It was a rough fucking day for the Van Kerckhove Boys. The kind of day that gets my writerly brain pumped up; that bestows a lifelong fear with an origin story; that anoints events with retroactive premonition of future tragedy; that demands to be shared even if I’m not yet completely sure what the hell it’s all about.
Stings and fractures happened.
June 1979 and I’m four going on five. A Sunday: the family gathers for my brother Steve’s second birthday. Mom in hostess mode, perhaps wearing a new summer dress from Winkelman’s. Maybe decorating my brother’s cake from her Cut-Up Cake Party Book (General Foods Corporation, 1973) where Mom bakes and Dad cuts-up with his engineer’s precision. Perhaps Mom is chilling bottles of white zinfandel for herself and the ladies; cans of Hi-Life for Grandpa and the fellas. Or whipping up that glorious ambrosia mess of fruit cocktail, marshmallow, and coconut. Or opening packages of hot dogs for the grill. It’s early still, and with the exception of one set of grandparents, no one else has arrived.
I am alone in our big backyard, an expanse of our corner ranch house anchored by two giant blue spruce trees on one end and our next-door neighbors on the other. With hibiscus flowers growing tall in their flower beds between thick bushes along the house, casting pink shadows onto our bedroom shades. All on a man-made hill in the Northwest corner of Detroit City, across town from downtown.
Our swing set is still pretty new. A teeter-totter swing for two, or just myself as I shoot, with enough force to momentarily and partially lift the set from its hold in the ground, toward the berry bushes along our back neighbors’ fence whose fruit, I am told, is for birds, not kids. A standard one-seat swing where I pump my legs for maximum acceleration and height. The other end, the carriage swing, two benches for two kids each connected by a metal floor. And in the middle of it all my brother’s baby swing, a red plastic contraption with a white plastic bar to keep him strapped in.
I am not allowed in my brother’s swing. But I am alone, and everyone else is inside, preoccupied. So I climb right in and start pumping my legs. I have no business being here, my big kid hips pressed against its plastic walls, my tummy against the plastic bar. Higher and higher, faster and faster I go. But this swing cannot handle the actions of a determined four-year-old!
And so, it’s done. I flip over, the swing’s chains loosen, go taut, end with a thud sending quakes throughout the set. The swing wants to expel me, but I am too big to fall out. So I hang there, my head dangling inches above the ground. Unbeknownst to us, a family of wasps had moved into the horizontal hollow top bar of the set, their Air Force launched at the perceived assault on their fortress. They retaliate — on my face.
To review: I am dangling upside-down, legs trapped in a baby swing, and two, three, four, five hundred wasps are stinging my face.
My parents hear my screams and dash out the back screen-door to extract me from my folly. My assailants are now safe and smug back home because, unlike bees, those bitches don’t die when they sting. Mom ushers me inside; soothes the venomous stinging with meat tenderizer, that Windex of insect sting remedies, sprinkled from its square spice tin. Meanwhile, Dad sprays poison inside the set and plugs all openings with rags. These rags will remain for years, rotting away as the swing set itself weakens with rust.
My brother’s party is now in full swing (see what I did there?), and I have subjected everyone to the harrowing tale of my near-death experience. Not to steal focus from the birthday boy or anything. Curiously, I’ve returned to the scene of my tragedy. This time, my brother and our cousins and I ride the carriage swing. A vehicle that could be anything — a pirate ship steering through the stars or a coach taking us to a ball. My cousin Jennifer and I face the house, our siblings across from us. Dad, thirty-one going on thirty-two at the time (which is crazy to me now) pushes us — our hired coach, our magic wind, our stardust man watching, guiding us.
But then he looks away for a moment. Maybe Mom or an uncle called to him. Or maybe he was lost in his own thoughts, whether contemplating his second son’s second birthday or looking forward to more trips we can take to our property up in northern Michigan as we grow older. Though, really, is any of this as important as us on a swing?
And in this one moment, my brilliant brother, though toddler he may be, decides that his ride has ended, that he does not wish to join the rest of us on our trip to Never Never Land. So he steps off the swing on the downward glide of his and our cousin James’ side of the ride. Upon which his right leg is caught beneath the metal carriage floor and hits the grass-less patch of ground with a definitive CRACK!
To review: my little brother has stepped off a mid-air swing, and now his leg is very much broken. Meat tenderizer will do no good here.
The party abruptly ends. My folks rush him to the hospital and Grandma B. stays with me. And we must spend the rest of the summer keeping his plaster cast dry. My brother learns to walk on it just fine, as no cast can keep a determined toddler tied down for too long.
So, what is this all about? I can tell you that ever since that day, a trembling, spastic fear takes over anytime anything with a stinger nears my personal space. So careful, as a kid I’d walk through that clover-filled backyard of ours in bare feet in case bees — bees that belonged in their glass-walled nature center hive as far as I was concerned. Or later in my early thirties, locked inside the office of my rental Indiana house as a wasp infiltrated my kitchen; frantic pleas for help posted on my LiveJournal were answered by the advice to stiffen its wings with hairspray if necessary.
I can tell you that my brother does not remember his incident like I remember mine. He’s grown up with all those fading square photos of him in his cast, and he believes them. But he doesn’t remember. Like how he doesn’t remember much, if anything, about the actual car crash that happened fourteen years later that sent him to a wheelchair for life. And that is a whole other story itself for another time. But I’ll tell you that it happened the night of the day I returned to college sophomore year, when I could not wait to escape home once again — another house and two more brothers later — and return to my real life. And wow, that sure put things in perspective when, instead of the temporary inconvenience of keeping his toddler leg cast dry, we faced learning how to care for him in ways we’d never dreamed. I want to connect these two accidents, but deep down I know doing so is really just my way of containing all of life’s chaos.
I also wonder why I climbed into my brother’s swing in the first place. Other than I was four and a little mischievous. It’s like, even at such a young age, I wanted to somehow capture my youth. A past chased since birth, really. Like how when I turned three, I insisted we return the loveseat to its previous position so I could be two again. Or when I was twenty, freely rolling down a giant hill on a final solo trip to our property up north, before instinctively finding our old wooded campsite when I thought I was lost, and before the freeway extension would soon cut through all of it. Or weeks before my fortieth birthday, attending a three-day rock festival, relishing the rain and the mud and the organ-crushing crowds, if not the bees.
Or now, at forty-five, reaching — running my fingers through the grass of first hallowed ground I ever knew.
This story was presented at Is This a Thing? Chicago, November 11, 2019. The theme was Home.