This past Saturday, on a brilliant fall morning, my eight-year-old son came bounding downstairs for breakfast. I reached into the refrigerator, grabbed a cold Diet Mountain Dew from in between glass-bottled organic milk and tomato juice, and served it to him with farm-fresh eggs, feeling the part of a drug dealer.
We had a long day ahead, and I wanted to see what happened.
I smiled to myself, imagining some upcoming event, the mothers’ conversation all about peanut-free this and local that, when I’d pipe above the crowd to say, Hey sweetheart, how about your Mountain Dew?
The arrival of Diet Mountain Dew in my house is only the first in a cascade of little experiments we are now undertaking as a result of neuropsychological testing in August indicating that my son has a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Our house has never lacked order or discipline, and yet now we are thinking about how to structure everything more explicitly.
Diet Mountain Dew, with its massive amounts of caffeine, is our initial effort in our goal of avoiding, for now, giving him any stimulant medications: Did you know that caffeine actually calms down a hyperactive person, allowing them to focus? Maybe that’s why I’ve drunk eight cups of coffee every day since around 1985.
I tried the coffee with my son first, hoping I could cultivate a new bond with him over a shared habit. He detested the stuff. You could always give him Red Bull, one of my brothers said. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, hence the Diet Mountain Dew.
But something in the very ritual of offering and drinking brought me, vividly, to thinking about my older brother, and the lines of genetics and inheritance and blood that draw us together. This is the younger of my two brothers, though he is still twelve years older than I am, and the one about whom—because he is enormously private and circumspect—I do not write about often.
He, too, was apparently a rambunctious boy, if family mythology is to be believed—even in the placid early sixties, in a southern state amid a traditional social order, when children played outside all day.
My mother, of blessed memory, fondly told of the toddler in droopy diapers who enthusiastically hoisted milk bottles from the front porch to help bring them inside, only to shriek amid shards of glass. (Even now, my brother will say to me, “Aren’t you nervous about having those glass milk bottles around?”)
When he was five years old (she loved this story), my brother came home from the first day of kindergarten at the First Baptist Church and pronounced that because they “didn’t teach a thing that was mechanical,” he wasn’t going back. And what is amazing is that my parents did not make him.
The stories were legion: The time he rode his bike into the back of a van. The time he chewed bubble gum in bed and it had to be cut out of his hair. The times he sneaked out of bed and into the Currans’ swimming pool down the street.
Most famously, there was the night that my parents were out and the maid told him to stop swinging the baseball bat in the house. He ignored her admonition, and ended up hitting her in the head. She fell out cold, and the five panicked children scrambled around trying to figure out how to get medical care for her—it was, after all, Mississippi during the civil rights years.
In my earliest memories, he was the longhaired teenager who thundered into the family room chair to watch soap operas when he got home from school, eating bread out of the bag and drinking endless cups of hot, strong black tea. (Was that self-medication going on? I think maybe so.)
Here are two stories that even involve me: There was a greasy spoon called Van’s, that seven or so years after the Civil Rights Act, still had counters informally designated as White and Black. My brother held my hand and told me that we were going to sit at the second one.
Then there was the manicured, grassy hill of the fertilizer plant headquarters outside town. One afternoon, he engaged the four-wheel-drive on the Ford Bronco, and we took off up the slopes, windows down, afternoon sun glinting across the cotton fields behind us. Sheriff Homer Hood pulled him over after that one.
His rock band played so loudly in the shed behind the house that the county sheriff regularly came knocking on the door to tell him to keep it down—admonitions my mother reported matter-of-factly. Even though I knew she worried about him, she still agreed, when he was a junior in high school, to drop him and his best friend off for spring break on Highway 49 so they could go hitchhiking!
What on earth was she thinking? I wonder, contemplating at what age I will even allow my son to take the Washington, DC Metro unaided. And there are more stories that in future essays I will relish in telling.
But what I end up with is this: There was something in my brother that was unstoppable—like my son, who climbs cars and fidgets restlessly and sometimes speaks out of his own impudence.
And yet my brother, in his mid-fifties now, a dedicated husband and father is one of the most conscientious men I know. I refuse to believe any platitudes about how it was a simpler time then, because too many of his childhood friends have foundered on the shoals of drug addiction and alcohol, have failed at marriage, and remain at odds with their children.
How is it that he is here, this miracle? How did you do it, Mama?