Vessel

I woke up to take another sip of water. The skin on my forehead felt tight from a sunburn, but my symptoms were not from the after effects of a tropical vacation. Instead, it was the flu.

I had heard all the reports that year about how bad it was. People who were in good health had died because this one was supposedly the worst strain yet. This was three years before the pandemic, but it wasn’t given as much publicity.

I implemented what I had learned from my upbringing from my mom, the personal in-house nurse,

“Drink, Chris,” she would say when I didn’t want to.

“No. I’m not thirsty.”

“Do it anyway.”

I would put my lips on the edge of the glass and pretend.

“You didn’t take any. Drink!”

When I was that sick and fatigued, the last effort I wanted to make was swallowing liquid.

“I can tell by the color in your face that you need water,” she would say. If she forgot her thermometer, she would either put the back of her hand on my face or her lips on my forehead. She never seemed fearful of contracting what I had. She had to run the house, so even germs obeyed. She was in control. Not an illness.

We could be sprayed down with Lysol at the door, made to choke down substances that are illegal to give humans now, and forced to gargle the salt content of the entire Dead Sea. A spoon coming at me always meant something disgusting was about to hit my tongue.

If a disease dared to manifest itself in her home, she would become a totally different person. I wasn’t used to her giving me a lot of attention. And, I would have gladly done without it.

If one or more of us were down, she had lists of medications, times, and temperature checks. You were on her roster, and she would make her rounds.

I couldn’t keep anything from coming back up during one particular illness, so the forced fluids weren’t working. She noticed that I had started to throw up dried blood from my lungs.

The following day I woke up to the smell of popcorn. The minute my eyes opened, she came into my bedroom with a bowl of it and a glass of room temperature pop.

“I want you to try and eat this.”

Everything in me refused, but she insisted.

“Just try it, Chris. Just one small piece.”

I put it in my mouth, too tired to chew, and fell back to sleep. Throughout the day, she would tell me to eat more, and for some odd reason, it started not to be so bad, and I was also developing this incredible thirst. I drank down the initial glass, and she filled it up.

By the end of that day, I had drank a lot. A few days later, I was improving rapidly.

“Remember that night you threw up what looked like coffee grounds?” She asked. It was hard to forget.

“Yes.”

“I asked the Holy Spirit what I should do. That’s one of the first signs of pneumonia. I heard to make you popcorn and put a lot of salt on it, and it would make you well. It would make you thirsty.”

I bet that tip isn’t on any web MD list of recommendations.

She had pulled us all through times of physical distress by applying her nursing skills and praying for guidance.

She ingrained it in me so strongly that when I had a run-in with the superbug of the century that year, I did what she had always said,

“Drink, Chris, drink!”

It is easier to make yourself do it as an adult because you understand the goal better. The idea is to flood the system and force the invasion out. If I did this at the onset, it would shorten its duration by days and give my immune system control.

So I would wake up, try not to think about the death toll, and finish one cup at a time.

During one of my hydro sessions, I went into my email. I don’t know how they had gotten my address, but there was an invitation to be a book reviewer online.

In my feverish haze, I typed in all my information, set up an account, and drifted off. Two weeks later, I recalled I had done something.

Sure enough. I had signed up. I investigated and found I was on the very bottom of the pile. There were six levels to achieve, kind of like a video game where you have to show your merit.

My first undertaking was written by a pastor who took the age-old story of Adam and Eve and made it new. I had specific guidelines to follow as I wrote out my paragraphs from my notes. It had to be run by the elite editors on the site and checked for adherence to the guideline rules.

I had to strictly implement certain criteria into each one or face the firing squad. On the one hand, I could write freely, giving my thoughts, but on the other, I had to include key elements, such as listing the title and the author’s name. And if any of these requirements were missing or not done as ordered, the review could be rejected.

I passed the first one with flying colors, and since I was a novice, they gave me no payment. As I said, I had to prove myself worthy. By my fifth attempt, I was moving up levels quickly, earning bonus points, and was at 6, the writers who were offered the higher paying jobs.

I fought my way through a couple of author disputes. All the writers were grateful for the most part, but a couple had their egos all wrapped up in their books. I understand it is a part of you when you write, but a few of them were so suspicious of us not giving them the perfect review, they would attack for no reason. The moderator had to step in on my behalf to appease the other party.

One of the worst offenders was a church leader.

The business owner changed some of his rules and decided that if you were at the top, you had to participate in editing other reviewers’ work. I did not enjoy this at all. If I felt someone had done an excellent job, but another editor found fault with something, we had to argue our point. I didn’t go to school to be a lawyer. It wasted my time and took away from the real reason I was there.

This created an unhealthy relationship between all of us. Once getting glowing scores, my reviews now became subject to a harsh system where I started to feel as if my writing was failing. It was the same, if not better, but the editors were told to find something wrong to keep too many from climbing too fast. I had to dispute many remarks made and defend my work to keep my score high. The grading became degrading.

Slowly, it took away my joy of what had always come so easily to me.

After three years of being under that scrutiny, I took a long break and kept everything I wrote to myself. The day I quit, I immediately went back to reading what I wanted, just like I always had. It felt like I was taking in oxygen again. Because of the rules, I started to believe I wasn’t a good writer anymore based on a faulty system. I had to conform, or I wasn’t approved. I had let the judgments of others get to me.

I heard The Little Drummer Boy playing in a store the other day. It reminded me of one of my brothers, who is naturally talented in drumming. He, too, went through situations where instead of being allowed to play freely, he was expected to follow a particular beat and restrain his abilities.

While in high school, I recall this happening in a music class where my parents realized an instructor was crushing him down. He wanted to quit and started to feel inadequate. When really, he was great at it.

My mom noticed that his nightly practice in the basement wasn’t happening. Usually, for an hour every evening, we would have to yell at each other to communicate over the crashing sounds from below. You could hear him down the block.

“He used to sit in the middle of the kitchen floor and drag out all my pots and pans to play. He could barely walk and was in diapers when he did that,” she always told me.

It was unusual for his drums to sit silent.

It became a learning time for him as it had for me. Not everyone will see what God has blessed a person with, and from those places, you walk away. If you aren’t appreciated for what you bring, then that’s a sign you aren’t in the spot you have been created for. Sometimes things aren’t going to follow the way that things are ‘normally’ done. I was healed from pneumonia one popcorn bowl at a time.

In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, it puts it into perspective the only One who we have to please with our abilities:

God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! (Message)

When I heard the song, I listened to the lyrics. The drummer comes to play because that’s his gift to offer. He isn’t the main attraction in the story, but he carries an important message. He isn’t there to win over the crowd but to display the abilities that are God given, to do something he loves, make the world better and be a vessel.

Oh, Brother!

He would lay down in the middle of my bedroom, stare up at my ceiling and burp.

“Get out!” I would say repeatedly, but he would not budge. Of course, he generally did this when my parents had left and we were home alone.

I never knew when he would show up as I contently played with my toys in my room. As a last ditch effort to remove him from my sanctuary and return to a state of peace, I would threaten,

“If you don’t leave I’m going to go into your room and touch all your stuff!”

When the verbal warning wouldn’t work, I would race down the stairs, turn on the light and begin to loudly proclaim,

“I am touching your stuff!”

I would make a lot of noise near his beloved train collection so he would think I was smashing and destroying all of them. That usually did the trick. I would hear him get to his feet, yell at me to get out of his room, while trying to get down the stairs to see what I was doing. I would purposely, and carefully, move his items just to make sure I could escape and go back to where I had been enjoying myself. By rearranging the layout he would be preoccupied while I ran out the door.

This was just one of many feuds the two of us were constantly engaged in. Anytime I had friends over, he would make them swoon by playing his drums and let them try.   Then, when it came to me, the session would suddenly end.

“Your brother is SO cool,” they would say.

REALLY?! I would think.

This was the guy who would sneak behind me while I was watching tv and squirt me with an empty glue syringe filled with water. When I would turn around, he would be way across the room safe enough to run at a moment’s notice. Yet, he never ran, but just stood there laughing while my hair dripped down the back of my shirt.

I was subjected to his horrible sense of humor regarding bathroom smells, his talk of earwax, bad breathe and every other disgusting topic I had ever imagined.  Not to mention dodging the wet dish towels he attempted to snap me with, and his favorite  saying as he held a clump of my hair from the back of my head,

“Do you want me to pull one time time up, or two times down?”

What a great choice to have.  I always went with the one that would be over the quickest.

There usually wasn’t a day that went by where he wouldn’t do something to hurt me such as tripping, pushing or slapping, and when I would yell for him to stop, I would get sent to my room for being too loud leaving him to point and laugh as I got into trouble. Did I mention that every year on his birthday my mom would make him cupcakes and he would proceed to not only devour the cake, but then chew up the wrapper and spit it at me?  Again, he thought this was hilarious.

So, when my friends all gushed over how great he was, I didn’t.  In fact, I hated him.

I walked by the kitchen one day to hear him say to our mom,

“Chris hates me.”

My mother, coming to my defense said,

“Oh, no, she doesn’t.  She is a Christian.  I have raised her not to hate anyone.”

I paused in the doorway and said as loud as I could,

“No!  I do hate him!  He is mean to me!”

She went on to try to convince me that I really didn’t hate him, but I just kept saying,

“No.  I hate him.”

“See?  She hates me!”

Well, who wouldn’t?

I discovered one evening that maybe my mother was right about my true feelings.

My brother didn’t like to wash dishes, and I was well aware of this.  When we would be asked while eating dinner who was going to wash and who was going to dry, I would quickly say,

“Dry!”

He never was faster verbally than me, and it was my only advantage over him.

“Ok.  Bob you wash. Chris you dry.”

And on this particular night, the dreadful duty had once again fallen on him.

He moaned while he ate, and I felt downright giddy that I had done something small to make him suffer.

He departed after he finished his meal, I went to my room and my mom began clearing and rinsing the dishes.  As usual, he began banging on his drums downstairs while listening to music with his headphones on. My floor vibrated with every slam, bang, crash as he worked his drumsticks. After awhile, I heard my mom yell from the top of the stairs,

“Bob!  Come do the dishes!”

Of course, she had to repeat herself and then make the trek down because he couldn’t hear her.  Or, he was ignoring her completely.

When she came back up, I walked into the kitchen and grabbed the white sack flour dish towel.  I stood by the drying rack waiting for him.  She methodically wiped down the stove, removed all the burners, and scoured so deeply she did not see him at the top of the stairs.  He walked toward the sink, and he was breathing in a peculiar way.  Sweat ran down his forehead from exerting himself so hard while playing.

He put one finger in the water and said,

“That’s hot!”

My mother, a registered nurse, would run the faucet until the steam was thick like a fog.  Not a single germ would survive the process.

While still engaged in her stove scrubbing, she said without looking up,

“Start washing.”

She had tired of his antics of not wanting to be near water.  He had such an aversion to it that she had caught him one time in the bathroom sitting outside of the tub filling it while pretending to be bathing.  When he went swimming, he never got wet!  It was a mystery to her and my dad for years.

“This is so hot,” he whined again as he immersed one hand in.

“Start washing,” she said again.  I saw his second hand slip in.

“I don’t feel so good,” he replied.

He took both hands out of the water and began walking towards the living room.  His balance was off as he wobbled and ran into the refrigerator.  I stepped back so he wouldn’t run into me.  His pale face didn’t look normal and he wasn’t smiling as if he were joking.

“Bob, wash the dishes,” she repeated.

I saw him bounce to one side of the door frame and then the other like a pinball.  Then, he simply crumpled down to the floor at me feet.  This caught her attention.  She threw down her wash rag and barked,

“Go get your father!”

I didn’t want to step over him so I ran the long way around to the bathroom door where I knew my dad had gone.

“Dad,” I said as I knocked on the door.

No response.  I heard a newspaper page turn.  This wasn’t unusual.  He had retreated, and like trying to get a turtle out of its shell, getting his attention once he had locked himself in was not easy.  Once behind that door, he was a free man away from work, kids and any other responsibility.

“DAD!”  I knocked louder.

No response.

“DAD!”

“Bob!”  I heard my mom yell from the living room.  “Bob! Wake up!”

I felt my chest tighten and my throat was beginning to close from the panic that was starting to engulf me.

I threw all I had into one loud pounding session on the closed door.  I banged with two closed fists.

“DAAAAAADDDD!  DAAAD!  DAAAAD!”

“WHAT?” came the annoyed reply.

“Bob..Bob…Bob…is dead!”  My throat was closing and my tongue wouldn’t work right.

“WHAT?”

I gave one last attempt to try and scream what was happening.

“Bob. Is. DEAD!”

I heard the sound of crumpling newspaper as he scrambled to upright himself and do whatever he had to so he could exit.  The bathroom door was flung open, and a pair of large boxer shorts ran by.

I don’t know how long I stood there frozen until I heard my mom say,

“Where is Chris?”

“You can come out here now. It’s okay,” my dad said.

I slowly peered around the corner into the living room.  I could see my brother sitting upright with his hair going in all directions.

“Bob isn’t dead,” my dad said.

“Who said he was dead?” my mom asked.

“Chris thought he died.”

“No.  He just fainted.”

They both started to laugh as he continued to try and see straight.  He still kept leaning to one side and wasn’t fully himself.

“He just got too hot playing his drums and when he stuck his hand into the hot water, his body couldn’t handle it.  He will be fine,” she assured me.

And, he was.  He went on for many years after to follow me to the bus stop singing annoyingly out of his car window at the top of his lungs, waking me up on the first day of summer vacation just because he didn’t get to sleep in, and burping wetly and loudly into my perfectly groomed hair.  Just for fun.

I found out that my mom had been somewhat right.  Deep in the recesses of my heart, God had planted something so permanent that no matter what he said or did that was unkind to me, I could not hate him.

Before I was born, she went individually to each of the five kids in the family and told them I was on my way.  She was amazed by his response as he was in kindergarten at the time.

He said, “I already know that.  I prayed for a baby to come.”

I found out later that a lot of what he did was to get my attention as I was getting older and he didn’t know how to handle it. Miraculously, we get along now just fine and even laugh about some of the things we did to each other.

Sometimes growing up with a sibling can be quite messy, funny, miserable, unpredictable, frustrating and exhausting.  Often, I am grateful that those days are over. As we celebrate Valentine’s Day this week, I am reminded that hatred can quickly turn to love when God is in the mix. That person you think you cannot stand suddenly can become your best friend.  Just when you think you have it all figured out, you just might not.  Oh, brother!

 

(Bob and me wading in the pool on a hot Minnesota summer day)bob