Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Sometimes Sis, Junior, Norma Jean, Ronald, Donald and I would play in the orchard and run like wild Indians around the lakefront and in the nearby woods. The Farm was located on land where seven lakes all hooked together by narrow inlets, called Stringy Lakes. The lake bordering our farmland, which I believe was named Squaw Lake, was a large body of water surrounded by a swampy shoreline infested with snakes and other reptiles, mammals and insects. Visiting there was a nature study, and since the previous renters had left a few old wooden boats behind, we often clambered into the boats and played tag on the water. We weren't particularly careful and the fact that none of us drowned is miraculous, since the boats were leaky and waterlogged, and since none of us were good swimmers.

Sometimes we played in the swamps, hopping from one clump of earth to another, finally making it to Dead Man's Cave, which was a dark cavernous spot surrounded by old, gnarled trees and water plants, smelling of wet dirt and dead vegetation, but a great place for a group of adventurous and imaginative children. We played Pirates, clambering around on the old trees and battling with swords made of long sticks. We screeched and squealed and hovered in that dark cavern, making it our private place, off limits to adults, a children's world, where we could play our games or even try smoking stolen cigarettes.

My sister, Hilda, was very protective of her children. So our sojourns in the orchard and swamps were a good way for Sis and Junior to escape from her maternal eye. Sis was an adorable child, with yellow curls and a round baby face. She was the dimpled baby of our family, tiny, cuddly and delicate. Hilda kept her dressed in ruffled clothes and long, Shirley Temple curls, carefully combed and rolled on her fingers to fall into a golden halo. Sis hated her curls and I would brush them out for her, leaving her with a cloud of yellow hair. And, if Hilda was protective of her daughter, she was doubly so with Junior.

Junior, who hated this nickname and preferred being called Charlie, had been born with a heart defect. At first, it was thought that he was what they called a "blue baby", but this was later ruled out, as it was discovered that he had a hole in his aorta, which was not allowing his blood to flow correctly into the chambers of his heart.

You could hear the defect in Junior's heart very easily. We used to sit around in Dead Man's Cave and stay very quiet. Then, the "Thump, Thump, Thump" and "Swish, Swish, Swish" of Junior's heart was like a drumbeat in the heavy, humid silence of that dark spot.

Despite Hilda's worry and constant admonishments, Junior never allowed this defect to slow him down. He ran and climbed with us as though he were a world-class athlete. He was undersized, skinny as a rail, with a shock of blonde hair sticking up on his head. And he was sometimes mean. He would double his tongue between his teeth and punch you, if he became irate.

When Junior was eighteen, he was examined by a brilliant young doctor, a heart surgeon. It was decided that surgery could repair the defect in Junior's heart. Now, mind you, this was before the giant strides in heart surgery known to the medical world today. It was in its infancy back then, and never before had such an operation taken place as in repairing Junior's heart.

I can remember the day it happened. I stayed with Hilda at Hazel's house as Junior went under the knife. Hilda was too overcome by worry to stay at the hospital. She lay on a bed at Hazel's house and moaned throughout the day, sure that she would lose her son. She literally was incapable of standing on her feet. We all hovered over her anxiously, unsure of what to do. Like Junior, I was eighteen. We had been born just a few months apart, and I think Hilda begrudged me my healthy, quiet heart, for she was sometimes quite abrupt with me, making sure I gave in to Junior on all things. I didn't understand until I was much older the anguish she went through, nursing him through bouts of sickness, told by doctors that he wouldn't live to adulthood.

The operation was a resounding success. The brilliant young doctor, slim, good-looking, red-haired and so very sensitive, was a hero to our family. But, somehow, during the next few years, alcoholism ruined his life. He slapped an elevator operator, left swabs or sponges or some such items inside a patient during surgery, had very public battles with his girlfriends, etc., until he was finally kicked off the list of surgeons at the hospital, and lost his medical license. He then wandered around, aimless and at loose ends, and was finally murdered by an obstreperous drunk during an argument in a remote southern park.

Junior's operation was famed in the medical community, and doctors came from all around to watch it, as this amazing young doctor performed the surgery with a tiny blade attached to his finger. We idolized this brilliant man and mourned his death. Sometimes genius is misunderstood by the world and those afflicted with it are harried into anti-social behavior. This man drank because he couldn't face the demons of failure, couldn't cure the large numbers of hopeful, dying patients who flocked into his offices. He would cry at the loss of a baby with a deformed heart, drink himself into oblivion. He felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility and never learned to be detached, uncaring. He was truly a compassionate man. And, when he died, this young Dr. Sullenberger, the world lost some of its shine, much of its promise.

Junior grew up to outlive his nickname and become Charlie to all of us. He measures well over six feet tall and weighs around two hundred pounds. He enjoyed good health until his later years, outliving many whose hearts had never had defects. Now, in his seventies, he has had some health problems, but still enjoys life in these years given him by the success of that surgery so many years ago.

So we all live, success mixed with failure, joy mixed with tragedy. It isn't easy, and sometimes we wonder if it is worth it, sometimes we could go out on a dark night and howl at the moon in sheer frustration and sorrow. But, if there is a glimmer of understanding anywhere, it is in Junior's long and happy life, given him by a doctor who threw his own away.