My little brother (though he stands easily a foot taller than me) has always been my “little” brother. But today he is something else. A homeowner. And though I try not to tell anyone else’s story but my own on this site, I thought he deserved a little shout out this morning for the journey he’s made.
He texts me a picture of him and his girlfriend standing in front of their five bedroom home. I don’t ask him why, when it’s just the two of them and a cat, they need five bedrooms because it’s beside the point. The rates were good, they got a great deal on the price, and he’s handy, so they can fix what they don’t like. It’s an old house- nearly a hundred years old, on a corner lot, built in an era when there was need for so much room because families were larger then. They own it simply because they can.
The house is white and trimmed with black shutters, pushed far back on the lot so that lots of dead grass precedes it. It’s a hulking colonial, all flat planes, with a front porch and an ancient lamppost next to it. Huge evergreens flank the sides. The house was last occupied a few years ago by an aging couple. The estate was left to the care of the couple’s children, who all live in separate states, and they have been in negotiations with my brother for months over one thing or another. First there was the issue of whether an old oil tank had or had not been removed from the property. Then there were the fireplaces- three of them, if I am remembering correctly, in the house – and the pipe for natural gas that had been inserted into one of the chimneys improperly. My brother is engineering-minded, so he understands all there is to do with the house. He can spot an improperly installed anything from a mile away. He gets things like electrical wiring and uses the word “amperage” like it’s an everyday word when talking about it. He’s comfortable with terms like “amperage”, and “wattage” and other technical language. Since he started his electrician’s apprenticeship, he has become fluent in such language. He’s also, through all these negotiations with lawyers and agents and far-flung family members, gotten to know quite a bit of legalese, too.
This was the second time in his life he’d had to learn the language of lawyers.
There’s something else you can see in that picture of the house and the pine trees and the aging lamppost. It’s a scar that cuts into his hair line, running from his ear to the top of his head. This is where the surgeons had to cut into his face and head to reconstruct the occipital bone- the socket that holds the eyeball- that was crushed during the car accident in 2007. One more quarter inch, the ER doctor had told him, and his eye would have been punctured and he would have gone blind. It’s hard to imagine my brother, a man who understands the visual world better than most people I know, the man who was able to draw me diagrams of my wedding props backwards on a dry erase board so they would appear perfect from my perspective via our Skype connection, not being able to see.
During those dark days when he was sent home from the hospital concussive with a fistful of Advil, my brother was in and out of lucid thought. He had no one at home to help him. Uneducated about the nature of concussions and head injuries in general, my family couldn’t understand why he didn’t just pick himself up and get on with it.
When I took his phone call after he’d been released from the hospital, I thought he had been crying. His voice was slowed down and weepy sounding. I finally got it out of him- he was being driven home from a party by my other brother, the roads were iced over, and the other driver, uninsured and unlicensed, t-boned the car at an intersection in the eerie aloneness of a nighttime snowfall… the frantic 911 call, the ambulance arriving, the jaws of life cutting him out, my other brother nearly collapsing at the thought that his brother, just seconds ago alive next to him in the passenger’s seat, could be dead. Then there was the hospital visit, the way the doctors took one look at them, covered in tattoos, their hair dyed and trimmed at sharp angles, their silver rings and piercings, and presumed them dopeheads, giving them minimal attention. The way they had x-rayed his neck, rather than his shoulder, where he claimed over and over again, while he was still in shock, the pain was coming from. They sent him home still concussive because he had no insurance and because, given what it looked like (two tatted-up men, dressed all in black, on their way home from a party, one hysterical, one comatose), it seemed like just a choice rather than an accident. And the doctors didn’t want any part of it.
It had taken him about half an hour to figure out how to dial the phone to call me because his brain wouldn’t quite process how to push the buttons in sequence.
The months and then years that followed were filled with deposition after doctor’s appointment after deposition. He didn’t own a car at the time, so he was reliant on my mother and other friends and family to drive him around to the various appointments. I was sitting at a desk in a different office, working through a bank reconciliation more than a year later when he called me, furious, over his lawyer’s request to buy a suit and cut his hair for the next round of testimony. Why should I have to dress like something I not, he demanded, to prove to these people that I am permanently scarred and living with chronic pain? Being a non-conformist myself, I identified with his anarchist-lite attitude. But, I coached him, this is different. You almost DIED in that accident. Though I’d never so much as contested a parking ticket in my life, I was encouraging him to fight for whatever money damages he could collect from the uninsured motorist who’d hit him. He’d lost muscle control in parts of his face, I reminded him. His smile was forever going to be just slightly lopsided. He had a visible scar running along his head. Due to the way the insurance worked, he’d had to sue (on paper) my brother, the driver, which caused enormous amounts of stress for them both. My other brother, who'd been on antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication even before the accident, spent a month in a very dark place. My brother deserved something, I thought. And it's weird to think about "deserving" anything at all after you've been injured, but there was something so imbalanced about the whole thing- that he'd been napping when the accident happened, reclined in his chair, and not driving, recklessly or otherwise, that he'd been completely unaware of what was happening and therefore innocent; that he was my good and kind-hearted kid brother who worked tirelessly for others and was a bit of a genius for explaining how things worked- that made me feel like something out there in the Universe owed him something for this.
He’d missed work and not been paid. He’d been right in the middle of getting fitted for invisible braces at the time of the accident and would have to start the expensive process of getting fitted all over again. He’d had to get new glasses. Because he was missing work, and not getting a paycheck, his phone company was threatening to shut off his phone for non-payment. Being in a feast-or-famine type of industry, it was also his only connection to the world that would have offered him work in the first place.
In the end, the insurance company did issue him a settlement. It took years and many, many visits to doctors working for the other motorist’s insurance company trying claim his life wasn’t altered by the accident in any lasting way. It took hours and hours of speaking to a panel of lawyers seated at a bank of tables. He had to defend himself over and over again while they tried to squeeze out of him that, all in all, things weren’t so bad and that he didn’t need or deserve the money.
In the end, I think, it was what he said that sealed the deal. When I look in the mirror, and I see my scar, and I see that my face sags and that I no longer look like the rest of my family, and I can’t feel parts of me anymore... I don't feel like myself. No one, no future employer, no potential mate, no stranger on a bus, is going to look at my face, and my scar, he was saying, and not make up a story about me. THAT is life-altering. And sure, there is so much that can be said about the fleeting nature of our physical appearance and what a blessing it is to be able to reinvent ourselves in our lifetimes, but, usually those things come into our lives somewhat invited- they don't come crashing in our doors at 50 miles per hour before we've turned 23 years old.
My brother, despite all his New York City Union Guy grouchiness, and despite what’s happened to him, is a deeply optimistic kid. In a follow up text this morning, he tells me he and his girlfriend are eating crackers and cheese and champagne on the front porch to celebrate and I approve. I study the text picture again. There he is, talking about brie and champagne and smiling a little lopsided like a lunatic. If anyone deserves this house, it is him. He took that hard-fought-for settlement money and he used it to put a down payment on his first home.
The sky around the house in the text picture is bright blue and cloudless, crisp and cold. It’s the kind of day we had here in Seattle yesterday, and while everyone tucked their necks down into their collars and shivered and complained, I smiled brightly. I love cold, clear days. They remind me of my days back east. I know exactly how my brother and his girlfriend are feeling- chilled to the bone, their noses running, but hopeful and optimistic, too. Like, as long as the sun is shining, anything is possible.