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24 August 2008 @ 11:30 pm
Fun with Jet Skis  
Life requires a delicate balance of humor and dignity, even in the midst of crisis. Having lived through such an experience recently, I feel it appropriate to report on the matter, delicately weaving the threads of humor and dignity into the fabric of this tale, so as to lighten the situation but not underscore its seriousness. The names have naturally been changed to prevent embarrassment of the parties involved.

For the first time in four years I went to the beach. Emerald Isle, North Carolina, the southernmost island of the Outer Banks. It’s a quiet little island, brimming with surf shops and Food Lion grocery stores. There’s not very much to do there – naturally advantageous to the over thirty crowd but engenders restlessness in those of us who would like a bit more excitement. Funny, isn’t it, how the universe compensates for these desires?

I have fourteen cousins on my mother’s side of the family. On this particular vacation, seven of them were present. Two of them, Jay and Kit, are the same age – sixteen. They’ve grown up together, probably more like siblings than cousins. That’s one of the byproducts of an Irish Catholic family, I suppose. This time ’round, Kit and his family weren’t present, as they were on a cruise. This left Jay out of sorts for the week – younger than his cousins who can drink – that would include me (though I don’t drink), my sister, and my cousin Joey – and the rest, who are either too young (as is the case with Will and Dill, eight and two respectively) or are girls (as with Danielle). I felt a surge of avuncular warmth and tried to spend time with Jay. He’s a good kid with a heck of a physique and plays football for his high school. He’s known for being quiet around the family and we older cousins tease him for his meat-headed jock tendencies. When he was younger, my brother used to torment him. He was the recipient of the most remarkable wedgie I’ve ever encountered. But this time around there was no one to tie him up and lock him in a closet – not that he wasn’t strong enough to whoop us all if he’d half a mind to do so – so he just went to the beach and looked damn good doing it. I would like to claim I am not jealous, but I also do not spend time working on my triceps, so I’ve no right to jealousy.

So I spent some time with Jay this vacation, which resulted in a lot of questions. Jay doesn’t really talk much to adults, but does open up to those around his age. With me, he does two things: 1) He asks inappropriate questions 2) He repeats phrases ad nauseum. This year it was “Bitch, show me them titties.” The questions had a lot to do with titties, whether I had asked a lady the above phrase, whether I had seen some titties, what I would do if I encountered them, and so on and so on. He also expressed an interest in my high school career, particularly if I took a senior trip. He was newly licensed to drive, so I told him he was going to get into a few accidents, and it was best to make them minor fender-benders. I was trying to be informative but funny, mixing levity with the seriousness of a driver’s responsibility. I had hoped this edu-tainment approach would work.
Late at night, Jay and I would walk to the pier, some eight blocks away, where he would assault me with these questions. As it was one of his only opportunities to swear on the vacation, he took advantage. After one walk on Tuesday with my cousin Joey in tow, we decided to send a photo to my brother, who was living in Portland. It’s something of a tradition to send him naughty photos, established one Christmas when we sent him a picture of four full moons. We were on the beach contemplating what to do, and I snapped with my Blackberry some rather unpleasant parts of their anatomy and promptly sent it electronically to Portland. Jay and Joey were bunking together since Kit was not around. As a gag, Jay took off all his clothes to wait for Joey, who had gone outside to smoke, to return. Joey came back in and started watching TV, so I had to come up with a clever way to get him into the bedroom. Joey’s friend Brendan was coming down, driving straight through from Philadelphia, so I calmly remarked “Hey, I think your phone is beeping.”
“It’s probably Brendan,” Joey said, entering the bedroom. The “Awwww” that followed was, of course, priceless.

Brendan did come down, staying up for nearly 24 hours straight on his drive from Philly. We had discussed the possibility of renting Jet Skis and Brendan was all about this idea. He awoke the next morning, found a place in one of the travel brochures, and booked us for 5 pm on Thursday. Sure enough, 4 o’clock rolled around and it was time for us to head out. I rustled everyone up, and we split into two cars: Jay, Brendan and Joey were taking Joey’s car, while myself, my sister, her boyfriend and my cousin Elizabeth drove in my mother’s car. We signed our release forms, forked over our money, and sat through two safety demonstrations, the key point of which was that all jet skis should be 250 feet away from each other at all times to avoid any issues. Jet skis, it turns out, do not have breaks. Another key fact was that in the sound on which we would be skiing, there were sandbars. The establishment had flagged off the perimeter of the ski area: red flags marked the borders, black flags the corners of the over three square mile rectangle. We waited for our turn, life jackets on. We were the yellow group, and as we waded out to our skis, an instructor showed us how to use the skis and reiterated the safe distance of 250 feet. There weren’t enough skis, though, so I remained. Lucky for the others, as our thirty minutes would not begin until I was saddled up. After a few minutes I was good, and soon found myself cascading along the sound at 71 miles per hour.

I’d never been on a jet ski before. About ten years before, on another vacation in Delaware, my family had rented jet skis. My sister and brother, thrill-seekers both, had ridden with adults. The memorable story there was that my sister had gone full tilt into a small wave which bounced my dad, with whom she was riding, off of the ski into the drink. Jet Skis have a cutoff switch attached to a rope on your left wrist, so my dad climbed back on and they went out again.

I didn’t go out with them that time because thrills aren’t my thing. I don’t like roller coasters – the sensation of plummeting tenses my leg muscles, a sensation I find painful rather than pleasant. I nearly wigged out on the Norway ride at EPCOT when I thought our boat was going to go down a hill backwards. But I’ve mellowed, and grown to enjoy amusement park rides that go somewhat fast, and on a trip to Orlando even rode a ride you could call a rollercoaster, singing as I did the entire time about how much I hated the friend who dragged me on. This year was different, though. I’m nearly thirty years old and it’s time I had some fun. Jet skiing? That sounds wonderful! I was keen to experience the fun that I had purposely avoided so many years before.

Because Jay was licensed, he didn’t need to ride with another adult. As I tore through the sound, I watched him, his face alight with teenage glee. He got a little close to me – intending to splash me, I’d bet, but I threw on evasive pattern delta and got away from him. A short time later – time always feels short when you’re paying $55 for 30 minutes of skiing, doesn’t it? – I noticed a confluence of skis. It was Elizabeth, my sister, and Cullen, her boyfriend.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Joey lost his finger,” Cullen said.

The first thought that went through my head was something close to “Figures.” Joey has had some troubles. He was in the process of losing his license before we went on vacation, and he’s had to call me on a couple of occasions late at night. Usually it’s for taxi service, and for that I commend him, as it demonstrates a responsible inebriation; but at least one time was after a DUI. To be fair, he didn’t seem intoxicated to me, he’d passed a field sobriety test, and it was only when the cop took him to a hospital where they drew blood that he was busted. ’Course, they found some other substances in there (pot) which led to all kinds of nifty troubles. I took him home, woke up 4 hours later and drove him to the police station where they’d impounded his car.

So “figures” was going through my head. Then suddenly it struck me – “Wait, his finger? His finger was cut off?” I jetted over to the corner where two skis were idling. Jay and Brendan were sitting there, and I asked what was going on. Joey had passed me on a ski with one of the attendants, but I couldn’t see what happened. Brendan tried to explain that there had been a collision between Jay and Joey, and apparently Joey had lost a fingertip. Okay, finger tip. That was a lot better. No need to panic now. Only – yeah, it was panic time. A finger tip? I’d taken out six kids to jet ski and now one of them was going back without a finger tip. Fantastic. How could I be so stupid as to let this happen? I was the oldest, I should have been in charge – I should have yelled at everyone before we left not to do anything stupid.

I turned my ski and headed back through the purple flags to the dock. Of course, I realized while puttering back there wasn’t anything I could have done. Accidents happen. Now was not the time for blame, it was time to take charge and figure this whole mess out. I got off the ski and went up the dock. An ambulance had already arrived and one of the EMTs was coming towards the end of the pier. “Where are Joey’s cousins?” he asked.

“Right here,” I said. “I’m the oldest.”

The EMT walked me to the ambulance, where I peeked inside. I remember asking Joey how he was doing, and he replied something like, “Oh, you know, fine.” It was then I saw his finger. The tip of his right index was gone, and it was bleeding like crazy. Tip, by the way, refers to the part of the finger from the first knuckle on up.

Okay, action time – someone had to get on the phone to call his parents. One of the attendants was trying to talk to me about the incident. He was clearly pissed, and kept reiterating how lucky we were no one had died. Plus, there were damages to the skis and someone had to pay. I grabbed my wallet out of my mother’s car and threw down a credit card that had a zero balance. My sister was trying to get a phone, hers was almost dead. I put my blackberry in her hand and told her to call Joey’s dad. After a quick assessment, the establishment decided $600 worth of damage had occurred. Again, we were lucky – jet skis cost about $8500 and damage is usually in the thousands. It was then I noticed Jay. The gravity of what happened was hitting him. “Oh, shit,” he said in a warbling voice that only those in shock can muster. Suddenly everything was crashing down on him – parental wrath, familial scorn and the realization that Joey no longer had a fingertip.

“Breathe,” I said. “In through the nose. Hold it. Out through the mouth.” I repeated this mantra to him several times. I turned to sign the credit card receipt. The attendant gave me a brochure and circled a phone number – they wanted us to call tomorrow to let them know the status. I turned to Jay. “In through the nose. Hold it. Out through the mouth.” The ambulance was getting ready to depart; my sister would be riding with Joey. She was a year younger than him, so that made sense. Okay, now who was going to drive Joey’s car? It was a stick shift, did anyone know how to drive one? Cullen did, so he and Brendan get in Joey’s car. Where’s the hospital? I ask several EMTs. They give me directions – a left at the big intersection, go across the bridge, make another left, look for the KFC then make a right. Hadn’t these guys ever heard of street names?

Finally I wind up in my mother’s car. Jay is seated next to me, Elizabeth in the backseat. She tries some comfort about reattachment, advances in medical surgery. Jay’s eyes start to water. “Maybe I’ll be quiet,” she realizes. I maintain an even tone. My phone is ringing a lot, but I’m driving so Elizabeth answers. She passes it to me – first, it’s my mother, telling me to come back to the vacation house. I calmly inform her that no, we’re going to the hospital. I give instructions again to her, so that my aunt and uncle can come out. I fill my mother in on our plan – who’s driving which car, etc. It rings again, this time my sister. She says that Joey is doing well and is making jokes – an EMT has asked him how he feels, and he says he’d like a beer. The EMT laughs, and Joey responds that he’s not joking, he wants a beer.

I follow the landmarks and make it to the hospital. We walk into the ER waiting area and I talk to the receptionist so that she knows Joey has got family waiting for him. Another phone call – this time I think it’s my uncle, but I don’t remember as I write this. Jay is still doing kinda badly. I take him to the bathroom, keep telling him to breathe. I leave so he can use the facilities. When he’s done, I suggest we take a walk. We walk around the hospital, and I try to talk to him. We reach a gazebo and I suggest we sit down for a spell.

Once we’re seated I tell him what needs to be said – “You’re my cousin, and I love you unconditionally.” I tell him to call me, any time, no matter what, if he ever needs me. I make sure he has my number in his phone. I ask him what he plans to do that night. I know it’ll be tough to face the family after this, so I tell him I’ll deflect questions as best I can, and if he wants, I’ll spend the night with him. I ask him if he wants to leave, but he says he wants to sit for a while longer. I ask if he wants me to get someone cooler to sit with him. It’s a joke, but he says he doesn’t want to see anyone else. I say that’s okay, and that I’m here for him, whatever he needs. I talk a little more, trying to reassure him, and then suggest it’s time we get back.

We complete our walk, and as we get back to the ER entrance, my uncle has arrived. Jay gets nervous as he walks towards us, and my uncle deflects my “Give us a minute” with an equally calm “I need to talk to him.” He walks over to Jay arms open. Jay says “I’m sorry” and my uncle says “It’s okay, it was an accident.”

I leave since it’s not my place to be there. I hover in between the sets of automated sliding glass doors, and my sister beckons me inside. “You don’t have to listen,” she chides. A few minutes later and they both come in. Cullen and Brendan have arrived. There’s little more for us to do, so we decide to leave. Brendan comes with me and Elizabeth, Jay again riding shotgun. My sister and Cullen drive Joey’s car and we head home.

The confrontation has worked – Jay seems to be calmer, my uncle has said all he needed and there’s an understanding. In fact, my uncle is taking all of this remarkably well. We drive back, and Jay goes to see his parents. I hang out, relaying as much of the story as I can to my mother and assorted relatives. Apparently they were both in the northeast corner of the sound near the black flag, and they turned into each other. I don’t know the physics of it, and they don’t really matter. I wait for Jay to go upstairs and then talk to his parents. I explain about the $600 worth of damage that I’ve paid for. Jay’s dad wants to write me a check, but I say that we don’t need to take care of it right away.

It’s a long night as we wait for Joey’s return. Cullen and my sister had gotten lost on the way back, but made it eventually. We are all sitting up, waiting. I had explained to Jay that Joey may stay overnight. It’s a resort town in North Carolina, so they are having trouble getting an orthopedic surgeon to look at the wound. Sure enough, Joey and his parents do come back. There’s not a lot of fuss, as it’s late and most everyone has gone to bed. Jay and Brendan are up, and I’m keeping my eye on Jay. The parents describe some of the procedures done, some stitching – there will be an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon on Monday when we return to Pittsburgh.

The relief of the night comes after the adults have gone to bed. Joey comes out of his room, his finger bandaged tightly, and says to Jay, “I’m sorry if you got yelled at for any of this. I know that you didn’t do it on purpose.” They embrace quickly. It’s the last bit of tension that needs to be released. Things now are not cool, but they will be.

Healing takes time, I tell Jay. When these things happen, things go into a state of flux. Sometimes, we just need a good night’s sleep and a new day, to look at the situation with a fresh perspective. It will heal, I tell him, but don’t expect it to happen right away. Joey seems to know this, too. He knows that he and Jay will get back to where they are, but not right away. He confesses to me that he doesn’t want to be around Jay right now, so he doesn’t say anything out of anger. They’ll be cool, he promises, but Jay isn’t his favorite person right now. He’s told me that he feels bad for Jay, and I interrupt to tell him that now is his time to be selfish and not to worry about other people. He agrees – he was going to say the same thing before I interrupted.
The timing of this crisis is perfect. It happened on a Thursday so we have all day Friday to deal, one last day at the beach. Saturday morning we leave to head home. Friday night, Jay and I sit in the living room. Everyone’s gone to bed after watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics. I suggest one last walk to the pier.

Jay and I talk. I want to make sure that he’s got someone at home, someone he can trust, to talk to, to confide in. Jay confesses he doesn’t really want anyone to know about what’s happened. It’s his way of saying, I think, that he doesn’t need to talk it out with a shrink. He thanks me. I repeat what I’ve said – I’m always there if he needs me.

We get to the pier and look back on the week. I had asked him on an earlier walk how his vacation was going, and he mentioned how it was kind of dull for him. I bring the point up, and he realizes the irony. He’s clearly sorry about what’s happened. And for now, he’s learned his lesson. He doesn’t want his friends to know, because they’ll just say what an idiotic thing he’d done. I don’t pull punches – it was an idiotic thing he’d done. But, I let him know that life is full of idiotic moments, and we can’t all be geniuses every day. I tell him not to worry too much. This is the first big screw up of his life, and I console him with stories of my brother and Joey. They’ve had a few incidents themselves. We discuss briefly using the F-word with our parents. I tell him that how we talk to our friends, when it’s accustomed, is different to how our parents hear that word. He doesn’t have a retort or a one-liner. He says, “I never really thought about how they would take that.” It’s a start to seeing the world differently, thinking about other people. Maybe this has helped to open his eyes. He’s got a long car ride back home, nearly twelve hours. I don’t envy him that.

I feel somewhat bad for all the attention I paid Jay when Joey was the victim. Of course, a lot of that is because he was in the hospital and inaccessible, but more so I think it’s because Joey can take it. He’s been through hardship before, so it’s not unusual for him. He’ll have a story for the bar.

We get back to Pittsburgh. An uncle’s father has passed away, so we make a trip to the funeral home. I see Joey and his sister there. We talk briefly. They’ve met with an orthopedic surgeon. Turns out they’ll need to take down some more of the bone to stitch the skin over. Joey’s on painkillers, but handling himself well. He wants to be a stand up comic, and has been going to an open mic night on Tuesdays. “I’ve got at least five minutes on this” he says holding up his bandaged stump.

Life requires a delicate balance of humor and dignity.