I rounded a large boulder with heavy steps that propelled small clouds of dust from under my feet. I came to a small stream, water curling gently over the stones that paved its course. Kneeling for a drink and a brisk face-rinse, I caught my reflection in the rippling surface. Matted hair, sweat and water carving trails through a thin layer of dirt on my chin. Rising slowly to stand, I pulled out the map and jotted a few details of the surrounding terrain and the serpentine stream that coiled its way through the landscape. Pausing to give the map a final, satisfied glance, I spied more twisting, incomplete lines in a lower corner of the page: More rivers. Maybe, even, the same one. Smiling at the thought, I folded the map, brushed the dust from my arms, and carefully crossed the stream using the protruding rocks and logs as a bridge. A large incline rose from the earth ahead, a steep hill of boulders and trees that wore hanging moss like old women draped with elegant shawls. The trail carved a switchback formation that wound its way to the top in ever-tightening coils like a wound spring. Half-way to the top, a sing-song melody naturally whistled its way through my lips; a tune that came from the dusty yet cherished archives of memory. Rounding each switchback, the tune reverberated off of the hills and boulders in the distance. Nearing the top, the music seemed to ring with a boldness that was perhaps an amplified echo of nature. I suddenly became aware that the ‘echo’ was another whistler, harmonizing with me from somewhere nearby. The song seemed to be drifting down from the top of the hill. The tune was being finished with all of its familiar melodic twists and decorations as I began jogging, then bounding up the last length of the incline. Climbing over the protruding ridge of roots and rocks, my accompanist was finally in full view as the concluding notes were carried away on the breeze. I stood silent at an apparent crossing of two trails where a figure stood in the middle. As we faced one another, a smile crept across both of our grimy faces like the morning sun breaking the night horizon. The hills that once echoed with an old tune now rang with the renewed laughter of two companions, reunited at last.
So those were Nathan’s duties and mine was to make my bed.
My respect of lawnmowers was a lesson that I conveniently learned from a distance. In retrospect, watching my brother was like watching someone maneuver through an obstacle course while waiting for my turn to jump through those same hoops. As I observed his maneuvers through the obstacles that would come my way in five years, I made subconscious notes that informed how I would handle those same challenges. Some of my notes included:
- When old enough to use a lawnmower, don’t.
- When given the opportunity to spend money on car maintenance, new shoes, or anything in general, don’t.
- When given the opportunity to sleep, do.
Such a lesson came on a summer afternoon in the mid 1990s.
Mind you, I have no recollection of the ensuing. Just as I had taken meticulous notes as I watched Nathan swing through life’s grand obstacle course, he apparently took full advantage of his elder-child benefit as he turned and watched my performance. The following is an except from his notes which, I imagine, are scribed in the pages of his memory with hi-lighted segments, minutely detailed bullet points, and statements like “See Figure 1.A,” with arrows directing the reader to a sketched drawing of the detail in reference.
There was an old exercise trampoline at our house for quite some time. It was personal-sized and quite small. I believe it came to us from a pile of used items at the town transfer station where things like appliances and furniture were both orphaned and adopted, often within the same day. Such was the case with this small, blue trampoline when it arrived to us. There were no overt signs of wear, save for a slight pinking of the blue foam-padded vinyl skirt that ran around its circumference and some rusting on the stout, metal legs.
I had always wanted a trampoline as a child. The first time I jumped on one that was full-size, tumbling through the air, flipping and twirling, I was taken. Visiting a friend’s house for the first time could be quite a gamble if they had a trampoline. If I spied, through a kitchen window overlooking the backyard, a corner of that vast, black, polypropylene launch-pad, beckoning me to explore the heavens, the world stopped. My mouth would freeze mid-sentence, whatever my hands were holding dropped (be it a backpack, priceless vase, or puppy), and my feet carried me directly towards the trampoline (I often had to be pushed sideways towards an open door for my feet would not stop walking even if a wall barred my path). Soon I would be lost in rapturous laughter as I took flight, my friend watching from a safe distance. Bounding higher and higher with every leap brought new levels of joy that I did not know were possible. I saw a world of possibility and exploration opening up around me. Being alive was art and I would not, could not put the paintbrush down.
Our trampoline was not like that. Jumping straight up-and-down on it was like trying to achieve lift from new pavement. Needless to say it was rarely used. However, Nathan and I found that if you took a running start and flying leap to it, you could gain a few inches of air. We incorporated this discovery into our past-time of playing catch. There is a sloping hill in the front yard of my parent’s house that has two distinct inclines with a slight plateau in between. The hill was nicknamed “Mount Larson” by my cousins and other kids from the neighborhood who carved criss-crossing sled trails in its snow-blanketed surface in the winter. This particular summer afternoon, Nathan and I were taking turns being thrower and catcher. The thrower stood at the bottom of the hill and heaved the football up-hill towards the catcher at the top who would dash toward the trampoline, bounce off of it, and catch the ball in mid-air. Requiring accuracy of aim for the thrower and timing for both, it was a fun game and adequately challenging.
It was my turn to be the catcher. I readied myself at the top of the hill in the kind of hunched, forward slant that runners position themselves into when awaiting the starting bell of an Olympic sprint. I had strategically aligned Nathan and the trampoline in my sight. The trampoline was a black-and-blue badge against the sloping green grass and Nathan, a small blur of color in the distance, was poised at the ready with the football. I licked my finger and put it to the air to test the wind. Doing so carried no particular purpose that I was aware of and no data that could be gained from the experiment would have altered my strategy one iota. But to the seven year-old who had seen big people do things like that in movies, it was absolutely crucial to success.
As my finger dried to its former state, I heard Nathan’s voice carried on the breeze like a trumpet: “Three! Two! One! GO!”
I took off. My velcro-strapped shoes drove into the ground hard, leaving divots in my wake, clumps of fresh grass flinging into the air behind me. I saw the distant blur of Nathan’s arm winding back for the throw as the trampoline approached my feet. Though adrenaline was pumping through my system at break-neck speed, the following progression of events seemed to occur in slow motion: My hands were pumping alternately in my peripheral vision, my heartbeat and exerted breathing the only audible sounds in my ears.
As I leapt for the trampoline I could see waves of grass bending slowly in the breeze like a stadium crowd craning their heads in-sync as a jet flies overhead. The football left Nathan’s hand in the distance and began spinning toward me like a torpedo, casting translucent ripples of sound-barrier disturbances as it travelled. Then, all was silent as I glided through the air and prepared my feet to press against the canvas. This was the stillness before the storm, the choked breath before the plunge, the silence of a world that watches from the wings as greatness is born.
A strange sensation ripped my focus off of the football. Where I should have felt trampoline fabric conforming to my shoes and lifting me upward, I felt a the hard-rounded surface of a metal bar wrapped in padded vinyl. I had over-shot my leap and landed on the far edge of the trampoline.
Allow me a brief pause here: Remember the great and terrible responsibility that comes to all older siblings that I had mentioned earlier? This is the very moment where that mantle had been thrust upon Nathan. You see, in a different dimension of sorts, I had just entered a classroom, sat down in an upright posture, and folded my hands across the desk. I was embarking on a lesson in physics that could not be taught with all the words, formulas, and textbooks the world had to offer. Nathan’s duty at this moment was to bear witness to the fact that I would learn this lesson at the hands of a very experiential teacher. He fulfilled his task that day and still, on occasion, recounts it with the pride of a war veteran.
The slow-motion effect came to an abrupt halt and the rest of the scene progressed in the ungraceful tempo of real-time. The force of my false-landing on the bar propelled the opposite end of the trampoline upward. The back of the trampoline came to rest upright on its edge after cracking against the back of my head with a metallic CHINK. In immediate succession, the football, well-aimed and timed, delivered itself to my face with a leathery FWHAP where my ready-to-catch hands should have been. My arms dutifully wrapped themselves around my head (though a bit late) and I, miraculously conscious, fell to the ground and began tumbling down the hill like a misshapen log. Through my bewildered yelps that jolted in pitch as I rolled and thudded against the ground, I began to understand the lesson being taught to me and why I was not, at this very moment, being paraded through the neighborhood; football firmly in hand, ribbons and confetti being thrown at my feet.
I finally came to a flopping stop at the bottom of the hill and lay on my stomach. My vision was blurry but slowly came into focus. I could see Nathan’s figure at the bottom of the driveway coming towards me, his arms waving and pointing. He was shouting something but my ears seemed to be waking up from a dream and could only pick-up the muffled timbre of his voice. The lesson seemed to be over and I resolved to get up, dust myself off, and walk away a changed and knowledgeable young boy. As I prepared to do so, I turned just in time to see the blue disc of the of the trampoline that, after uprighting itself against my head, had apparently chased me down the hill after courteously granting me a head-start. It had been speeding relentlessly after me, rolled over my head with a CRUNCH that pressed my face into the grass, and fell onto its flat upside with the finality of a thick, closed textbook at the end of a cold and unforgiving lesson.
In the moment, scenarios like this are exceedingly embarrassing, which is possibly part of the reason I could not recall it. The suave dude in my brain conveniently decided to sweep it under the rug of forgetfulness while combing his hair with a squinty-eyed, James Dean-esque gaze in the opposite direction. Or maybe when the trampoline rolled over my head, it mashed the “delete” key on my mental keyboard. Regardless, I am glad that Nathan was there to record it for me. I cherish the story and the fact that it is a shared one between my brother and I.
The fact that I wouldn’t have remembered this story is it were not for him is one matter. But the even greater matter is the fact that it wouldn’t have happened without him at all. Nathan is a natural leader whose ideas are so contagious that you can’t help but climb aboard. It was his idea for us to play football and it was his idea to incorporate that accursed trampoline. I would not have naturally picked up a football and wandered around until I found someone to play catch with. I probably would have sat around in my PJs all day playing Mario and never making it past the first few levels (don’t judge, video games were hard back then). Nathan and I have a wealth of memories; full of laughter, some tears, and always those sheepish, remember-that-time-when kind of grins.
In my opinion a rich life is one that is full of experiences and people. Often those two go hand-in-hand. Rich is the key word that brings me to the title of this post, “Get rich off of the people who love you.” I must apologize for promoting such a myopic and narrow-minded focus. You should get rich off of everyone else too. It is not just the people closest to us that help us line the pockets of our memory and fatten our life-wallet with meaning; sometimes it is the strangers and the people we’ll never see again that add to our lives. You never know what your life would be like if you didn’t experience the cruelty and rejection of the “in” crowd, if you didn’t receive a refreshing smile from a fellow pedestrian on the street on that one, awful day, or if you didn’t find yourself challenged to stand up for right when a wrong was being done in front of you.
I don’t think we’ll get to the end of this journey and say things like, “Man I wish I had isolated myself just a little bit more.” It is the people that join us on the trail, briefly or for the long-haul, that are often the best at reminding you just how beautiful this whole journey is:
“Whoa, look at that valley! Let’s go over there and check it out”
“Remember when we had to sleep in that cave and didn’t think we’d survive? Good times right?”
“I’m so glad there’s a river here, I’m thirsty…”
In our own words, we hear and say things like this to memorialize and raise awareness of the things in our lives that matter, both past and present. These are the quotes we scribble into the margins of our maps, with arrows pointing to their respective points along the trail. Often, we compare our maps with our fellow companions, pointing and remarking about how similar our trails have been in some places and how different in others.
I have a brother and I love him dearly. He enriches my life. Nathan is hiking a different trail than mine but they are connected. They weave in and out of each other like vines stretching from the same patch of soil. My map would not be what it is today without him. Or without you. Thank you.