this year when he was scheduled to visit a clinic there to help manage his PTSD. Instead he died. In his sleep. Where his pregnant wife and 3 year old daughter found they couldn't rouse him from his nap.

I thought about all this as Liberty and I were driving back from our adventurous weekend trip, and after the initial shock wore off, I found that I didn't feel much of anything. Like all emotional wounds that cut deep, the pain came later. Last night, in fact. I was browsing various sites about sending care packages to deployed troops, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was all I could do to not burst into tears in front of my wife. If you're familiar with Southern culture, you'll understand that you don't cry over a dead man in front of your wife. It would be improper.

So Steve and I were close at one time, and our lives were skew to each other after that. But I loved him. And it hurts. And he deserved more life.


  1. Wow, Curtis, your writing really hit me emotionally. Did Steve o.d., or have a heart attack in his sleep...?? I only ask because I once o.d.'d (after Gene and I broke up) and I also had a heart attack in my sleep (that did not kill me, thank God). You wonder why bad things happen to good people but he sounds as if he led a rather tormented life. You certainly helped him as much as anyone and I am sure he appreciated your lending an ear to his troubled thoughts as he verbalized them. So many people just don't give a damn. I am glad that Liberty seems to truly have compassion and soul because without that, you can not live fully, not even for yourself. (I am a little concerned about the fat mannequin remark however...).
    As for the sinus thing, Angie has a terrible time with sinus headaches also so maybe it comes from your dad's side of the family.
    Anyway...chin up. There will be more deaths as you get older and although you never get used to it, you do realize that there are times when life is meant to be lived and times when life is meant to be over. And you sort of just go with the flow into that realm of thinking. Hell, there's nothing much you can do about it anyway.
    But you can cry. Women do, actually, love for their men to cry. It shows they are human...and care a lot about those they love.

  2. Rosemary,

    I believe he had a heart attack related to the combination of meds he was on. I hope his wife (and daughter from his first marriage) gets compensated extraordinarily well, since this was both preventable and the root issue was combat related.

    As for fat mannequins, they were literally too big to display the little tiny 50s Frenchwoman clothes, but the museum people decided to cram them on anyway, destroying awesome clothes that were over 50 years old. Losers.

    As for the implied sensitivity training I need, let me remind you that I was, a few short years ago, 260 pounds, got fed up with being fat, and trimmed myself down to 180. I wrote about it here:

  3. I'm so sorry to hear of your cousin's death. At least he had found his way back to a wife and daughter who loved him...and died peacefully, in his sleep.

    Your description of your illness on vacation was powerful. Thank God you recovered--and your wife is indeed a saint!