Thursday, January 13, 2005

Memoir of a son who wasn't ours

Having recently taken a CPR refresher course, my father diagnosed him with epilepsy. Junie claimed he had insulin 'fits', but it soon became clear that his condition was far more complicated than that. The whole of his simple life, spent in a plywood shack, was complicated.

Everyone called him Junie. Junie was short for Les Junior. He carried the namesake of his hardened relation, a man rumoured to be rough with his wife and kids. Junie lived alone with Charlie Pride, a kitten named after a man he respected, in a house barely large enough for its litter box. The plywood walls and floors were permeated with years of pipe puffing, and the fog inside the house was nearly as thick as the misty brine which blew in from the ocean.

In my memory, Junie wears the same outfit daily - and I did see him daily - in a white sleeveless undershirt and blue standard-issue workpants. I was almost eleven when he died, but I remember his suspenders as clearly as I remember the shape of his face - a small pumpkin carved into a smiling caricature of itself. His underarms are stained yellow and his hair shines with pomade, combed just so, deceiving me into thinking it was always freshly washed.

Jesus Christ, he would say. Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, God damn!

Usually my mother would request that people avoid cursing in my presence, but we all knew it was just his Tourette's talking. He jerked his head to the side with every proclamation. He always said it with a smile anyway.

Junie made people uncomfortable. You never knew when he would have a seizure, and they were always quite violent. Though they lasted less than a minute, he risked falling, breaking glassware and scaring the children. None of this discouraged my parents. They understood the signs, and would pry mugs of hot coffee, or his pipe from his hand to ensure he wouldn't hurt himself, or any of us. And, then we'd wait. Junie would eventually ask what had happened and my mother would get him a glass of water, knowing the fit was over. My parents also understood that what Junie needed was for people to cope with him, to gladly endure. Although my parents were only a decade his senoir, Junior began to call them "Mom" and "Dad".

Lacking any sort of formal education - probably due to his multiple conditions in an era, and in a region, that didn't lend itself to tolerance - this self-designated brother of mine read fewer words than I.

He rigged a bicycle with bells and horns and rode 1km every evening to my family's home.
Every. Single. Night.
We could always hear him coming before we could see him.

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, God damn! Hee! Hee!

When the doctor told him he had gangrene, Junie's regular cursing lost its lilt. He returned from the hospital without his leg - I remember him crying. I remember when the doctor told him the other leg would have to go, too. He was in mourning, and my eyes alternately peered over the top of the table to observe his sadness, and peeked underneath to marvel at his stumps.

It was many months before we'd hear him round the bend again. He exchanged his bicycle for a 4-wheeled electric chariot. Instead of bells and horns, we'd hear the whir of chair's motor maxed out, and the comfortingly familiar: God damn! Hee! Hee! as he neared the driveway and rumbled over the lawn. He'd hop out of his wheelchair and walk on his hands to the front door, let himself in, climb onto his usual perch at the kitchen table and say, God damn! with a broad toothless smile.

Junie complained that he couldn't do anything in the absense of his legs, so my father taught him to carve wood. This is far more complicated than it sounds, because first, my father had to teach himself. In the early stages, Junie's crude carvings looked astoundingly similar to the original chunks of wood my father gave him for practice. Soon though - and no doubt because he had so much free time - he became a master. His likenesses of loons, mallards and piping plovers became so popular among locals and tourists that he had to take orders. He barely had any time for us anymore. Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, God damn! Hee! Hee!

Junie whittled away - physically smaller than when I'd first met him, but full to the brim with joyful profanities. Junie had found a family that suited him and realized his talent, which allowed for his independence. And he never stopped yelping, God damn! Hee! Hee!

Until, one day, suddenly, in his early thirties, he did.

But, God damn! still rings joyfully in our ears.