My brother Karl would have turned fifty-seven this month. It's been almost six years since he left us, not too long after his birthday. I had gone to Montgomery that afternoon to rent chairs for Fawn's outdoor wedding. Funny how you never forget details like that when something traumatic, life-changing happens. We got back to the church and found a note taped to the door. I was to call home immediately. There had been an accident.
No one was more laid back than my brother. One time he went into a burning barn to retrieve a bike that he'd stored there, a gift for his son's birthday. It was a crazy thing to do, especially considering that the barn was full of explosives. I asked him afterwards if he had considered the possibility of the building exploding with him still in it. He just kinda shrugged it off, even when I probed him about the risks that came with his job. Karl had always loved fireworks, he and my brother Rex were always setting off the small stuff when they were kids. So when he was all grown up and the chance came around to make the big stuff, he didn't even hesitate. And doing the big shows, well, for him that was just icing on the cake.
Speaking of cake, the only time I remember being really angry with Karl involved one that I had made from scratch. I had turned it upside down on a tray and covered the entire thing with a thick layer of frosting. But a few hours later I found my lovely concoction drastically changed. Someone had run their fingers around the edges, eating every bit of frosting off the sides. It took no time at all to find out who had gotten into it, Karl. I think it was my youngest sister Beth who squealed. I was livid. So angry in fact that I wrote a note to my brother and propped it up by the cake. I need to insert a bit about my family here. We were the God-fearing, church-going, no drinking, no smoking, no cursing or bad talking Marvin family. Therefore, some of the language I used so shocked my brothers and sisters, that even today, decades later, the story still comes up at family gatherings.
|The last time I was with Karl on his birthday. This was his 49th.|
But Karl was so likable that no one could ever stay mad at him for long. And he was kind. The Allegany would sometimes overflow its banks and empty into the Mill Pond. One particular summer the river had overflowed more than usual and deposited hundreds of good-sized carp into the marsh. As the water receded, the fish found themselves trapped in just a few inches of water. Karl gathered up some buckets and sloshing through several inches of muck spent hours filling them with the fish and hauling them back to the river. It wasn't until his memorial service, however, that I heard the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. I had spoken and ended with the account of Karl hauling all those carp back to the river in a couple of buckets when his friend Mike took the podium, looked at me and said, "And did you know that after he got tired of carrying pails, he got a twenty-two and shot the rest of them in the head?" Nope, I didn't know that. But I'm pretty sure that he was simply putting them out of their misery.
Along with his big heart, he also had a good-sized stomach. He enjoyed frog legs and didn't mind hunting the things and cutting off their appendages for a lip-smacking meal. One time, however, he wasn't able to perform the amputations until later, so he took them home and threw them into the bathtub. They were obviously feeling pretty feisty, because when my sister-in-law went in to use the john, a stretch of green suddenly lunged from the tub and flew into her lap. My parents had been invited to dinner that night, totally unaware that on the other side of the wall was a bathtub full of amphibians having an evening swim. But even if they'd known, something tells me they wouldn't have been all that surprised.
Karl knew how to make an adventure out of about anything. My sister Dawn tells a story about when our cousin Paul was up from North Carolina, the three of them went driving the back roads in Karl's bronco. The frogs were out that night, so every time Karl would see one in the headlights, he'd brake while Paul jumped out to grab it, then would stuff it in the glove compartment. The car was soon filled with the sound of an amphibious chorus coming out of the dashboard. And no, there were no frog legs on the menu that night. Karl let them go after the concert.
Karl would have rather been outside than anywhere else. He'd thought of going into conservation, working in the park service. He never got there, but he could name and tell you about most any plant. And the trees, he especially loved the trees. We had a line of tall pines that ran along the canal next to our home. As soon as his legs were long enough, he started climbing those pine, all the way to the top. At first it scared me, I was the oldest, probably the most protective. But over time I began to relax, realizing that he wasn't going to fall. He was at home up there.
|I was the oldest, therefore the Protector. Karl is at the center.|
Material things meant little to Karl. His clothes were usually mismatched, and even when he dressed up for church or a special occasion, he usually looked a bit rumpled. His house was always in need of repair, and it seemed that his vehicles were often on the verge of breaking down. But on the other hand, he was always available whenever someone else had a need. After my mom's cancer had progressed, he called Alabama asking if I needed money to get home. And as Dad got older, Karl was always the one to stop by and see if he needed help with anything. Then after dad was gone and my sister Beth took over the house, Karl was the one she called on if she had a question or problem. He'd always be there. That's just who he was.
The worst dream I ever had involved Karl when we were both young. A large machine had dug a large, very deep hole down the street in a neighbor's yard, tied him up and placed him there, teetering on the edge. It frightened me so badly that I remember getting up in the night and peeking into his bedroom to make sure he was still there. For nights afterwards I dreaded going to bed because that dream played over and over again in my mind. Finally I went to my mother and asked her if I would ever be able to forget the horrible nightmare. She shook her head. Probably not, she said. But the day would come, she assured me, when it wouldn't bother me anymore. And she was right. Though I never forgot the dream, the fear of losing my brother Karl eventually went away.
I thought about that dream many times over the years, wondering why it affected me so profoundly when I was young. I know now that I was grappling with the reality of death, understanding for the first time that it could take away those I love. But when word came that this same brother was teetering, not on the edge of a hole as in my dream, but on the brink of eternity, I wasn't afraid for him. I knew where he was going, that he had prepared for this day a long time ago. When the paramedics arrived, though covered with burns from the explosion, Karl was still conscious and insisted that they take care of his young coworker Andy first. "Don't worry about me," he said. "I'm ready."
I won't say I don't miss him, I do. In fact, it seems the more time that passes, greater the longing to see him again. I wish I could be with him one more time. If that were granted me, I would sit at the piano, him standing behind me and Beth would join us. And we would sing, praying that time would show us favor and stop for awhile. But on this side of eternity, unfortunately, there are clocks with hands that move all too quickly, and with that come the inevitable goodbyes. But he can't leave without one more song, one that we always sing when we're together and it seems especially appropriate now. The harmony is pure as Karl's wonderful baritone carries the tenor while Beth covers the alto and I take the melody. "Some glad morning when this life is o'er," we sing, "I'll fly away. To a home on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away. I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away. When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away." And as we repeat the chorus I hear only the two parts and know he is gone.
|Karl two years before the accident, the last picture I ever took of him.|