By David LaBelle
In high school he wasn’t an athlete, a member of student government and didn’t work on the school newspaper or yearbook. In fact, Mark Steven went relatively unnoticed, like most in the choppy sea of teenagers trying to navigate their way through adolescence.
Two years younger than me, my brother has always been an animal whisperer of sorts, able to communicate with animals tame and wild. Neighbors often asked him to care for their horses, dogs or cats when they were out of town. In fact, most adults loved Steven because he wasn’t loud or often linked to mischief, like me. Even now, when he speaks about his three dogs – Harry, Harriet and Harry Junior – his eyes twinkle and his voice dances with a paternal pride. Steve, as he now prefers to be called, spends much of his hard-earned money feeding hundreds of pigeons, geese and roosters because he doesn’t have the heart to kill any of them.
Steve hasn’t had an easy life. Some might even say he’s been dealt a bad, even unfair hand. Though life growing up was not easy for any of us, notably my mother and sisters, Steve’s road has been especially hard.
Because of his tender heart, many have taken advantage of him, including a company he worked for which poisoned and nearly killed him. Steve contracted copper sulfate poisoning which exited his body in various places and eventually turned one of his ears green. The ear became enlarged and infected. Had he not performed surgery himself with a pocket knife, his ear could have been lost and perhaps even his life. Like many big businesses with money, the company found a way to avoid fault and compensation. Such is life when one does not have the means to challenge those who do. To this day, the enlarged right ear causes Steve to be understandably self-conscious, especially around cameras.
In spite of many hardships, Steve maintains a great sense of humor, telling stories with such crazed, exaggerated animation few in his audience can keep from doubling over with laughter. He has always seen himself more as a grateful survivor than a wounded victim.
In Concho, Arizona, a small hiccup of a town where the wind threatens daily to reshape the landscape, my brother Steve is beloved.
“I have never seen him unhappy; he is always clowning, that’s his way,” says neighbor Ron Aycox, who has known Steve at least 15 years. “He is always there when I need him, and if you are down in the dirt, he’ll sure lift you up. He is very kind-hearted and a very good friend.”
Like my father and youngest brother Brian, Steve can fix anything – a car or truck engine, fence, or broken water pipe. (I can fix nothing and loathe working on cars or anything mechanical.)
He is also an accomplished bowler. With just a little luck and sponsorship, he might have turned pro.
Steve also has a beautiful singing voice, like my big sister Faye Marie. Had the pair hit the road as a traveling duet, they might have become a famous brother-sister act.
But perhaps my brother Steve’s greatest gift is his compassionate heart which genuinely cares for all living creatures – people and animals.
Though he seldom speaks the word “love” Steve lives the word by his daily example.
He has spent many of his nearly 65 years living with and helping my father – a symbiotic relationship that benefited both for two decades – but of late has become painfully challenging.
Two years ago, my aging father fell and Steve lifted him and drove him to the doctor, despite his own excruciating pain. He was kicked in the chest by a horse earlier that morning, breaking four ribs.
Along with Judy, my Dad’s sister, Steve has pretty much become an unpaid caregiver and taxi. He is expected to fix anything that breaks and respond to every whim of my 89-year-old father, including the challenges of bathroom duty. My father stays up late watching television and keeps a whistle, blowing it through the night whenever he wants or needs something. My brother confessed he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, though he still rises before dawn to work on nearby ranchesAnd that was before my dad fell in January, fracturing his leg, beginning a spiraling health decline which now includes hospice intervention and even more around-the-clock care.
Recently, I posted several pictures on Instagram of my sister helping my dad during a recent visit, and she does have a way with those unable to help themselves. For the past 15 years, she’s been a caregiver for her husband Jules who suffered a paralyzing stroke. She is amazing.
But so are Steve and my Aunt Judy, who rents a room from my father. They are the real heroes when it comes to caring for my dad. Since the rest of my siblings live and work far from Arizona, caring for my father has always fallen Steve’s broad shoulders.
Though my father is more gentle, thoughtful and less selfish in old age – a sharp contrast to younger years when a violent temper made him unpredictable and quite scary at times – he can still be incredibly demanding and unreasonable.
I have two brothers and two sisters, and I love and admire each of them. Each has carved a successful life path after challenging beginnings.
But there is a special love and respect for Steve, coupled with a gnawing sadness for the way I treated him growing up. That I was not a better, kinder brother to this gentle soul still haunts me. I picked on him, excluded him, bullied him, rolled him down a steep hill in a stainless-steel barrel, even stung a horse’s rump with a small stone while he was sitting on the animal bareback. Though many apologies have been offered, and he has said he forgives me, deep down I know it still hurts him.
No doubt you have heard people foolishly and brashly say they wouldn’t change a thing if they had their life to live over.
I am not one of them.
\If only there was an adolescence “do over” or a magic wand to erase the many unkind words and selfish actions which have hurt others, beginning with my brothers, sisters and parents.
I thank God continually He blesses me with eyes to see how I have hurt others and enough time to become a better human being.
Each time I drive away from Concho, Arizona, my eyes fill with love and gratitude, thankful for the family I have been blessed with.
And for my crazy brother, Steve.
“O to be like Thee” is a hymn we sometimes sing in worship. Though written about Christ, some of the words are appropriate when I think about my brother.
“O to be like Thee! full of compassion,
Loving, forgiving, tender and kind…”