Safe at Home

Just because I'm the odd duck doesn't mean I don't belong in this family

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On the third morning of our family vacation, I'm bracing myself. We've been going down the Jersey Shore for one week every summer for most of my life. Being the odd duck, I don't often feel at home with my family even after 57 years. My family is harsh. My six brothers favorite mode of expression is ridicule.

My distorted sense of responsibility doesn't lend itself to being the life of the party either. My brother Mike, 61, recently stopped going to his AA meetings because they are too strict about the "not drinking." He shows up drunk, so I walk with him for hours till he sobers up.

We started going down the shore after taking a few years off to honor Dad's birthday—this year, he turns 89. He survived cancer 12 years ago and he's doing great: happy, healthy and still living on his own. My brother Tim wakes up at 6 a.m., rides bikes with his two daughters, then goes to the beach and sets up two huge tents. I amble out of bed around 10 a.m. He keeps asking when I'm going to the beach, I keep saying, soon, then get there around 4 p.m.

I'm here for Dad but drifting through the week. Helping everyone is exhausting, so instead, I'm hiding out. Noticing this, I wondered, why not do the things I really want to do? Why not make this my vacation? Why not find my joy? I love walks in the morning. Why not walk?

Walks cheer me up. I find joy in the little, glorious surprises: cloud formations; gray clouds on top of puffs of white clouds, the sunset igniting them into bursts of luminescent orange and purple. On my first walk over by the bay, I saw orioles in their black and yellow uniforms and a turtle-crossing sign. I live in the city, so even a turtle-crossing sign is exotic. My walks changed my day. On my second walk, a woman was about to throw away a beautiful bucket with an incredible design of a tree on it. I saved its life.

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When I got home the bucket was filled with my favorite edibles from the supermarket: kale, flaxseed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. My brother Tim saw all the stuff and said, "Damn, look at your special diet—everything you get is so special. Do they have a section just for you?"

I said, "It keeps me regular."

"Oh, I wouldn't say you're regular," he snarked.

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I immediately hated him. Eating healthy is weird? I wanted to tell him to cool it, to save his sarcasm. Instead, I looked at how incredibly sensitive I am. He is just being funny, roll with it. I took his comment and ran with it. "Yes," I responded, "That's right, I'm special. My shit don't stink, it sprouts." We had a good laugh. I realized that every year I keep wanting my brothers to change because I'm hurt by something they say or do. Instead, I see what a difference it makes when I accept what is and change my response.

Being the odd duck doesn't mean I don't belong to this family. Why not own it? The kids were owning their experience. My nephew and two nieces love it here. They are in the ocean for hours and hours every day. At night, they put on a talent show. They make this vacation their own; they plan, design, play.

After my third morning walk, I wandered into a store and saw a whiffle ball and bat. I have had the impulse to get a whiffle ball and bat for many years now, but always put it off, mostly because of my handicap: I'm cheap. Luckily, it was on sale and I bought it, thinking I'd play with my 10-year-old nephew, Ethan.

At the beach, Ethan grabbed the bat and asked, who wants to play? Surprisingly, everyone—Dad, my sister-in-law, her two daughters, my brothers. We used our sandals for bases and made a diamond baseball "field of dreams" in the sand. Immediately, we were excited. We were all 10 years old. The magic of a ball. Dad batted first. The first two swings, he missed. Dad played varsity baseball in high school and for the army, but that was 70 years ago! How humiliating, if he strikes out. Then I worried what might happen if he got a hit. He'd have to run to first base! That could kill him. He hit the ball and ran, making it safely to first base. 89!

Then Jen, Tim's wife got a hit and took off for first base only to trip in the sand, landing flat, her face buried in the sand. We were concerned. Her daughter ran over and tagged her out. Jen couldn't stop laughing. Her daughters couldn't stop laughing either.

By the last inning, my team was ahead by one run. There were two outs, they had a player on first and third. My niece was up, I thought if it comes near me don't catch it, let her get a hit. She hit a pop-up into the outfield not too far from me. It was windy and the ball kept shifting in the air. I kept my eye on the ball and caught it. All these years of playing the game, I couldn't hold back, I couldn't not try to catch it. The physics of timing the trajectory of a ball in space to coincide with my eyes and hands as it gets jostled by the breeze amazes me.

The game was the highlight of our vacation. It bonded us. Tim said, "Damn, Paul was everywhere that game. He was the MVP."

At 57, I'm learning to own each moment, knowing I belong anywhere I am. It's one of the paradoxes of life: Being selfish can be the most generous thing we can do for others.

And, it occurred to me as I slid into bed that night, I was safe at home.

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