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Blue Blankets

 

(from the last chapter of Why Do I Love These People?)

 

I’m 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.

There was a time in my life I was on top of the world, but I was all alone, and extremely cold.

            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.

I 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 weren’t 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?”

I 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-law’s Peruvian family.

But you know what I was really afraid of?

I was afraid of being surrounded by family and still feeling all alone.

In 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 don’t sleep well on planes. I bring a neck pillow and an eye mask, but I rarely actually use them, because I’m 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 couldn’t 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. Cusco’s 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 cousin.

            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 Dad’s. 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 he’d 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 couldn’t bear to hear these stories. They made me feel so powerless, so neglectful.

            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 didn’t 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. I’d 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. I’d 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 brother’s 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.

Then, 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. He’d been listening to them, too. I was ashamed. I didn’t 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, I’m having a better time than I have in years.”

            “Then why were you so reluctant to come here?” he asked.

            “It’s hard to explain. I’m sorry I was lame about it.”

            He kept pushing me. “Why don’t you let us in? We’re your family.”

            “I don’t know why. I lose myself around my family. I feel like wallpaper.”

            “Because you never say anything.”

            “I never know what to say. Talking about my life, it feels like submitting a book report, it’s so remote. Who cares?”

            We care,” he insisted, adamantly.

            “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 day’s hike was grueling. We would climb to Dead Woman’s 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. I’m not sure where they came from.

            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.

            “C’mon,” I told Steve. “Let’s 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 hiker’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t. Time slowed way down. I’d 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. 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 don’t know why. I sat down on the ridge and looked back down the chasm, then collapsed.

            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 day’s 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 metabolism.

            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 wasn’t there. I had agreed to carry the group’s iron skillets, and to make room I had given my bag to my cousin.

The 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 my belt.

            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 life’s 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. It’s 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 minute’s 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.

            That’s not a porter.

That’s my brother.

            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 shoulders?

            A blue American Airlines blanket, slit at the neck.

            “Did you take that from the plane?” he asked.

            “Yeah. You?”

            He grinned broadly. “It doesn’t look like it’s doing you any good. You’re 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 me.

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. That’s the only way I can think to say it.

What does that mean, that we “took control of the experience”?

Well, 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.

After that trip, Steve and I’s 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 Steve’s 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 Steve’s friends, sneak into his soccer games. Put him first.

It 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 good.

Everything 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 you’ve 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 all about.

            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.