I dreamed last night of my oldest brother, James. My dream took place amidst the bustle of what was once Littletree Orchards, my brother’s kingdom. In my dream, the trees were laden with plums and sweet cherries, some just exactly ripe and some just past. The ground was full of rotting fruit, swarming with bees. Do we smell in dreams? I know that smell anyway: too sweet and sleepy, a little tangy. Rotting fruit is heavy with regret.
In my dream, the trees had not been picked. That was the first thing to understand. The next was that my father was so sad, because someone else owned this orchard now—and the trees had not been picked. “Dad, it’s been sold,” I said to him. He turned away, and I gathered cherries, reaching through the rotting ones for a good, firm cherry. The appearance of bountiful fruit was misleading. I could hardly come up with a decent quart basket of decent cherries, and finally I gave up.
And so I awoke thinking of James. It's been nearly 4 years since his accident. When I was in graduate school, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about James and my father. That was about seven years ago. I knew that there would be more to the story ultimately, but I never would have imagined this particular event--the utter alteration of James.
In the weeks following James' accident, my brothers and I did a lot of reading about traumatic brain injuries. We knew best-case and worst-case scenarios. When we left James in New York to come back to Tennessee, he had moved from the ICU to a health-care center. I fed him pureed plums and vitamin-enriched shakes.
James, of course, defied all the odds. Four years later, he is living on his own. He lost Littletree Orchards in a lengthy legal battle. He lives now, appropriately, at Bittersweet Farms. His home is a camper. Last summer, he was building a huge cold storage facility and laying water lines from a pond to the facility. He spent an hour teaching Jesse how to operate the back-hoe. For the first 15 minutes, I was unspeakably nervous. My 12-year-old was being guided in a heavy equipment operations by my brain-injured, eccentric brother. But then I could see--through the tilt of his head and his gentle hand motions-- that he was still James, in spite of his triple vision, his halting gait, his monotone speech, his drooping right side.
It's hard to describe what James is like now. Someone who doesn't know him well might not notice anything terribly odd. He may just seem a bit clumsy or distracted. You could even get used to him the way he is now. But truthfully, there is a whole person who was lost in the three short seconds it took for him to lurch off his bike and hit his head on the pavement. There was this brilliant, arrogant, selfish, generous, irritating, gentle, sharp-witted man who was my oldest brother--and now there is this brother who is like a broken statue glued back together.