One Vermont June afternoon nearly 30 years ago, my brother Aaron
and I took our stepfather David fishing beside Lake Champlain. David
was an invalid at the time, and the outing was for his benefit but
also to give our mother some rest and peace in the house.
I was in my mid-twenties, a graduate student living up the road
in Burlington, and Aaron was still at home and in high school but
not much interested in what was taught there, spending most of his
time working dairy on a farm on the hills above the lake. So that's
where we headed, bumping the station wagon past the milking parlor,
over the cattle grates and across the heifer pasture to a sand-bottomed,
sun-drenched half-moon bay tucked between a grassy hill and a piney
A psychotherapist in his working life, and a man of intelligence,
dignity, humor, and style, David had been seized a few years earlier
by a disease that progressively paralyzed him and then held him
that way for weeks in a hospital bed as machines pushed and pulled
air through a tube in his throat, and forced food into a tube in
the side of his abdomen, and drizzled medications through tubes
in his veins, and jigged his heart, and beeped continuously, scrolling
the fretful dance of his dreams across monitors above his bed and
down the hall at the nurses' station.
And then the disease slowly released him, nerve by singed nerve,
and returned him to us entirely changed: crippled, wracked by pain
and panic, addicted to pills, and furious as Lear. In the years
left to him, he would agree to terms with his fallen circumstances,
learning to walk slowly but unaided, and to drive a car, even to
paint oil landscapes again by holding the brush in two fists. And
he would drop the drugs and vicious judgments and would stop sleeping
in his clothes.
But all that was years off on the June afternoon by the lake when
we had to help him from the car and to a beach chair that we placed
on the grass. We put a canvas hat on his head to protect his fair
skin, and wrapped a blanket around his waist and legs to keep him
from trembling from a chill he felt even in the June sun. And we
put the thermos of coffee nearby and assured him (not for the first
or last time that day) that we hadn't forgotten the sandwiches at
home. Would you like a sandwich now? No, but maybe later. Beneath
the blanket, in the pocket of his barn coat, David's hand rested,
we knew, on his little tin of Percocets and Valiums.
If we were dispassionately proficient that afternoon in setting
him up so he was comfortable and calm, it was not because this came
naturally to us but because we'd had a few years to discharge our
inefficiencies, our brute surging hope that David would return;
that our youthful strength and vital love would carry him back across
the line to be with us again in the country of the well. The first
weekend he was home--it was in February--a heavy snowstorm fell on
Vermont. David was afraid: Was our road plowed? Could he get back
to the hospital if need be? We--his stepsons--had already plowed the
150 yards of gravel drive that connected our house in the woods
to the public road, and to show him this we put him in his wheelchair
and three of us brothers carried him out and down the road, lifting
him past the drifted-over spots, until we reached the public road.
It took him an hour to stop shivering when we returned to the house,
and he was no less fearful.
But we had since gone from being amateur nurses--vexed over each
setback, eager over each sign of progress, sure of our ability to
heal and to get him to eat salad--to being professionals. For cold:
blanket. For fear: reassurance. For matted hair: comb. For sunny
June day: fishing.
The sun was fat, the lake blue, and the perch large and obliging.
Aaron and I took so many so quickly that our fishing became a boisterous
game of who could bait, cast, and reel faster, me or my little brother,
before the crawlers gave out, or our arms, or the beer, or before
the sun dropped down behind the green-sloped Adirondacks on the
far side of the lake.
David drank beer too, which he wasn't supposed to do, but we didn't
question him or stop him; and he laughed at our teasings, jokes,
and burlesques--some of which we made and performed just because
he was there--and he made some jokes of his own. I don't remember
for sure, but I think that he may also have told a few of his stories
about life in Chicago and New York City, how he once met someone
famous, "Fatha" Hines or Eugene Debs or Jackson Pollock. I do remember
that he didn't get too chilled, that nothing happened that frightened
him, that the beer and pills did him no harm, that he seemed to
enjoy being with us--that "he had a good day," as we used to report
to one another in passing, like professionals coming off a shift.
Our story on the lives of nurses begins here.
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