The Fall

Twenty years ago, one of my brothers went missing. He did it on purpose, and now all we have of him are recollections and bits of vague information on where he might be.

In my parents’ attic there are four boxes of our school papers, arranged like fine linens by our mother. After I laughed and sighed through mine, I opened my lost brother’s. It contained most of what I knew of him, because in adulthood we went our separate ways and, in his case, disappeared.

I found cards my parents had received at his birth: light blues and the white delivery stork swinging a happy baby in its beak. The cards are very sweet, funny and probably valuable as vintage items fifty-eight years later.

I found the marvelous drawing he did at age twelve: an Indian chief on horseback. The nobleman has a stern face, a full headdress, a long spear. The horse is rearing. Its legs are all muscle and very precisely drawn. The portrait hung on Grandma’s refrigerator, even after she had lost the memory of where it came from. I was there when my mother took it from her empty house.

Mostly, my brother's box contains his athletic achievements. In our rural area, there was no boy like him. He was an unerring pitcher. In the mile run, he had more strength and stamina than any other leggy farm kid. He fastened a boxer's speed bag to the pipes in our basement and with flawless eye-hand coordination would turn it to blur: back and forth, back and forth, fist punch elbow punch, fist punch elbow punch fist elbow fist, an almost terrifying speed for me, his younger sister, to watch. In a lighter mood, he would entertain his peers by walking the entire perimeter of the basketball court--on his hands.

Basketball earned him his great fame. He spent thousands of hours at it. Our father poured blacktop for him and hammered a backboard onto the garage. My brother’s shots rarely needed to bank—almost every shot was a rimless swish. One summer, he worked out a deal with Dad: if he could practice basketball eight hours a day and not do farm work, he would earn himself a scholarship to college. And he did. He was a Division I point guard. He was often in the newspapers.

It goes without saying that he had a lean, sculpted, ruthless physique. His physical balance was perfect.

He was also high school valedictorian, an entertaining emcee at rallies, a clever writer of poems, essays and short stories. Pretty girls had crushes on him, and guys would double over in laughter at his jokes. They all looked up to him with envy and admiration.

Looking back at what may have caused his deliberate disappearance, I wonder if the seeds were there in those obliterating punches and the maddening rhythm of the endlessly swatted ball. In the torrents of sweat on his bared chest and his steely, hypnotized expression. In his lion-like confidence. In the way he argued religion and did not always resolve the debate on a cordial note. Eight years ago, I heard that he was studying Greek to get at the original meanings of great truths. I also heard he was divorced and, for a time, homeless.

Back to the cardboard box. There was a trophy from eighth grade, the small kind that fits in a boy’s palm: First Place Pole Vault. This was the most dramatic of his sports. Pole vaulting requires an uncanny combination of skill: the right grip of the warrior pole, great bursts of speed, precise timing and accuracy, unreal flexibility. It also takes a sort of reckless nerve.

I don’t know if my father has any regrets about that one summer. He was always so proud of his son’s achievements, never missed a game or meet. But I worry that all the articles, the ribbons, the certificates and trophies will only grieve him more, so for now I’ve hidden them in a corner of the attic.

I’ve had many glimpses into Dad’s heart over these twenty years. I find it as noble as King David’s when Absalom undermined his father’s realm. Dad says he trusts the heavenly Father—what else to do? I caught him one summer day standing on his front porch. He was weeping. He spoke the question that a man of deep faith, after bowing to the unanswered Why, will ask. He simply said, “How long, Lord?”

Now I'm picturing those two things together: my brother free-falling from what seemed an impossible height, while his family trusted that he would land without injury. And my father gazing out at what a farmer inevitably sees: his growing crop. It was very green and healthy that year, looking to be another record harvest.