A Shared Journey
April 14th, 2011
Everybody’s from somewhere, and, if you grew up there or family before you did, that somewhere has something to do with the someone you become. Figuratively or literally, perhaps to measure progress or check direction, to find affirmation or peace, you will return to where it all began.
As published in The Daily News, April 15, 2011, and in The Memphis News, April 16-22, 2011
My oldest big brother fell recently. He took a header off the basement steps and landed on his hip. He lives in the Adirondacks, 15 miles from any group of anything larger than four, if you don’t count critters. His wife can’t pick him up, and their two labs, well trained as they are, can’t fetch an orthopedist.
We were supposed to go fishing in May with my other big brother.
We’re years, careers, and more than a thousand miles apart my brothers and I. Our kids are spread from New York and Connecticut to Portland and Berkeley, from Madison to Memphis. Time and distance and life have made shared experiences, and sharing itself, difficult. But as we grow older I think we’re looking for things that bind rather than separate, for things that can and should be shared before time and distance and life run their course and opportunity passes.
“When I die,” my father said, “I want to be cremated, and I want you boys to put me in the river. And,” he added, that bad boy twinkle in his eye, “I want you to take a shot of whiskey when you do it.”
When Dad died, I called a friend, Ham Smythe, who kept a houseboat in the Wolf River Harbor. My brothers and I stepped on board one very early, very cold morning in late January of 1987, Dad’s ashes in hand, a bottle of his whiskey, Jim Beam, in my pocket. We rounded the tip of Mud Island and headed upstream fighting heavy current under a heavy winter sky, three brothers at Ham's transom fighting memories.
We heated water on a camp stove and made really atrocious instant coffee. Ham had found a very old jar of it next to a bottle of antifreeze and a can of 3-in-1 oil, either one of which would have tasted better and warmed us up faster. The whiskey was for later.
North of the bridge, several long rock fingers reach out for Harbor Town from the opposite shore, soldiers in the Corps’ constant battle against the river. We marked the first and, as we passed it, each of us put Dad in the river. We continued north a bit and then turned back downriver. As we passed again, just the way he wanted, each of us took a long pull from the Beam and said goodbye, each in our own way.
Whatever may separate us, we’re bound by that morning and by him, and we are all from this place, part of this place and of him and of each other wherever we are. Whenever I cross the bridge I look to the north, to that azimuth formed by that finger of rock in the river below, and I reset my compass.
My brother’s hip is sore, but it’s going to be okay, and all three of us are still going fishing next month.
I’m a Memphian, a defining point in the journey we all share.