On Brotherly Love

Today, a story about my brother Phil, who celebrates yet another birthday on this 18th day of April.

Over the years, Phil has been just about anything that anyone could want in a big brother. He took me to my first concert (Linda Ronstadt), my first NFL game (Cardinals-Giants), my first World Series game (Game 1, 1982) and countless other major and minor events. He has of course been a huge influence on the music I listen to (although of late, his tastes have tended a little toward the twangy). He’s my perfect counterpart on the sociability scale; while I pretty much keep to myself, he knows everybody, everywhere—it’s impossible to be in public with him without him running into someone he knows. In conversation, he throws out straight lines like Tom Niedenfuer tossing gopher balls to the ’85 Cardinals. He’s perhaps the only person I know who is truly conversant in Formula 1. And it turns out, after all, that he was right about First Congregational Church.

In short, I love my brother.

Except when I hate him.

And on the morning of October 1 last year, at exactly 8:29 a.m., I hated him.

That was the day of the “Ivory Crockett Run 4 Webster,” a four-mile running race through the streets of our hometown of Webster Groves, Mo. After a spring and summer of back problems, it was to be my first (and, as it turned out, my only) race of 2011, so I was already a little anxious about how things would go.

And then Phil showed up. He’d had a rough running year, too, primarily because of knee problems. Right up to that day, he’d been non-committal about whether or not he’d actually run, and when he wasn’t there as we started to line up, I figured he’d decided against it. But then, just seconds before the scheduled start, there he was, with a number pinned on, ready to go.

Looking at the totality of our races against each other over the years, Phil and I are probably fairly evenly matched. There have been times when I’ve been stronger, and times when he’s been stronger. I’m pretty sure I have faster PRs than his at most of the shorter distances, but he definitely has a better marathon PR. But it’s not like we’re competitive or anything.

OK, well, I guess maybe a little competitive…

Did I mention that Phil is eight years older than I am? It’s been that way all our lives, despite my efforts to catch up.

Anyway, as I said, it had been a rough year for both of us in terms of running, so neither one of us was really sure how the other was doing. But we both knew that whoever crossed the finish line first would have major bragging rights until the next time we met on a starting line. (For the record, the last time we’d raced together was 10 months earlier, at Pere Marquette, Ill., and I came in ahead of him. By a pretty good margin. Just in case you were wondering.)

The thing is, for my first race of the year, it would have been nice to not have any extra pressure, to just be able to run my own race according to how I felt, and not worry so much about the time. If I felt good, I could let it rip and try to nab an age-group award. If not, no big deal. But with my brother in the race, there was no choice.

Complicating matters on this day was a wildcard: Pastor Dave Denoon—Phil’s  and soon-to-be-my minister—was also running the race, and he and I were standing together at the start when Phil showed up. I had no idea about Dave’s running abilities, but to be honest, there was no pressure in that matchup; we had less than three months of mutual history, so the bragging rights were much, much less significant than between Phil and me, with more than 50 years of fraternal jousting behind us.

So the three of us toed the starting line, along with a couple of hundred other runners. There were pre-race ceremonies: Ivory Crockett himself said a few words. And then the starter’s horn, and we were off.

The course started out with a slight uphill, up Lockwood toward Phil’s and Dave’s—and soon-to-be-my—church, and for that first quarter mile or so the three of us ran together. Great, just great. I knew, though, that Phil’s knee problems and the resulting lack of fitness—not to mention his lack of a warmup—were eventually going to pull him backwards and I’d be able to relax a little bit. But as we ran down the next hill, and up the one after that by the YMCA, Phil was right there, matching me stride for stride. I could no longer see Dave, so I assumed he’d dropped back a little bit.

I generally don’t talk much when I run, and by the time we were through that first hilly mile I’m sure I wasn’t talking at all. Still, my brother was unshakable. The next mile was (relatively) flatter, but having taken the first mile out much faster than I would have otherwise, I was hurting severely. And of course trying desperately not to show it.

After two miles, it was clear to me that those “knee problems” were just a ruse. Gasping for breath, I was laboring to keep up with him.

And then, after a long, gentle downhill at about 2-1/2 miles, there was a gift from above: without warning, Phil pulled off to the side. I glanced back, and he was bending over to tie his shoe. I felt a little bad for him, and to be sporting, I probably should have slowed down so it wouldn’t have cost him too much in our friendly competition.

Did I say friendly? Had I been able, I would have stepped on the gas and buried him when I had the chance—think Contador/Schleck—but of course I had no gas left to step on. So I pretty much tried to keep up the same pace, but it was with a decidedly more relaxed mood. Relaxed … except that I knew that the race’s hardest segment was just ahead.

“Gentle downhills” always come at a price. On this race course, the price is the long, steep climb up Swon Ave. This unrelenting hill comes at just before three miles, and seems, itself, to be about three miles long. When the Ivory Crockett race approaches each fall, I try to run the hill in training a few times, but it never, ever, gets any easier, no matter how many times I scale it. On this day, even though I no longer had to worry about Phil, I was still worried about that Swon hill.

And my worries were justified. After trashing my cardiovascular system in the first 2-1/2 miles of the race, I had nothing left for the hill. I tried my best to persevere, and to talk myself into persevering, and to force my legs to keep running, but about two-thirds of the way up the hill I just … failed. If I’d been in better shape, and maybe if I’d had a few races under my belt for the season, I could have found the willpower to keep going despite my complete physical depletion, but I just ran out of arguments with my body, and slowed for a walk-break. Just enough, I told myself, to get my breath back, and then I’d have something in the tank for the last mile of the race.

First of all, though, going up a hill like that, you don’t “get your breath back,” even when you stop to walk. Secondly, I knew that Phil was still behind me, and now rapidly gaining on me. Worse, I figured that he had probably joined up with Dave, and they were undoubtedly conspiring to pass me together, just as, I suspected, they had conspired to get me back into the church.

Perhaps it was that thought that got me going again. In any case, after a short stint of walking (15 seconds? 10 minutes? It’s impossible to judge time in a situation like that), I managed to get my legs running again, and crested the hill. There followed a short but regenerating downhill, and then another slow uphill, before a long, flat straightaway to the finish. Despite my walking break, I hadn’t seen Phil and Dave pass me, but I knew they were now just behind … unless they had found the Swon hill just as difficult as I had. I could swear, though, that I heard their voices behind me, and it sounded like they were laughing.

But still, they didn’t pass me, and as I made it up that next uphill, I was starting to think that maybe I had this one in the bag.

You might think that I could just turn around and look behind me to see if they were there, but turning around is always a dangerous proposition while running, especially in a race when your faculties are already diminished by oxygen debt. About the only chance you get to look back is when you turn a corner, and then you can take a quick peek to see what might be coming up behind you. As I swung wide on that last corner before the final stretch, I turned my head, and there was Phil—galloping around the corner and sprinting past me. Uh-oh, here we go again.

At this point we had maybe a third of a mile to go to the finish line. I knew that he must have expended a lot of energy to catch up to me after stopping to tie his shoe. But he had managed to slingshot past me after that corner, and had opened up about a 10-yard lead. With my legs and my lungs screaming at me, I slowly reeled him in, so that with about two blocks to go I was almost up to his shoulder, but it was all I could do. There was nothing left, and he slipped away again, and he sprinted across the finish line seven seconds before I staggered across. A few seconds later, Pastor Dave made his way to the finish, smiling as always.

Phil, it turned out, was the victor in his age group. Since he’s so much older than I am, we are in different classifications, and in my more youthful and vibrant age group I was a mere fourth place, one spot out of the money, so to speak. Age groups don’t mean a thing, though; what’s important is those bragging rights, and Phil gets to hold those until we race again. And with those “knee problems,” he might just be able to put off that meeting indefinitely.

Anyway, a big Happy Birthday to my big brother. And I was just kidding about that hate thing. Sort of.

“You Are Welcome Here”

I guess we all have our Sunday-morning rituals. For me, the last couple of years, it has included a trip to Manor Grove nursing home in Kirkwood to spend time with my mom, who lived there in the late stages of her fight with Alzheimer’s, and with my dad, who came directly from church to have lunch with her, as he did every day. Earlier on in her illness, I would go on weekday evenings to visit her, but as the illness progressed, she would often go to bed right after dinner, so it became, for the most part, just Saturdays and Sundays that I could go visit.

She passed away on the morning of July 15, just as the sun was rising on the exact midpoint-day of the summer. Her death was the culmination of the long, slow decline that is Alzheimer’s, and was certainly not unexpected. In retrospect, though, I’m amazed at how much my in life has changed since that morning.

It was a Friday that she died. Later that morning, we met with the minister of our family’s church, First Congregational Church of Webster Groves. My parents and my brother Phil have maintained the connection with First Congregational over the years, but I pretty much fell away when I was in about ninth grade. In the years since then, I’ve gone to Catholic masses with Jean when required, but as a non-communicant, I was always there as an outsider.

Fellowship

To digress for a moment, part of the events that led up to my giving up on my parents’ church were described much better than I could by the author Jonathan Franzen, who was in my …Keep reading

(Avoiding) The Road To Provincetown

To drive to Provincetown, you take Highway 6 out to near the end of Cape Cod, and then cut over to a beachside road for the final approach. The road takes you over a rise, and then suddenly the town appears laid out in front of you, curving off to the left. It’s a beautiful, postcard-perfect view, whether you’re arriving in the day or at night.

Before last week, I’d made that trip four times. The first three — June of 1981, August of 1985, and April of 1987 — were to see my brother Jim, who was fortunate enough to live in Provincetown. Each time we approached on that road, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I was looking forward to seeing Jim, of course, but also the town itself has always had a kind of mystical attraction for me.

The fourth time I rode down that road into Provincetown was for Jim’s memorial service — he died of AIDS on July 9, 1987 — and as we came over that rise and saw the town, my already deep sadness about his death was suddenly multiplied. As the town grew larger before us, I remembered the elation I’d felt at that point in the previous trips, and this time it was turned upside down. It was the deepest, darkest pit of sadness I’ve ever experienced: a coal mine of grief.

The memorial service went all right. We — my brother Phil, my cousin Bruce and I– had a good visit with Jim’s many friends in Provincetown, and we got through it all somehow. I was of course sad about Jim’s death for many months afterward, but life went on: my wife Jean and I bought a house, we had children, we moved on to new and better jobs, and so forth.

Jim in Provincetown, 1981.

For me, the sadness evolved into a kind of thankfulness: I could see many things in myself that I knew were heavily influenced by Jim, the two most prominent being what I might call a detached, ironic sense of humor, and a deep connection to certain kinds of music. So whenever I came upon something that reminded me of him — which I would say happens at least daily, even now — my memories would not be accompanied by sadness, but instead by joy in that connection with him.

On the whole, I think I have “handled” his death pretty well.

On Friday — 23 years and two months after that fourth trip — I went to Provincetown again. But this time I avoided that beachside road. I took the “fast ferry,” a 90-minute boat ride from downtown Boston to MacMillan Wharf in P-town. I’d ached to get back to Cape Cod and P-town ever since 1987, but had never gotten up the cash … or the nerve. Last weekend, after an improbable business meeting in Boston (I’m involved with the inland-river barge industry; most of our meetings are in places like Paducah, Memphis, Louisville, or, if we’re lucky, New Orleans), I had the opportunity to take a couple of extra days to steal out to the Cape. I was thrilled about the trip ever since I confirmed that I’d be able to go.

But as I sat on the ferry at the dock in Boston, waiting to shove off, I was suddenly, unexpectedly, seized by nerves and intense emotion.

The fast ferry leaves Boston.

A group of three girls boarded the ferry and were sitting close to me on the upper, outside deck. From what I could hear, they were heading out to the cape for a bachelorette weekend, and they were giddy with excitement; not long after they sat down, they were breaking out a bottle of champagne and making mimosas. I was reminded of the excitement I felt on my early trips to the cape … and the weighty contrast with that last time I’d gone. Before long, I got up and found a seat in a different area of the ferry.

My plans for this trip included meeting up with Sinan, who was Jim’s partner for some of the time he lived there. I had first met him during that trip in 1985, and then, although he and Jim had mostly broken up by then, he was helping to care for Jim after Jim got sick in late 1986. Sinan and I kept in touch for a while after the memorial service, but, with time, our letters tailed off, and for maybe 20 years we hadn’t communicated. But this spring, through the magic of Facebook’s friend-finder feature, I was able to reconnect with him, and not long after that, this trip to Boston came up. We made plans to get together for dinner. Early last week I sent him a message with a final confirmation that I’d be able to come out to P-town, and he suggested a restaurant: the Mayflower, which he said was one of Jim’s favorites.

A day or so later, he posted something on his Facebook wall that sent me reeling. It was one of those silly Facebook “like” things, where someone comes up with a pithy little statement, and other people can “like” it, and it shows up on their wall too. This one, though, wasn’t silly. It said: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal.” True words, those, but they stung whenever I let myself think about them — were my efforts to reconnect with Sinan dredging up painful memories for him? Was this meeting going to be as hard for him as it was turning out to be for me?

Halfway through the ferry ride, the seas got rougher. By then I was sitting inside, and I actually wrote an early draft of this blog post. The writing turned out to be somewhat cathartic. My nerves had calmed down a bit as we got closer to the cape, and when I first noticed that we were alongside land, which I guess would have been the sandy, remote beaches near Race Point, the needle on my emotional meter was wavering toward Excitement, rather than Grief. As the iconic Pilgrim Monument came into view, the needle was trending a little further on the positive side, but also bouncing back into Grief every once in a while. I had to consciously push aside the sad feelings that were welling up, and replace them with positive memories. It was a battle I would end up having to wage several times during my time in P-town.

The ferry landed and I walked down MacMillan Wharf and up into town, dragging a huge suitcase overloaded with business clothes I’d no longer be wearing on this trip. I found the inn where I’d made a reservation for the night: Dexter’s, on Conwell.

By a strange and happy coincidence, Dexter’s turned out to be right across the street from where Jim lived the last few years of his life. I suspected this when I went out for a run shortly after checking in, and Sinan later confirmed it at dinner. The layout of the property he lived on has changed a bit, but I still recognized the block and the surrounding area. I had hoped to find Jim’s old place while I was there, but when I reserved at Dexter’s, it was just the result of an Internet search for low prices: I had no idea it was on the same street.

I ran out to Herring Cove, which was one of Jim’s favorite beaches. I took the shortcut over the sandy flats to the dunes that back up the beach, having to take off my shoes several times to wade through the pools and streams of water that covered parts of the path. The payoff, though, was magnificent: the beach was beautiful, with the sun just starting to come down over a turbulent surf. Being on a run, I didn’t have my camera with me (this was one of the few times on the whole trip), which was a pity because I could have gotten some great shots. There was hardly anyone on the beach — it was also very windy — which made it even nicer for me.

Sinan and I met up at 7 at the Mayflower. We had a wonderful dinner and talked for a couple of hours about Jim and about our families and lives and work. By this time, the positive emotion of happy remembrance had all but won out over the resurrected grief. Sinan, by the way, had not posted that Facebook “like” in response to my impending visit, but had simply “liked” something that a friend of his had “liked.” Not that that detracts from the truth of those words, though.

Jim in 1981. Though slightly blurry, it’s one of my favorite pictures of him.

Sinan has been in a committed relationship since before Jim died. I must have met his partner in 1987, if not 1985, but I don’t remember him. Every time I went there, I met a lot of Jim’s friends, and I was never sure who was a lover and who was a friend. That’s part of what I never fully understood or knew about Jim, the level of commitment in his relationship with his lovers. Those commitments always seemed to be more fluid than in my world, and for Jim, apparently, they were even more fluid than most in his community. That, no doubt, led to the sequence of medical events that resulted in my fourth visit to Provincetown. And of course, Jim’s insatiable appetite for partying probably played a huge role as well. I have no doubt the story would have turned out differently if he had stuck with Sinan, who was certainly a calming influence on both fronts.

But we can’t change history; we can only deal with it. After dinner, Sinan and I parted with a hug and a promise to stay in touch — it’s a lot easier, now, with Facebook — and I explored nighttime Provincetown a little more before returning to Dexter’s to do some writing and go to sleep.

Saturday morning I did some more photo-walking around town, and then was one of the first customers at Edwige when it opened for breakfast. That was another favorite place of Jim’s. I had just enough time to enjoy my Lobster Benedict before I had to check out of Dexter’s and queue up for the 10:30 ferry back to Boston.

My visit to Provincetown was as much about “place” as about “person.” Yes, I wanted to reconnect as much as I could with Jim, and clarify my memories of him. Sinan was a huge help in that regard. But I also wanted to reconnect with the town itself. If you have ever been there, perhaps you understand the almost magical attraction it has. It’s hard to explain, and to try would probably require another equally long essay. But I can say I feel it is the town where Jim finally found peace and happiness in his life, and for that fact alone, I will always love it. It was, and continues to be, probably my favorite place on earth.

There were several additional places I had hoped to visit while in Provincetown. I had wanted to go for a run in the Province Lands, the wild area of dunes and beech forests immediately behind the (over)populated area of town. Also, there is an enormous sand dune beyond the east end of P-town, from which you can see the whole town and both Cape Cod Bay on the “outside”* of the cape and Provincetown Harbor on the inside. Jim took me to that dune several times, and his ashes were scattered there in 1987.

Unfortunately, with only 18 hours between ferry rides, I couldn’t fit everything in that I wanted to. Those two items will have to wait until my next visit — which hopefully will be sooner than 23 years from now.