**** Inhumanimal ****

Official website of Devin Hansen

Farewell Curtis


I thought about Curtis today, while sledding under the eagles. My two daughters and I dressed in our black marshmallow pants and mismatched scarves and hats. The wind turned plastic toboggans into kites, while the eagles soared in circles above us. Six or ten of them, all doing circles above the Mississippi, capitalizing on the updrafts to better spot a catfish than from their usual perch in the barren trees along the shore.

We were at Hennepin canal. The wild woods where Curtis and I would run our dogs. There were never any people, aside from the occasional vagrant camp.

Curtis and I used to go there and let our dogs off leash, then trail blaze through the woods along the river. We could walk for an hour without seeing anyone, and only when we stopped and held our breath could we hear any distant traffic. Each time we went, we saw something new. A dead duck in repose. A beaver slapping his tail angrily at us. His dog climbing the tree hanging over the river My own dog falling in and Curtis jumping in the cold water to rescue her. Sometimes we’d bring our pistols and shoot cracks into the ice. Try to pluck a dead tree limb.

Our holy grail though were the bald eagles. Of the ten years we’d done this winter ritual, we’d only seen them once up close. Most of the time they were further down river, where the ice hadn’t solidified. But this one year we got within ten feet of a bald eagle. We kept walking the shore and they’d crash from out of nowhere, just feet away from us in the trees above. Sometimes the mature ones with white heads would let us walk by without even moving. This was our weekly adventure.

And Curtis, being biology professor, would explain each paw print, plant and poisonous flower, and I’d relish every nugget of knowledge. Science had always fascinated me, but I didn’t have the work ethic or mathematics skills to grasp much of it. But it wasn’t only nature that we’d discuss. These two tattooed men who did everything they could to look tough, but would still trade fatherly advice and fears. Talk of secrets and sins. Not to mention bitch about the government, the rich, the selfish. Mostly just preaching to the choir, but affirming that we weren’t the only ones with these so-called thoughts. And often we’d bring a half-pint of whiskey, trading pulls as we maneuvered through the downed trees, jumped over creeks of thin ice, climb muddy hills, and watch as our dogs did it all better than we. And when we were sweaty in our coats and dogs panting, we’d get in our beaten trucks and drive to the nearest local and drink beers…as many as we could before his wife called.

I’m not sure if we’ll ever do that again. If we’ll ever do any of it. The brain injury took him away.

The first time I saw him was shortly after the accident. I drove to Iowa City to see him in the University ICU.  Sarah had to put me on a special guest list to gain entry. I parked. Took nearly another hour to find his room.

I checked in at the desk, and the nurse pointed me down the hall after making sure I sanitized my hands.

The bay was like the sick bay on a futuristic spaceship. A half-circle of small rooms with walls of thick glass, filled with other neuro patients, and massive machines connected to them all. Cyborgs almost. Tubes going into each orifice, seen and unseen. All functions displayed on monitors, breath, pulse, pressures.

A gorgeous blonde in blue scrubs asked who I was here to see.

“Curtis Butter.”

“Are you his brother?”

I wanted to say yes.

She walked me to a far bay. The sight of him made my stomach turn. I coughed out the nausea and my eyes began to tear.

“It’s kind of hard to see someone like this,” the blonde said. “But he IS doing much better.”

So she said.

He had a feeding tube and his head was stretched in a plastic neck brace. Both hands were tied down so he didn’t pull at the many tubes in his face.  His body was twisted in a nest of pillows, and there were to large inflatable boots on his feet to keep down the swelling.

His head though. Where the injury had occurred, was the worst. A long scar stretched over the top of his head from ear to ear, like some gruesome headband. And the front of his skull was still swollen with blood, and his eyes were swelled shut.

He couldn’t see, but they said he could hear.

“Hey Curtis. It’s me, Devin.”

He let out a cough. I’m not sure if it was pain or joy. Maybe I was looking too much into it.

He coughed again and raised one hand, as much as the restraints would let him, both hands tied down for his own protection. I sat beside him in an office chair and grabbed his hand. He let me hold it for a second and then pulled away.

The nurse excused herself and told me not to hesitate to ask any questions.

When she left I let the tears flow more easily, but not enough to let my voice crack. I didn’t want him to hear that despair. He needed encouragement, not a eulogy.

“They say you’re doing better,” I said. “You’re getting your strength back.”

He didn’t respond. I went on talking. Straining for discussion.  One way conversations were usually our forte, but he was the one chatting me up. Another reason I liked him. I could just walk and listen. Now though I searched my memories for anything to say. But I wanted to make it relevant. I could have talked about all the times we drove out to the country to drink beer and shoot baby dolls. The time he called me for an alibi after seeking revenge on one of my enemies…a Class A misdemeanor had he been caught. I could have talked about planting our gardens together, tilling the soil, or him laughing at me every time I snaked to Guns N Roses. The shitty salmon I cooked for him and his wife. All the birthday parties we shared with our children.

But if I talked about the past, it would again, be like his life was over and we were remembering what he could never do again. So I talked of the present and the future.

“I ripped out your garden like we had planned. Pulled out all the tomatoes and pumpkin vines. I put the poles in your garage for you for next year.”

I paused. Looked around the room.

“Oh, and I walked your dog. I’ll try to take him out to Hennepin. I don’t think he’ll run away from me.”

I told him about recent politics, news of my family, and anything else that I could think of. In ten minutes I’d exhausted all conversation.

“Fuck man,” I said, finally unable to contain it. “I don’t even know if you can hear me. I don’t know if you can even fucking really hear me. Or if its making any sense. Damn.”

I swallowed some tears.  

After a long pause, he raised one hand and made the “talking motion” with his hand. Like the motion of a duck quacking.

I laughed. It must have sounded like a cry.  

The nurse peeked in: “You ok?”

I nodded.

“Hey man,” I whispered to him. “They say you’re doing better. They say you’re getting stronger. I believe it man. You’ve gotta stay strong. We’ll go hiking again, man. I believe it.”

He coughed again.

I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I’’ll be right back,” I said, then patted his hand and left the room. I didn’t’ know if all the interaction was just my interpretations of the spontaneous jerks and coughs of a man with severe brain damage, or, was he in there somewhere? This brilliant mind fighting the muscles and body.

Outside in the hall I cried until my gut hurt. I crouched, hugged my knees to my face and let it all out.

A few weeks later I visited him again. He was going to be moved to a rehab facility and I had just one day to visit him before he would relocate to Omaha. I had three hours total. Two for travel and just one hour to see him.

“The swelling has gone down. He can see now. And he can talk!”  his wife had told me. So I drove there as quick as I could. Indeed he was out of the futuristic ICU bay and in a regular hospital bed.

“Hey Curtis, are you awake?”

“Am I awake?” he said with that typical grumpy sarcasm.

I smiled.

“How are you doing?”

“How am I DOING?”

Dumb question, and he let me know it.

I couldn’t look at him at first. The sight was gruesome. The swelling had gone down on his head. The frontal bone was missing from the middle of his skull to the bridge of his eyebrows. The scalp, shaved as usual, lay loose and draped over his brain. I could have felt the folds of his mind if I tried.

His hands were covered in large padded gloves like a boxer, and they stained with urine and feces. His legs and arms were moving seemingly uncontrollably, and his gown kept falling up to his belly, exposing his genitals.

I sat beside him, my back to his exposition.

He started talking immediately, just like our walks in the woods. At first I was relieved…

“This guy over there man, he’s been coming and going,” Curtis said. “They’ve been contemplating what to do with the students and I think they just want to listen but not really come over and see what’s happening. They’re looking at the mitosis and not really at the fulcrum of what could happen if we started putting more attention into the students of our education in politics and you know, so many of these kids don’t care and  just don’t see the fitness or if they’re with the animals and the garden which is still producing.”

I didn’t know what to say. “Um, I took out your garden, man. I composted most of your plants.”

He pawed at his sunken scalp with those padded gloves.

“Your wife says they’re going to move you to Omaha.”  

“The thing about my wife man is she’s premarital and its just not conducive to what is going to happen with solar energy and the proletariat. She means well but its not the direction that is in the front or the back of what one can do with certain organisms concerned with traits and products of evolution. At least on a cellular level that she thinks about in regard to shopping and metamorphosis like they did in other civilizations. We’re fucked man, we’re all fucked.”

Somehow I knew what he was saying. Amidst all of it. I saw Curtis. Complaining and contemplating. Somewhere amidst the jargon, his brilliant mind was firing. And yet, I wanted to weep. This genius was now a pile of jumble of words and thoughts. Asaptia, I think they call it.  I saw him in there. The idiosyncrasies. The quips, like “You know what I’m saying man?”

He’d say that. There were sparks of Curtis, among this deflated, weakened man.

“I don’t know man,” he said. His trademark.

“Yeah,” I smiled, holding back my tears. Was he registering any of this? Was any of it landing on his consciousness? What was retained?

I looked at him. The already thin man was now emaciated. The skin on his tattooed arms so loose and colorful, like a sweater. I thought about the last time we went shooting, and a hot shell had hit him right in the forehead, cutting a half-moon crease in his face. I had laughed for months about that. I thought about all the little injuries we had, and joked about. Walking across thin ice just to test one anoter – who could walk out farther. Throwing ninja stars at the trees and having to dodge their ricochets. And now, here he was after a simple fall. Near death and paralysis. His arms and legs moving in apparent uncontrollable fashion.  I was so thankful though that he was moving though. At least that was something.

He started talking straight science then. Things and terms that I hadn’t heard since college. Beyond his earlier gibberish, this was straight scientific rain man shit, which I had no idea about understanding thanks to my scientific ignorance. Still talking science and not sure if it was gibberish, due to my own scientific ignorance.

This was not the man I knew, not the brain I used to pick.

I had ten minutes before I had to leave to get home in time to pick up my middle daughter. And yet, I wanted to leave right away. I wanted to run from this hospital, from this reality. Bacyk to the asylium as Curtis liked to call it. “I don’t know how you do it man,” he used to tell me.

“I gotta go man, I gotta go pick up Chloe from Pre-school.”

“I’ll see you again,” I said. “see me again,” he replied. I know he was not parroting me because of the sadness in his eyes. “I will,” I said, unsure of the promise. “I gotta go now though and watch the kids.”

“Back to the asylum,” he said.

I smiled and walked out. As soon as I reached the hallway the tears came. A fit of weeping I hadn’t done since a child. Those deep  cries where your mouth is gaped and the only sound coming out is a faint whine and a gasping for breath. A deep, silent cry. I think those sorts of cries release pieces of the soul.

That’s why you can’t hear anything. I wept through the maze of the nurses stations and waiting rooms. I wept hard. Wondering if the tears were for Curtis, or my own fears. That this could be me. My daughters. My loss of a friend? Or my potential loss as a man and father? Was I sad for him, or sad that I could be in the same situation?

I paused at the exit. Wondered how I could tell his wife this is not the man I knew. Not the brain I used to pick. They said this was normal, that his synapses would begin to fire again, but I didn’t see how that was possible. So far gone. His thoughts so fractured and distant. How could he ever be the brilliant man I once knew?

I walked out of the hospital. Into that little tiny steel an fiberglass pod. Hurtling myself down the road at 75mph. So much metal and shrapnel ready to tear through my delicate flesh. My 6mm of skull. My 2mm of skin. One easily pricked by the mouth of a mosquito, and the other no more strong than an ostrich egg.

Curtis was proof of it. A simple fall had cracked his skull and put him in this purgatory. Some say he fell while watering plants, others say he tripped down the stairs. But whatever it was, it was an action we do each and every day. All of us.

He knew of our frailty and mortality, like I did. In fact, whenever one of us would leave for a trip out of town, we’d write each other a note, detailing all our passwords, bank accounts and hiding places. In case we died, these were the directions to put our affairs in order.

But he didn’t die. He’s still here.  It made me thankful for all the things that had never happened. Each and every day.  I had been so afraid of road trips like this, when a simple fall in our bedrooms could relegate us to a wheel chair.

I hoped this wouldn’t be Curtis’ end.

We weren’t together everyday. Didn’t fall asleep on the phone together. But yes, I’ll say he was one of my best friends. He understood me and I understood him, and that was rare. We both usually scared people off. We had met when I ran my movie theater. We’d bullshit about movies and drink beers. I even hosted his birthday party there once, where we showed Snatch. Another time he had a band come in to play, but I was too hungover to watch. That hurt him. But he’d still make every one of the birthday parties I held for the girls.

God I miss talking to him. I miss his anger and his laugh.

He was like me. A lot of acquaintances, but few friends. Few people we’d open up to. For fear of rejection. Our dismal outlook on life and distasteful humor was hard for others to accept. But we showed it to each other. I was just one of his friends, and I never realized how much he meant to me until he was gone. And he is gone. That man I knew. At least for now.

When he went to Omaha he began to get better. He was holding relatively normal conversations with his wife. Drawing pictures with his daughter. Cracking jokes with the cute nurses as they zipped his pants.

But they were working on the most menial tasks. How to pair socks. How to get on and off a bicycle. He could do most things, and just needed a little prodding to start the action.

For a time, I thought he was going to be able to walk with me in the woods again. We probably wouldn’t share a beer again. But we could let our dogs run.

And then he had the surgery. He went back to Iowa city to have the metal plate put into his head. I laughed, thinking how this death-metal fan would now have some heavy metal in hs head for some vicious headbutts. But it would never come to that. Curtis’ body rejected it. He had several mini strokes and he is back to the proverbial “square one” right after his initial fall. He falls in and out of sleep. Unable to truly communicate. On a ventilator and feeding tube.

His family made the decision. They took him off the ventilator and he could breath on his own. But he cannot eat. They removed the feeding tube and moved him to hospice care back home in the Quad Cities.

I will go see him on Monday to say goodbye. And t his is the letter I will read to him:

 

Dear Curtis,

I write this on the verge of tears. Sadness I’ve swallowed for days. They creep up when I least expect it, from the small reminders of you everywhere I go.  We packed a lot of life and memories in the eight years that we knew each other. Eight years that now feel like a lifetime.

In life, you said we should never run to a bedside. That we should remember the person as they were, not as they are. But that’s much easier in theory than practice. I never got to say goodbye to my father, my mother, and other friends and family I’ve lost over the years. That’s why I am here reading this letter to you. This is for me. My own selfishness that wants to say goodbye to the best friend that I’ve ever had. I need to know that I at least tried to let you know how I feel before you are gone. I don’t know if you can hear me, or if any of this registers. But I have to tell you Curtis. I have to tell you that I love you. That I will miss you. And that I am a better man for having you in my life.

I remember first meeting you at the Brew & View. I poured you Guiness or Odin Ale, and we bonded over our shared contempt for the ignorance and self-centeredness of our society.  I remember hosting your favorite death-metal band, your birthday party where you showed Snatch and I had to turn on the subtitles just so people could understand what the fuck they were saying.

We then became friends outside the cinema. You invited me to a cookout at that little house you had in Rock Island. I brought my puppy Beyla to meet with your new dog Cooper. We laughed at their playful antics while getting drunk on microbrew. I hated those fucking yuppie beers of yours and let you know it. You made fun of me for drinking cheap domestics. But as I remember, the back of your fridge was often stocked with Busch Light or PBR.

I don’t really remember when we started our tradition of hiking through the woods. I don’t remember when we traded house keys. I do remember though, that day we dug up my dead dog Odin. I told you I wanted to dig up his skull and have it cleaned and set upon my writing desk. The funny thing is, despite how morbid this sounds to the average person, I had no qualms about asking you because I knew you would not judge or think I was crazy. And you didn’t. You just showed up at my house with a bucket and a hacksaw, and we went to work.

I still remember walking somberly down that hillside, shovels in hand. We traded pulls on a pint of whiskey. I started digging and when we reached his body, I stopped and turned my back. You finished the job as I wept. You removed his skull, put it in the bucket, then polished it a bleach white and glued his jaw together and presented it to me a week later. It looked good enough to display in a museum.  Odin was my best friend at the time, helping me through deaths of others. And now I’m losing you. We’re losing you. So many of us.

You called me often to go shooting out in Princeton. We’d pack your truck with handguns, foreign assault rifles, and anything that we thought would be fun to shoot. Care bears, baby dolls, coffee cans and milk jugs. But more often than not, the tall cans of beer we emptied on the drive there. You’d get competitive, but not blatantly, as we fired. I’d hit something with my glock that you’d miss with the SKS and you’d blame it on the sight, and then you’d nail a paper plate three times in a row while my rounds set wild dirt clouds into the air. All the while we’d talk of the zombie apocalypse.

Remember that time a baby doe walked onto the range? Lesser men would have riddled her with bullets. But we chased her off the range, figuring she was either deaf or desensitized. I think it was that same day when a hot shell flew out of my SKS and hit you in the forehead leaving a half-moon cut. It bled all the way home. That was funny shit.

On the way home we’d stop at a small-town tavern and trade stories. The typical ending to any days we spent together. Especially our trips to Hennepin. That place will never be the same. You’ll always be there, walking with me. Those days we shared are some of my fondest memories in life, now and until the day I die. I remember walking and just listening to you, as you ranted, raved, and educated me about climate change, overpopulation and other apocalyptic scenarios. You’d bitch about having to teach English to your Biology students, and how they were all fucked. That no one cared. The kids sucked and you wanted to quit teaching. But you never did. You were always so fatalistic when you vented. I knew you loved teaching, but it was fun, and humorous, to hear you complain.

We’d go there on Sundas, and you’d point out native plants, invasive species, and teach me more than I let on.  Our dogs would frolic and you’d ridicule Cooper for being a stupid sissy, even though that half-wolf would rip off a man’s arm if he was hurting you. Beyla would lead the way, sometimes killing a mouse or rabbit, eliciting your unfiltered respect. Shit, you even borrowed her for an afternoon one Summer to rid your garden of rabbits.

And you saved her life that time she fell into the Rock river. Cooper had tiptoed onto a tree than hung over the water and she followed him out, falling just a few steps in. You didn’t even hesitate. You jumped right into the water and saved her fat, water-logged ass. Then there was the time in the Winter when we came upon that vagrant camp, and you were the only one brave enough to look into the tent for a dead body. I guess the suicide victim you stumbled upon at Black Hawk park had hardened you any discovery.

But really, its not any single instance that jumps out at Hennepin. It was fun just being there with you. Trailblazing through the woods, climbing trees and hills of mud. Passing the pint of whiskey between us. And most of all, sharing. Two, tough-exteriored men sharing their fears and loves. Neither one of us ever wanted to lead or decide which direction to walk. It didn’t really matter.

After our hike, we’d drive through Milan and try to find an open bar. We’d sit on the stool, put our tattoos on the bar, and drink until one of our wives called. We’d share mutual respect and encouragement. I’d give a pep talk about how many children you positively affected with your teaching, and you’d make me feel like the best father in the world.

You never vocalized it, but I know you loved my kids. All those times you’d roll around letting my toddlers attack you. The funny hats you’d wear. Crawling around in reindeer antlers while they rode on your back. I can only imagine how much fun Clara had with her father.

And you never missed a birthday party. Three girls (which you gave me shit for because of overpopulation), and you never missed a party. You’d come into the kitchen and we’d take down a few shots from the bottle of vodka in my freezer. You’d make fun of my music mix or Barry Manilow and Gun’s n Roses, and then always find the time to make each kid feel special. My children love you, and will miss having such a jovial misanthrope attend their parties.

You relished these good times, but there was always the underlying feeling of dread. That it could all end any minute. You and I were always cognizant of it. And I often think, that we prepared for the worst, so we wouldn’t be disappointed with reality. I don’t know if we ever really thought something like this would happen, and yet we prepared for it. Anytime you left out of town, or I traveled the road, we’d leave each other a letter. Almost like a will. It would detail our post-mortem wishes, where we hid our guns, and a brief, heart-felt goodbye to our families. We traded keys and secrets so our loved ones would never question our love.

I never got one of those letters for this Curtis. This all happened so suddenly.

I don’t remember the exact last time we saw each other prior to your accident. Two instances just stick out. The first, I invited your family over to grill out. I’d make the salmon and you’d bring the veggies. Of course, I got too drunk forgot my grill was broken. You rushed to the grocery store, got what we needed, and took control. I could see that disappointment, but understanding, in your eyes and feel it in the tone of your voice. You wanted to go home, but knew our wives and kids had to eat. I cooked the salmon till it was inedibly dry. At the end of the night, you didn’t complain, you simply left cordially and we didn’t talk for a few weeks.

It was one of our rare fights. Because you and I could “call each other out” on anything. If you were fucking up, I told you, and vice versa. Not many friends can do that.

The other time I remember you scared the shit out of me. I was sitting on my bed with my toddler, and all of a sudden there’s some bald, bearded man in my hallway. I set down the baby and stood up with fist clenched and then realized it was you. I jokingly considered changing the locks after that.  Even moreso after finding all the videos you “borrowed” while I wasn’t home. Ha.

Anyway, I’m going to miss those surprise visits. Seeing your shitty truck pull up and Cooper come barreling into my yard. (Remember how bad your truck smelled when you spilled the chicken blood in the back?) That truck was the embodiment of you Curtis, and you were a madman behind that wheel. I literally feared riding with you and your road rage, but it was somehow endearing.

Now here we are. I’m sitting at your bedside, reminiscing, while you prepare for the end. It could so easily be the other way around.  We have both taken so many chances, it doesn’t seem fair. I remember driving with a big gulp of rum in your cup holder. The time you accidentally blew up your television with a shotgun blast. You lived life like no other person I know, or will ever know. We never looked at each other like we were crazy. We did what we had to do to make it through life. You were caring, loving, and felt more pain that you let on.

Hey, you never did tell me what that Three-Eyed Jesus tattoo meant.   

I’d say I’m going to miss you Curtis, and that will be an understatement. My life now has a void that will never be filled. No individual can ever compare to you.

Know that you are loved. Know that you will be remembered. Know that Clara will live life learning how wonderful and brilliant her father was.

I love you Curtis.

Thank you for touching my life, and so many others.

Your friend,

Devin

 


Categorized as: Non-Fiction



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