Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Photographer In Me (Part III)

The Photographer In Me (Part I)

The Photographer In Me (Part II)

Part III

The photo lay in hiding throughout my adulthood until just the other day, when I was boxing up my history for a move into my new house. I hadn't even thought about my masterpiece for a decade or more. I smiled when I saw it, nearly laughed even. And then I grew oppressively sad. It's hard to imagine, but those days of bullying and rage proved to be the best that Paul would experience.

The years since have been hard on my brother. I would say that life is paying him back in spades for those early advantures, but then I'm not a cruel son-of-bitch. Nothing Paul did in his youth earned this kind of punishment.

Late last night, I heard about life's latest insult via a jarring, snap-me-from-sleep phone call. This time, it was Mom telling me that my brother was in the hospital, the victim of both our unrelenting heat wave and yet another systemic infection born of his inability to move food through his digestive tract like a healthy person, like a person without MS.

By the time I was able to get myself together, Paul had been released and was back ‘home.’ When I made it to the assisted living place--it's called Shady Horizons, or Sunset Memories, or Dying Without Dignity or some-such--I felt a screaming urge to drop my gift off at the front counter with warm wishes for my brother. Instead, I forced my legs to carry me on past the smiling receptionist. When I made it to Paul's room, I found him staring blankly at the TV, where a big-breasted celebrity with flawless skin was trying to sell him a miraculous healing skin cream.

Without a word, I sat in the visitor’s chair and gave him a moment to come to terms with my presence. At first, it seemed as if he hadn't even noticed my passing between him and the TV. But, after a minute or so, he reached for his remote and shut off the blathering. Without so much as a glance my way, he said in a strained, whispy voice, "I need the noise to keep my insanity at bay."

"How's the rest of you?"

"I'm a turnip with vocal chords."

As painful as the description was to hear, it rang very close to true. At this point in his life, most of Paul's functioning is accomplished by strangers. They dress him, insert catheters, spoon-feed him, even encourage reluctant bowels with probing fingers.

Hands trembling, he took a sip of water from a bedside tray. "Mom call you in a lather again?"

I nodded.

"You'd think this shit would be old news to her by now."

"It's never old news when it's your baby."

He gave a resigned nod before his eyes landed on the envelope in my hands. "You bring me something?"

Slowly lifting the flap, I said, "I did." I palmed the print, stood and moved to his side. I presented it to him with a tease, holding it out, sandwiched between my hands, before easing the covering hand out of the way while watching Paul's face. At first, there was just confusion and perhaps a touch of irritation. But by the time a quarter of the picture was revealed, recognition flashed on his face. Recognition and an involuntary smile.

"Where the hell did you find that?" He took it in his infirm hand and stared, giving a faint, disbelieving shake of the head.

I leaned in close and stared with him.

It was a picture of an ass, really. Paul's youthful, naked ass, and beyond him the horrified look of his till-then-ecstatic girlfriend, legs wrapped around his waist, looking over his shoulder.

We both sat mezmerized by the image for several breaths before I broke the silence. "I don't know how to tell you this, Paul, but you were much better looking back then."

He laughed harder than I could have imagined, and, for the briefest moment, he was whole again. But then an awkward silence fell between us. And, before I knew it, tears were coursing down his face.

After staring at my hands too long, I looked back at my brother. I could find nothing comforting to say.

We simply sat in the silence, meeting each other's glance for several minutes before he spoke, his tone somber. "Mikey?"


"Do you think you could show it to Mom again? Remind her that I wasn't always an invalid."

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