Twin Brothers: a novel relationship

When I read the story of the twin brothers who had entered the Franciscan order to spend their lives in service to their fellow monks and subsequently died on the same day, I couldn’t help but think of the twin boys Esteban and Manuel, Thornton Wilder’s characters in his 1939 novella The Bridge at San Luis Rey.

Wilder writes: “They became vaguely attached to all the sacristies in town: they trimmed all the cloister hedges; they polished every possible crucifix; they passed a damp cloth once a year over most of the ecclesiastical ceilings….When the priest rushed through the streets carrying his precious burden into a sickroom either Esteban or Manuel was to be seen striding behind him, swinging a censer.”

According to the New York Times article, Brother Julian and Brother Adrian were workers, preparing the altar for chapel, chopping wood for kindling, exulting in ice cream at the Twist & Shake — the identical Riester twins were together, always.

“As they grew older, however, they showed no desire for the clerical life.  They gradually assumed the profession of the scribe.”

To dismiss the twins as blank slates would be to misjudge them; their simplicity had depth. Rarely speaking of yesterday, they lived in the God-given now.

“Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent.”

Here, then, were two shy men, surrounded by scholars, discouraged from speaking, uncertain what to say if given the chance, and yet confident that this was their calling.

“There was in them a curious shame in regard to their resemblance….From the years when they first learned to speak they invented a secret language for themselves, one that was scarcely dependent on the Spanish for its vocabulary, or even for its syntax.  They resorted to it only when they were alone, or at great intervals in moments of stress whispered it in the presence of others.”

Brother Julian became the sacristan, maintaining the chapel, and Brother Adrian became the chauffeur, but they also built the bookshelves and maintained the garden and cleared the growth from the shrines in the woods — and rarely spoke unless invited.

“This language was the symbol of their profound identity with one another, for just as resignation was a word insufficient to describe the spiritual change that came over the Marquesa de Montemayor on that night in the inn at Cluxambuqua, so love is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers.  What relationship is it in which few words are exchanged, and those only about the details of food, clothing and occupation; in which the two persons have a curious reluctance even to glance at one another?”

If they quarreled, Brother David said, “It would be over the measurement of a piece of wood.” And even then, it would be done silently: a slight cock of Julian’s head, to suggest that he didn’t agree with Adrian’s calculations.

“And yet side by side with this there existed a need of one another so terrible that it produced miracles as naturally as the charged air of a sultry day produces lightning.”

The Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan who spent a restful summer at the friary, became enchanted by the guileless twins, who seemed to embrace a deeper, ego-free reality.

“All the world was remote and strange and hostile except one’s brother.”

When Manuel dies from an infected cut on his knee, Esteban takes on his identity and tries to make sense of the world.  But his efforts are in vain.  He can no longer exist without his soul mate.  He perishes in the collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey.

Brother Julian and Brother Adrian died on the same day.  At 92 years of age, they died within hours of one another in keeping with a quiet life of doing most everything together at St. Bonaventure.

Brother Julian died in the morning and Brother Adrian died in the evening, after being told of Julian’s death. Few who knew them were surprised, and many were relieved, as it would have been hard to imagine one surviving without the other.

“We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

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Show me the way to go home

Like ghosts, late-morning mists hovered momentarily over the mountain, winding their way upward to lose themselves in the low-lying clouds. Up on the ridge the old tower stood stately firm, a shell of its former glory. We wound our way along the river road, the pavement still glazed from morning rains.

Down the interstate we flew, making the Pennsylvania border in record time, then coasted into Milford, where we turned southwest to begin the descent through the long green valley. Off to our left through the trees we caught glimpses of the grey Delaware. A wild turkey strutted through the brush; an oriole darted across the road into the trees. A short detour twisted through a stand of dense forest.

We turned off at Smithfield, picking up the shortcut that my uncle had told us about decades ago. Shortly, we glided over the crest of the hill and dropped down into the old town. We pulled into a parking space, crossed the street and slipped inside the church just in time to catch my cousin’s eulogy, the prayers, the creed, and a few familiar hymns from long ago.

The graveside interment was brief. The hillside lay dotted with flags freshly planted for the Memorial Day remembrance. We returned to our cars and headed out to the banquet facility on the hill.

I met my cousin at the entrance. “It was a good talk,” I told him.

“I almost didn’t get through it,” he said.

“You did fine. I liked your description of what it was like when your dad would get home at the end of the day, pulling into the driveway, jingling the change in his pocket, humming some old tune.”

“It was the best part of the day for him—and for us.”

We filed inside and found our seats at one of the long tables. It had been years—fourteen, in fact—since I had sat down to break bread with my extended family, the remnant of aunts, uncles and cousins I had grown up with. I shook hands and exchanged hugs, recalling snatches of their personal histories, knowing that they knew mine. Collectively, a family grows, breaks, gathers together to bind up its wounds and moves on.

We ate and reminisced, stood and shook hands, introducing ourselves to the younger set we hadn’t seen in years. Finally, before dessert, we sat to sing my uncle’s favorite, “Show me the way to go home.”

It was a shorter drive back up the valley to the interstate. Despite patches of heavy fog and steady rain along the extensive stretch of darkened highway, we navigated our way through the night back home.

The pond in winter

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep.” 
                                                                           —Thoreau

After my early morning workout in the pool, I stopped off to buy fresh-baked bread for the evening meal on my way home. My wife had just gotten up and stumbled into the kitchen where I was cleaning up the dregs of the previous evening’s holiday reverie. She poured herself a cup of coffee and retreated to the bedroom upstairs where my granddaughter was still asleep.

Later that morning my younger daughter and I took the dog out for a walk along the river. Several men wearing camouflage suits had set up a covey of decoys near the entrance to the cove across the river. We watched them as we stood on the frozen sand beach. The little white dog began to shiver in the cold air. My daughter bent down and scooped it up into her arms.

We retraced our steps back to the pond, now an unmarred glassy frozen surface that reflected the stark trees along its edge and the blue sky overhead.

“Do you think we can skate on it?” my daughter asked.

“The temperature’s been in the twenties for nearly two weeks. It must be several inches thick by now. Did you check to see if the skates fit?”

“No. I found them in a basket in the garage, but I didn’t try them on.”

“I found a pair of old hockey skates in the basement. They might fit somebody. If we could find a few suitable pairs, we could come down one evening when the moon is out and skate like we used to do when you and your sister were little. We could build a fire and make hot cocoa to stay warm.”

“That would be fun.”

We turned to go. I thought about skating on the pond in the moonlight with my daughters when they were little girls, holding each one by a mittened hand as we glided around the periphery, working to keep my balance when one or the other would stumble and tighten her grip.

Now my daughters are grown up. Other young men have come to hold their hands as they move in long graceful strides around more refined rinks.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon preparing the annual Christmas Eve meal. This year there were nine of us. Afterwards my granddaughter watched “A Christmas Story” on TV with my wife while my sons went to midnight mass. My daughters fell asleep early. I finished the dishes and said goodnight and climbed the stairs to bed.

It was a still winter night, unbroken except for a dream about skating in the moonlight on the pond.

Help me to not be afraid

Like all 4-year-olds, Skipper had his likes and dislikes, his favorite activities and things he would rather not do. Like most 4-year-olds, Skipper’s world consisted of family, friends, pre-school and home. And like few 4-year-olds, Skipper’s world came to a grinding halt when his doctor diagnosed him with a brain tumor.

Because of its location, the tumor was operable. The neurosurgical team labored over him for eight hours and succeeded in resecting the growth. Because the pathologist was unable to differentiate the cellular type, the slides were sent out to a world-renowned regional cancer center for review by the experts.  The results came back equivocal.

The parents were given the option of a short course of local radiation, an extended course of chemotherapy, or observation. Because of the side effect profiles, they elected to watch and wait. Unfortunately, the growth recurred.

This time round Skipper was enrolled in a chemotherapeutic protocol. Periodically, he would receive four days of toxic medications. These rounds were scheduled at monthly intervals. The initial treatment regimen knocked him down, but soon he was up and active again. The second round was worse. The morning before the trip to the hospital, Skipper’s grandmother was helping him to put on his socks when he made his small request: “Please, Grandma, help me to not be afraid.”

What do you say to a 4-year-old? What sort of reassurance do you offer? How far out on the limb do you go?

At that age, reassurance takes on the mantel of love. Words help, touch helps, doing an activity together helps. We work with whatever tools we have.

Sometime later after I heard this story, I drove to a local bookstore to browse the shelves in the children’s section. It proved difficult to locate a specific book, because they are categorized under different genres according to the perceptions of the adults who work in these areas. For the young child, a book is a story—nothing more, nothing less. Its category means nothing—it is only the story that holds meaning.

I made my selection and paid at the register. I laid the parcel on the seat beside me as I climbed into my car. I hand carried the book to the house that I had last visited years ago. Tucked in among the towering pines, it was still there, just as I had remembered it: neat and trim, well cared for.

With a short stammer of inadequate words I placed the gift into the hands of the grandmother I had come to know over the past decade. She invited me to come in, and we sat among the plants in the conservatory and talked a long while about children and grandchildren, parenting and grandparenting, love and tough love.

She gifted me a poem by one of her favorite writers, Wendell Berry.

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

At my age, reassurance takes on the form of caring. We learn to care for one another as best as we can, with whatever tools we can muster.

The Sensual Sea

When I was young, shortly after I turned twenty, I shipped out of Boston on a cutter bound for thirty-six days in the north Atlantic.  On the way out, we lay over for a night in St. Johns.  From the flying bridge I still recall seeing the red cliffs of Newfoundland rising suddenly out of the sea in the morning sun, still remember slipping through the tight channel into the calm water of the cozy port, still picture the quaint weathered houses packed side by side along the terraced streets above the harbor.

Later, on southern voyages, I would survey the swells of the Caribbean for giant sea turtles while flying fish darted out from the bow as it surged through the blue water.  Watching the swells rise and fall away at your feet, you understood what sailors meant when they said that the sea breathed.

Hemingway wrote that la mar is what the Cuban pescadores call the sea when they love her.  For his old man, the sea was always feminine, even though in the Spanish language the sea is traditionally masculine, el mar.  “The old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.”

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda incorporated sensual sea imagery into many of his compositions.  Here is an excerpt from his piece Oda al Mar (Ode to the Sea):

El mar
y cuánto mar
se sale de sí mismo
a cada rato,
dice que sí, que no,
que no, que no, que no,
dice que si, en azul,
en espuma, en galope,
dice que no, que no.
No puede estarse quieto,
me llamo mar, repite
pegando en una piedra
sin lograr convencerla —

“The sea moves in and out of itself each moment, saying first yes, then no; then no, no, no; then yes, in blue, in churning foam; then no, no. The sea can’t stay still: ‘My name is Sea’ it repeats, slapping against the rocks without convincing them.”

As a young man, Melville shipped out of Nantucket on a whaler and didn’t return for three years.  His nautical experiences aboard the Acushnet formed the basis for many of the narrative scenes in Moby Dick.  Here he records an impression of the sea in a chapter entitled “The Symphony”:

It was a clear steel-blue day.  The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.

Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.

But though thus contrasting within, the contrast was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.

Aloft, like a royal czar and kind, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold and rolling sea; even as bride to groom.  And at the girdling line of the horizon, a soft and tremulous motion—most seen here at the equator—denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.

For those inclined to go down to the sea in boats, masculine or feminine, there is nothing asexual about the sea.

Requiem for a flower

Sixteen years ago on my desk it appeared:
A gift from my parents
To celebrate my new position,
A fresh chapter in my medical career—
A peace lily plant, young and tender,
With one newly formed white flower.

The plant continued to thrive,
Unfolding a white blossom once
Every three to five years.
Periodically I repotted the tangled roots
To accommodate its towering sedge-like stalks.

Just this month, a week before my daughter’s wedding,
It bloomed again—
The white flower unfurling like a flag,
Its cylindrical core dusting lush green languorous leaves
With powdered sugary seed.

I returned after my week away,
After attending wedding guests
And ferrying family from
Hostel to home and back again,
To find the listless brown-edged leaves of the peace lily
Draped across the carpet:
The white flower wilted, now edged in black.

Immediately I saturated the potted earth
With cup after overflowing cup
Until the water seeped through the soil
And percolated to the base of the pot.

Afterwards on my desk I found
A news clipping published the previous week,
Deposited there in my absence,
Bearing the obituary of the mother
Of two boys and a girl—three of my patients—
Deceased at age 42
From cancer of the colon.
Her face stared coyly out at me:
A black & white photograph
Depicting what I reckoned to be
A newly-wed young woman.

This morning the peace plant’s ragged leaves
Stand nearly erect,
Revived by living water;
While the wilted white & black flower,
Bowed in permanent prayer,
Has given up the Ghost.

Copyright©2009 by Brian T. Maurer

Where a story begins

Remarks made by the father of the bride at a 2009 Columbus Day weekend wedding.

When I say that each one of you has journeyed a long way to come here today, I don’t necessarily refer to physical distance.  Of course, some of you have traveled a long way:  some have come from Florida, some from Cuba, some from England.  Others have journeyed from Iran, and from Galicia, that Celtic region on the northwest coast of Spain.  And there are those who have traveled from that far-off exotic land known as Pennsylvania.  Each one of you has made a conscious decision to meld your story into this story, the one we are celebrating today.

Where does a story begin?

It begins thirty-four years ago when a young man steps off a bus in a small village on the northwest coast of Spain, and a young woman emerges from the shadows of a doorway to meet him; and they walk arm in arm down a rain-drenched cobblestone street underneath an umbrella.

Where does a story begin?

It begins twenty-seven years ago when, after a month of working 100-hour weeks in the hospital, coming home only to eat and sleep, a man hears his wife tell him that she’s going to have a baby; and the only regret the husband has is that somehow he can’t seem to remember the moment of conception.

Where does a story begin?

It begins nine years ago when a father wakens his 18-year-old daughter before first light and the two of them drive six hours to visit a college nestled in the farmland of central Pennsylvania; when, after viewing the campus, the daughter says, “Dad, I think this might be the place for me.”

Where does a story begin?

It begins one year ago when a slightly anxious young woman accepts an offer by a slightly nervous young man to enter in to a partnership to try to make something good together in this life.

Fall is the best time of year, when the leaves show their true colors and drift down to blanket our roads and our pathways.  Fall is the best time of year, when the air turns crisp and the fields turn golden brown; and the apples are red and ripe and ready for picking.  And despite what the common folk might say, fall is the best time of year for a wedding, because of all the seasons it is the most poetic.

Yesterday the rain was falling.  A woman at work told me to hang a rosary on every window of our house to ward off the rain.  I didn’t take her up on the suggestion.

But earlier today, when I stood before the mirror to fasten the tie around my neck and tug at the edge of my vest, I noticed the raindrops on the window pane.  Two drops quivered next to one another, uncertain of their fate.  Then they melded into one and flowed effortlessly down the glass.

Like raindrops on a window, like rivulets in a brook that eventually make their way to the sea, our stories flow into one another until they become that one universal story that is told over and over, again and again.  In the end it doesn’t really matter whether you hail from Pennsylvania or Florida, Cuba or England, Iran or Spain—the story is the same.

Where does a story begin?

The answer is simple:  it begins here, it begins now.  For now is the moment when nothing remains of yesterday’s rain but an opening in the sky, a patch of blue and the promise of a new story—perhaps a poem—which my daughter and my son-in-law stand poised, ready to write together.