There are times when you see someone you know so differently. These instances usually occur outside of the ordinary day to day, often when a shared experience or deep conversation takes your friendship to a new level.
I had this experience recently with a long-time friend -- a guy named David. He and his wife along with my wife and me are part of a supper club, couples who get together regularly to cook, laugh, have fun and, of course, eat. We’ve been doing it for years.
It's usually small talk that fills the air -- along with banter, football and a few of the guys poking fun at one another while the wives chat. I've learned over the years that David, a bow-tied guy who looks like he just walked out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue, is a bright fellow who can dish it out and take it and, to his credit, knows an awful lot about lots of things.
David and I got to talking not too long ago, just the two of us, and he told me something I didn't know. He explained that he has an older brother — 20 years older — who has Alzheimer’s and is living in a memory care facility for military veterans about 45 minutes from Birmingham where we both live. That revelation, which created a different look on David's face than his usual bravado, made an impact on me. So I dug deeper.
I learned that this brother was the oldest and David was the youngest and there were two siblings in between. I saw David get a little emotional when he talked about his older brother. They weren't that close growing up because of the age difference, but there was a moment when David was just six years old that his brother came to his rescue. Even though this was almost 60 years ago, David has never forgotten it.
David was a small kid and, unfortunately, was picked on and bullied. He didn't know what to do and was miserable. He mentioned his predicament to his older brother, who was in the Marines at the time, who said, "I am coming home right now. We are going to take care of this."
He taught David how to fight -- how to defend himself, how not to be intimidated by the playground bullies and, well, you know the rest of the story....David turned the situation around thanks to his brother; it was a turning point in making David the strong, self-sufficient young man he would become. And he never stopped being grateful to his brother.
As David opened up, I learned that his brother's son was killed in a motorcycle accident and that his wife had died more recently, and that David was now his only lifeline. After his brother's wife died, David started getting more involved with him. The son, who was adopted and was his brother's only child, was killed as a teenager. David's brother was so devastated that he gave up a successful business, moved down to one of the beach areas in lower Alabama and opened a bed and breakfast. This is when the two brothers’ relationship really took hold as adults. David became more of a friend, a peer and a comforter, not a brother 20 years younger.
I got curious about David’s relationship with his brother so I suggested that I tag along on one of his visits, just to experience that side of David and to understand more fully his devotion to his brother who is now in his 80s. Through talking with David, I learned that his brother barely speaks and doesn't even know when David comes to visit.
Our car headed for Pell City, where the memory facility is located. When we arrived, David bounded out of the car, walked into the facility carrying an armful of clean clothes for his brother, and checked in at the main desk. I could feel him change the minute he walked into the facility. I swear my diminutive friend became taller right before my eyes. There was a bounce in his step and an additional confidence in his walk that I had never seen before.
Those at the facility who still had the ability to notice things noticed that David had arrived. And they perked up.
He was their friend -- a caretaker for his brother and a cheerleader for them all. I could tell the men on his brother's floor — at least those we could communicate with —were excited that David had arrived. David was just as excited. Here he was, strolling along the corridor, checking on the friends he had made, calling to them by name, asking them if they needed anything.
I saw a different David than the one I had known, maybe the real David; one not framed and defined by mundane day to day relationships, but rather a David in technicolor, in full bloom, a giant of a man who commanded respect and engendered affection in so many of these lonely souls.
My friend was loved, even though most of those who loved him could no longer express it. It was he who had the power to lighten someone else’s burden, if only for a few minutes, as he patted them on the hand and tapped them on the shoulder to say hi as we strolled down the hall.
Then we approached his brother who was sitting motionless with no communication at all emanating from him. David went over, put his arm around his brother’s shoulder and kissed him gently on the head. Here was the big brother who dropped everything to come to his little brother’s rescue when David was being tortured and laughed at as his lunch money was stolen.
This was the strong young Marine who answered the call when his kid brother needed him — no questions asked. It was nearly 60 years ago, an eternity but just yesterday; the blink of an eye but enough time for the Goliath of Alzheimer’s to defeat him; to erode his once-fertile mind and immobilize his once-strong body.
I was silent. There wasn’t much to say. I knew this was a moment between David and his brother; a moment that belonged to them; and one that captured David's devotion to protecting his brother as his brother once protected him.
At times, writers have to be present but not get in the way. We are observers, chroniclers in the midst of the drama of others striving to capture every nuance but never interfering. I sensed that David appreciated how respectful I was of according him and his brother their privacy.
Yet, in that moment that belonged to them, I realized why it is so important for David to come here. Here, he becomes a protector; here he can be who he really is. Here a six-year-old boy comes to say thank you. Here, my friend is loved by others, some incapable of even knowing that he has come.