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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 cliff.

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.

Ben Birnbaum


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