the last chapter of Why Do I Love These People?)
Im humbled by the
people here. Nothing comparable has ever happened to me. My mother never
left me in a movie theater all day because it was cheaper than day care.
My father never failed to claim me. I never slept in a floorless house
with no heat. Nobody denied me the right to choose my own favorite color.
But I still feel like my own
journey is in these pages. In the stories of others, I recognized myself.
My beats are softer, but they echo what these people went through. They
have lifted my story back to the surface of my consciousness.
So I offer this last one, not to
compare, just to share.
was a time in my life I was on top of the world, but I was all alone, and
This was ten years ago, in Peru.
My older brother John was getting married. His wife Patricia is from a
very strong family in Lima. The wedding reception would be held at their
house in the La Molina district. The wedding would be at a 500-year-old
Franciscan monastery in The Rimac, a historical neighborhood of Lima.
did not have a lot of enthusiasm for the trip. I felt out of place among
my family, fifteen of whom were going. My older brother did not involve me
in the planning of the wedding, and we barely talked until the night
before the big event. But my younger brother Steve asked me to meet him in
Cusco a week early to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I almost made
some excuse and turned him down, but I learned that two of my cousins were
going on the trek. They were eager and willing; they werent making
excuses. To them, a family member getting married in Peru was a great
chance to explore. What is wrong with me? I thought. Why am I so
hesitant to be around my family?
was filled with dread, Mister Worst-Case-Scenario. I was afraid the
airline to Cusco would lose my reservation. I was afraid my younger
brother would get hurt in the Andes doing something crazy. I was afraid my
parents would embarrass us in front of my sister-in-laws Peruvian
you know what I was really afraid of?
was afraid of being surrounded by family and still feeling all alone.
the face of things I could not control, I was a worrier. I remember the
challenge of packing my bag I needed both a tuxedo and four days of
hiking gear. I did not know if I would be able to store a bag reliably, so
everything had to fit in a single pack I could carry up a mountain. There
was no room for a big parka to stay warm.
Then I was worried about the
overnight flight from Miami. I dont sleep well on planes. I bring a
neck pillow and an eye mask, but I rarely actually use them, because Im
ashamed to look silly. But when I boarded this plane, I was surprised to
find two of my aunts in the row behind me. One had come from Boston; the
other, Seattle. They were in their pajamas and each had brought a bed
pillow from home. It was a riot and a relief to see them this way. I
pulled out my eye mask and joined the crowd. By morning, I had grown
attached to the blue American Airlines blanket that had kept me warm all
night. I decided to steal it and bring it with me to the Andes.
At noon, I was in the Plaza de
Armas in Cusco, waiting for my brother Steve. He was coming from La Paz,
Bolivia, or from the jungle in Brazil, I couldnt remember, but he was
supposed to have made it to Cusco a day earlier. He was only an hour late
an hour in which I feared something had happened to him.
Once in his company, all my
dread left me. Steve had put a lot of planning into the trip. His command
of the city put me at ease. I fed off his confidence and excitement.
Cuscos altitude is 11,000 feet, so we spent the next two days
acclimating to the thin air. We had nothing to do but goof off in the
ruins of the Urubamba Valley. Twice a day we bumped into an aunt or a
For so long, my love for Steve
was clouded with guilt. He was seven when my Dad moved out. Mom had to
work; our afternoons were unpoliced. Growing up, Steve constantly
presented me with a challenge should I be like a friend, and watch him
party himself to annihilation? or should I be like a parent, only to
push him away with warnings to take better care of himself? He was a
decent student, and he was a good athlete, but he was reckless. He played
to an audience of his peers. If money ever found its way into his pocket,
it was spent in a day. The thing he seemed to be missing was the instinct
for self-preservation. Mom says I protected him for years, particularly
when we lived at Dads. When I left for college, I stopped looking out
for him. I had to save myself, get out of there.
Dad tried to give him structure.
At his high school, he was supposed to write in a journal for ten minutes
every morning. His counselors discovered hed been drawing pictures
instead. In these pictures, he was stabbing our Dad in the head with a big
Excalibur sword, with bombs going off all around. Then he moved in with
Mom, who tried to woo him with trust, but he just took advantage of it. I
couldnt bear to hear these stories. They made me feel so powerless, so
I drove him to college in San
Diego. I was supposed to stay a few days and make sure he had settled in.
But within hours of arriving, he had met some other guys on the soccer
team and been invited to a toga party on the beach. He found his element
quickly. I thought he was all set, so I left another toga party
didnt interest me. It turned out that the toga crew drove down to
Tijuana and lost track of Steve in some bar. In the middle of the night,
he had to hitchhike back to San Diego with no wallet, no pants, nothing
but a sheet over his shoulder. That was his first day of college.
In his twenties, he switched
careers annually and had his heart broken a couple times. His most recent
attempt at a career was to follow our Dad into the insurance business. But
he had quit right before coming to Peru, without another job lined up.
Here we go again, I figured. This was always an awkward conversation
between us. Id switched jobs even more than he had, but I had been
sustained by a passion, writing. Earlier that year, my first novel had
been published. My years of devotion to my craft were finally paying off.
Id made it, while Steve was back in the starting blocks.
But was he? In Peru, those jobs
meant nothing. All we had was our character, and in the narrow streets of
Cusco my brothers incredibly giving nature was emerging. It was
fascinating to watch him with people. He turned other tourists into
friends quickly. He elicited their stories easily. He never left a
shopkeeper without a bit of conversation.
with my cousins and aunts, Steve seemed to know all the details of their
lives like the names of their friends, the situation in their jobs.
Hed been listening to them, too. I was ashamed. I didnt even try to
catch up on their lives, not wanting to call attention to how little I
kept track. Afraid of embarrassing myself, I asked no questions.
You seem so distant, Steve
told me, the night before our trek.
No man, Im having a better
time than I have in years.
Then why were you so
reluctant to come here? he asked.
Its hard to explain. Im
sorry I was lame about it.
He kept pushing me. Why
dont you let us in? Were your family.
I dont know why. I lose
myself around my family. I feel like wallpaper.
Because you never say
I never know what to say.
Talking about my life, it feels like submitting a book report, its so
remote. Who cares?
We care, he
But why? Why would you care
about the details of my daily life? It has nothing to do with you.
Because it has to do with you.
I just did not get it. I lived a
thousand miles away from these people. I loved them, but I did not know
why. I had my life, they had theirs, what was the connection?
By dawn, our bus was climbing
into the Urubamba. We hiked five kilometers along the river, and then
seven more into the mountains, where we made camp near a village called
Huayllabamba at about 9,000 feet. There were ten people in our group. The
porters were Quechuan. Our guide was a native of Cusco who spoke Spanish
and some English. He warned us to get some rest. The next days hike was
grueling. We would climb to Dead Womans Pass at nearly 14,000 feet,
then have lunch before continuing down the other side. Going up, our feet
would feel heavy. Painful headaches were likely. Rest often, he advised.
The climb took most people five hours.
By the time we broke camp, waves
of hikers were already on the mountain. Im not sure where they came
I got frustrated quickly. We
hiked single file up the trail. The pace was slower than the crawl of
window shoppers. My legs felt trapped.
Cmon, I told Steve.
Lets pass these people and get in front.
To pass people, we had to jog a
few paces off trail. My breathing was clear and I felt strong. Around
every corner, there was another group to pass. So I just kept powering up
the mountain, alternating long strides with jogging steps. People thought
I was crazy, because the trail is steeper than a staircase, and in places
it is a staircase of well-placed flat stones. But I got into a
zone. I loved it. I just wanted to keep moving. I lost sight of my brother
behind me fairly quickly. I didnt even stop to tell him I was going on
alone. I just went. That was so typical of me, and that climb up the
mountain was so emblematic of my life I had started out alongside my
family, but I soon left them, and attacked life alone. Instinct took over.
I had to go. I couldnt be held back.
Halfway up the mountain, the
trail ducked under the canopy of a cloud forest. Stumpy trees covered with
moss flashed in my eyes. The blur of other hikers legs. With my head to
the ground, I glimpsed their shoes, not their faces. I was drenched in
sweat and loving it. When I came out of the cloud forest twenty minutes
later, I looked up and saw that only local porters were ahead of me. Soon,
I had reigned them in as well. How many hikers had I passed? Two hundred?
I wasnt really trying to be the first to the top I just wanted to
be able to hike at my own pace. As I climbed, the thin air took its toll.
I enjoyed the sensation, vaguely astronaut-like. My feet felt heavy as
pavestones. I was supposed to breathe deep between every step. I didnt.
Time slowed way down. Id been on the mountain for ninety minutes. The
next thirty minutes felt like three hours. I began to appreciate the puna,
the high grasslands. Snow packs gathered in a few hollows, so my brain
registered the air was probably very cold, but I was ablaze from the
exercise. I could see the pass. Just twenty more steps. Twenty more.
The pass turned out to be a
false pass; the ridge was another half mile up. Twenty more. Twenty more.
I made it to the top in just
under two hours. I found this incredibly satisfying, but I dont know
why. I sat down on the ridge and looked back down the chasm, then
A strong wind blew right up the
valley at me. Within minutes, I realized I was getting cold, quickly. From
my shirt to my socks I was drenched in sweat. I had to get out of these
clothes. I tore off my clothes and put my third days clothes on. The
bitter wind cut right through. I was shivering, and my teeth were
chattering. My hands could barely work the zipper on my backpack. I
reopened it and layered up with my last set of clothes. It did no good.
The fire in my belly had gone out. I had burned every bit of fuel coming
up that mountain. I needed food and water. Without it, I had no
Surely, someone would come up
the mountain soon, and I could borrow some food.
Still, not a person in sight.
I got my backpack open once
again. My sleeping bag wasnt there. I had agreed to carry the groups
iron skillets, and to make room I had given my bag to my cousin.
tuxedo? No way. The blue American Airlines blanket! Thank god for the
blanket! I pulled out my jackknife and stabbed a slit in the middle of the
blanket, then put it over my head like a poncho, stuffing the tails into
I sat down again and made myself
into a ball under the poncho, trying to will some heat out of my muscles.
That was stupid, I
scolded myself. Why did you have to run up the mountain, exactly?
What did you think you would
do when you got here? Hang out in your t-shirt and shorts at 14,000 feet?
What is wrong with me? I
thought. Why do I run away from the people who love me? There was
such pain in me, such confusion about lifes most basic elements. The
thing I seemed to be missing was the instinct to stick together.
Where were those porters I had
seen? They must have stopped to make lunch or set up another camp.
With no sugar in my blood, and
little oxygen in the air, I began to suffer delirium and panic. Had I
taken a wrong turn? Had the weather turned people back? Should I go back
down? My watch kept me sane. Its only been fifteen minutes, I assured
myself. Okay twenty. I contemplated busting out the tuxedo.
Finally, I saw a hiker come over
the false pass a half mile below. He I think it was a he was
coming very slowly, a full breath between each step, and a minutes rest
every ten steps. But he made progress. Then a big cloud filled the gully,
and he disappeared. Five minutes later, he reappeared two hundred yards
below me. He looked kind of like a porter, because he had some poncho
thing over his shoulders. Then I realized.
Thats not a porter.
I whooped, then I crept down to
meet him. He was exhausted. He needed me as much as I needed him.
The poncho thing over his
A blue American Airlines
blanket, slit at the neck.
Did you take that from the
plane? he asked.
He grinned broadly. It
doesnt look like its doing you any good. Youre blue.
All those years I thought I was
going to have to rescue him, but it turned out he was the one to rescue
me. Not from the cold he did give me a sweater, and we warmed up under
his sleeping bag, but the cold was not going to kill me. He rescued me
from ever again wondering what was the connection between us. That was killing
We did not know
it then, but when we stepped over that pass, arm in arm, our lives split
into Before and After. Behind us was the tumult and confusion of growing
up. In front of us, a haven. After that trip to Peru, Steve and I took
control of the experience of our family. Thats the only way I can think
to say it.
does that mean, that we took control of the experience?
before that trip, the spine of our family was our dual relationships with
each of our parents which were very often in conflict, and full of
disappointment. My relationships to my brothers and my cousins were
branches off that cracked spine, peripheral to my central experience.
that trip, Steve and Is love for each other became the spine, quite
overtly and consciously. During the next few days of our trek, we agreed
that our relationship with each other would be the primary focus of our
energy. When I thought of my family, I would think of Steve, and
vice versa. When I considered flying home to Seattle, I was flying to see
Steve. We agreed that I would always stay with him, on his sofa, so that I
would never again feel like I had to choose to stay with one parent or the
other. It did not matter that my mom had a nice bed and a refrigerator
full of food, while Steves sofa was too short to lie flat on. I would
stop splitting time between my parents. If Steve and I went to dinner, all
our parents were welcome to eat with us. But I would not split nights
one dinner with Dad, the next with Mom. I would hang out with Steves
friends, sneak into his soccer games. Put him first.
might sound like a mental trick, but it did not feel like one. I started
flying home four to five times a year, and I did not feel out of place as
I used to. My parents were on the periphery, which took the pressure off
those relationships. By leaning on Steve, I no longer put much expectation
on Mom and Dad. Disappointment no longer got in the way. It felt so much
healthier. Steve became my protector when I got frustrated. I was always
able to stabilize myself with this principle: spend time with the
person in my family I love the most, and I will learn again to love my
family. We took control of the experience, and the experience was
changed over the next few years. Our new Peruvian relatives taught us how
important family was to them. Steve discovered his calling in nursing, and
he soon met his wife. We bought houses the same year. When I remarried,
Steve and I became fathers to young boys within months of each other. Not
even brotherhood prepared me for the sacredness of fatherhood.
When we think of family,
we so often think of it as this amorphous tribe as those people.
Floating loosely in that tribe, it is very easy to get lost, to lose the
connection. If youve lost it, remember this: all it takes is one other
person to create a spine on which to build. A spouse, a child, a brother,
a friend. If you put your energy there, it will breathe new life into the
whole endeavor, and you will never again lose the sense of what family is
There was a time I was on top of the world, but I was all alone,
and it was extremely cold. Then my brother stepped out of a cloud.