Some people struggle through life even when there appears to be no struggle to be had. For others life appears to come easy and struggles few. That was the way it was with my brother and me. Life seemed easy for me but David, my brother, was always caught in some soulful struggle.
This caused a tension between us. My life, he would say, was prefabricated for me; I only had to learn how to fit the corners together. A few steps and it was all good. Favorable reviews would be announced from all places. Yet he struggled as if trying to do a puzzle without all the pieces or as he strongly suspected the pieces did not match the cover of the box. I did not understand his psychic pain or he my ability to fit in seemingly all situations. Why did I have pieces he did not, he asked? I in turn asked why didn’t he move on to another box with all the pieces? Someone not struggling with life was suspicious to him.
David was the smarter one. As a child he would read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z for leisure. He scored the highest ACT score ever at his high school. He was a thinker. He thought about life a lot. And for him life did not fit nicely together. So the thinker often became the brooder.
He was the one member of a very religious and devout family for whom religion did not work. He was agnostic, maybe an atheist. This was not something he could ever say out loud in the deep-south in such a pious family. Occasionally he would go to church hoping to find what others saw. But he never saw the light that so many in the South professed to see.
He grew up in the Vietnam era and he saw pretty quickly Vietnam was not a good fit for our country. So the rebel in him protested. But our father was in the Vietnam jungles fighting for his life. So protesting seemed disloyal to our father. He did not agree with him on many things in those days. But he still loved him and protesting felt disloyal. To be a rebel or not was a question that was not clear to him.
His first marriage was to a cheerleader. It was what some call a shotgun wedding. Barely graduated from high school and now he had a family to support. So an ironic twist of fate came to the poor southern boy. The only way he could see forward was to join the Army and receive the GI Bill for education. He did this against the protest of our Marine father, fresh home from the War and disillusioned with it. But he saw no other choice. Luckily, because he scored so high on his aptitude test they made him a stateside attaché’ to a general grooming him for a grand military career. Although they recruited him for a second tour he thought one was enough.
Life after his tour of duty appeared to have possibilities. But David was a brooder, full of thoughts that he could not speak. I had become a fairly good speaker and had way too many ideas I wanted to share for such a young man. His thoughts would frighten and disappoint those he loved. So he remained quiet, thinking and drinking more.
He spent time as a runner. Forrest Gump ran to express his grief; David ran to clear his head. He was proud of completing a marathon or two. After running he seemed a little more relaxed. He came into the house after a dog had bit him on his run. He went to the bathroom to clean himself up. He came out with his mouth foaming with toothpaste declaring the dog had transmitted rabies to him. It was not that funny but noteworthy because he seldom pulled stunts. I on the other hand was full of them to an annoying degree.
The bathroom brought out the best in David. Once the bathroom door jammed and he could not get out. The door to the bathroom once led to the outside therefore the lock was on the outside of the added bathroom. He was convinced that my other brother or I had locked it somehow on him. So not wanting us to have the satisfaction of him pleading with us to open the door he was going to get out of the bathroom by himself. He cleared the bathroom window sill, took the screen off, stood on the toilet, lifted himself through the small window only to fall hard to the ground six feet. Now proud of himself with a banged head and bleeding scraped leg he pranced (with a limp) into the den and stood in between me and the television waiting for my astonished look at how he could have possibly gotten out of the bathroom. Much to his frustration I only told him to please move out of the way so I could see the TV. “Oh admit it you did it.” I looked at him and before I could say did what? My mom’s ever observant eye looked at him saw his bruised head, scraped knuckles, and limp asked him what happened. He proceeded with great pride to tell her how we had locked the door and how he had managed to escape. He was proud and he looked at me triumphantly. Mom always a straight shooter said “Oh I am so sorry honey. I meant to tell you that door has been sticking for a while and could one of you boys fix it.” Looking at my now deflated brother and understanding what had happened I laughed. He glared at me and said “You locked that door.”
Running was to clear his head but the thing that made him feel a part of the whole was nature. Nature did not care what he thought. It barely acknowledged his presence but it gave so much back. He only fit in the woods and it became his reprieve.
Despite the occasional antics life went on. He was now working downtown Birmingham for the Social Security Department. His life had taken on the daily grind of office work. He realized this when he knew exactly how many floor tiles he passed on his way to his desk. The time had come for probably the greatest adventure of his life. Yet, it was not planned to be as great an adventure as it became. He was with his second wife and they had decided to adopt. They had chosen relatively safe Honduras to adopt a little girl. David spoke a little Spanish and it was a quick process and not that far away. So they went to Honduras to sign the papers and bring home their bundle of joy. But to their horror there was a military coup while they were there. They already had the child in hand and were to sign a few papers and leave to go home. But the coup changed everything. The new government refused to act on anything the other government had done until they had reviewed the actions. An adoption of an infant was not high on the list of the review. They now were in a downtown with tanks rolling down the streets. The new government was anti-American. The baby was in their hands and the bond had been made. There was no turning back but they did not know what the future held. His wife returned to the States to return to work. David stayed getting an extended leave from his job. The streets were not safe and he had to maneuver with the baby whenever he left. Eventually, he stayed in their local lawyer’s compound and waited and waited for months until they were finally delivered from the crises. They were allowed to leave for America. The new baby brought happiness but the experience had reminded David of the capriciousness of the world. No one seemed in control.
The last time I saw him his life was making a little sense. His divorce from his second wife had been nasty. His son (from his first marriage) like father brooded a lot and came and went according to his moods. His adopted daughter visited but was guided by a mother who wanted nothing good for him. He was on his third wife. Yet life began to hold meaning and he felt as though he might have control of the events that came. His new wife was a woman who had strong religious beliefs but had lived through enough pain to identify with someone who couldn’t believe or believed skeptically strongly. He had a simple but nice home that was abutted against a major state park. Twenty-five yards from his backdoor was a hiking trail. He had a job as a probation officer that he was known as being fair and tough. Legend had it that he stopped a would-be prisoner escape from a man younger and twice his size. The man attempted to escape and he and David struggled. David realizing he could not hold the man handcuffed himself to him. The man tried to drag David around the corner to an awaiting car but David held on. Officers eventually found David bruised and battered. Handcuffed to him was the notorious “escapee.” They laid exhausted on the ground twenty yards from the door of the probation office.
He still brooded but he talked a little more. We even got along now. I was more mature. Divorce, working with the homeless, Persons living with AIDS and chronic back pain had not made me a brooder but I had to force my puzzle pieces to fit these days. While I was there for a visit he showed me a bird’s nest in his backyard with baby chicks in it. We hiked in the woods. We had a contest to see who could do the most reps of bench presses. We were not young men anymore but we were on the verge of middle age and somehow we were finally able to connect and make our lives fit together.
So his death a week later did not make sense. When I was there he had complained of a back pain. He had been to a doctor who had found nothing wrong. Then one day at work he turned deathly pale. Great pain enveloped his body and he felt fatigued. He was rushed to the small town hospital. The family was called in. Something was horribly wrong. He was to undergo surgery. He was losing blood and the doctors were not sure why. I lived too far away to get there fast. But my parents, his wife, and our brother were there. He was in a wheelchair in the elevator and assured my mom everything would be okay so go to lunch. It was late afternoon; she had not eaten. They left; he went into surgery for six hours but the doctors bungled his operation. They could not find the source of his bleeding. They resuscitated him. He fought hard as only a man who still had life to live would. But he died on the table. Apparently, an ulcer on an aorta had burst causing the bleeding. The doctors did not find it until after he died. Some questioned his wife’s decision to stay in the small town hospital and not transfer him to a city hospital. His wife trusted her lifelong doctor. But ultimately it did not matter he was dead. A man too young to die had. There was no sense in the death. The chaos he had always seen in the world had finally overcome him just when life was beginning to make sense. And I am left with a puzzle piece that does not fit.