Blood Brothers

Symbols. We were surrounded by ’em.

The American Lake VA campus used to house a hospital. It doesn’t anymore. There are specialty clinics there — urology, dental, blind rehabilitation, psychiatry, others — but these days emergency care is handled “across the street” at Madigan Army Medical Center.

Symbols abide, though. Large, mission-style institutional buildings symbolize enduring care. Totem poles nod toward northwest tribal heritage (for those interested, there are also steam lodges). Departmental crests for the 4.2 services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and, um… “Homeland Security”) adorn various hallways. Old, crippled-up vets stump around on their walkers, wearing dark blue ball caps advertising their division, conflict, or ship. Service dogs’ vests advise you not to pet them while they’re working. Disabled license plates tell you where people can park, and lanyard-suspended access passes show who can go through which doors.

There’s a golf course at American Lake, too. Not sure what that symbolizes — the American Way, perhaps.

We weren’t there to golf. When Dad used to golf with the post commander at Ft. Lewis, he was a multi-millionaire who’d underwritten Washington State University’s Lewis Alumni Centre and founded the Lacey Economic Development Council. He jockeyed his own Learjet 23B, and sold Panorama Corporation to itself in what was then the second-largest real estate deal in state history. Since then, Dad’s been a lot of things including a security guard, a doorman, and a vitamin telemarketer.

My brother kept the cash. He’s doin’ alright. When I talked to him yesterday, he was still planning to come see Dad as soon as he’s not so busy. He’s been that busy for 15 years now. He’s a pretty busy guy.

People aren’t always what they seem, on first or second glance. We had come, his wife and I, to sign Pop into his new digs. It’s a place he couldn’t have afforded on his best day. No real people can. As of yesterday, Dad lives in a $32 million lakefront home, and it’s fully staffed.

The machine that polishes the hardwood floor of the dining room probably cost $20,000. It looks like a miniature Zamboni.

Yesterday, for lunch, kitchen captain Clifton served a choice of roast pork, roast turkey, or spare ribs. Sides included corn bread, Hoppin’ John with white gravy, pimento-spiked green beans, baked carrots, mixed green salad, a glass of milk, and fresh strawberries. Coffee’s pretty good, too. I’ll eat there again sometime, wearing my dark blue ball cap and hoping not to be left behind.

Dad’s medical team will meet monthly with his wife, a stouthearted woman who long ago stopped teasing him that she’d be his last wife and has never lost heart, not even on his worst days.

Dad and she have that in common. Around the break of the millennium after his third epic business implosion, Pop worked at an upscale First Hill condominium. When I visited his workplace, Dad was sporting a plum blazer with a building crest sewn onto the left breast, the kind of relentlessly tasteless garment beloved of RealtorsTM and golfers.

1-Jack Lewis

The real Jack Lewis, piloting an Aero Commander 680, ca. 1966.

He showed me every feature of the building, proudly demonstrating that he could still push full-sized dumpsters in and out at 68 years of age. When his erstwhile BMW dealer came through one day with a paramour and asked if he’d bought a place there, Dad smiled and simply said, “No, Steve.

“I work here now.”

I’ve never been prouder of him.

Dad’s knees have been broken. His back has been broken, and his heart has been broken. His mind floats in dementia now, and probably has for longer than we realized — he’s still socially clever.

Some part of him, though, has never been broken. That’s the piece of a man whom we signed in yesterday to learn, with what tools he has left to him, his final environment. Dad looks like a simple, sweet old man now. I made very broad jokes, and grinned. I hugged him a lot. I was patient and loving. People aren’t always what we seem.

My brother was bitching to me recently over the phone. Same old story: women won’t leave him alone. Guys in the gym think he’s a navy SEAL. He has to take his Rolex in for another tune-up.

I remember when Dad gave him that Rolex, a gold-cased Oyster Perpetual Submariner Date, for an early birthday present. They had flown the Learjet to California for a visit, and Dad got an FAA noise violation at John Wayne. There weren’t any hushkits available for Lear 23s. Still aren’t, but we are Lewises. Making big noise is what we do.

My little brother and I were born in the same month, two years apart. My birthday falls five days earlier. I wished him a happy. We all had cake. There were a few other presents awarded, made from crystal and circuit boards and alligator hide; all symbols of his prowess and promise. That was the day my brother was made secretary and C.O.O. of the corporations. Triumphalism was in the air.

Birthdays are funny. Sometimes I think we take dates too seriously; maybe other times, not seriously enough. Dad had a girlfriend then who was my sister’s age. Ignoring chronology entirely, they took their dates seriously.

The next day, I saw Jackie tugging at Dad’s elbow. That afternoon, with loud fanfare, I was presented with my very own birthday gift: a gray fabric-upholstered, plastic-bodied task chair. “For the screenwriter!,” my card read. The tag hanging from the back said, in screaming red letters on a yellow background, “CLEARANCE! $26.99.”

1-Scan10014I scooted around on it, making it squeak. My brother wished me a happy. I looked out over the California ocean.

“Yeah,” I said. “This is pretty good.”

And we shook hands on it, like ya do.

Yesterday, after lunch and a look-see and a lot of talk about how things will be going forward, we tucked Dad in under his fuzzy blanket and opened the blinds so he could see the lake and, more importantly, the sky. Most of us look at the sky and evaluate the weather. Fighter pilots see power and freedom there, and Dad will be a fighter pilot for the rest of his days. Longer, if he has anything to say about it. Immortality has never seemed unreasonable to Lewises. We subsist on anecdote and fabulism. Data is for sissies.

My stomach dropped, there in the best nursing home I’ve ever had the privilege to see, when I accidentally let myself imagine what it would be like to be left there.

I hate new people; not the people, of course, but the newness of them. Then I remembered that Dad was born a salesman with a firm grip and a wide grin, and I knew he’d be alright there. I hung up some clothes for him and told him he’d be okay. I left him a copy of my latest book, Head Check. It’s not really about motorcycling. It’s about life, and its triumphs (some) and mistakes (many). His copy is inscribed for Dad, who taught me to fly.

Which he didn’t.

Books aren’t always what they seem, and neither are writers but we shook hands on it, like ya do. He looked out at the sky said, “Yeah.

“This is pretty good.”

I strode out of that room tall and proud, making it through the door and around the corner, exhausted, before slumping into my now-standard lurching limp. Skeletons aren’t always what they seem.

From the parking lot, my magical phone let me update sisters and brother without having to use my voice. My brother, one state away, assured me he’ll visit as soon as he’s not so busy.

My sister asked if she can stay in our guest room next weekend to facilitate a visit. A loudmouth like all of us, she’s a state away, too. It’s the family condition. We’re loud. We believe in symbols. We keep our distances.

My other sister didn’t respond. Her family lounges on Dad’s last, best furniture, but hey… it’s not like he needs it anymore.

What’s ahead is never what it seems. Leaving American Lake, I followed a Chevy S-10 Blazer out along Veterans Drive. The rig was around 30 years old, clad in primer, with a paragraph or so sticker-taped onto the back window. Some kind of patriotic slogan, of course, or the name of a ship. Maybe a defiant rightist screed, along the lines of “I’ll keep my Bible, guns and money.

“You keep the change!”

A lot of we vets are big on asserting our independence. I’ll keep mum on whether that comes from years of sweating our balls off under orders, but I would point out that some of my country’s most vociferous anti-government loudmouths are military retirees who receive a check every month that’s drawn on the U.S. treasury.

Dad used to bear a lot of proud and shiny stickers on his SUVs, since even before the term “SUV” existed. A lot of them were glittery, heraldic, and punctuated by exclamation points.

At the stoplight, just before he turned onto Gravelly Lake Drive, I caught the old vet’s gist. It was an RIP message for an army specialist. He lost a buddy. Bummer, man.

Turning right behind him, I caught up again. The birth and death dates were only 20 years apart, and the given name wasn’t a traditional “Christian name.” Twisty frizz rose from the driver’s head. African-American, I thought. Must be his son. I thought I couldn’t imagine that heartbreak, and then I remembered that I don’t have to.

With the Blazer holding to the left lane, I eased right to head due south down Interstate 5, away from our home north of Seattle. My own 20 year-old son lives down in Olympia, and he needed some help. With my lane open, I pulled up alongside the Blazer and glanced over. Even with her hair pulled up, the blue-eyed, redheaded driver appeared much younger than her car.

Jesus! Not her husband! Being left in on-post housing without my soldier mate is a heartbreak I’ll never know. Pretty sure I’ve aged out of losing a spouse to enemy action.

She passed me again, just before my entrance ramp, on her way back onto base. Just before she disappeared, I parsed the tiny subscript under her plate glass epitaph: “she was my battle buddy.”

None of us are what we seem. Maybe we all need bigger symbols.

Around the Nisqually delta, a dark pickup gunned it up the passing lane until it pulled alongside our little Toyota. Its driver leaned across the seat, shaking his fist down at me, giving me the finger and yelling. His truck was as big as his face was red, and I knew what was coming because my Dad’s done it since I was a kid.

Our car wore a pro-Obama election sticker. We have a rainbow flag across the back window, overspreading the “WATCH OUT FOR MOTORCYCLISTS” sticker. Scanning our symbols, I’m sure he couldn’t miss his opportunity to sneer at the middle-aged libtard in granny glasses, driving a 200,000-mile Jap heap just two mph over the speed limit – a rolling speed bump who should get the fuck off his road and needed to be told that, good and hard.

Dad loved that kind of stuff. Given the extent to which he enjoyed it, I’m not sure you could really call it “road rage.” For Pop, it was more like a frat party in a mosh pit. He’d start fistfights in traffic. Whenever I finished one for him, he’d wish me a happy.

I traversed my dark blue ball cap like a turret, and smiled vaguely at the angry fat man in the truck. Scanning the symbol stitched across its crown, he dropped his fist and sped off.

Maybe he figured us for brothers. Maybe he wasn’t as big an ass kicker as he thought.

But then, maybe none of us are really what we seem.

Comments

  1. L Müller says:

    Thank you for this poignant reminder as I have dealt with my aging father, also this same week. You are so very correct – none of us are what we seem. Keep up the writing. 🙂

  2. Just when I think your storytelling cannot get any better, it does.

    Thank you for sharing, Jack. It was heartbreaking on so many levels.

    Typing through the tears …

  3. Michael Pierce says:

    Damn you Jack! You bash yet another out outta the park! As you know – I just did this with my mom, now my monitor is all a blurry mess again.

    Peace to you and to all who your dad has touched with his bigger than life…life.

  4. John Davis says:

    Jack,

    Brilliant as always. Days like this are coming for me. Not for my own father, who is 15 years gone now, but for my father-in-law. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Thank you, Jack.

  6. Your writing is brilliant beyond my ability to describe it in English (or any other language). I wish it didn’t so often bring tears to my eyes, but then maybe that’s part of why I love it so much. This piece is among your very best!

  7. Ken Hill says:

    Once again, you deeply touch my heart with your words. I have been where you are now. Life is beautiful and hard and heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing a part of your life so eloquently.

  8. Tom Rogers says:

    Jack,

    As always I read your stuff with a grin on my face and a lump in my throat. Tears from laughing so hard are followed by tears sparked by how you write about what you and yours are living through. Thanks for putting real life into words and being able to share your emotions as well as bringing them forth it us. Im going to buy your book, I hope I laugh more than I choke up. Take care!

  9. Jeanne Johnston says:

    Ah…………Jack……wonderful word feelings strung together……….just touching in to say touching ends with you. enjoy today, this minute for you and every one you care for..

  10. What a wonderfully-written piece. I think I’ll have “None of us are really what we seem.” tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. The world is so fortunate that you decided to share your gift of thought and writing with the world.

    As I was reading this post, my sister messaged me about our cousin, also a veteran, whose cognitive health has taken a turn for the worse, and who will need to be moved to a facility with locks on the inside.

    I just hope this bug hits a windshield before my mind goes, but failing that, I hope I have somebody to care for and about me as you and your Dad’s wife are caring for and about him. At this point, I’d guess that is probably too much to ask of my sons, but none of us are really what we seem.

  11. Damn you. If you didn’t express what was in my mind much better than I ever could, I’d curse the day I first read your columns, and went looking to see what else you did.

    First Tucker, now this. Buried my diog two weeks ago, Help care for Dad 20 years ago, now caring for Mom.

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