People believed we did not have common sense. We crawled through the chaparral over sharp rocks barefoot and in shorts. We stayed out exploring until we could not see where our fingernails ended and our fingers started. We asked too many questions and pushed ourselves in environments that were dangerous and mental realms that were beyond us. We liked our parents and our other brother and our relatives, and we liked school.
But my brother and I had sense that was common. It was common between the two of us.
What does that mean today? Two days ago we had that common sense. But one day ago, Charlie died.
~ ~ ~
Sixty-two years ago, Charlie would have sat on the floor with our big brother, Roger, who was already two and a half years old. I was the new baby. They probably poked me to see if I would react. I probably did. They were always in my universe because they were older. I imagine that very quickly, like sidewalk cracks, and red wagons, I was in theirs.
Fifty-six years ago, Charlie and I were pioneers. He was Joe, who wore a squint and was handy in the woods. I was Ellie, every bit as rugged as Joe, or so I tried to prove. In our mild California suburb, we traveled over sand piles and behind shrubs. We dug next to trees and tracked bears and wolves. We struggled to survive the snowstorm that kept us from making it back to camp. But back inside, we were Barb and Charlie again. Mom would serve a family dinner, beef stew, maybe, with lots of carrots in it. Dad would make sure all of us talked about our days, and he would make a few bad puns. Like me, Roger would not reveal his secret lives with Charlie– potato guns and lots of pops and fizzes–just as Ellie and Joe were ours alone. The next morning, Charlie and I would step into the shower and become the Cherry Apple Trio, the famous singers. We would croon so loudly that a neighbor would tell Mom she heard us from her kitchen.
Forty-five years ago, at seventeen and fifteen, we were separated for a summer. Between Australia (me) and Alaska (Charlie), we wrote each other that we could bounce our eye-beams to one another if we looked at the moon at the same time. Then we amended the new law to make it more convenient: we didn’t actually have to look at the same time.
Thirty-eight years ago, Charlie got heat exhaustion running across the Grand Canyon. The same week, I got hypothermia swimming in an arctic lake. We had no knowledge of the other’s drama until our parents, serving as our joint moon, told us. I don’t remember who lost temperature control first, but we both knew that we had balanced each other’s missteps. We had brought the “central tendency,” the mean, toward where it was supposed to be.
Although we had distinct and personal landmarks in family life, educational degrees, and career moves, in many ways, our travels were similar. We had a compulsion to work, study, or do hobbies with intensity, sometimes to the detriment of relationships. We both got satisfaction from trying to explain concepts in simple ways. We both went into career fields that used physical principles in biological systems, Charlie studying how to design hospital beds and organ transplant materials, and me figuring out how trees manage their mechanical stability and water transport through one material, wood. We both liked the sense of ableness that we got from exercise or physical work. And we had common concerns in response to events in our family of origin.
When we weren’t together, time would pass, and then, like a cresting wave, our thoughts would tell us to connect again. Most recently I visited Indiana a year ago, and he visited Oregon at Christmas and in July. When I was there, I worked in the quiet of his home while he was at the office, and for some of the days when he was here, the same. Tacit understanding: work, as well as visiting, were important to us.
~ ~ ~
But Charlie has died.
I use the term die. I don’t understand pass. I don’t think someone passes to somewhere to somewhere else or from something to something else. In fact, maybe I do understand pass. Is it the passing from being a separate person who I remember and can interact with if I reach out, to being that person who I remember but cannot interact with so much anymore?
Died or passed, Charlie is gone. What does this mean to my compass, to my world? What if pioneer Joe’s name was actually Dan, and I had forgotten that? Charlie can’t help me anymore. What more might be lost to me or to others? I don’t know how to think about this.
Yesterday I drove to a reservoir where he liked to run. He used to phone me, Roger, or Dad from the parking lot and tell us about the beavers and otters he had seen. I scanned the reservoir. Mist had my glasses wet, and wind and grief made my eyes tear. Nothing on the rough gray surface, nothing at all. I wanted a signal. A single otter, or maybe a whole family rolling onto their backs to acknowledge me in the storm. I scrutinized a black spot in the tight waves, but it didn’t move. Then a bald eagle took my vision upward. With brute effort, it flew against the wind, its plumage rich and tangible. It flew long and slow, from horizon to horizon. I had the feeling of watching the whole arc of a shooting star. I was stunned. And fulfilled.
~ ~ ~
My brother would not want to be painted larger than life. My brother would not want to be painted at all, so I am painting with these words for myself.
My brother had many loves and many passions.
Charlie grounded himself using physical activity: tennis with Roger, hiking, baseball, basketball, and track; ten and twenty mile runs in the Florida and Texas heat or Alaska’s sub-zero chill. He rode bikes long, long distances, raced in time trials—and he won the Nationals for Masters twice, before an accident, and again five years later. A young, uninsured driver had crossed into his lane and hit his bike head-on. He lay in a field of fire ants until he was life-flighted away.
But I get ahead of the story. In fact, I paint the wrong story. A recitation of feats, accomplishments, and near-misses is not warranted. It’s not the milestones of Charlie’s life that matter to me, it is the terrain he created. And I’m the one who is painting here.
What of the terrain of Charlie’s life? It was a rugged and beautiful world. He had valleys of comfort and peaks of exhilaration. His land showed protection and caring. It bore spots where any explorer would want to see what hid under the next log, or what loped beyond the horizon. His world was animated with rich settings and animals. It had lakes with their shore-line critters and their water-bound beasts. It had open air with birds that flit and feed, and earth with hooves upon it as well as claws, antennas, scales, and rattles upon.
His terrain was lively. Like Joe of our childhood, Charlie put his excitement into what he created. His terrain had Quiet Spots where he went to think. His created space to be bold, room to be irreverent, and room to bring friends along for what they needed, which was often someone to cheer them on. There were places to laugh out loud and other places to do what he wanted to do, which was sometimes a bit surprising. “Charlie is Charlie,” someone might laugh there.
Charlie was very quick in the mind and had endurance and strength in the body. His terrain reflected that. And yet, there were surprise softnesses in a driven land. He worked himself hard and was content. Perhaps sometimes his pleasure was in the first derivative. That is, rather than consider the absolute rise he was climbing he may have considered the constant rate of the rising plain. His terrain was genuine: no traps or guile. His terrain was a lovely place. I amend—is a lovely place.
~ ~ ~
What now? What of our common sense? Can I perhaps believe, deep in me, what I am writing here?
Our common sense was his, and mine. His he used with the world around him. With his, he changed the central tendency for people he interacted with—in his home, with his friends, with strangers. His common sense has spread. A new law, Charlie: sense is endlessly spreadable, like the red bath ring in The Cat in the Hat that spread to cover all the snow in the world. That is our type of common sense.
Our type of common sense is to go barefoot in shorts through the chaparral. Play Joe and Ellie in the suburbs. Beam each other regards with the moon. Have lighthearted thoughts, do serious work. More. Our common sense is to watch otters because they are beautiful. Pay attention to the world. An eagle flies by and tells me I am not always looking in the right direction. It tells me that good things can come when I am not looking for them. The eagle does not really tell me that—use our common sense! The eagle lets me lay out my thoughts and so then I can come to a conclusion. And further, I can realize that time rolls on in a life that I am still in.
“His land is your land, his land is my land:” that is my vision of our common sense. May our memories of Charlie help us be good people. May our memories let us rest with him in peace.
I miss you, Charlie, already, so much. I amend–we miss you, Charlie. So much.