Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Most Enduring Male Relationship of My Life, Or, Oh Brother, Why Art Thou?

Sick. Why? Why does this have to happen?

I interrupt this dating drivel to talk about something really important.

My brother Don has cancer. Bad cancer.

And I am mad as hell.

It doesn’t make a particle of difference how I feel about this. God doesn’t give a flip if I’m righteously pissed or not. There’s nothing I can do about it except be a good sister, be a good sister-in-law to Bev, (who’s more like my sister, since she married my big brother when I was nine) be a good sister to my younger brother, a good aunt to Don’s kids, a good mom to my own kids, who adore their Uncle Don and most importantly, be here as often as I can. We live a thousand miles apart.

This morning, I’m at the Albuquerque Sunport, that’s what they call the airport. I am heading back to St. Louis after a visit with Don, and I'm sitting in front of a plate glass window watching the sun come up over the Sandia Mountains. Sandia means watermelon in Spanish. Funny, huh? I wonder how the Pueblo Indians liked it when the Spaniards renamed their mountain after a fruit, back in 1540? I suppose it makes sense, the mountains do have a reddish tint at sunset and the coniferous ridge along the top resembles a watermelon rind.

Right now, it just looks beautiful.

The high- desert sun pulls no punches here and neither does Albuquerque’s effect on me. She throws a right left combo of sweet familiarity and searing pain every single time I set foot en mi tierra madre. It is the ultimate love-hate relationship, if such a thing can exist between a person and a place. Each time I pass through this airport, my eyes look like two burn holes in a blanket, tiny and puffy from crying over someone who’s died or someone who’s likely to. What is up with that? Albuquerque should be SO much more than a suitcase packed with black, or a bee line from the airport to the hospital or the nursing home or the funeral home or my brother’s home, where he is suddenly, frighteningly thin from this damn cancer.

I am so tired of it being this way.

I used to be somebody here! Hell, even Bruce King, the three-term Governor and veritable political icon, who just passed away three days ago, thought I was good enough and smart enough and doggone it, he liked me! While every media outlet and average citizen he ever met in the state was mourning his passing this weekend, (he deserves to be mourned) I was remembering the day after the June 1990 Democratic primary when he and his wife Alice King, a political institution in her own right, called me on the phone.

“Jean, it’s Alice King.”

I was stunned.

“The Governor’s here with with me.” (He’d already been the Gov twice.)

“Mighty fine job you did for Paul. You had us nervous in a couple of places,” he bellered over the speaker phone in his famous Stanley, New Mexico drawl, a Texas twang by any other name.

“Thank you Governor,” I remained stunned.

“Alice and I would like to visit with you about comin’ to work for us.”

Until the day before, I’d been press secretary for the former Attorney General, who was Governor King’s primary opponent. Paul Bardacke was the face of the “new” Dems, and as it turned out, the naive Dems.

Flattered and tempted as I was, I did not take the job, not because I didn’t believe in the soon to be three-term Governor, but because I had four kids, the youngest of whom was only eight months old. I’d been crazy enough to work for Bardacke during the primary, but only because he’d asked so nicely.

But having Bruce King call to offer you a job does not happen to average New Mexico bear. Nor do most folks get to go bear huntin’ above the Sangre de Cristo mountains in a news helicopter, hovering, doors off, at 13,000 feet, trying to video tape draught-starved black bears, on maul patrol at the Philmont Scout Ranch. Oh the experiences I have had flying all over New Mexico covering murder, mayhem and prison breaks!

And that was just my work history! I went to high school and college here, got married here twice! Three of my four children were born in Albuquerque and I lost the only parent I ever knew here. Last night, I drove to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. It was almost dark, as I am late for virtually EVERYTHING. They were just about to close the gate, I wasn’t sure I’d find her marker in the big graveyard at dusk. But with just enough light from the ribboned sunset, it’s fuzzy-edged stripes of red, orange, yellow and twilight blue slowly descending on the mesa, like Gretel, I retraced my steps from the last time I was here, in a somber procession on a sunny July day three years ago. We held her funeral in the chapel at the cemetery, then rolled her casket from the chapel to her gravesite, not 100 yards away, with a pastel patchwork quilt she’d made by hand, draping her shiny white ride. On this autumn eve, I walked directly to her grave, grateful to have found it, then got on my knees and patted the cool bronze headstone, much in the same way I used to pat her. I talked to her for a bit, I think it made her happy.

I drove past the nursing home where she died. From here I can see the church we attended, the hospital in which my children were born, the college campus where I went to J school, the downtown skyline and Central Avenue, Old Route 66, which of course, becomes Nine Mile Hill, historic site of the Other Most Breathtaking First Kiss of my life. (I promise you, my faithful ten readers, I will come back to this, it’s worth it.)

So much of my past is here, yet, none of it matters one whit right now. It cowers in the corner of my mind, respectfully reduced to insignificant, when compared to the real and pressing concerns of the present --my brother, who is in the fight of his life.

With such high stakes poker, one might might consider this blog to be trivial. It feels that way to me. But your words of encouragement (I honestly don’t know who Anonymous is and I know it’s not my mom, since she’s dead) coupled with the fact that my brother has always encouraged my writing, will keep me slaving in front of a computer until my forehead bleeds. Besides, I’m sure Don would like for some nice fella to come into my life and fix the blackened electrical outlets in my daughter’s room, so my house won’t catch on fire. I do know he wants my life to be easier.

Watching me has not been easy on him.

Watching him has taught me many things. He has shown by example, how a handsome, sweet, young man, (oldest of five, with a headstrong mother, who was married four times and never played by the rules) gets married at 19, stays married for 45 years, raises two kids and becomes an adored grandfather to a passle of grandsons. He's a handsome man still, who always has an eye for a new pair or Tony Llamas, or Luchese boots, Pendleton shirts or $500 knife sets, even a Harley, given the opportunity.

He’s a man who enjoys nice things and likes to look sharp. My little brother J.R. and I took him to get his head shaved the other day in anticipation of his chemo. Don preferred a real barber to the chemical kind. We took pictures on his freshed mowed head in the barber’s chair and we took pictures of him in his kufi cap, part of the West African wardrobe he acquired on a trip to Africa to teach teachers how to organize.

Don has devoted his life to public education, whether raising up kids or elevating the status of the teachers who are tasked with the raising. He was an influential union leader in New Mexico and truth be told, Governor King knew my brother better than he knew me. Don IS somebody. His current job is gathering up homeless kids in Albuquerque to help keep them in school. His dining room table is littered with construction paper get well cards addressed to
“Mr. Whatley.”
Mr. Whatley, who often does a lot of wardrobe shopping for his charges, large and small, although they probably don’t get Tony Llamas.

As I sit here at the airport, gazing at the mountains, my thoughts are interrupted by a trio of loud-mouthed, Bible thumpers sitting behind me at the gate, talking about witnessing for the Lord. They must be on their way to save somebody.

“I am so grateful to the Lord that I’m not under the devil anymore,” says one.

Congratulations. God bless, God speed, and hurry the hell up and go stand in line, because I don’t want to hear you anymore.

Witnessing for the Lord, in my experience, is best achieved in quiet places.

Like in my big brother’s bedroom last night, where we lay in the dark and talked about God.

I had gone in to say goodnight, but climbed in next to him instead. I laid my head on his shoulder, so thin now, because of this devil which is cancer.

I told him I was angry and he told me it’s okay.
I told him I was sad and he said he is too.
I told him I loved him and he said he’s proud of me.

I asked him if he was looking forward to getting started on his chemo and he said yes.
“It’s weird to think I’m actually excited about having my body bombarded with toxic drugs, but I am.”

He’s already behind on the count because his pancreatic cancer has spread to his liver. But in a blessed gift of clarity, his thinking has been muddled by the morphine, he crafted an analogy. He compared his cancer to standing in the batter’s box.

“There’s an infinite number of things that can determine how that ball comes across the plate,” he said in a voice weakened by pain and fatigue.
"Standing there, is both thrilling and frightening, because you might get a piece of it and smack a line drive or a home run," he paused, " or you might get hit with the ball."

“So I have two choices. I can drop my bat and walk away or I can stand there and take the pitch,” he said. “I’m gonna stay in the box, because either way, it’s gonna be okay.”

Don has a deep and abiding faith. Before he became a teacher, he earned a degree in theology, he was planning to become a preacher. He volunteered to drive the church bus and on Sunday mornings, he’d go gather up kids from the projects in Ft. Worth and take them to Sunday school. I remember this, because he’d pick me up first and I’d ride along with him. He eventually decided that teaching was a better fit than preaching, but he’s still gathering strays, only now, bringing them to school. Talk about witnessing for the Lord. And even though he went through the self-searching, everything up-ended, anti-establishment, anti-organized religion, long-haired hippy phase, like all self-respecting baby boomers, his faith has not left him. He is not afraid to get hit by the ball.

So, okay, brother Don, I’ll keep on swinging too. I’ve been dinged by a wild pitch or two, but I guess I’d rather go down swinging. Life is short. Love is good.

The sun is high, they’re calling our flight. I catch my reflection in the plate glass window. I look 9,000 years old.

But my hair looks great! All is not lost because I’m having a good hair day. And like my brother taught me, it’s important to look sharp. Appearance matters. And, as he and my sister-in-law reminded me yesterday, I am an available woman.


  1. Once again I am captivated by the words you have put on paper. Okay... on the screen. If I had one wish, right now, it would be that, when my time comes, I had a sister who could honor me the way you have honored your brother. The Art of Writing Effectively - all wannabe writers, pay attention to this blog. See the power of detail amidst grand, human themes; the honest revelation of heart and soul; the effective return to the Sunport, the window, the sun, the distant mountains. And yes, may the Bible thumping born-again's who proclaim their joy in public places take it somewhere else, and leave the good people to their quiet time. So they can concentrate on that next pitch. I'm listening, Jean. A suggestion: during the coming days and weeks, remember and write all you think and feel about Don. The rest of us want to be next to you on that ride.

  2. Jean,

    I am sadden to hear about your brother's bout with cancer. Having people in his life like yourself will fortify him and give him the strength to keep swinging and stay in the batter's box as long as he needs to, until that perfect home run pitch is thrown and he hits it out of the park.

    What I especially liked about this blog entry is that while you struggle to work through your emotions about your brother's challenge, you continuously pause and admire beauty around you. I would wager to guess that is what your brother is most proud of in you - no matter what happens, you may get mad, sad or frustrated, but you always find the beauty in life to keep yourself and your family going. That positive strength is what I have always admired in you, and it is a constant thread through almost everything you write. It is what makes you a friend to treasure, and a relative to relish. Keep up the writing! I will keep up the prayers.
    Hope to see you over the Thanksgiving holiday - please keep me posted on Don's health. The good news is they know so much more about chemo now, and can be so much more accurate with treatment. He has a tough road ahead, but with the wonderful support of folks like you, it will be an easier one! Going out to visit him was huge and a very loving gesture. I am sure he really appreciated it!