My View

Robert Wallace: The language of self

December 10, 2013 


“The secret to not feeling sorry for yourself some days is to think about the life of someone else,” my grandmother said to me when I was young.

Let’s begin with the idea of self. The concept predisposes that what makes one person different from another person i.e. that defining differentness, is, to a large degree, the uniqueness of that person. Or, if I might extrapolate from Descartes: I think like I do, therefore it is who I am.

The magical word here, of course, is I.

But what is this I. Can one really know one’s self?

Let me tell a story. Not long after my father remarried, we moved to the country. My parents bought a non-working farm. All the buildings were painted, including the farmhouse, solid white. Behind the house was a hill, which in winter served as our sledding hill; a slope that became ice-rink slick in the late months of winter.

There was a horse barn and alongside of it a courtyard made of cracked concrete with weeds and grasses growing inside the broken parts. My dad put up a basketball rim in the hayloft of the barn. We – my brother, Gary, and I – had a friend over one day in late fall when the vapor from our breaths hung in the air like puffs of smoke. Bouncing the ball on the uneven floor stirred up dust and dirt and the sound of the ball on the cold, wooden planks filled the air with its dull music like the clomping of horse’s hooves.

After we had played for about an hour, we took a break, downed iced cold bottles of RC Cola. We sat over the squared-out opening where the bales of hay were flung up through, our legs dangling over the edge.

Then my brother stood up and said, “I’m going to jump.”

“Don’t be crazy,” I said, though I had thought about it myself. Sitting there it didn’t seem so far, but once we stood up the distance to the ground appeared much farther.

“Push me,” my brother said.

“What?” Brad said. Our friend looked at my brother as if he had lost his mind.

“Nudge me, then,” my brother said.

I was 13 then; my brother two years younger. We were boys; we were dumb to the possibilities of injury.

I nudged him.

I watched my brother fall to the ground, and for a second, a momentary second, he seemed to hang in the air, defying gravity. When he landed, he crumpled to the ground, and immediately began to yell. Brad and I ran down the stairs and around the barn to where Gary lay. He held his right leg, furiously rocking back and forth, like some fallen warrior. Foolishly, Brad and I picked my brother up and carried him to the house.

“Please don’t tell Mom and Dad I pushed you,” I pleaded.

Every essayist has dreamed about the possibility of fiction once in a while. I could say that my brother was faking his injury and plopped out of our arms just before we reached the front door, laughing himself silly with his foolery. I could say that he didn’t fall to the ground at all, but that a horse magically appeared, and he fell onto the horse’s back, riding it for a few minutes before finding a way to extricate himself. Or that a pile of hay was on the ground, and it mercifully cushioned his fall. Or, in a sudden pitch toward magical realism, my brother saved himself just before he reached the ground by taking flight.

No. My brother had fractured his leg.

This brings me back to my grandmother – the woman who would eventually come to raise me and my four siblings. Part of the challenge for each of us is recognizing a humanistic truth, that though we may spend a lifetime figuring out our essential self, it is when we are thinking of others, we find our best selves.

Currently I am laid up with a running injury, hobbling around on crutches; my heel so tender to touch that it screams with pain every time it contacts the ground. Perhaps this is why I thought of the story of my brother and what happened so many years ago now. He was on crutches for months, and when his cast came off, I spent hours with him playing catch and throwing grounders, trying to get him ready for summer baseball. The guilt of what I had done eating at me something fierce.

On that cold day in November, 45 years ago, my friend and I carried my brother to the doorsteps of my family’s house. Gary was crying by then. My father and stepmother came outside and then one of them – my stepmother, I think –went inside to call an ambulance.

“How did this happen?” my father asked.

None of us said anything.

“Well?” my father said.

“I jumped out of the hay barn,” Gary said.

My brother never told on me. Years later it didn’t matter, as tragedy would befall all of us and there would be no one to tell. Still I think of that time. And I think of my grandmother’s words.

It’s not enough to be an I.

Robert Wallace is the author of “First Kiss,” a play. It will be adapted into a short movie in 2014 by Jim McQuaide. Robert can be contacted at

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