Earlier this year when my brother nearly died, my German friend gave me one of her native words. Lebemensch. A person blessed with a voracious hunger for life. Literal translation: Life Person.
To me, my brother’s death had been as impossible as the death of the sun; a whole forever away. He was that sure thing I had orbited around - suddenly collapsing.
Both my younger sisters and I beam around my brother. When we are all home, we squish our bodies together on the couch where my brother insists on braiding our hair into some obscure concoction. His clumsy lack of know-how is refreshing; he seems to know how to do everything else. We gravitate around his quiet confidence, the flash of his dimples when we amuse him, his ability to fix anything, and everyone.
My brother works as an emergency room doctor. He spends his days meeting people in their worst moments, sometimes their last. I think what makes him special is his ability to stitch a moment together as smartly as one must stitch a suture through skin. In the presence of pain, he crafts what’s needed. A smile, a joke, or a personal question like an open door to somewhere better. Then he does the work of blood, and bone, and body.
At the bookstore as kids, my brother would pace around, flummoxed by the enormity of the choices. It was as if he felt his radiating potential constrained by the bookends of time. A fact he sought to alter. It’s the Abraham Maslow quote that “the basic human predicament is we are simultaneously worms and gods.”
He often handed my dad disaster scenario books for purchase. Diagrams to study for when horrific events unfold or instructions for how to jump out of a fast moving car or how to mend a bone in the woods. He was driven to understand who survives and why.
On our first jaunts of independence, he carried a sling shot through our backyard woods. He could kill a bird for us to eat if he needed to. Whereas, I lagged behind shoving chicken bones I’d picked out of the trash into the soft earth. I hoped to trick him that, in fact, I had discovered dinosaur bones. For better or worse, he believed in my fabrications and so trusted me when I devised a plot to run away. I don’t know what my grand plan was, but my preparation consisted of packing enough frozen tator-tots to last till about noon. Even then, I figured with my brother by my side, that I’d be okay.
And I was. We were. For a while. But then as he aged, so did his appetite for risk. There was that time as a teen he opened up his stomach spilling off his longboard. He crashed his race car into a wall at 130 miles per hour. He lost teeth on a ski jump. The close calls, closer, and more often.
I think he taunts death to satiate this voracious hunger for life. Seeks edges to feel his aliveness. Some neuroscience research has shown that despite many warning signs, we are unlikely to mitigate risky behavior. In some small way, our brains might be hardwired for the myth of invincibility.
When I read the word ‘emergency’ on my phone screen, I felt myself knocked from orbit. My brother had crashed his mountain bike and was admitted to the neurosurgery ward at a hospital he had worked at. A torrential of deranged grief jolted through my insides. I did what my brother might do and begged the particles of terror to assemble into something useful. Then I booked a ticket home.
On the plane, I obsessively researched ‘collapsed carotid artery.’ Every human has two, one on either side of the neck pumping all the blood from your body to your brain. The doctors told my brother it was a miracle he didn’t stroke out on impact. The word miracle put forth by the rational mind of a doctor shook me more than anything written on his chart.
In fact, my brother stood up after catapulting over his handlebars and continued to careen down the windy Washington trails. “Damn, Bosler, you’re invincible,” my brother’s riding friend had said to him. But later, a sick feeling took root in his gut as he stared at himself in the mirror. Confronted by a drooping eye, he diagnosed himself with Horner's syndrome, the telling of something far more sinister lurking underneath. He refused to let our stepmom drive him to the hospital and pulled out of the driveway himself. I think my brother believes he’s a Life Person, too. Like death can touch him, but not take him.
As a kid, I thought “old” or “distant” would never come for us. I closed my eyes around the idea of nothingness, scrunched my eyebrows and tossed it away like scratch paper.
I remember learning in grade school that the sun will die. The dramatic stages unfold over five billion years. A sum of time approaching forever. A sum of time that made me laugh.
We urged my brother to rest in sight. He could barely move his stiff neck, and for the first time in my life, I saw my brother scared. My stepmom left a bell by his bed to smack if he had a stroke. I stayed awake in a room down the hall dreading that ring.
If the moment had been five billion years from now instead, if I had been watching the corpse of the sun turn red, all the facts in the world wouldn’t have prepared me. Nothing prepares you for the end of everything. Nothing prepares you for even one end.
Months later, with one working carotid artery, he continues to mountain bike and do everything else that satiates his hunger for thrill and adventure. He admitted in his own reflection that he had bargained in the hospital room. Promised the universe he’d learned his lesson. But as soon as he was in the clear, he then decided that doing what he loves is worth the risk of everything else. And so he hops back on his bike.
I wonder if in this hunger for life if he is destined to its brinks. As a kid I thought this was bravery, but now I wonder if it is defiance. And should we respect this or warn against it? In other words, is the problem of the Lebemensch, of the Life Person, the same as the problem of Icarus? Or is he right to touch the brightness before it disappears?
To this day, he believes he can control most chaos. There’s a gift in this, I know. He called me on Christmas to tell me he couldn’t save an injured child. His voice heavy and shaky. I knew he went home and repeated it on a hamster wheel. Wondering what he did wrong. We all must choose our own philosophies to deal with loss, but for my brother, I think he refuses to cross the field of acceptance. He argues with the limits of life.
When the sun does finally vanish, our lives will have ended a comical amount of time before. The earth will not survive its death. In that way, every story that will ever exist on earth is intertwined with the story of the sun.
For now, my own task is to try to make sense of the contradiction of a Life Person. Their numinous being allows for the rest of us to gravitate around them. Yet they are subject to all the same vulnerabilities of physical limits, of decay, or particles and elements becoming something else altogether. To the cruel randomness of hurt and death. And for all their brightness - they too -must fathom that one day the sun will die.