Billy hit his head frequently as a child
. He's older than I am so I missed the first few concussions but a couple of the ones that I witnessed would have subdued a lesser soul. Our mother would fret a little, but our father had become desensitized to massive cranial trauma by the time I was coming up.
In a typical episode we'd be chasing one another down the hall and Billy would crack his skull open on the corner of the door. His face covered in blood, our father calm, our mother suitably horrified by our father's calm. This type of drama became so common that it no longer merited a trip to the emergency room. My father would bandage Billy's noggin with homemade butterfly stitches and hope for the best. Billy lived harder than the rest of us so we all expected him to die young.
We were an average suburban family at first; Mom, Dad, five kids, two dogs. We attended church every Sunday but I got the impression early on that we were merely going through the motions. Our father had attended the seminary and decided the ministry wasn't his cup of hotdish but our uncles and grandfathers were Lutheran preachers so there was considerable pressure to toe the line.
As children we were aware of a vague hypocrisy but were given little choice in the matter. We went to church every Sunday and I attended Vacation Bible School, sort of a day care center with a message. We made dioramas of Biblical scenes in shoeboxes and sang about Jesus. "Jesus loves me, yes I know, for the Bible tells me so." I dug it. It was unconditional love every Sunday and every summer.
The message given to the small children in the church was airy and benign. They thumped the grown-ups with the heavy stuff in the big room with the uncomfortable benches. They told us that Jesus loved children most of all, which was a comfort to me at the time. I didn't understand anything about the 'dying for our sins' part or how the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus fit into the big picture but Jesus seemed like a pretty cool guy.
I would have thanked them to leave well enough alone and cease my religious education then and there, leaving out the angry, betrayed Jesus and the wretched death he suffered on the cross. These images were seared into my young mind and gradually replaced those of the gentle man surrounded by happy children. The bloody Jesus reminded me of Billy and my nightmares of his face drenched in blood. Just as it was with Jesus, Billy emerged from his traumas unaffected and I came to connect the two in my mind. This connection was cemented one Easter morning in the driveway of our suburban home.
Billy was ten or eleven and I was his shadow. Little more than half his age, I followed him everywhere he would allow me, and I hung on his every word. Everybody loved Billy and my parents made no secret of the fact that he was their favorite of five. They may have doted on him because they believed that he wouldn't survive his reckless childhood, but there was definitely something special about Billy.
That morning we were all preparing for the Easter service at church, girls in dresses and hats, boys in suits and ties. Billy and I were ready before the rest and had begun some preliminary reconnaissance of the house for Easter eggs, while our sisters fussed over their dresses and hair. Our parents hid the eggs the night before for the hunt, which would follow church.
Our father interrupted the search by sending Billy to fetch something from the car and I followed dutifully. The morning was grand and sunny and though I dreaded the lifetime we were about to spend sitting in those nasty benches at church, I was full of joy over the end of the long winter.
What happened in the driveway that Easter morning is recorded in my mind with a clarity that is stunning and permanent. It is, at once, my most disturbing and my most comforting childhood memory. Billy made it to the station wagon ahead of me, opened the car door, climbed onto the back seat and was reaching into the back of the car as I approached the open door.
He emerged from the back seat of the car in a crazy burst and nearly knocked me down as he jumped out onto the driveway. He was waving his hand in front of my face, insisting, "Jonny look, look at my hand!" I can't hear his voice in the movie in my mind but I can see his hand so clearly I could describe the ridges of his fingerprints.
There was a wooden toothpick sticking through the middle of his right palm, equal parts of it protruding from the back of his hand and the front. A small trickle of blood oozed from both sides.
We stood for a long moment, silent, as we scrutinized the gore from all angles. "Does it hurt?" I asked him, both of us still wide-eyed with shock. "It stung a little going in, like a mosquito bite."
We stared at his hand some more. The realization was immediate to me and certain. Billy's hand looked just like what they did to Jesus, on Easter morning no less. Billy's realization was no less immediate and no less certain. Our sisters would have a screaming fit when they saw his wound and he must show them immediately.
Our Mother offered only light resistance to our Father's home remedy but our sisters screamed and cried with new vigor as Dad went for the pliers. Billy smiled hard at the anguish he was causing the girls and only grimaced slightly as the toothpick was extracted. I thought for a moment that the tumult he had caused would get us out of church but no dice. Some antiseptic and a Band-aid for each side of his little hand and he'd be good as new.
The episode was quickly forgotten by everyone but me. I was a serious little kid and there was little doubt in my mind that I had just witnessed some kind of serious event.