November 10, 2009

Many Years, Brother

Today is my brother Terry's birthday. Below is an essay I posted about him in October 2006. Happy birthday, Brother.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt

My younger brother Terry and I sometimes greet each other with the words, “Strength and Honor.” It’s a line lifted directly from the movie “Gladiator.” Not a great movie and perhaps greeting each other this way is a bit hokey, but what appears on the surface to be just light-hearted bravado hides a much deeper significance.

I am the third of five siblings. Terry, the fourth of five, and I have always enjoyed a particularly close relationship and have many interests in common. Nevertheless, we were, and to a large degree still are, polar opposites. Terry was always handsome, strong, brave, impetuous and headstrong, even violent. I was always homely, weak, scared, cautious and compliant. Truly yin and yang. Our strengths and weaknesses complimented each other. Ours is a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration.

We grew up in an alcoholic, abusive household with our other brother and two sisters. My mother had us one right after the other and by the time she was 22 she had five kids. In the days before disposable diapers, in a house with only cold running water, no bathtub, no bathroom facilities. It was a poor existence. We often felt winter’s bitter bite. My father did not try to save us. He did not come to the rescue. He was not true or strong or brave. In fact he did everything he could to abandon us and leave us at the mercy of our alcoholic mother. By the age of 36 he was dead. I’m not sure how much his disease killed him or how much it was him simply trying to escape the pain of existence.

One of the mechanisms I used to cope was to develop a fascination with warrior societies. The Spartans, the Samurai, the Vikings. I even went so far as to join the U.S. Marine Corps at the ripe old age of 17. I realize now that this fascination served at least two vital purposes, it helped me to address the very real fear I felt and it helped me to define what a man should be. Most of my life has been the search for strength and honor. Trying to find internal strength to face the fears and trying to find a way to be a man of honor.

In 1986 Terry gave me a lesson in humility, a lesson in how to be a man of strength and honor. In that year he fell and suffered a spinal cord injury in a construction accident. Terry survived the horrors of rehab and now spends his days in a wheelchair. Only those who have lived with someone recovering from such an injury can understand the magnitude of the physical and emotional struggle involved.

Terry never finished high school. To be more accurate, he never finished junior high school. He was kicked out for being too violent. Later in life, after his accident, Terry got his GED. Then he went to college (we started the same semester when I was 27 and he was 26) and eventually graduated with a B.A. in English from James Madison University. Years later he worked for a while as a teacher at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind teaching deaf students (using sign language). He is now learning to play the bass guitar.

Terry is not handicapped in any real sense. He is completely self-reliant. He simply cannot walk. Terry has done more than most people without any physical impediment. He is a warrior and the bravest man I know. He has survived many trials. Not just survived, thrived. The fire of adversity has refined his spirit, purified his commitment to do whatever he sets his mind to do. One of the foundations of the Japanese martial art of Aikido is blending with the attack. If the attacker pulls, you push, if he pushes, you give way. By blending with the attack, you defeat it. Much the same in life, much the same with Terry. He took what came, blended with it and emerged complete.

I know Terry reads this blog. To him I say, strength and honor, brother.