Plumb from a String: An Essay in Nine Sutures



It was something like the sound of two clocks ticking just out of sync, my brother’s bandages being cut. First the cleaving snip of the gauze followed quickly by the blades slipping from the fabric and coming snap together again. The off-kilter snip-snapsnip-snap of two times almost one.


Thinking each tick was surely it, the moment I’d finally see the wound, I kept enacting a series of anticipatory bracing maneuvers, sure of the gruesomeness to come. But each layer removed only revealed another. My brother Steve, his top half strained forward in the struggle of an overturned cockroach, cut dutifully at the gauze with our parents’ kitchen’s floral-patterned scissors.


After a sizeable amount of gauze accumulated on the floor, and the fake-beard wispiness of the padding below, I finally saw his knee. There was little there to even suggest the concept of bending. In fact, for the first moment I saw nothing—still too squeamish to really see the thing as I looked at it. But even as that passed, no kneecap was identifiable. The hollows to the left and right had vanished. Those rubber band tendons—usually lithe and taut— gone as well. Just an eggplant sheet of flesh on my brother’s leg, extended across the red couch.


I guess in my imagination MCL surgery consisted of a small incision and remote controlled mechanisms. I remember wondering to myself if there’d even be a scar. Whoa. Way off. What did appear under the generous gauze and fluff and eggplant swell was a wound some six inches in length bound by metal staples winding up the knee—like a body of water on topographic maps, his knee a deep river of sinewed hurt, his expression prairies of a detached glare.


Before he asked me to inspect the wound, I was in the kitchen listening to an Intelligence Squared debate on a proposal to ban college football. Under my computer sat last week’s New York Times, headlines telling of the family of Junior Seau—a former NFL player who had recently committed suicide—who agreed to allow scientists to study the brain of the late linebacker.


The Times reported, “Seau would be the second former N.F.L. player to commit suicide in the past two weeks,” and the second to have his brain studied for a connection between degenerative brain disease and head trauma. This spring afternoon reading brought me to the debate now streaming on my computer, with Malcolm Gladwell talking hits to the head: “If you were to get in your car and not put on your seat belt and drive at twenty-five mph into a brick wall so that your forehead struck the dashboard of the car, that would be a hit of one hundred Gs. If you reversed your car and went and did it over and over again so that you hit the brick wall thirty to forty times…that would be the equivalent of a football game,” his long fingers pointed emphatically as he said this, spinning facts like basketballs on his fingers. “If you reversed your car and over the course of the next three months drove it at twenty-five mph into a brick wall 1,000 times, that would be the equivalent of a college football season.”


This is what I had in my head when my brother called me, out of his fever dream of pain, to come and see if his surgical incision was infected.


During an over-the-phone consultation regarding high fever, much pain, and the possibility of infection, this is the criteria he was given: look for redness on or near the site of the surgery.


Redness. On a wound. Chrissake.


So I got up from the table. And there I was, looking at this…knee? And lo, there was a bit of bright red sun rising on either side of the incision’s midpoint.


“What do you think?” Still cockroaching it and trying to see for himself.


“Well it’s red.”


Doctor’s office then, and so turned the creaking gears of a large man’s body, unable to bend or bear weight on one leg. Me, without a car, would have to drive his truck.


I had been back in my parents’ house a week at this point, a year out of college and as yet unwilling to admit to myself the possible length of the stay. I returned to what Pop was referring to as an orthopedic ward. That less than triumphant day of my return home from the first post-grad year on my own saw Mum sprain her ankle in a 5k race and my brother dislocate his kneecap 90 degrees to the starboard side while trying to clean-and-jerk 300 lbs. The ER doc estimated that resetting the knee would clock a fifteen on the ten-point pain scale.


So I spent that first night back in Lancaster, PA, on a couch, watching my father bag and apply ice treatments, administer Ibuprofen, and dose out ice cream in 1½ scoops per ramekin.


“Which floor is the psych ward?” I joked. Not out loud.



Let me explain how I got here.


The day before I left Chicago for home, as I tried blindly jaywalking a busy street with my view obstructed by a double-parked car, I was pressed into pulling one of those both-hands-on-the-grill pliés past/over/around a car. Our eyes, the elderly driver’s and mine, making a moment’s contact that scanned something like relief for the unsubstantiated moments on either side of this near miss. Then I continued my best Charlie Brown impression across the street.


Let’s just say I was in a bad way, mentally. I did all those things that someone does who acts out of a different place every day: I grew a severely unfortunate beard and I rode the El with nowhere to go. Thank god I didn’t get any bird tattoos. I quit my easy but crushing job at a law firm of dubious repute, was rarely speaking aloud before 3:00 pm, and lost my ability to feel, accept, and reciprocate the love of a woman who was more and more becoming the only good thing in my life. You might be familiar with these charming behaviours of the young and depressed and dissociating men. That was me.


And then I left. I was going to have my nervous breakdown from the comfort of my own home.



So with an arm around my shoulder, we wobbled down the driveway. Steve has an inch, maybe an inch and a half on me, and though we share the same frame, he’s got forty pounds on me, mostly muscle. I mean he is a physical specimen. I still sometimes flinch when he comes up behind me–another force of adolescent habit. While moving with and for my brother out to the truck, I could not just feel, but for a moment was under, the power that broadcasts through and from his body.


At the passenger side of the truck at the far corner of the sloped driveway, we paused. I moved his camouflaged trucker hat from the bench seat to the floor and bore his weight while he scooched in.


One thing to understand about Steve is that he is a Lancaster Countian in a much deeper way than I. I was back because I didn’t have the head to stay away. He was there because he never left. The place suits him. See, for instance, that trucker hat now on the floor between us. But it’s odd. I mean we’ve spent more or less the same amount of time here, growing up. We have generously overlapping Venn diagram experiences of elementary and middle and high school. We share many friends. It’s just that—and this sounds like a simple point I know—they mean different things to us. But that turns out to mean everything, at least in that space between us. We both let slip the long O’s and a tendency toward ham, hunting, and hospitality that just run rampant here in central PA. It’s a county filled with folks that I struggle to relate to, and who Steve can. And who seem to love him. Somewhere there in the intersection of nurture and nature and disposition and character and personal experience we took divergent paths, saw different things in our rearviews, anticipated different taillights on the road ahead.


But here we were again, back (or still) in Lancaster long after our parents stopped choosing where we live. Steve: by choice, adamantly in the trucker hat. Me: because I haven’t yet found myself capable of living elsewhere.


I got into the truck, pulled the seat forward a few clicks, and turned the key. Country music started playing. I adjusted the mirror down and saw my brother. To see such a kinetic guy hobbled and crutched and laid out is at once crushing and beguiling. From an early age he has related to and understood the world physically. With his basic manner of asserting himself temporarily compromised, the set of component parts is visible—revealing the artifice that a fully functioning body disguises. That raw engine at work in him, somehow more imposing for the deficit, now cramped into the back seat of his own truck.


And driving one of these things when all you’ve driven are compact sedans is something akin to a first ride on a roller coaster when all you’ve known is the “Frog Bounce.” Consider too the circumstances: close proximity to my brother during a primal shakedown of his self, world and the bridge between the two; to aid him not just in moving, but to do so urgently and with care, while he is feverish and in great pain; and for this to take place in the half ton truck that, far from being an affect or compensation, is the only vehicle that can match his demeanor. Let it come as no surprise then that I lurched out of the driveway.


Of such wounds are crucibles forged.



During this, uh, recuperative time, I’d been working through my own sort of string theory. It’s more psycho-babble than physics-babble though. It goes something like: ideally our psyche hangs plumb from a string. Each trauma, each betrayal committed or endured, every midnight howl at the moon, every injury and sadness, they all torque the string, so it looks something like the tangle of iPod headphones in your pocket. And the knots and wrinkles, they make it harder to bear the weight. My string, gnarled indeed, hangs from the back of my throat down to the solar plexus—this is where swells of dread and sadness come to swim—creating the sense that the plug has been pulled on my chest and everything is rushing from me, down like water from a tub.



Seated in the waiting room, a bullpen of empty chairs, we were in the corner closest to the desk. The wall-mounted flat-screen blaring. Steve’s eyes were closed in that delicate way where no wrinkles appear to the sides. I had brought a big novel—my version of a truck, hoping to get some pages knocked out during the visit—but when the nurse came to collect Steve in the wheelchair, her hands gripped around the dirty turquoise molded-plastic handles, he said, without quite turning around:


“Connor, do you want to come in with me?”


What you must understand is that Steve and I are on a level whose closeness, after years of young and painful sibling rivalry, then a few of remorseful and sheepish silence, and another four of collegiate separation, is shown by small exchanges and nods. Firm handshakes and fist bumps. Those masculine acknowledgements of our adultness—and of the childhood that produced it. Our pasts are so inextricably tied, knotted by bloody noses and rival baseball teams and morning rides to school listening to the same damn Bob Marley tape for two years. Our common ground so acre-ous that it can only find expression in small gestures.


This small gesture meant and continues to mean a great deal to me. And meant a number of things for that visit.


It meant that I was there to catch the nurse’s mouthed “let me know if he needs anything else” as she left the room after the initial Q&A.


It meant that I was there to inspect and nearly break the model knee that sat on the bookshelf, replace it, and resist the urge to ask Steve where the damage was on his knee and just what exactly were the mechanics of a kneecap doing an “about face” like that.


When I was seated next to Steve, it meant that us brothers were aligned, plumb—the stubbled buzzed heads of two Lancaster County boys, gym shorts and t-shirts—inviting the nurse and doctor to regard our resemblance as fraternal.


It meant that I held Steve’s leg delicately by the heel, as Thetis did Achilles, and raised it aloft so that the bandages could be changed, wound inspected, his brace fitted and rearranged.


“Brother,” I whispered, but nobody heard.



See, I was never supposed to be the college athlete. From about the age of twelve, Steve was the one who started showing the kind of dedication and discipline and desire that could take him a lot farther than just the young talent and success on the little league diamond. Not to mention the sort of physical growth that could bear it all out.


Through most of high school Steve was so completely focused on doing that alchemical shuffle of making baseball dreams into speculation into potential into reality. All in his modest and understated way. His graceful ascent was a thing to watch from the tennis courts where I was racking up a losing streak that would break school records.


This work included his spot on the varsity team as a freshman, showcases in Maryland, the thousands of swings a day (inside or out, depending on weather and season), marking off ninety feet on the street outside the house in spray paint and sprinting it back and forth, the writing on the thumb of his catcher’s mitt: “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”


I started to have not-unfounded thoughts about the draft being a reality for him. We all did, maybe, in the kind of way where Mom’s chastising Steve at the dinner table for slurping his spaghetti or ruining a tablecloth was: “will you eat like that at dinners with scouts?” and not knowing if she was joking. Those of us less gifted and motivated are just expected to have good manners.


But he got hurt. And he got hurt again. And in his junior year, which for any aspiring spring sport athlete is your chance to get a college scout’s eye, Steve was sidelined just as the team was poised to (and eventually did) win the state championship. More than a few players from that team went D1; more than one was eventually drafted; and all, in my eyes, less talented and humble and capable of excellence than my brother. Instead Steve stayed at home, went to the local college, started seriously lifting, and coached our now former high school’s JV team.


So Steve was meant to be the college athlete, not me. But since I was cajoling myself away from home and had a little bit of an intellectual ambition, I wound up at one of those selective, northeast liberal arts colleges that can afford to have a full-time, used-to-play-professional-rugby-in-England type coaches. Invited to preseason practices, I slouched off orientation and hoofed it down the dirt road to the college’s farm, sporting a rugby field cut out of the ecological preserve.


“Well, son,” the coach, who is in his mid fifties with a slouch suggesting the type of wracked spine that comes from a life dedicated to a contact sport played without pads, told me as I arrived at my first practice, “We’ll throw you in the deep end and see if you can swim.”


And, somehow, I caught on quickly, I swam. The lines of running made sense. The passing technique came quickly. I could outrun most defenders and could take a hit when I had to. My slender shoulders learned to tackle with some more time. The endorphins helped with the burgeoning depression, I learned to drink, to sing the songs, to understand intimately what it means to bleed for someone else, to break a bone, separate a shoulder, and endure a concussion.


Then another.


Then another.


When I was helped off the field at the farm for the last time, I could hardly speak and was reduced to petting a dog for a protracted half-hour in order to avoid looking at anyone in what I was told later was a particularly dazed and off-putting manner.


I had found a home and a family for three years, six seasons. Spent all of them in arguably the best spot to view the inarguably best autumn in the country. I felt bonded and loved and accomplished. I was somewhere near a home at once familiar but to which I knew I had never been. But I could not abide another concussion and left the team before my senior season. And in doing so, I learned, like my brother before me, the limits of my physicality. And again, like my brother, was forced endured its giving out before I was ready.



Back at home, with Steve on the couch wondering about infections, I had been sitting in the other room searching the narrative rubble of the breaking NFL scandal, wondering about my heavy head. Three players dead in less than two years. who committed suicide with gunshots to the chest to preserve their brains for further research on neurodegenerative diseases linked to depression and Alzheimer’s.


League officials and some critics regard the evidence as specious at best, but with the way I’ve been feeling the past few years, along with the knocks I’ve taken, I’m inclined to believe it. The knot was tightening. Malcolm Gladwell was reciting statistics about ruptured neural connections. It was then that Steve called my name from the couch. Asked me to bring him those purple flower-patterned scissors. We were each, in our own ways, wondering how a former self becomes a present self, suggests a future self—hobbled but still home. I recited again and again, on that walk to the red couch:




And then that first ER doctor’s words:


Might never be the same again.



“Kill the head and the body will die. Kill the head and the body will die.”


This is what we hear, the four of us, assembled as we are across the living room. Three of us—Me, Mum, and Pop—we sort of hang in Steve’s orbit since his injury. He takes up the long red couch, stretched and propped and elevated, stage center. The three of us are satellites in his constellation: on the floor, on the chair, perched on the arm of the couch.


Though it’s not hard to find something on TV that we all agree on, its rare that we find something to all invest in. What with two adult children with divergent interests and two parents whose preference is to readily defer to another. So inevitably, with whatever gets decided upon, side conversations break out, we read tweets, keep half an eye on the TV, while others shush, lean forward, cringe.


But this, this is something else.


We’d initially settled on the rerun of HBO’s “Real Sports” half heartedly but have since been sucked in, all of us. The click of closing iPhones and iPads heard long ago.


So we are all rapt and uneasy when we hear this.


Normally, we are told by the narrator, the New Orleans Saints locker room is closed to outside film crews. An exception was made in this instance for a former player, Steve Gleason, who had recently retired after receiving a diagnosis of ALS—a debilitating illness that steadily breaks the body down but leaves the patient fully cognizant of his eroding physical capacities. Wheelchair bound, he is back to visit his team.


The outside film crew is his. The show cuts to research doctors describing the link to the disease from the head injuries Gleason sustained while playing football.


Back to Gleason: it is pregame on a Sunday. He is there to witness the coach deliver the pregame pump-up speech.


“Kill the head and the body will die.”


The story would soon break that the Saints had been offering cash incentives throughout the 2011 season to those who injure opposing players. The footage taken by Steve Gleason’s film crew helped substantiate the story.


We sit, tensile.


There wasn’t even silence in the room. Just a nothing.


But let’s be clear: I’m not jockeying for space to say suspend all the players in “Bounty-gate” or end the NFL or college football. I’m not posturing for some sort of degenerative diagnosis. And I’m not dashing for some moral high ground from which to lob hollow critiques of the Saints “Bounty-gate” or NFL culture at large.


I’m done running.


I mean, Christ, just whose money do you think it is that’s being spent on bounty programs like the Saints’? Just ask me what I did last Sunday, what channel I watched it on, and what logo was on my snap-back. We are all of us implicated here. We all want to see those daring, violent, immaculate feats performed at the sharp edge of physicality. I know I feel a little better, fleetingly, in my stuckness in this body and mind that’s unable to feel or know what’s going on in another’s, when I watch Brian Dawkins fully lay someone out.


I don’t have a shadow of a clue what Steve Gleason must have felt like as he heard his coach give that pregame speech. And I don’t pretend to. But what window my limited experiences offer me on that moment threatens to strangle me with my own knot.


I don’t know what’s going to happen to the NFL. But I do know that continuing to mortgage our own lonely anxieties about being trapped in eroding bodies and minds by finding reconciliation in watching the destruction of other bodies poses problems, tightens knots. There’s a big debt accruing, and I have no idea how I’ll pay my share. It’s just so goddamn hard to talk about this. It’s hard enough to talk to my brother about this.



I gave my brother an early draft of this essay, left it on his bed after he left for work this morning. I can’t rightly say how or even if he will respond. But I do know that he has to see it. This needs to begin. It’s a first creaking step out to that truck. This is the first piece of writing of mine that I’ve given to him. But he heard the eulogy I wrote for Grammy and was the first to shake my hand, firmly, when I returned to the group in the cemetery in Union.


He reads. Keeps every single Sports Illustrated of a lifetime subscription in a stack in his room. I once left a Nas CD I thought he’d like in the same place on his bed a few years ago. Caught it on his iPod a little while later so I knew he’d been listening.


But still I wonder. I’m not certain I can expect much more than a receipt for its delivery. Handshake or fist bump. He takes after Grampa Towne, whom we’ve never met.


Will he shrug? Will he cry? If he does that will be only for him to know. Will he keep it or give it back? A red pen for the comma splices?


Whatever it is though, it will be just for us. Like the long-healed bruises that only we can still see. Who still know they’re there.

Connor O’Neil

Connor O’Neil is from Lancaster, PA. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. Recent work has appeared in Slate Magazine and Swarm Quarterly.