My brother Bud was always quiet—so low key that my mother became concerned about his three-word vocabulary at the age of one: “Mama,” “bye,” and “milk.” A botany and psychology major, she keenly observed the development of living things, whether plants or people. His bright blue eyes set deeply in his chubby face. Sometimes heavily lidded—as if he were about to fall into a nap—they studied the world in a laid-back fashion.
In contrast, my sister Martha, born three years earlier, was quick, with hazel eyes and an adventurous spirit. Mom concluded that outgoing Martha did the talking for both, thus quelling her concern about Bud’s development. However, as he approached 18 months, still with very little to say, Mom considered a battery of tests to discover what was passing through his mind.
One fine day before Mom could set an appointment, Bud—pulled up to the breakfast table in his high chair—rolled out several alphabet letters: “C-e-e-e.” Pause. “H (A-a-a-a-chuh).” Pause. “E-e-e-e.” He took a break to shovel some cereal into his mouth. “E-e-e-e.” Pause. “R-r-r-r.” “I-i-i-i.” “O-o-o-o.” “E-s-s-s.” God bless that Southern boy: He didn’t clip a vowel or a consonant.
Mom grabbed the cereal box and randomly pointed out letters, which Bud cooperatively identified between mouthfuls.
Part of the evening bath-and-bed ritual with young children included story time. My mother read from children’s classics, with Bud and Martha leaning in on either side. Mom said Martha swiftly pointed at pictures and asked questions while Bud settled back comfortably, his eyes half-hooded.
By the age of two, Bud was reading. How much? Nobody knew. He independently picked up the connection between characters on a page and spoken language.
He still talked sparingly. When my grandparents visited, Bud spent hours with Pop (Mom’s father), poring over bird books and then identifying real ones hopping and flying about the yard.
Great Aunt Nell once engaged Bud in a bird conversation as they gazed out a window. “See, Bud! Do you see the pretty red birds? Aren’t those red birds as pretty as they can be?” She eagerly repeated herself, hoping for a response.
Unconcerned about this condescension, Bud turned to Aunt Nell and politely drawled, “Some people call them red birds. Other people call them cardinals.” Then he kept his silence.
Aunt Nell later confided the story to Mom, saying: “I never felt so inadequate in my life.”
Two years later, Martha stormed home from school, frustrated about an assignment. The teacher had assigned science reports on animals. Martha’s draw? A walking fish. “There isn’t such a thing. This is a trick.”
Bud slipped away from the furor, walked over to the set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and pulled the “F” volume off the shelf. He flipped to the “fish” section. “There you are.” His forefinger placidly tapped an image on the page. “See, there’s a walking fish.”
Then my mother figured out how much Bud had read. A short conversation confirmed that he had plowed methodically through every volume, A to Z, page by page—without skipping a paragraph.
A few times my mother laughingly recalled some of her favorite images of Martha and Bud playing touch football with my father. Martha, fleet of foot, loved going out for long passes or racing for a touchdown. She was fearless in any rough-and-tumble match. I think she broke at least one finger and her collarbone with nary a whimper when the neighborhood kids played. But where was Bud? He often wandered off “the field,” actually a short stretch of zoysia grass in an otherwise heavily wooded backyard. “Your brother tended to get grubby, digging in the dirt, poking under rocks, or watching a line of ants carry their food burdens,” Mom said. “He never interfered; he just watched.”
Bud grew up to a become compassionate physician who carefully poses questions to patients, always searching for clues. A practitioner can access miraculous technology, but the human touch and active listening are powerful tools. A few years ago, Bud asked me to draft his online professional profile. “You know the facts about me,” he said. “But focus on patients because, after all, it’s about them. Keep it in the third person.” That was his way of telling me to avoid any boastful phrasing.
The other night I watched John Ford’s The Quiet Man. It ranks near the top of my all-time favorite movies. Heavyweight boxer Sean “Trooper” Thornton, played by John Wayne, accidentally kills an opponent in the U.S. ring. Haunted by the savagery of that moment, he hangs up his gloves and flees to his birthplace in Innisfree, Ireland, in search of a fresh start. The last thing he wants to face is another fight.
After watching the movie and then pondering my brother’s serene way of being, I considered the state of our often combative culture. Why is it so important to have the last word or get in the last dig at an opponent? Why does “getting credit” for something count more than service quietly rendered? Why do the words “fight” and “hit back” frequently repeat as a point of pride, even in the halls of our highest institutions? What does that teach?
I talk with my brother several times a week. Often it is at night, and he is making rounds. Several weeks ago, we touched base close to midnight,
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m sitting with a patient.”
“Oh, he must be special because you are there so late.”
“No, actually, he’s a stranger. I am covering for one of my colleagues who is out of town. This patient needs someone to look out for him right now. He is alone.”
A few days ago, my brother’s great heart took a beating. Now he lies in a hospital bed, tended by his family and colleagues. He is the father of four sons, now young men who display talent, wit, intelligence, kindness, and fierce loyalty to their parents.
I could use the cliche “fighting for his life.” But somehow any word remotely related to violence does not seem fitting for such a gentle soul. Instead, a famous line from The Quiet Man reassures: “Steady, Trooper, steady.”
The phrase suits in another way because of my brother’s love of sailing. He took up the sport at an early age and then passed on his knowledge as a camp counselor.
When I see a small craft rocking in the distance, with sails snapping, or feel sun, wind, or rain on my face at the beach, I marvel at the vastness of sky and water. And then I wonder at my brother’s deep blue eyes and purposeful hands that have safely steered others through many stormy journeys. “Steady, Trooper, steady.”
Hark, now hear the sailors cry,
Smell the sea and feel the sky,
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.
And when that foghorn blows,
I will be coming home,
And when the foghorn blows,
I want to hear it.
Photo credit: Urology Centers of Alabama