I look at this photograph and see everything any girl could hope for. Humor, intelligence, and impulsiveness.
Not only would Ben lug my black Barbie case around back then, he’d even allow himself to be talked in to playing Barbies.
Ben preferred his hand-crank plastic machine gun, but on rainy days when my friends couldn’t or wouldn’t come over, he’d play Barbies. He’d sulk about it, and would only dress and pose his GI-Joe, but he’d still nod, slump in defeat, and enter my Barbie universe all the same.
His desire to witness Barbie’s ride through a pink land, on a Palomino mare, wearing thigh-high plastic boots was exactly zero. His desire to please me was unceasing. With him around, Barbie had adventures.
As we got older, it was still my brother’s impulsiveness that made him so much fun to be around. With Ben, anything could happen. Once, our parents were hosting a fancy cocktail party for their fancy friends and banished my brother and me to our upstairs bedrooms. Ben couldn’t believe it. He liked parties, there was one going on right inside our own house, and yet also tantalizingly out of reach.
We reconnoitered in my bedroom to commiserate.
“It’s probably boring down there,” he’d said.“I bet everyone wishes something exciting would happen.”
He dressed up our cock-a-poo, Pepi, in my yellow babydoll pajamas, roughhoused with her, then sent her bounding down the stairs and into the living room. Which was, of course, the vortex of the party.
When we were teenagers, our parents took us to Mackinac Island for the weekend. The place is teeming with Michigan history and it’s one of only a few places in the U.S. where cars aren’t allowed. The only way to get around is by bicycle, on horseback or carriage, or on foot. Our parents favored a leisurely – and free – walk, taking in the lovely vistas and stopping for a picnic lunch. Ben had different idea.
He wasn’t particularly fond of horses, but he did like speed. He not only convinced our frugal parents to pay for us to ride around the island, but to sign the liability waiver allowing the two of us to do it alone. The signs posted at the stable displayed the equine speed limit: “WALK.” As soon as we were out of town, and of sight of our parents, Ben urged his mount into a gallop.
“They probably want to run,” he’d said. “And the people at the barn just won’t let them.”
We circled the island, going way too fast to see any vistas, our horses hit loose gravel and skidded. Ben fell off, scraping his arm from his wrist all the way to his elbow. His horse seemed nonplussed and instead of running off, stopped to graze. I dismounted and inspected his wound. Blood dripped down his arm and it took me several minutes to pick out the small stones imbedded in his skin. He winced, then put on the long-sleeved windbreaker he’d had tied around his waist and we both mounted up again.
He’d hollered the universal sibling agreement — “Don’t tell mom!” — as we galloped back to the stable.
That experience did nothing to quell his impulsiveness. After high school, Ben went in the Army and I went to college. He became a father when he was still a kid himself, and soon changed girlfriends, changed addresses, changed jobs. Then did it again, a few times.
How does this work: The same trait that brings someone joy or accomplishment, can also put their face in the dirt? I don’t know the answer, just that it’s true. Perhaps everyone has a trait like that. The trait that defines you, but that can crush you, too.
For me, that trait is an unrelenting focus. If there is something I want to do, or learn, or accomplish, I have the ability to block out everything else in order to do it. That is how I’ve written books, saved my house from foreclosure, survived divorce, and forged a career as a writer. I can block out distractions and time wasters like nobody’s business; but I can also block out housework, dinnertime, bill due-dates, and, worst of all, the people I love and who love me.
For Ben, that trait is impulsiveness. If something sounds fun or exciting to him right now, he does it. Regardless of the consequences. He liked to go fast, take chances, excite people. For a day, for a month, or for a couple minutes, whatever idea sounded good at the time, he did it, because that’s what gave him joy.
In May 2008, forty years after the photograph at the top of this post was taken, Ben’s impulsiveness put his face in the dirt.
He was at a house party, sauntered outside, got on his ATV, sped away, and crashed it. He was drunk, happy, having fun, and wanted to do something exciting. He didn’t listen to his friends who told him not to ride. When he crashed his face went straight into the hard-packed dirt. And his brain bounced around in his skull like a marble inside a balloon.
Ben was in a coma for a week. He survived, but just.
After five years of cognitive therapy, physical therapy, and several operations to repair a damaged right eye, a broken jaw, and a destroyed shoulder, my brother tries his best to deal with the daily frustrations that come with surviving a closed head injury.
He can’t drive. He can’t work. He forgets things.
He is sometimes flooded with emotions he can’t control. He doesn’t like crowds, or movie theaters, or concerts, or even parties anymore, because these activities have too much sound, and too much action, all happening too quickly, for him to process.
But he is still Ben. Still my brother, and still my friend.
And his signature trait – that damned impulsiveness – is still there. Not only is it still there, it dominates him more now than ever.
Amazing, when you think about it. Not even banging his brain against the earth at fifty miles an hour was enough to change that part of him.