Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lessons in Bull Riding

“Ride that bull, babushka! We’ll teach them Russians how to row-day-oh!” My brother-in-law’s muffled shout was accompanied by the creak of his easy chair and the thump of his feet against the floor above me.

I sat in the living room surrounded by the smell of burnt garlic, my jaw hanging open in happy wonderment at Steve’s sudden outburst. Looking up at the ceiling, I tried to imagine what could have provoked such a reaction in the quiet, solitary, and very strange man that I hardly knew.

Maybe he dozed off watching a rodeo with a copy of Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” in his lap…

Steve was my wife’s oldest sibling and a bit of a mystery to me. All I really knew about him was that after a brief stint in the Navy, he had spent most of his life homeless and wandering across the world as a sometimes-functional alcoholic, in search of something that he just couldn’t seem to find. Every few years or so he would reappear to sober up with the help of his parents, siblings, and burnt garlic, only to disappear again, returning to his search for something that he just couldn’t seem to find.

To hear Steve shout about babushkas riding bulls and Russian rodeos was sudden and funny, but not out of character, and that’s what Steve was, a character. I made a mental note to never forget the moment or the man, and promised myself that both would end up in a short story, script, or book one day.

Not long after trying to incite an international rodeo incident, Steve hit the road headed west for parts unknown, resuming his search. It would be some time before I saw him again. During the years that followed, we heard snippets and rumors about where he was, the trouble he was into, the tragic state of his life, and his disruptive encounters with family that never lasted long. His addictions kept him wandering, distant, sometimes belligerent, and forever unable to take root. He would drive off into the wild, leaving his loved ones behind without a glance in the rear view mirror to see them standing in his dust, wishing they knew how to help him.

And then cancer came calling. During one of his brief appearances, Steve was given eighteen months to live, just as he was about to run off and wander again, the car literally packed and ready to go when the news came. Rather than disappear and die alone, Steve stayed and accepted help and care from those who wanted nothing more than to give it, in spite of the countless hours of pain and prayer he had caused them.

We moved to Utah in 2012, about six years after Steve had been diagnosed. The man was a cockroach; it seemed that nothing could kill him, and I often wondered if he hadn’t built up some sort of immunity with all the alcohol and drugs he had ingested over the years. In spite of having heard all about his chemo treatments and the physical difficulties he had endured over the past several years, I was not prepared for Steve’s appearance. He looked older than his father; he was weak, grey, and thinning by the minute. Still, his attitude was positive and his smile wide in spite of all that he was going through. He hugged his sisters and brothers and spent a lot of time with his parents, who took him to lunch and movies, and made sure that he was comfortable and well fed at the family gatherings. To witness the love and concern demonstrated by his parents and siblings would often scratch at the scabs I still carried from my own poor treatment of my little brother Jared in the years leading up to his suicide. Hindsight stared back at me every time I saw my brother-in-law.

But even cockroaches eventually die, and after more than a year in hospice, his time was clearly coming. Steve was tired, and his body battered by not only the cancer, but by everything medical science had done to his body in order to keep him alive. He couldn’t take anymore; he decided he had fought the good fight, but it was time to fly. In January the family gathered in spirit and prepared for the inevitable.

Life continued, however, and with it came a yearly working vacation to Hawaii with Elizabeth’s sister Amy and her husband Duff, this one to The Big Island. This year we would also be accompanied by Elizabeth and Amy’s parents. We were relieved to hear that they were looking forward to the peaceful rest and calming spirit that the island would provide. They had prepared every needful thing for Steve, and he was in good and caring hands at the hospice center. Their younger sons that lived locally would take over the daily duties of checking in on Steve and making sure that he was as comfortable as he could be made, and if he passed while we were gone, all would be well. Steve knew that his mom and dad loved him, and he wanted them to enjoy themselves in Hawaii. They had earned it.

The Big Island is filled with adventure at every turn, and Elizabeth and I made sure to wring every drop of thrill from our time there. We started the trip with a drive around the north end, where we stood on a desert landscape and watched a mother whale teaching her babies to leap and play just offshore, drove through a jungle to swim (naked) in a cool, clear, freshwater pool off the beaten track, and explored an abandoned church, its bell still hanging in the belfry. We ventured into the dark depths of a lava tube without a flashlight, and then drove over a scarred volcanic wasteland where we joined locals in their celebration at the end of a successful wild boar hunt. We ended that first day by traveling out onto green rolling hills peppered with cattle, and then we were treated to dinner by Elizabeth’s parents.

Throughout the rest of our time on the island, we snorkeled with bright fish and green turtles, drank fresh fruit smoothies, watched the sun set from the beach, and swam in warm water. The ocean spray at the southernmost point of the U.S. kept us cool as we watched more whales at play, and had it not been so windy and the water so rough, I would have leapt from the cliffs into the deep blue below (next year for sure). We hiked out onto a volcano with new friends and witnessed an alien world, and then warmed ourselves in the hot steam escaping from cracks in the hardened lava flow. Later that same night, we marveled at the fiery-red dragon’s eye of the active volcano as it glowed against the dark, and on the way back to the resort we parked on top of a mountain and marveled at more stars than a mind can comprehend.

In between adventures, we read emails from Elizabeth’s brother Paul, who was keeping close watch over his big brother. Steve was in the active stages of passing, and his long fight would be over within a matter of days. Inspired by his brother Mike’s FB posting of a song in tribute to Steve, Paul suggested that family members post their own tribute songs and messages to the family FB page, so that he could collect them and spend some time at Steve’s side playing the songs and reading the messages of love aloud to him. Some great music came rolling in, most of it from the seventies, the lyrics and titles telling me more about Steve and how his brothers and sisters felt about him than I had ever known or understood. In spite of his strange ways and wandering spirit, or was it because of them? Steve was dearly loved, and so he would be dearly missed.

On the last day of our Big Island trip, we spent hours clambering over sharp and crusty volcanic rock in search of a secret cave known to very few. One of the members of our group had already been inside it years earlier, having heard about it from a drunken local that had wanted to impress a mainlander. Inside the cave were the bodies of several paniolos (cowboys) resting on a natural shelf of rock, left there by friends and family more than a century ago. With very few clues and a dusty memory to go on, we remained determined to find the cave, and we soldiered on until the sun began to melt into the sea. In the end we found nothing but caves filled with the bones of wild goats, but we decided that the adventure along the way had been well worth the sweat, fatigue, cuts, and bruises we had suffered during our failed search.

When we regrettably boarded the plane for home, Steve was still alive. Elizabeth and I had discussed the possibility of visiting him for a few minutes on the way home from the airport, but had made no solid plans to do so. A long overnight flight complete with a brief layover in the West Coast was going to spell exhaustion for us upon our arrival in Utah, and so we left the idea to visit him open but undecided.

The sun was shining and the temperature mild on Sunday morning in Salt Lake City. We helped load the piles of gear required for our work while in Hawaii onto the waiting truck, and then loaded our personal luggage and Elizabeth’s parents into our car in the long-term parking lot. Twenty minutes later we pulled up in front of my in-law’s house. After hugs, thanks, and two cans of Diet Coke passed in through the passenger-side window, we headed towards home with Elizabeth driving. I had not slept a moment during our flight, and I would have been dozing and dangerous behind the wheel.

There are sixteen or more ways to get to any one place in Salt Lake City. The streets are laid out on a numbered grid, and locals speak in foreign tongues and numbers when handing out directions. For some reason I can navigate my way through our bedroom in the dark to find the toilet in the middle of the night, but I need a GPS device the moment I enter the Salt Lake Valley. When Elizabeth is driving, I pay little attention to where we are going, and watch the world at work, life, and play. Sunday morning was no different, and so I didn’t even know where we were when she spoke.

“I have to pee, and Steve’s place is right up here, do you mind if we stop to use the bathroom and to see him for a minute?” Elizabeth asked.

“Not at all, we talked about stopping to see him anyway, and it may be too late to come down tomorrow,” I answered grimly.

She pulled into the parking lot and we stepped out to stretch, yawn, and prepare ourselves. The woman at the front desk was very polite, her smile wide and welcoming as we signed in and asked to use the bathroom before seeing Steve.

A few minutes later we walked down the hallway on our way to Steve’s room.  A woman sat in a wheelchair parked to one side. I smiled at her as we passed, but her eyes were glassed over and void of recognition. I steeled myself for the worst as we walked further into a building filled with those that were not long for this life. A moan escaped from a nearby room, and I thought I heard weeping coming from another. I felt guilty for being so healthy, in spite of my bad habits.

The door to Steve’s room was open, but the privacy curtain kept his bed hidden from passersby. We rounded the curtain and looked around the room. The floor was covered in what looked to be wrestling mats, and after wondering with a cringe why they were there, I thought of Billy Papaki, the bloody nose I accidently gave him during fifth grade gym class, and the beating I took for it later from David Snack, Billy’s protector.

I dropped the memory and focused on the man lying on the only bed in the room. He looked desperately thin; the sheet seemed to float no more than an inch above the mattress, held up only by his feet at one end and a chest that barely moved with labored breathing at the other.

“Is that Steve?” I couldn’t help asking aloud.

“Yes, that’s him,” my wife whispered, visibly shaken by her brother’s appearance.

I followed her to the side of the bed. Steve’s eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to be aware that anyone was there until Elizabeth touched his hand.

“Hi Steve, it’s Lizzie. Matt is with me. We just got back from a trip to Hawaii with Nana and Bubba. They are home, Nana and Bubba are home.”

Steve smiled at the sound of his mother and father’s nicknames, and the knowledge that they had returned safely. Elizabeth looked at me with happy surprise in her eyes.

“We had a great time with them in Hawaii,” she continued, and her voice cracked a little as she did. 

“We saw whales, and colorful fish, and we swam with a turtle, and hiked on a volcano.”

Steve may have been trying to focus on his baby sister’s face, but he seemed to stare right past her.

I knelt on the wrestling mat at Elizabeth’s feet, a move that put me right beside Steve’s head. Looking at him as close as I was, I realized that in spite of barely knowing him, I was sad to lose him, because losing him was making Elizabeth sad.

“I like his beard, he looks good with a beard,” I said, wondering at the same time why I would say something so stupid, and if it was helping Elizabeth at all.

She reached out and touched Steve’s cheek, then combed his salt and pepper beard gently with her soft fingers. I looked up and watched as tears fell from her eyes and dripped onto the sheet below. “It’s cute, I like it,” she agreed.

I gulped back the lump in my throat, but couldn’t stop the tears from welling up in my eyes. I had seen that sad look on my wife’s face once before, and had prayed at the time that I’d never see it again.

But there it was.

“Want me to get you a chair?” I asked, looking to be of some help, and to distract myself crying.

“I’ll just sit here on the bed.” Elizabeth smoothed the sheet and sat beside her brother.

“Make sure you’re not sitting on anything he needs, like a tube or something,” I worried.

“He’s not hooked up to anything, they have been told to not take any life-saving measures,” she reassured me, but then stood and lifted the sheet an inch or two, running a quick check with her hand before sitting back down.

Steve’s breathing had changed in the few minutes that had passed since we arrived. Each breath took longer to arrive, and when they came they were deep gasps, as if his body was fighting to keep his spirit from slipping out his open mouth. In between the gasps, his body would shudder slightly, as if his spirit were struggling to shed its weary mortal coil.

“Steve, we love you,” Elizabeth said. Tears ran down her cheeks in a steady stream, and she wiped them away with the back of her hand.

I reached up and put a hand on my wife’s knee. She looked down at me, an unspoken question in her eyes.

“He’s close,” I whispered with a nod.

Elizabeth leaned over and kissed her brother on the forehead. “Steve, you can go to sleep now, it’s okay. You’ve fought hard, but it’s okay to go. We love you and we’ll miss you, but it’s okay. You can go to sleep.”

We sat in silence and watched through tears as Steve began to pass away.

“Do you want me to say a prayer?” I asked Elizabeth, not quite knowing what words I could possibly share to ease her sadness and peacefully usher Steve from this world at the same time.

She nodded, and after a minute of panicked thought I began to pray out loud in a quivering voice, watching as she held his hand.

I thanked God for Steve’s life, for his free spirit and his big smile, and for the blessing of having known him as much as we did, in spite of wishing in that moment that we had known him more. After a pause I continued, expressing our concern for Steve’s parents, and asking that they be comforted in the knowledge that upon his passing their son would be free of pain, and that they would one day see him again. I asked the same for Steve’s siblings, and expressed gratitude for the great amount of love and care that the whole family had shown to their son and brother over the past several years.

Another long pause, and through my tears and over the sound of Elizabeth’s quiet sniffles, I acknowledged Steve’s troubled life and his search for happiness, and expressed gratitude for the fact that he had finally found it in his family near the end of his life. I asked that Steve be granted a peaceful and happy escape from his tired and battered body so that he could run, wander, hoot, and holler, until we met again. After that, I concluded with gratitude for the one that made such a blessing and a gift possible, and ended the prayer in his name.

Steve was gone. He had passed during the prayer, with his little sister holding his hand.

“We love you Steve,” Elizabeth said.

“Say hello to Jared for me, would you?” I managed to add.

We sat with Steve for a few minutes before standing to hug.

“He was just waiting to see his baby sister before he could go,” I said.

Elizabeth squeezed me tight.

I looked at my brother-in-law’s empty vessel lying on the bed and imagined him free to hike up the pine-treed mountain behind the family cabin. The strangely cool mystery man had spent most of his life in a troubled search for something that had in fact never been lost. When he finally found it eight years ago, it was right where he had left it every time he set off searching.

In the rear-view mirror.