Learning To Fly

“Oh sh*t,” read my brother’s Facebook status as he checked in at Jacksonville International Airport on a blustery morning a few Thursdays ago.

His fiancee’s status — decidedly more chirpy — shed a bit of light on the situation: “The man and I are Beantown bound. Can’t wait!”

At first glance, it would appear that Todd’s nerves were jangled in anticipation of meeting the father of his soon-to-be bride. But his next update – about the unrelenting lightning outside – made me say a little prayer for him, even though I’m not a person who usually does that kind of thing.

My brother… was about to experience his first flight ever. He’d just turned 50 the week before.

In the middle of an awful thunderstorm, my brother – my boneheaded, saved-by-the-grace-of-I-don’t-know-what brother who’d been to hell and back a hundred times volleying wildly between addiction, recovery and everything in between – was about to experience his first flight ever. He’d just turned 50 the week before.

“You’re on JetBlue?” I had repeated back to him when he’d first told me, somewhat nervously, about his upcoming trip. “TV in your seat and free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, dude. You won’t even know you’re in the air.” But now, knowing it was actually happening, I figured tossing a small request toward the clouds couldn’t hurt.

“Just take care of him, okay?” I asked the fates somewhat irreverently as I started my day several time zones away with Alanis Morissette flitting through my brain, even though her lyrics barely fit.

Mr. Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly / He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
He waited his whole damn life / Just to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down / He thought: well, isn’t this nice

My brothers were teenagers when I was born; Todd in particular was 13, which created an odd sort of space between us that spanned more than just age. In fact, I’ve come to the realization that in many ways, we had two completely different sets of parents.

Ed and Judy Lynch were newlyweds when they started having babies in the late 1950s, and they spent their first years together just struggling to get by and keep food on the table for their growing boys. In many ways, they were probably still getting to know each other – a dynamic made difficult by the fact that my dad worked all day at a paint store and came home to deposit the car keys into my mother’s hands the moment he walked through the door. Each weekday evening, she’d kiss him goodbye and leave for her night job at the bank or, later, the Frito Lay district office where she worked as a bookkeeper. I suppose you could say it was less than ideal.

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Todd was maybe five or six when… a car hit him

Todd was maybe five or six when he and the rest of our family were fishing off the side of a road in St. Petersburg, Florida and, as he wandered away from them, a car hit him. Kept in the hospital for weeks, he was pumped full of whatever sort of painkiller was available at the time – probably morphine – throughout the majority of his stay. His wounds were so profound that he still has scars today, nearly a half-century later. I never really thought about it until I became an adult myself, but at some point I started to see it all come together. For him, pain could almost always be eliminated with drugs or drinks, even if calamity was waiting on the other side. There wasn’t anything to fear when he traveled to a place where he could feel nothing… and to get there, he barely had to move an inch.

By the time I came along, the boys were mostly out of the house, and my mom had put herself through college, earned an elementary education degree, tucked a bunch of early childhood development courses under her belt, and begun teaching kindergarten. My dad had taken the knowledge he’d gleaned from the paint store and started his own business, painting houses and making it home each night in time for dinner, which my parents took turns cooking or bringing home in a bag for the three of us to enjoy together.

For him, pain could almost always be eliminated with drugs or drinks…

Some afternoons when I was a teenager, I’d come home from school and turn the living room stereo on to find the volume cranked nearly all the way up and a James Taylor CD stuck in the slot. Knowing Todd had been there, I’d roll my eyes at the fact that he’d probably stopped by to borrow money. I’d listen intently to “Fire & Rain” before switching to something more expected of me.

When I was twenty-nine, our mom died. It was at a point when Todd was keeping it together and had been for several months. He moved in with my dad so they could help each other stay strong. It worked for a while. When it stopped, I felt nothing but anger. Anger that I’d started to give in and trust him. Anger that he was dishonoring our parents yet again after all they’d given him, especially now that our mother was gone. Soon afterward, my own life stopped working, too. I started dealing with my own grief, slowly and in a delayed, backward fashion. Our dad got sick. My engagement fell apart. I looked myself in the mirror and realized I hated my life. Once our father was well again, I did what I almost always do when I need to eliminate pain: I packed up and ran.

To get to a place where I can feel nothing – or, more to the point, only good things – I have to move a lot of inches. Miles. Sometimes even time zones.

Been walking my mind to an easy time / My back turned toward the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows / It’ll turn your head around
Well there’s hours of time on the telephone line / To talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

Later in the morning, Todd and Nicole’s flight landed safely in Boston. In the days that followed, my news feed was flooded with their adventures – mostly images she’d snapped of him: Todd playing croquet with the future in-laws. Todd eating crab. Todd at Fenway. Todd in his first tunnel. Fairly certain he’d never been farther north than South Carolina before this trip, I had to fight back tears as I scrolled through them. It helped when I rolled my eyes at his photo of a liquor store in Salem called The Bunghole, with a ‘haha’ in the caption. (After all, he took it from the outside.)

He has his four-year coin now, but his freewheeling and fast-talking kept us at a distance for quite some time. He’s done things I can’t even fathom, while I’ve never once smoked pot. For a couple of decades, in fact, my goody-two-shoes attitude was probably as infuriating for him as his constant self-endangerment was to me.

We’re not entirely opposites, though. He has his own small business these days, not terribly unlike the one my dad ran, working with his hands and earning a living “the old-fashioned way.” I filed my taxes as a sole proprietor for the first time in my life this year. We’ve both found the right people to spend the rest of our days with, and we found them within a year of one another. I imagine sobriety is probably both comforting and terrifying for him, and he has to work at it every day. As strange as it sounds, that’s how writing is for me.

We’re both delayed travelers: I didn’t take my first flight until I was 25 – admittedly late by modern standards – and my stomach still flips at takeoff every time. And for all my Pollyanna posturing, I can self-sabotage with the best of them. Maybe I just lucked out by not slipping into the spiral.

We’re both wanderers in our own ways, I guess, looking for something we’ve probably already got.

It seems we have more things in common than just our dad’s old records.

A soul in tension that’s learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try
Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted / Just an earthbound misfit, I

 
-Amy Lynch


This article originally published in The Wander Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine.
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