A Brother Thing

DSC03706Sometime in the late 1980’s, somewhere along the shoulder of Route 376 East in Pittsburgh, four people stand around a wrecked car.  I am one of them.  My friend Heather, my dad, and his brother Albert are the others.  We have just been to a Pittsburgh Pirates game.  None of us are hurt, the car is entirely drivable, and Heather and I have concert tickets for later and are anxious to be on our way.  The police have come and logged their report.  It seems we are about to be set free.  Until:

Police Officer:  So, you’re sure you’re all right?  No injuries?  No pain?

Dad:  Huh . . . now that you mention it.  Does my neck hurt?  [he feels his neck with his hand, as if this makes any sense whatsoever.]

Uncle Albert:  Who are you asking, Ej?  We don’t know about your neck.  Does it hurt, or what?

Dad:  [twisting his head all around quite freely] I don’t know!  It might hurt.  Or what if it hurts later?  I can’t tell.

Me:  DAD.  It either hurts or it doesn’t.

Dad:  Well, then it does, I guess.  Wait, does it?


Heather: [remains polite.]

Uncle Albert:  Jesus Christ, Ej . . . you’re the only person I know who can’t tell if his own goddamn neck hurts him or not.

Dad:  [chuckles.]


Dad:  [to police officer] Well, can I call you later if I decide it hurts?

Police Officer:  Me, personally?

And so on.

The remarkable thing about this day to me, other than Heather and my rather stunning lack of concern for anything except our future musical entertainment, is that it perfectly represented a typical scene between my dad and his brother. Dad was the uncertain, impressionable little brother, Uncle Albert the one telling him how things needed to be.  Not that my dad ever seemed to mind.  “Sure, Al,” he’d say, upon being told to “put the goddamned saw down and let me do it.”

“Albert says we need to,” he’d tell my mother, while sledgehammering the shit out of their bathroom.  Or, “Albert wants it this way,” he’d say, while trying real hard to learn the proper plastering technique for our basement walls.

“My deepest sympathy,” he said to Uncle Albert, when their brother Ben died.

“Ej,” said Uncle Albert.  “He was your brother too.”

As for me, I always liked being around the two of them, primarily because you almost never had to talk if you didn’t want to.  Which is not to say that we enjoyed frequent stretches of companionable silence.  On the contrary, what I mean is that in the company of my dad and Uncle Albert, all speaking parts were accounted for.  This was how they got along.  Noise.

I mostly knew this thanks to the seven thousand or so Pirates games I’d attended with them, prior to the day of The Wreck.  Pirate games were a big thing for us, the two of them Jesus Christ- and goddammit-ing through nine innings while I sat between them, reading and re-reading my program.

“Christ, Ej, look at that guy.  He’s pretty goddamn short for a first baseman.”

“Who, him?  He’s taller than me, what do you mean?”

“I hope he’s taller than you!  What are you, five foot two?  Three?  Mis, how tall is your dad, huh?”

“I don’t – ”

“I’m five foot eight, you asshole.”

“And still too goddamn short to play first base.  Am I right, Mis?”

And so on.

Of course, that was all a long time ago.  Uncle Al is now 84, my dad is nearly 80.  Uncle Al is easily as healthy as me.  My dad is too, aside from the Alzheimer’s disease.

One true fact about Alzheimer’s Disease – it kind of changes the dynamic.

And so now here we were, Uncle Albert and I, going to visit my dad/his little brother at the nursing home.  On the way there Uncle Al has asked me, “Do you think this place is good for him, Mis?”  And I have told him, “I don’t know.”  Because I don’t.  Because, does anyone, ever?

The good news is that my dad is awake when we get there, or at least, sitting upright in the TV room and not laying in his bed.  “Oh, hey,” he says, when he sees his brother and me.  “What are you doing here?”

“We came to see you,” says Uncle Albert.  “How are they treating you, huh?  How do you like this place?”

“Yeah . . . it’s good,” says my dad.  “Good.  I was just . . . you know.  I don’t know what I was doing.”

Here, with another visitor, a moment of awkward silence might ensue; not so Uncle Al.  He is happy to jump right into the realm of the impossible Alzheimer conversation.  God love him.

“You look good, Ej,” he says now, very kindly, because the truth is my dad is kind of a mess on this particular day.  His hair is way too long, his glasses are lost, and he hasn’t shaved in days.  Plus, he’s missing two teeth, which has been true for quite a while but still doesn’t do much to improve the overall effect.

“Yeah, thanks,” says my dad, adjusting the baseball cap which he rarely takes off.  “I was just, you know.  Sitting here.”

Uncle Al looks pained, but keeps going, keeps talking and engaging my dad in a way that I never do.  I don’t think I can.  It’s just something between them, I guess, and it’s clear to me that though he may be somewhat nervous and almost entirely clueless, my dad is happy to be the object of someone’s attention.  To be a central part of a conversation, even if he has no idea how it’s supposed to go.  To be talking with his brother.

My own kids, brothers at the current ages of six and eight, are friends only at my most optimistic moments.  They get along, about half the time.  They also fight, argue, brawl, and use the term “arch nemesis” correctly, in reference to each other.  I really kind of desperately hope that they will grow up to be real friends, drinking buddies, each the other’s best man.  I hope they will take their children to Pirates games together.  I rarely consider the “nursing home pals” scenario.

“Yeah, you remember that, Ej?” says Uncle Albert now.  “You remember playing the trumpet?”

“Trumpet?” says my dad, and then stares into the distance for a moment.  Or more.

“You were good,” Uncle Al tells him.  “You were in a band.”

“Yeah,” says my dad, vaguely.  Then, “Your hair – “ he points at his brother’s head – “It looks nice.  You got a lot of hair.  More than me, haha.”

He’s been saying this forever.  It’s kind of amazing, the random things he holds on to.  And I know a time will come where he will no longer say it, when he will forgot his brother altogether, but for now, it’s still there. Whatever it is. Maybe it’s a brother thing.  I hope it’s a brother thing.

I can’t imagine, nor do I have any reason to imagine, my own kids at these advanced ages.

Still, I really, really hope it’s a brother thing.

And In Other Super Bowl News . . .

football-player-260556_640There are so many stories.

Terry Long, dead at age 45 after drinking antifreeze, in 2005.  His brain was later found to show signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which causes mood swings, forgetfulness, insomnia and depression, often severe.  In 2006, Steelers team physician Dr. Joseph Maroon said that blaming CTE (and therefore, directly or indirectly, football) for Mr. Long’s death was nothing more than “fallacious reasoning.”

Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006, at the age of 44.  I am 44.  According to the New York Times, tests later found that Mr. Waters’ brain looked like “that of an octogenarian Alzheimer patient.”

Tyler Sash, dead of an accidental overdose in September of last year.  His brain showed signs of Stage 2 CTE, rare for someone his age.  Tyler Sash was 27.  His mother found him dead.

Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, 2012, at the age of 43.  He, too, was found to have Stage 2 CTE.  Seau played for the Chargers, the Dolphins, and the Patriots.  He was never listed by any of these teams as having had a concussion.

Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then himself in 2012; he was 25.  His body was exhumed a year after his death, and you are probably not surprised at this point to hear that CTE was found.  He left behind a 3-month-old daughter.

More CTE:

Shane Dronett, dead in 2009 at the age of 38.  According to reports, he’d begun showing paranoia, confusion, fear and rage as early as 2006.  He left a wife and two daughters.

John Grimsley, dead at age 45 in 2008, reportedly of an accidental gunshot wound.

Tom McHale, the cause of whose 2008 death was recorded as an accidental drug overdose.  He was 45.

Justin Strzelczyk, 36, died while driving 90 mph in the wrong direction.  No drugs or alcohol were found in his system.

Mike Webster – “Iron Mike” – dead at age 50 in 2002, after years of pain, confusion, poverty.  An excellent article on his life and death: Before ‘Concussion’: An Inside Glimpse Of NFL Player Mike Webster’s Utterly Tragic Final Days.

Dave Duerson, age 50, shot himself in the chest in 2011.  He left behind 3 sons and a daughter, as well as a text message to his family asking that his brain (which he purposely didn’t shoot) be studied for CTE.  It was.  He had it.

If you’ve seen the movie Concussion, you’re familiar with most of these stories.  I’ve only read the book, so far.  I imagine that when I do watch the movie, I’ll feel even worse.

And so here we sit on Super Bowl Sunday, all set to see which commercials are best, and to hope we win at least one quarter on our block pools, and to eat Buffalo everything.  And I am not saying this to be judgy; I’m not.  I will watch too, at least until I fall asleep, and I don’t know if that makes me a hypocrite or not.


It kind of feels like it does.  But I mean, there still is football; it’s not going away.  And I still like it.  I like most sports, I like watching sports on TV, I like going to live events.  I suppose I have my dad to thank for that – my dad who is living with pretty severe dementia at the age of 79.  Up until his recent move to a nursing home, he’d been putting toothpaste in his hair on a regular basis.  His situation is sad and horrible, but again – he is 79.  Not 43 or 27 or 36.  He’s not my husband, who I expect to spend many more happy years with.  He’s not my son.  I can’t imagine if he were my son.

And so, I don’t know.  I hate to rain on anyone’s Super Bowl parade (but yes, I’m doing it anyway, I know, I know, I know).  But I just cannot watch it without thinking of all of these husbands and sons who suffered, usually very badly, and then died as a direct result of having played this sport.

I also can’t watch the Super Bowl, or any football game ever from now until the end of time amen, without worrying about the guys currently on the field.  How many of them will end up losing everything and trying to Super Glue their teeth back in?  How many will end up like my dad, but 30 or 40 or even 50 years too soon?  How many of the NFL’s current domestic violence problems are attributable, at least in some part, to CTE?

I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know.

I keep trying to think of what my point is in writing this, aside from wet blanket purposes, and quite honestly I don’t know.  Maybe that is the point.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what the solution is, and I hate writing about things where I can’t think of a solution.  The NFL would like to think their concussion protocol helps, and I guess it does, like a Snoopy Band-Aid on a stab wound.  Allowing a player to recover from a concussion is nice.  It unfortunately does nothing to address the repeated non-concussive head traumas that football players experience at every practice, every game, every day.  Some of them, every play.  And the NFL, which continues to make billions of dollars, spent years denying that this was a thing at all.

The NFL makes billions, but what happens to the guys that make the NFL what it is?  And by ignoring this, because we love football, because go Steelers!  Aren’t we the tiniest bit complicit in keeping the system going?  I mean, clearly we are.  I am.  Everybody is.

So anyway, today, I didn’t want to ignore it.  I want everyone to be as worried as I am, most especially Roger Goodell and the NFL.  I want the rules to change even more.  I want to hear NOT ONE THING about the “pussification” of National League Football.

On that note, here’s another story.

I always liked Antwaan Randle El (who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2002 – 2005, and then again from 2010 – 2012) – not so much because I knew anything about him personally, but because I thought he was good.  I also thought it was pretty awesome that he could become a surprise quarterback when he needed to.  Randle El was drafted the same year that Mike Webster died.  Interestingly enough, he’d also been drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1997, but he chose a football scholarship and college over a baseball career.

Antwaan Randle El is now 36, and says he asks his wife the same things over and over, only to ask again the next day.  He’s the only wide receiver ever to have thrown a touchdown in a Super Bowl.  He’s made history, in the NFL.  And yet, he says if he had it to do all over again, he’d play baseball.

You can buy the book Concussion at Amazon.  Another excellent book – League of Denial, also available at Amazon.

Full disclosure, if you click either of these links and actually buy the books, I will get a tiny bit of money.  Not much.  I’m putting the links here because they’re good books, not because I plan to make a living selling them.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to give myself a nickel or two when I can.