Spring 2019

My brother makes the starving artist thing look good. With an Ivy League degree in film studies and no source of steady income, he’s got that grungy devil-may-care vibe kids these days vie for. He rescued his Timbs from a dumpster and is the only person I know who could find a $400 jacket in a thrift store or – when driving down the highway at 65 mph – spot a red retractable dog leash laying in the ditch and actually pull over to get it. He’s just the perfect level of ratty that he’s actually pretty cool.

He doesn’t worry about a thing, just rolls with the punches: while he was photographing Lake Superior during a storm, a wave rose and engulfed him and his camera. He came home, popped it in a bag of rice, and started making chicken wings. His camera worked well enough after that for him to recover some “sick” footage of a wave hitting the lens, which he later set to music and turned into a film. Another time, while filming in the Boundary Waters, his drone ran out of battery and plunged into the icy black lake below. No hope of retrieving it. I asked why he wasn’t upset. He shrugged, “Nothing I can do about it.”

One week before my brother graduated from Dartmouth, he went mountain biking with friends. The course was rough. It was the second jump that got him. Coming downhill, he approached it too fast. He panicked and braked, flew over the top of his handlebars, landed on the rocks. I was in my bedroom when the hospital called. I had just finished my junior year of high school and was sitting on my floor sorting through the papers in my binders when the phone rang. Across the hall, in my parent’s bedroom, my mom answered. Everything was normal until I heard my dad yell, “His head! Is his head OK?” They had just finished pouring thousands of dollars into that head.

I saw my brother a week later, a cast on one arm and a sling on the other. He hugged me as best as he could and said brightly, “I was wearing a helmet!” I’ve seen the helmet. It’s smashed to pieces.

My brother moved back home this year. He has too many hospital bills and student loan debt to support himself on the East Coast anymore. Besides, he says, Minnesota’s cooler. He spends long days out in “the shop” – our garage which my dad converted into a wood working studio. Together, they build wood-canvas canoes out of recycled wood. My brother drives to the junkyard and collects wooden furniture to convert to new canoes. He calls to tell me about his new project: converting a pickle barrel into paddles. Modern pickle barrels are made with stainless steel, but he got his hands on an old one made out of white oak – rot resistant, perfect for the water. White oak’s a fortune, he explains.

On Christmas day he took me out in his first canoe. He said he wanted to check for leaks. It was ten degrees in Minnesota – one of the warmer days for a boat ride. We bundled up and went down to the lake. The first few feet off shore were frozen over so he walked out onto the ice, loaded the canoe, and helped me in. It seemed like a still day from the shore – the size of the waves were masked by the vastness of the body – but when we got out on it the waves easily spilled over the bow. He tossed me an empty beer can from his backpack and told me to bale us out. We crashed over wave after frigid wave and the water sprayed my face, soaking through my layers. My brother steered the canoe into the crashing waves and I faced out over the horizon, toward the place where the curvature of the earth obstructs the view. I tried not to worry about whether or not I could swim to shore before freezing to death. In the stern, my brother whooped. Between scoops of water I turned to see him, paddling furiously to keep us upright, grinning. “This is sick!” He yelled. His eyelashes were frosty and icicles had formed on his mustache and I yelled “You’re crazy,” because he is.

A few days later, a blizzard hit. The water crashed over the boulders on the North shore, freezing almost instantly in the sub-zero temperatures. Ice built up on the rocks – layer upon layer – so that the beach looked like a pile of giant glass marbles. We made the fifteen minute drive down the hill so he could shoot some footage of the storm. Most drivers wouldn’t brave the roads in whiteout conditions but my brother doesn’t worry. He thinks he’s unstoppable in his manual all-wheel-drive. He says he's gotten it out of a lot of ditches before. After we drove up the shore for a while he found a spot that satisfied him and pulled over. He went around back to get his equipment out of the trunk only to discover that he forgot his camera lens. We had to drive all the way home to get it. I told him that it’s just like him to do something like that. He laughed and asked me what that’s supposed to mean. I mean that he’s got rotten luck.

I stayed with my brother for about a week when I first moved to New Hampshire for college. One day we drove to a swimming hole in Vermont. We climbed down a steep rocky cliff and set up camp on some big, flat rocks. Downstream, teenagers jumped from a covered bridge; the drop looked like a mile. I watched them and I worried about them. I thought, I could never. I laid down on a rock in the sun, and my brother sat next to me on the edge of a boulder, swinging his legs over the water. For a while, we just listened to the river and the breeze running through leaves and the shouts of the kids downstream and the cars speeding by on the road above. Eventually, he said, “You know, I’m probably not gonna live as long as most people.” Casually, calmly, but a little like he was breaking the news. I turned my head to squint at him through one eye, squeezing the other tight against the sun. We try not to talk about dying.

The first I heard of the cancer, I was stumbling through Richard James’ Avril 14th in A flat major on the piano in one of my high school’s practice rooms. I was running the third section again and again, missing the D flat every time. My brother had bought the sheet music for me when he came home for Christmas a few months earlier and asked me to learn it; he wanted to use the music in a black and white film we were planning to make together. So, when my brother called, I told him how close I was to perfecting it. He said, “I just thought I’d call and tell you because… I don’t know, I think I’d be pretty mad if you had cancer and didn’t tell me.” And then he laughed.

He’s growing his hair out now. He’s wanted long hair for a few years, but every time he tries to grow it out, some life-threatening circumstance befalls him that prevents him from showering by himself, so he chops his hair out of convenience. This time around, I got a little nervous when his hair reached ear-length. But it has grown much past that now. Over Facetime, he brags about his hair. He asks me if I think it’s long enough to braid. He shakes it out, then pulls a lock from the top of his forehead all the way down to his chin. I laugh, yes it’s very long. I promise to braid it for him next time I’m home.

*Written Spring 2019. Today, Joe is happy and well. He has completed his cancer treatment and lives in our hometown with his girlfriend. He films promotion videos for local business, trains hunting dogs, and helps our dad build wood canvas canoes.