Friday, November 30, 2012

I Wish My Brother Steve Was Here

There's a hole in my life the exact shape of my big brother Steve.
I think as a fitting end to my month of reflection, I look back at an event that's having its 20th anniversary next week. 
This is the story of the time I nearly died... and didn't even know it. 

In December of 1992 my parents and I flew down to the Grand Cayman Islands to visit my brother Steve who was living there at the time. My brother, ten years my senior, was something of an adventurer. A boat captain, scuba instructor, underwater photographer, airplane pilot and submarine pilot, skydiver, etc. I've never met anyone more resourceful, but he could also be somewhat reckless. At least in my mother's eyes.

One day we all decided to go out into the ocean and hand feed raw chicken to wild stingrays. Now that may not sound like something the average person might consider doing on a lazy afternoon, but we were in the Caymans and Steve said it would be cool. So why not.

Now, Steve lived on the west coast of the island (Seven Mile Beach, north of George Town) and the area where the rays typically conjugated was around the north rim. He didn't own a car. Just commuted to work in his orange rubber raft with a wooden bottom and outboard motor. (Ahhhh, island life.) My parents and I had rented a car during our stay. Yet I decided to go with Steve in the raft (the long way there) while mom and dad took the car (the shortcut). 

Um, sounded like a good idea at the time. 

We had to go out to sea quite a bit to avoid a dangerous shallow reef that straddled the coastline.  Apparently jagged coral and rubber rafts don't mix. I think Steve had a good laugh at my expense. He sat in the steady stern and piloted the motor while I had to cling to the bouncing bow (the leading edge). Like a bucking bronco I road that raft for an hour or so through rough seas. With battered knees and bruised shins we finally reached our destination. It felt like an hour spent inside a spinning laundry dryer. Even without the chicken, swimming with wild hungry stingrays seemed like a pleasant alternative to another hour on "raging bull".          

The stingrays are so numerous the locals refer to this area of ocean as "Stingray City". Now I've seen recent photos of a sandbar where tourists can actually stand and interact with them, but where we went there was no sand. It was deep dark ocean. Looking straight down my pale legs were silhouetted against total blackness. The rays began to circle us by the dozen and eventually, overcome by curiosity, they would start to bump into us. As if testing us. If you held your hand out flat like a plate, and pinched the raw chicken up between your fingers they would "float" over your hand and suck it up like a vacuum. With your other hand you could gently pet them. Once they realized what we were doing, they swarmed us by the hundreds.

The little ones were the most forceful of the bunch. Constantly bumping or rubbing against us. My attention would be focused on trying to feed a large ray with one hand, petting him with the other, all the while juggling my container of chicken, my snorkel, my waterproof camera, and trying to keep an eye on the yellow nylon rope I'm supposed to be holding so I don't drift too far away. It only took a minute and I'd look up and the boat was 100 yards away and I'd have to swim against ocean current to get back. The yellow rope is your friend. Hold onto it. Gotta remember that.  

I kept feeling things brush against my legs. First thought: was that a shark?, or was that a shark? Even turning around to try to see what just touched you wasn't easy and the thing would be gone by then anyway. Eventually, with all the chicken gone, and still in the middle of the feeding frenzy, we decided to head back home while all of our fingers were still attached. I declined my brother's thoughtful offer to ride the laundry dryer back home. Instead, I took the ten minute car ride with my folks.          

This is when something happened.
An hour later, Steve didn't show up at his condo.
We waited.
Two hours later... nothing. 
Now it was dark.
My mom was getting really worried.
I don't remember him even having lights on his raft. But I'm not sure, maybe he did.

I think he finally pulled his raft up the beach at his condo 3 or 4 hours later.
He seemed tired, but stated he "took the scenic route".
Mom was happy he was home safe and nothing more was said about it. 
(Anyway it was more unusual for Steve to be early to something, than late.)
Then he said, "Do you guys wanna get up at dawn, wade out into the ocean and feed dog biscuits to giant wild sea tortoises". Of course we did. And that was also pretty cool. 

I had wondered why he was so late coming home. But eventually forgot about it.
Seventeen years later I would unexpectedly finally discover the startling reason for his late arrival. 
But only after Steve's funeral.

Two years after the "stingray buffet" my mother passed away. 

Fifteen years after that, Steve passed on. Right after his 50th birthday.

After a month or so, we began sorting my brothers belongings. I found a strange trunk. Inside were personal items (a photo album, what appeared to be old hand-written love letters, a VHS video tape, an old driver's license, etc.) But they did not belong to my brother. He apparently had been storing these items for someone else. Possibly it was someone he knew from Grand Cayman. All of the items were about twenty years old. Luckily there was a name.

I decided to try my best to locate this person. The items weren't valuable per say. But to Steve's friend, they may have some sentimental value at the very least. They certainly could not be replaced. After some searching on the Internet I located the mystery man now living on the West Coast of the United States. We spoke on the phone and I informed him of Steve's passing and got his address so I could ship him the box. 

Often at funerals people get to reminiscing about the deceased, sharing stories and everyone learns things they never knew. And probably would never have known. Well, Steve's friend was very appreciative of my actions to return his stuff, and as we talked at length he told me about how he knew my brother on the island and how Steve had mentioned his "closest call" with death.

Now "close calls" were nothing new for Steve. An airplane he was piloting had to make a crash landing in the Chesapeake Bay (he was rescued by the Coast Guard). He was captaining a large sailboat that went down in the Bermuda Triangle (rescued by a passing oil tanker). He injured his leg repelling into a volcano (who does that?) and had to be airlifted out. He was bitten by a shark while feeding it (how ungrateful). And also bitten by a moray eel. He totalled at least two cars in serious auto accidents. He dislocated his shoulder skiing. Suffered a serious concussion while water skiing. Steve had to escape guard dogs in a junk yard after being locked in by the absent-minded owner (he didn't remember Steve was still in there). And he was attacked by an entire roving pack of wild dogs on Grand Cayman. etc. etc. Yes, it seemed Death had been stalking Steve for a long time. But he had to slow down for ole Mr. Reaper to catch up.

I knew about all those stories from Steve (and others). But what the man on the other end of the phone told me was a shock. He said Steve told him years ago, that he almost died on his way home after feeding stingrays with his parents. He had hit a large wave and it flipped the raft upside down. At the time there was very little development on that part of the shoreline and he couldn't see any lights from the island. After an hour of bobbing in rough seas he didn't know which way was land. And he struggled and struggled for hours to right the raft by himself in heavy swells. Apparently it wasn't his "time" and he was finally able to get the raft flipped and even got the motor started in total darkness. He lost all supplies in the raft. Obviously he didn't spill the beans to mom and dad for fear of their reaction. But then it dawned on me why he never confided in me either. I would've most likely drowned that night. Had I chosen to ride with him. Steve was a better ocean swimmer than I was at that time. And if he barely made it. It's not likely I would have survived to blog about it today. 

What a frightening way to go. All alone out in the ocean at night.

In the end Steve died while hiking a mountain with his best friend. Doing what he loved.

I knew for a long time he wouldn't leave this astral plane from a hospital bed. 

The untold mysteries of my brother unfold slowly and in surprising ways. 
I wonder what I have yet to discover about Steve.

Or what the future will reveal about me, after I'm gone. 
Here's a sketch I made of  Steve's "ocean backyard" at the time.

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