A LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN. Four days after my brother was struck by lightning and I was still wearing my pajamas. Four days and I had to teach my writing classes so I added a necklace, cardigan and boots to my pajamas. I sat on the desk in the front row, my pajama-ed legs indelicately dangling, and told my class that I did not give a shit about writing today (or maybe never again, who knows?) and then I told them the story that’s, by now, been told hundreds of times, spreading like a fractal from family to friends to friends-of-friends to postal clerks and priests, florists and my gynecologist who asked me, “what’s new?” at the wrong time.
I made my students sit at their desks and write a letter of gratitude to someone they love and three girls cried while they did it and I didn’t feel bad at all for them. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the tarp slung over a rope strung between trees; my brother’s makeshift tent, unmarked by the lightning; the image captured by his friend who rode a horse up the side of the mountain to retrieve the gear my brother left behind. I kept my eyes open, eagle eyes on each student, to make sure their heads were down and their pencils were moving.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION. There has never been a single soul who has searched the internet for ways to prevent a tension headache (too little, too late) and yet, with a bag of frozen lima beans jammed up against the base of my skull, I furiously scroll through the lengthy paragraphs about stress reduction and proper spinal alignment, both of which would have spared me my current situation. I’m enraged and crying now because, well, I haven’t properly prevented. I am only satisfied when I read that sometimes doctors will prescribe narcotics for debilitating headaches. That seems reasonable.
Severe headaches are a common, lingering effect of lightning striking the body. So is memory loss (short and long term), depression, phantom pain, cataracts, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the headaches? If that’s what my brother gets, I can deal with that. I can deal with that because I have awful headaches more days than I don’t and I do things with frozen vegetables, heating pads, caffeine, and pain killers that make them better and I am not fundamentally changed by my headaches. I cannot abide my brother living a life in which he is suddenly held captive by bouts of depression or shadow memories of trauma that squeeze him so tightly he becomes nothing but cells of pain, stitched together by his body’s relentless desire to stay alive. I cannot deal with that; I have lived most of my life slipping in and out of depressive states and, unlike the headaches, I will not give my approval for that pain. I will take it from him; I will steal it and I will make it mine; I will close my eyes and we will be 9 and 6 years old again and I will have slid the Butterfingers from beneath a pile of crinkly Halloween candy and he will be none the wiser. We are thirty-nine and thirty-six now. He is 1833.92 miles away. If my friend Leigh were here, she might say, “Let go and let G-d.” It seems right. Except I will not let go. Except I do not believe in god.
SHELTER. My brother longs to move back east from his home in the long shadow of the Colorado Rockies; his heart is in the Appalachians, the world’s oldest mountains, and his carpenter’s eye and hands are drawn to the fine woodwork of homes built to outlast the builder. Six weeks ago, I visited a friend who lives in an historic building in Philadelphia, a city that is less Brotherly Love and more a museum of American history as told through its cobbled streets and architecture. I wouldn’t sleep well, my friend said, because the goddamn garage door is right below us and it shrieks up and down all night long. I take a lot of drugs to sleep. I was fine.
That night my brother slept on a peak on Squaretop Mountain, part of the Rocky Mountain Range in southwest Colorado—baby mountains; mountains that my friend would say were probably younger than the goddamn garage door’s mechanical system. At some point in the middle of a night that I imagine was as soundless for him as it was for me, he was struck in the head by lightning. The lightning entered his body behind his right ear and exited through the top of his left foot. There was no storm. There was just my brother, alone and asleep beneath a tarp, the air around him in turmoil, silent. The trees, silent. Unmarked.
Hours after I learned that my brother survived to make the two-hour hike down off the mountain, my mother called with the first hospital update. Center City shoppers parted around me as I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and asked her again and again about my brother’s heart. My mother told me things about his kidneys and I said, okay, but his heart? She told me about a social worker, a neurologist, x-rays, and burns and I said, his heart? His heart? His heart? His heart? On an angiogram, the heart’s arteries, veins, and capillaries look like lightning erupting from a clenched fist. Lit up, the heart is electric; lit up, the heart wants to hold a thousand metaphors. Jolted, it hurts; my chest ached beneath my rib cage and I called it my heart because who really knows where the organ stops and the metaphor begins? My mother hadn’t heard anything about his heart. It must be fine, she said. Silence is fine. No news is good news.
Most survivors of a direct lightning strike require resuscitation, but my brother didn’t. Good news. Good news in the vast, cold night; the garage door below me shrieking up and down, oblivious. Though his heart didn’t seize and stop, my brother was paralyzed for an hour? Two? Paralyzed but for one arm, which he used to hold his head up so he could breathe until the paralysis passed. Reduced to mind, his body a thing, an unwieldy object that no longer belonged to him. I wonder, but don’t want to ask: could he feel his heart beating?
Approximately 50% of sibling DNA is shared and my body feels it; my inconsequential heart is with him on a mountaintop, too late; scared shitless that this is it, that this is the end of things. My brother figured out what happened through the smell of ozone in the air. He didn’t know if he would ever move again. This is loneliest image I can imagine. I want to take every minute back and make them mine, weave his fear and pain into the threads of the DNA that belong just to me.
Our hearts are young, are Rocky Mountains, prone to the drama and vistas of the young. We are meant to weather the inclines and descents, the anomalies of air, of molecules bursting around us. This will toughen our hearts, make them old forests, make them wiser, seamless shelters. The path to the Appalachians is easy. Go east. Feel the respite in the long, sleepy plains. I am writing in the violet light of dawn. I can see the trees beginning to take shape, the tendrils of their newly naked branches cracking the dome of the sky. In other words, come home.