A secret fear

Today, October 24th, is my big brother Chris’ birthday, he would have been sixty five years old today. I wrote this short memoir in 2017, it was published at Reedsy.com in February of 2020. In celebration of this wonderful man who swirled up to the heavens in July of 2010, here is “A Secret Fear”:

My late brother Chris and I were having a conversation one of those many times at the end of the day when he needed a toke.  I would light up the joint, hold it to his lips, then pull it away after he inhaled.  He would hold onto the smoke for a minute, exhale, then take a second, then a third.  I’d puff on it sometimes, but home was twenty to forty minutes away by car.  He lived up in the Oakland Hills, and I had to get back to San Francisco.  Nowadays, you can count on an hour or more in travel time anytime you have to cross the Bay.

I don’t know how he persevered with such kindness and grace.  He was the best one of us three, a healthy normal boy until the accident that left him a quadriplegic at fourteen.  We passed the time with gallows humor.  

I’d say “Hey you, here’s the good news, at least you’re not a blind quadriplegic – that would be worse.”  And Chris would say “I feel lucky, oh so lucky.” and we’d snort-laugh. 

With the award he won against PG&E in the lawsuit over the fall, he bought a house and moved up the hill with a live-in attendant.  Eventually, my mother and stepfather moved into his big house after selling their bungalow down the hill for a profit.  They built in an artist’s studio, a formal dining room, and separate quarters with the proceeds.  It was a symbiotic arrangement, they relied on each other.  It worked because Chris was so easy to get along with.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know before:  I was The Normal One.  I stayed in school, did my homework, did my chores, went to college on scholarship, earned a Master’s degree, worked in banking, made a good living, married well.

“Third time’s the charm, man.  Mom finally got it right when I popped out,” I would jokingly brag to my brother.

When we were kids, Chris and I ran away from home together.  The first born, our older sister was an emotional maelstrom of destruction.  She would hit us until we bruised.  The family was always walking oh so carefully on the shattered glass of the broken trusts she never apologized for.  Being only five and seven years old, we managed to trudge the few miles to Grandma Benjamin’s house.  She of course finked us out to Mom, who was frantic.  For a little while, Valerie withheld her blows, but never really stopped. 

When I was twelve, Chris was severely disabled, needing attendant care every day, a tough responsibility to put on a kid, but (there will always be a psychic but in this story) I loved him and we had this mutual disregard for our older sister and super corny jokes we’d tell each other and snicker over as I was rolling him over and changing the linens on his special medical bed.

I distinctly remember this conversation, one of those nights when there was nothing on TV, we chatted about this and that while I fished out the roach clip and we finished that joint getting more and more real as the Zig Zag paper curled brown around the edges.  I had killed a spider in his bathroom earlier and we were parsing the finer points of just where such a mighty huntress should carve her notches, when he asked, all serious, 

“So Catherine, what are you afraid of?” 

“Being average” I declared.

“No, REALLY afraid of?  I know it’s not spiders”, he asked, then he slid into patiently waiting mode while I squirmed.

“Really, really, deep down”?

“Yes.”

“My own anger.”

“Now that is truthful, how come?”

“It’s poisonous Chris, I’ll slice and dice your heart and hand it back to you all fricasseed.  My anger could burn bridges, decimate towns, ground planes, trains and automobiles.  I think it’s why my tummy is so upset all the time, all the anger I’ve swallowed, ‘ya know, it burns.”

He nodded sagely and reassured me that I could never do or say anything that would keep him from loving his little sister.

He’s been gone nearly ten years and what I know now that I didn’t know then is how much insanity is inheritable. 

If two suicides in a three-son family isn’t proof of bat shit crazy, I don’t know what is.  Grandpa Benjamin killed himself at 54 years old, July 5th, 1952.  His brother Lawrence had done the same six years earlier on June 20th 1946.  They both fought in both World Wars.  Imagine fighting in The Great War, the War to End All Wars, it was called back then, only to find yourself re-enlisting for the SECOND World War.  Great Uncle Lawrence was a soldier all his adult life and survived less than a year after his honorable discharge.  Grandpa Benjamin was an undiagnosed manic depressive who inherited the straight razor that Lawrence had used to slit his throat.  He then proceeded to abandon all four of his children and his wife to attend Clemson University.  He had a fresh GED diploma, and with nary a thought for his family, proceeded to lie to the local paper about how he was interested in meeting the “pretty ladies”.  He finished one semester, then went missing.  After seven days of searching, their oldest freshman ever was discovered in the woods, throat slashed, straight razor still in the grip of his right hand.  The same one.  I know that because he bragged about having it to a roommate in the men’s dormitory, and that guy was interviewed.

Of course, I didn’t know all of this back then, neither did Chris because nobody talked about mental illness, the VA did not acknowledge PTSD as a condition and the burden and the blame was laid upon my grandmother an underpaid Registered Nurse, a healer who in the end couldn’t heal her husband.  I am angry and I am afraid of being too angry – how far is homicide from suicide?  And how far is one woman’s angry outburst from her being hauled off to the Looney Bin? 

Us Benjamin women, I suppose, need a calm counterbalance to our too-easily wounded souls.  We cope, we love with reservations, jump in when the whole shimmy shimmy ko ko pop, devil-may-care dances come along, and we spin, sweat and forget.  But the devil does care, and he takes our men to hell after first driving them crazy. 

Published by Ms. C. G. Tripp

Catherine G. Tripp, Writer/Investor a lifelong mix. Left brain and right brain battle for dominance. I wrote the marketing materials for my mortgage brokerage, had a personal finance column at Examiner.com, wrote essays, short stories and poems published in school papers and magazines then literary journals. If my writings were a color, they would be yellow, bright as sunlight, highlighting the salient portions, not obscuring the past but deconstructing air brushed stories, finding humor and courage in the unloved corners.

9 thoughts on “A secret fear

  1. catherine i love you, the honesty u display at times is so brutal and i love it. i was right there wit you guys and i love you for it. he was a very good buddy,

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  2. I didn’t know that family history. Can you email me a copy of that story? I would like to have it.
    I loved your brother, the times I got to visit with him in the Hills were some of my favorite childhood memories. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was very kind.

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  3. Thank you for sharing such a precious and devastating part of your self. I’m sure your brother approves of your ‘high’ esteem of him.

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  4. Your writing brings me to the edge, makes me sit up on my chair and pay attention. Yes, your honesty can be brutal, but it is quite refreshing. I love it!

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  5. Oh, I had such a crush on Chris. I was too shy to ever talk much, so even though I knew him, I really didn’t get to know him. Thank you for sharing this story. I know people who are afraid of their own anger (including me) and we all try so hard. I finally found my anger expression that does not hurt others. I picture myself as a dragon, breathing fire in the sky; and I purse my lips tightly together and blow fiercely. It’s amazing how that helps my body release the harmful biochemistry of anger.

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  6. Wow. Quite a story !
    I learned a lot about you
    and your family. There’s
    A lot more stories to tell.
    Imma gonna read the others
    You’re a strong lady.
    Thanx

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  7. I have an old plaque with the following inscription “Pain Medication: Take one shot of whiskey every 15 minutes until no pain is felt.” I had a neighbor when I was a child who also had served in both wars. He was a dentist before the first world war and built his house with his own 2 hands. He was wounded in WWI but enlisted in WWII when his son was drafted. He thought they could be in the same unit and he could look out for him. His son spent most of his time in the brig in the US, never saw action. Dad went to Europe and was wounded again. When I knew him he was in a wheelchair and had little use of his hands, and could barely speak. The irony of life.

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