It was Monday, April 9, 2007. I'd been in the hospital for six days and I was getting tired of it. I finally had the packing out of my nose and I'd been able to take a few walks around the surgical ward. If all went well, I might get out of the hospital the next day, although I was still hooked up to multiple machines most of the time.
My brother Mike came over to the hospital to visit. I'm 12 years older than Mike; we are the bookends of Ed and Mary Jane's six surviving children. As Mike grew up, I had been a somewhat distant figure to him. I'd gone off to college the same year he entered kindergarten, so while we'd spend time together, I didn't get to see him grow up.
One of my favorite memories of Mike's childhood was the time he'd set off on the Greyhound bus at the age of 13 to visit his big brother in the big city of Chicago. We had timed his arrival to coincide with the end of my work day. In those days, the bus station was on Randolph Street in Chicago and it was a little seedy. Mike's bus had arrived a little early and I found him wandering around the waiting area, clutching an enormous 3-ring binder full of baseball cards and carrying an overnight bag that looked to have the storage capacity of a carton of Yoplait. You could tell he was a little scared, but he was ready for an adventure.
That would have been 1989. A lot would change quickly after that. The next year we lost our Dad, which left Mike without a father at a crucial time, just as he was entering the miasma of high school. The future Mrs. D and I would marry the following year and we moved to Minnesota the year after that. We'd continue to see Mike here and there, but I was still a distant figure. Mike eventually made his way to Minneapolis in 1995 and earned his degree from the University of Minnesota. He had often thought about returning to Wisconsin, or perhaps seeking out new adventures elsewhere, but he stayed and established himself here.
As the years went on, Mike became a big part of our family. My kids don't get to see their other aunts and uncles that often, but Uncle Mike has been a constant and reassuring presence in their lives. He's the guy who wouldn't hesitate to get on the ride with them at the State Fair, or to take them to a Twins game. In many ways, he is the ideal uncle.
Now, some 18 years after I'd found him wandering around the Greyhound station, we were sitting in a hospital room in St. Paul. And in some respects, the sibling roles were reversed. I faced a long recovery period and an uncertain future. And now, at this moment, he sensed that I was the one who needed reassurance.
We chatted as the Twins took on the hated Yankees in the Metrodome. In what turned out to be a short-lived experiment, the Twins had sent an erratic righthander named Sidney Ponson to the mound, while the Yankees had sent another erratic (and injury-prone) righthander, some guy named Carl Pavano, who had become the subject of great ridicule in the tabloids.
The game was a trainwreck for the the Twins, as it usually is when the Yankees are the opponent. But that didn't really matter very much. What mattered was that my brother was there and he was optimistic.
The conversation was typically male. We might not say anything for a few minutes, but then there'd be a burst.
"My God, this guy is useless. I can't believe the Twins signed Sidney Freaking Ponson," I said.
"It could be worse. At least the Twins didn't blow $40 million on Carl Pavano," Mike replied.
It was hard to argue with that.
"So, do you think the headaches are going to be going away," Mike asked.
"Two doctors say yes, but one says no. I sure the hell hope so."
"I've got other headaches, though, Mike."
"I know. Look, I know that you've been having a rough stretch here, but you're going to figure it out, Mark. It's not as if you've become stupid."
"Well, at least no more stupid than I usually am," I replied.
He thought about that for a minute. They he looked at me and lowered his eyes just a little bit.
"You haven't been saying that in the job interviews, have you?"
I laughed, but I recognized that he was making a point. If you don't have faith in yourself, people pick up on that. There's a small margin between self-deprecation and self-doubt. And while self-doubt is understandable at times, you have to manage it. Had I forgotten that?
We watched the game for a while longer. The Yankees were laying waste to Ponson and the Twins weren't getting anywhere. We mostly just shot the breeze for the rest of the evening. But the needle that my brother had applied that evening had significantly more meaning than all the hypodermics that had been stuck into my arms over the past two weeks.
Next -- getting out and facing the world