Thursday, March 21, 2019

Happy Holidays

I'm the eldest of four boys.

All three of my brothers are very smart. All three are excellent writers. And they’re all amazing dads. 

Nevertheless, we’re probably better known for the various annoying personality traits we share. We do not talk about our feelings. We do not ask for help. We do not hug strangers. We are very funny. However, we overuse humour as a coping mechanism. Very dry humour. Humour that is often lost on normal human beings.

Even our partners and children struggle to keep up. My kids claim I’m terrible at signaling when a text is meant to be funny. It’s because my generation never figured out how emojis work.

Nevertheless, my daughter Rosalind tells me she and I are finally on the same wavelength. According to Rosalind, her other father recently “explained" me. Apparently her sister Eleanor already had a similar conversation with one of my longsuffering sisters-in-law about the Leishman brothers’ appalling sense of humour. 

For example, my next younger brother Doug has a whole closet full of sarcasm-themed T shirts he’s received as gifts from friends and family. I know, you thought I was the sarcastic one. I’m merely ironic. It’s a gay thing.

During the Christmas holidays few years back, we hired a photographer to take family portraits at a park in Bellingham. Everyone was there:  my parents, the four brothers and three sisters-in-law from Generation X, and all fifteen grandchildren. 

It’s the only time we’ve all assembled in one place. My youngest brother is in the foreign service, and my middle brother lives on the East Coast. Even on the rare occasions when their visits overlap, someone is always away at school or on a Mormon mission. In fact, two of my nephews are currently serving missions in Africa – just like in the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

As part of the family holiday photo shoot we posed for several subgroupings, including a sequence of pictures featuring all four brothers. As you can see, I am neither the greyest, the baldest, nor the fattest. Just the oldest and gayest.

Even though I’m sitting on a stool in the pictures, I confess I’m also the shortest. But each brother has been known to stand on tippy toes for photos.

Last year I realized how good a writer my brother Doug is when I read his elegant Facebook post letting folks know he has cancer. He went to see his doctor about lower back pain. It turned out he had a slow-growing tumour the size of a grapefruit.

Without calling anyone out as the fattest Leishman brother, I can report that at the next family get-together, Doug was defensive about his failure to notice the tumour. “It’s inside my pelvis! They’re big bones!”

After radiation treatment earlier last year, Doug was frustrated in December when the pain returned and required surgery. We were even more frustrated when he got a staph infection in the hospital. (Or was it a “staff infection”? Hmm.) 

Doug endured a round of industrial-strength intravenous antibiotics. As a result, he ended up staying in the hospital for thirty-two days, including Christmas and New Years. At least it distracted everyone from that fact that his older brother was still jobless and about to become homeless.

In addition to packing boxes, over the holidays I read a couple of books by Barbara Ehrenreich. She was diagnosed with breast cancer twenty years ago. In Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, she recently wrote about the limits of medicine and a medical mindset. In Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about EverythingEhrenreich observed about her diagnosis that “if you’re not prepared to die when you’re almost sixty, then I would say you’ve been falling down on your philosophical responsibilities as a grown-up human being.”

My brother's treatments have been going well. Obviously we haven’t talked about our feelings. But we're both responsible grown-up human beings. I suspect he would agree mortality is not something to fear, other than our loved ones’ inevitable pain.   

Still, the stakes may need to involve life and death before you’re truly gazing at “rock bottom.” 

Over the holidays I visited my brother at Vancouver General Hospital several times on my way to chorus rehearsals and performances. The first time I arrived, Doug was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons with his kids. 

My brother and I exchanged the kind of witty fraternal banter that no doubt appalled his listening wife and children. Doug capped it off with a particularly humourous cancer zinger. Right now I can’t remember exactly what he said, only that it was funny. The funniest thing either of us said in our absurdist exchange. 

It will come back to me. The good ones always do. Eventually. I just remember thinking that when I got around to writing about the hospital, I intended to use this particular witticism as part of something thoroughly non-elegiac and funny. 

We can choose to face even the most terrible things with dignity and humour. Most people eventually realize there’s no better way to deal with terrible things. The Leishman brothers are really good, both at humour and at dealing with terrible things. 

FYI, Universe:  We're good at dealing with good things, too. In 2019, we’re all ready for a little more practice with good times.

Previously in Rock Bottom Stories:  “Breaking the Glass.”

Up Next: “Pandora's Box.”

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