Monday, November 13, 2017

A BIRTHDAY STORY — FOREVER YOUNG


Tomorrow is my brother’s Jim’s birthday. I wish I could celebrate it with him. Or at least give him a call. One of those long calls like we used to have together, an hour or more at a time. In both of our “heavy drinking days”—back when our sociologist sister, Darla, once lovingly and patiently, yet pointedly, explained to us the meaning of “functional alcoholic”, and instead of being alarmed, we both decided to wear the moniker proudly—we’d sometimes even have a couple of drinks together over the phone.
Jim on a hike we took together in the Ocala National 
Forest, a few years before his death.
It would be like, “Hey, big bro’, is that the tinkling of ice that I’m hearing?”
“Can’t fool you,” I’d say. “Yeah, I had just served myself a scotch and soda when you called.”
“Well, wait just a damn minute, while I go get something too!” And then he’d be back and I could hear him sip his drink but there was never any tinkling on his end. His drink of choice was Jack Daniels and he drank it neat.
I could picture him, then, the receiver to his ear, and four fingers of dark bourbon in one of the short, chunky, signature Jack Daniels glasses he’d bought when he visited the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. He had an anecdote about it. He’d been in Nashville for a convention and decided to indulge his love and admiration for high-end Tennessee bourbon by making a side-trip—a pilgrimage almost—to the place where all that amber goodness was crafted.
He walked around town, saw the sights—as many sights as one could see in a town with only one traffic signal—and then went on the hour-long distillery tour. He enjoyed the pristine processing plant, the old-fashioned barrel houses where the whisky aged in peace and without haste. He listened to the tour guide’s explanation of the rigorous and caring processes involved in creating such an extraordinary product.
The whole time, however, at the back of his mind was the joy and satisfaction with which he would, he told himself, splurge on a rare top-line bourbon, the finest Jack Daniels had to offer. And surely he’d be able to buy a case or two of JD black label at a discount. He fantasized as well about the little soiree they were sure to have at the end of the tour, where everyone would have a chance, he reasoned, to sample the merchandise before saying adieu...or y’all come back now, hear?
But when the tour ended, everyone was unceremoniously issued a plastic glass of ice-old lemonade to quench their thirst. Indignant, my brother asked, “Hey, what’s the score? Where’s the hooch?”
To which one of the Jack Daniels employees responded, “Lynchburg’s in a ‘dry’ county.” And going on to address Jim’s still bewildered, expression, he added, “We can make it here, but we can’t sell it or serve it.”    
To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Bourbon bourbon everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink!
The abundant glassware he’d carried home—official Jack Daniels shot glasses, whiskey glasses, a couple of ashtrays, even a tiny water pitcher, as if he would ever have asked for “water back”—had been to quell his frustration. And in the very next “wet” county, like a man having crossed a desert only to stumble onto a bubbling spring, he had stopped at the first liquor store he could find and bought not one, but two fifths of Jack Daniels, with plans to exact his revenge that very evening on the meddling of the State in the habits of honest and dedicated whisky-drinkers.
Age, I must admit, has chopped my drinking legs off at the knees. I figure if today I were to give myself the free rein we gave ourselves back then to celebrate life and liquor the way Jim and I did every time we had the pleasure of getting together, I’d be unlikely to survive to see the following dawn. But our conversations were never the muttered vacuities of a couple of drunks. “Functional alcoholics” that we were, we managed to drink and think at the same time. Ours were always consequential, often deep, sometimes shocking conversations, since we revealed things to each other that we could never tell anyone else. We were two normally reserved guys who, as brothers and best friends, checked all reservations at the door when we got together. And since I lived most of the time thousands of miles away in South America, we clung to our brief get-togethers as if they were gold-dust. And indeed they were. We trusted each other completely and, as such, seemed to think with a single mind and conscience. It was like no other relationship I can recall before or since. Between us, there was nothing to hide and no fear of having our individual weaknesses exploited, nor any fear of judgment for having them. Everything was forgivable. In fact, everything was taken in stride and advice given when called for or silence invoked whenever it was clear that the only thing needed was a non-judgmental ear. Everything was “what it was,” nothing more or less.
Dan, Darla and Jim, back when life seemed endless.
Looking at Jim’s birthday philosophically, I might optimistically reason that he’s been spared the indignities of aging. He was always younger than his years, a candle flaming, wicks untrimmed, at both ends, a guy with rocketing energy that seemed never-ending. He was a comet who left a long, brightly-burning wake behind him wherever he went. His closest friends worshipped him. So in the nearly twelve years since his sudden death, he has remained the energetic fifty-one-year-old who looked a decade younger. And so he will remain forever in the minds of those of us who had the joy of knowing him. He burst like a roman candle in the night, leaving all of his blinding light and color in the sky, and leaving the rest of us to muddle through without him, in a world that would never, from then on, be quite as bright.
His death spawned, not altogether unexpectedly, an “urban legend” of sorts. In the last few years of his life, he had made some almost cataclysmic changes. Suffice it to say that by then he’d traded an executive life punctuated by fast cars, expensive clothes, fancy clubs and restaurants and golf weekends on the links in the society of similarly upwardly mobile peers, for a full-time job as a school bus driver in Marion County Florida, and for part-time employment as a golf-course caretaker and fence-builder. His personal life was a mess, and the source of great anguish to him, but the jobs, against all odds, seemed to suit him. He seemed at ease in them.
His fellow-drivers appeared not only to admire him but also to genuinely care for him. He was as much of an over-achiever there as in every other endeavor in his life. He kept his bus spotless and helped his workmates do the same. “When he was moving around the compound before going on his run,” one of his female colleagues told me, “he’d always have this spray bottle of window-cleaner hooked on his belt and a clean rag over his shoulder. I’d be pulling out and he’d step out and hold up a hand for me to stop, and then he’d climb up on my bumper and clean my windshield for me before I started my route.”
“When we were finished for the day,” another woman told me, “he’d first get his bus parked and squared away, and then he’d go around having a look at the other buses. If anybody’d forgotten to close their windows, he'd climb aboard and make a quick pass shutting them all. He seemed to always just be thinking about how he could help out all the rest of us. He was such a nice guy.”
So here’s where the urban legend comes in.
A couple of days after a friend got worried because she hadn’t heard from him and called the police, who discovered his body in our family’s condo in Ocala, my sister and I found ourselves, in a general state of shock, meeting there to put our younger brother’s final affairs in order. The lady who had called the police said she had a confession to make. She’d been calling him for several days and had gotten no answer. “In the last message I left him,” she told us, with embarrassment written on her face, “I said, ‘This is the third message I’ve left you. If you don’t answer this one, you had better be dead.’” Turned out, to her chagrin, that he was.
So that same day, we hear the doorbell, and it’s a group of Jim’s bus driver friends. After assuring us that they would take care of his pets—two rabbits, a couple of parakeets and a tank full of tropical fish—they each paid a little tribute to him, telling us how they remembered him. All of them were simple, eloquent and heartfelt stories. Finally, a woman who had wept several times during the visit said she had something to tell us, but didn’t know quite how we’d take it. But then she took a deep breath and launched right in to it.
“We have these cameras on the buses,” she said. “They record everything that happens before, during and immediately after a run. Well, that Monday, your brother didn’t show up for work and we were all worried about him. On Tuesday, I get on my bus and, for some reason, decide to have a look at the CCTV monitor. Usually, what you’ll see from the day before is kids getting on and off and so forth. But this time what I saw was a guy get on the bus with his cap pulled low over his eyes. And he quickly goes down the aisle to the back of the bus and, from there, starts slamming shut the windows I’d forgotten open the evening before. Then he comes up to the camera lens, looks right into it, grins and gives me a little wave. It’s your brother. Then he’s off the bus and gone.”
Darla and I remained there, nodding, as if awaiting the punch line. Then the woman says, “Well, I mean, if what they’ve told us is true, he was dead by then!”
I’ve sometimes described myself as “spiritual but not religious”. I know “live” and I know “dead” and they are nothing alike. The difference is spirit, the miraculous energy of life, which, upon death, seems to vaporize. I guess what bothers me about ghost stories is that I never want to think that a spirit that has suffered death and achieved transfiguration would have any reason to hang around yearning for the lost life of the physical world. In the non-physical spirit form, that energy has been released. It is free and its being in any way encumbered by the physical past just seems utterly illogical to me.

That said, however, the story we heard that day was so very Jim! It was his sensitive yet smart-assed humor. It would have been, more importantly, a way of letting his friends know he was thinking of them. If there were a way for him to bid us all farewell “from the other side” then this was the sort of thing he might have done. As if the message were, “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Wherever you are, little brother, I only hope you’re having the time of your life. Happy birthday. 


17 comments:

Elaine Leslie Sanchez said...

It must be very hard for you to miss Jim every day. I won't say I know how you feel, but I do know I can't imagine my life without my siblings. They are our history, our other selves, our only connection to our roots. I could feel how much you loved Jim, and I loved your tribute.

Elaine Leslie Sanchez said...

Thank you for sharing your brother and your love for him with us, Dan.

Susie Davis said...

What a beautiful memory. Happy Birthday, Jim.

Anonymous said...

Our family loved Dennis (the name we knew him by) so much that we still included him in our Christmas celebrations after he and Val got their divorce. He and Val, of course, remained good friends. You were blessed to have him for a brother. What a beautiful tribute.

Lori Rosendale Braun

Aurora Humarán said...

A beautiful tribute.
It's always a pleasure to read you, Centaur!

Florencia Cortes-Conde said...

What a beautiful story. The loss is so huge it scares me, and a ghost story is ever hopeful, right? Thanks for sharing

Dan Newland said...

That's precisely it, Elaine. We are, in a sense, our siblings, and they are us. Thank you so much for your kind comments.

Dan Newland said...

Thank you Susie.

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks Lori, for your kind comments and for including my brother in your family.

Dan Newland said...

Thank you so much for reading it, Au!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Florencia, and yes, hopeful.

Bob Adam said...

Hey Dan. Very beautifully written, your feelings lovingly conveyed. Please accept my most heart-felt condolences for your loss. May your pain lessen in time but not the memories.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your kind thoughts, Bob, and for reading the piece.

Mauricio Kitaigorodzki said...

Thanks a lot, Dan - long time no see, as the old Injun would say! - Mauriio

Dan Newland said...

Thank YOU, Mauricio, for reading it.

Leigh D. Muller said...

I feel your love and loss; you write so movingly of both. It's rare to read a short piece about someone and feel their full, rounded essence, but you conveyed Jim beautifully. I mentioned to my own Jim last night, that the moment I took your brother into my heart was when I read your sentence that revealed he went from the golf course to driving a bus. It humanized him in a way few insights do. Who escapes life without experiencing the sting of our choices? Reading that, I felt a brotherhood with him, which is a testament to the power of your words. Well-done for Jim to rise without bitterness or self-pity. Well-done to you for grasping this and expressing it so movingly.

Dan Newland said...

Thank you, Leigh. Coming from you, who are such an accomplished writer yourself, I feel humbled and grateful. Thank you for reading the piece and for your ever-kind comments.