An Unhappy Birthday, Celebrated Apart

My sister and I, taken in August 2008 at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri

Today is my sister’s birthday. She is celebrating it in a sick bed, in a large hospital in St. Louis. I am 1,800 miles away in Portland. I wish I could be there with her.

It must be scary to be alone in a hospital, not knowing what may happen tomorrow, knowing that your health is bad. Maybe there will be a respite, but things could get far worse. That is a heavy weight to carry for my older sibling.

My sister and I have now shared more than five decades of birthdays. This was the saddest I can remember. We perhaps had six happy years together, until that tumultuous time when my parents divorced and our worlds turned upside down.

After that things never were quite the same. There were good times, yes. But I never saw my sister smile the way she used to when we were young and far more innocent. She still smiled, but it was not a child’s carefree smile of joy. It was a little different. I changed a lot too. I don’t really talk about that stuff.

There were times in my life when she was the only person who had my back, particularly after the divorce. We were alone, in situations I refuse to share as stories with others. They are my secrets. They were terrifying moments, and not in a “make you stronger” way, but in a “wow, this is pretty damn bad” way.  Because we were a team, we pulled through, many times. I can’t ever forget those days. I guard them as treasures.

Those memories have kept me invested in the bond we have shared over the years. It hasn’t been the gentlest of rides. In the end, the journey was not as easy on my sister, I think. A series of decisions led to forks in the road, and then other decisions, and then, finally, a visit to the hospital.

My sister and I, when we laughed and had few worries as kids

I wished her a happy birthday today. I had sent her a card. It probably didn’t arrive before she was admitted. It was a way I expressed love, as much as I can in a card. It was a strange feeling, wishing your sibling the best as they faced uncertainty over the days ahead.

While we were talking, I could still hear her laugh with the hospital staff. Machines and monitors attached to her made noises in the background. Nurses popped in her room to check on her. I asked if she was aware she could contact a hospital chaplain if needed. She said she was. That comforted me. I don’t know if she would do that.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or the weeks ahead.

I tried to remember our youth, and all I could find were a few pictures of our innocence. That seemed like a different life. We are different now, and we lost our innocence a long time ago.

I realized that I too will one day face the end. I realized that I too may not be ready. I realized that I too need to change while there is still time. This felt like a paltry consolation prize, and nothing compared to my sister’s experience on a cold, February day.

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Riddick, this ain’t nothing new

The power of resilience remains as one the bedrock storytelling themes since humans first swapped tales around the campfire. It appeals to all of us and our desire to find inspiration to confront the challenges that life throws in our way.

Vin Diesel Riddick, 2013 Film

Vin Diesel plays the anti-hero Riddick in the 2013 film of the same name–a classic story of resilience against all odds.

To my surprise, one of the most creative and gripping versions of the thousands-year-old storytelling trope came packaged in the 2013 sci-fi action drama Riddick, starring Vin Diesel. Riddick, for those who are not diehard fans, is an interplanetary outlaw, hunted by mercenaries, evil empire and evil religious despots called Necromongers, and baddies who either want him killed or captured.

The film opens with a shot of a hand sticking out of rocks on a god-foresaken landscape. A flying vulture lizard lands on rocks and starts gnawing on the fingertips.

In the background, Diesel’s gravel voice mutters, “Don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead. Guess when it first happens the day you were born, you’re gonna lose count.” Then the hand grasp’s the creature’s throat until it thrashes and dies. And we know at that instant that our hero is going to show us that no challenge will stop him from achieving his goal of leaving that planet, alive. “So this, this ain’t nothing new,” he says.

So starts the 2013 reboot to the franchise, which began with muddled and bloated 2004 Chronicles of Riddick that is best forgotten.

Opening Scene of Riddick Photo

The 2013 film Riddick opens with a memorable image of a man’s single-minded goal to survive anything that comes his way.

But, I simply love the beginning to the latest installment. Everything about it is fresh, mythical, and ancient at the same time. (See the first 10 minutes on YouTube.)

You have your classic hero story. Having been nearly killed by falling off a cliff after a double-cross by the intergalactic religious power maniacs called Necromongers, Riddick crawls with a busted leg on a desert floor to a pool of sulfuric water. Unable to drink it, he escapes a pack of giant hyena type carnivores by diving in the pool. “Just me and this no-name world. Gotta find that animal side again,” he says.

He resets his broken leg in a brutal fashion, screwing in armed plates into his flesh to act a cast. He then encounters a species of bear-sized, two-legged mud demons who have giant scorpion-like tails and giant mandibles that are poisonous. They block his path, and he has to go through their pool to a better place. “There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days,” Riddick says after nearly getting eaten by one. “This was shaping up to be one of those. Whole damn planet wanted a piece of me.”

For the first 20 or so minutes of the film Riddick embraces the man vs. nature and man vs. beast storylines flawlessly. You don’t really care that this is a sci-fi action film at this point. You basically care about a guy who is unfazed when the odds are stacked against him. You admire his resilience to not only overcome the planet’s hostile nature, but to even grow as a person.

Vin Diesel as Riddick and Jacka Dog Photo

Vin Diesel’s character Riddick survives challenge after challenge in the 2013 film of the same name, with his short-lived friend, a jackal-like dog.

Riddick does get through the mud demons, befriends a puppy wild jackal-like creature who becomes his sidekick, defeats two crews of mercenaries who land to capture and kill him, fights off countless other mud demons when he’s left for dead, and leaves the planet. A survivor to the end—pure Riddick. Never a moment of pity, never a moment of whining. He just accepts his fate and finds a solution.

I can point to countless books I have read and loved that follow this same storyline and outcome, and they are among my favorites. They include The Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton and his crew of the Endurance and their survival from disaster in Antarctica in 1914 and 1915, and Escape from Auschwitz, by Rudolf Vrba, about his incredible escape from the German death camp in 1944 with fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler. They are great yarns because they deal with human ingenuity and strength that withstand unimaginable challenges. Those are also hallmarks of great people and true leaders.

Stories like these will always be retold, and relived. I think they speak to something powerful inside all of us, which rejects misfortune and turns it into growth and conquest.

So give the film Riddick a chance. You might be surprised you have read or seen the story before but find its telling good enough to inspire you when a few bad days and legendary bad days cross your path. Remember folks, that ain’t nothing new.