I opened the door of the apartment to find a tall cardboard box on the top step. Reaching over the top of it with his hand holding the electronic signature pad was the man in brown. "Package for Patrick Dixon," he said. "Sign here."
Surprised, I took the pad, signed it and gave it back. "Have a Merry Christmas," he said, and walked back down the sidewalk to his truck. It pulled away as I read the return address, from Mike Dixon in Maryland. No mistake, then. My brother, the woodworker, the musician, eight years older than I, and the one who had shown up unannounced with his wife Alice on our doorstep in Olympia a year ago to help my family get settled three days after we moved here from Alaska, had sent this package. I picked it up and carried it into the dim living room of our cheap rental duplex.
"Who was that?" asked Veronica.
"UPS. A package from Mike." I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a paring knife out of the laminated wooden knife block Mike made us years ago.
"What is it?"
"Well open it and find out." She came into the living room, wiping her hands with a towel.
Of all my siblings, it's ironic that I feel closest to the one who tortured me the most while growing up. Mike sat on my six-year-old chest as a fourteen-year-old and dangled spit in my face and sprinkled handfuls of grass in my eyes and mouth; Mike would play "Patrick is a fat boy," on his guitar just to make me angry whenever the family was gathered around to hear him play; Mike was the one who held the lazy-Susan with his thumb when we were eating dinner one night with mom and dad and I was trying to turn it. When I pulled harder, he let go and the pitcher of milk flew onto dad's plate, spilling in his lap. I was the one who got sent to my room without dinner. Yet it was Mike who loaned us the last $2,000 we needed to seal the deal on our fishing permit when we bought in twenty years ago. It was Mike who decided to come to Alaska and be with me after our mom died, and I couldn't afford to go to the funeral.
I ran the knife along the seam of the cardboard, cut open the top and peered in. A round, black shape was there, made of some sort of vinyl. I put the box on its side and pulled out a guitar case. "Oh, my God," I breathed. "It's a guitar!" Mike had been promising to make me a guitar for two years, ever since he'd converted his wooden cutting board and humidor business into hand-making custom guitars. An accomplished musician, he worked with wood for most of his career, and nearing retirement decided to reinvent himself as a custom guitar builder. I had jokingly been asking him, "Where is my guitar?" every time we talked on the phone since.
What slid out of the case was not a guitar he had made, but one of the several he had collected over the past couple of decades. Hand-built to Mike’s specifications by a craftsman from Hawaii, it was a jumbo cutaway - a guitar I had played and admired the last time we had visited in Maryland a few years before. Inlay abalone doves on the neck, the box was polished bubinga wood with more abalone along the edge of the top and down the center of the back. It was a work of art.
For a brief moment I strummed the strings. The sound was deep and warm, like diving into a tropical lagoon of resonance. It was too much. I didn’t deserve this gift. Mike was an accomplished guitarist, while I fumbled at it at best. Suddenly overwhelmed at what I held in my hands, I felt the crush of what to me had been a year of bad decisions press down upon me. Nine months ago we packed up the home we built in Alaska and moved to Washington for a job at the local state college that hadn’t gone well. For 23 years I was proud to call myself an Alaskan and a commercial fisherman. But last spring we sold the house, the boat and permit, and I nose-dived into a different lagoon: one filled with the cold water of depression and self-doubt. Our family was in crisis. More than once I had gotten into my truck and driven off, intending never to return, heading north, heading east, heading anywhere but here. And suddenly in my hands was this thing of beauty and creativity, and I could neither accept it nor give it back. To Veronica’s amazement, I slid it back into its case and clipped the latches.
“Aren’t you going to play it?’
“Maybe later,” I answered, and for a short moment that evening I did. When my twelve-year-old son Dylan went to bed, I pulled it out and sat on his bed and played in the dark. In a letter I wrote to Mike three months later, I described the experience:
I closed my eyes and played...and the music filled the room. Full and deep, my fingers felt as if they were touching glass, not wood and metal. Even my voice, my rhythm, my soul resonated in ways I never felt before. I played the guitar far less than it played me.
Afterwards, even more besieged by my feelings, I put it back in the case and avoided it. After the emotion of the moment faded, Veronica and I talked it out in the dark of our bedroom and I did my best to explain my feelings, but I’m sure I was less than honest – even with myself – and far from articulate. Inside I continued to dance around the fire of my own self-immolation, burning brightly against the darkness surrounding me, and the gift that my brother sent me sat silent in its case in the corner.
By March the rains of that first winter in Olympia began to ease. We bought a yellow house in a wooded neighborhood that promised to be a better fit for us. As we prepared to move, my sixteen-year-old son Kessler was packing boxes in the basement of the duplex. He picked up the box the guitar had shipped in, and out fell a plastic bag with documents about the guitar in it. There were picks, strings, the receipt and a letter. Kessler bounded up the stairs and said, “Dad! Look what I found!” waving the bag at me.
The letter is dated December 21, 1998. Winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, at 3:00 am. In it, my brother describes the forces that mysteriously wake us up in the middle of the night with their voices echoing in our ears, telling us what we need to do. Somehow he knew how hard my life had become, how the trough of my sea was threatening to drown me, and that this, this gift was not a Christmas present – the timing just happened to be the same, he said – but was a lifeline, a buoy for me to grab to pull myself up to the next crest. In pencil, I still have his counsel:
Use it wisely. When in doubt about future decisions concerning life’s crossroads – meditate with it. It’s like a wisdom tonic if you use it appropriately. Strum it softly and it will speak back to you... it is a magic wand which I can only loan you. I don’t really own it. I just happened to possess it for awhile and then pass it on. Someday you do the same.
After reading the letter for the first time, I walked into the living room where the guitar had spent the first three months of its stay with me, and it was halfway out of its case when I opened the lid. It seemed to leap into my hands. Together we went outside and sat on the step in front of the duplex I was happy to be leaving – the same step I stood on three months earlier when it arrived – and we played. And as we played I began to understand that life is full of changes. Some we control, some we don’t. Some we choose, and sometimes those choices don’t work out as we intended. Some changes come to us dressed in cardboard, yet contain gifts beyond measure. I still play – not as often as I feel I should, but each time I do, I think of my brother Mike – and how lucky I am to have him in my life.