Right-o. James Wortman.
Now, I’ve had a fair few people commenting on the fact that this stallion doesn’t feature a hell of a lot in my blog posts. It’s surprising, they say. Aren’t you really close? We thought he’d be a regular in there.
It got me thinking. You know how when something is really important to you, or really precious, you want to shield it from external harm? Say a family heirloom of jewellery you lock in a high up cabinet, or a favourite clothing item that’s only worn on special occasions and never lent out? Well, that’s how I regard my relationship with James.
I think I fear people will misconstrue and view it as weird, which is why I’ve kept from disclosing. But he is 100 per cent, no doubt at all to it, my favourite person and most important thing – not just person, but all encompassing thing – in my life. So I feel he perhaps deserves a blog post purely focused on him. Now I will try and keep this from being as cheesy as fondue as I can (but get your spearing forks ready j.i.c).
So James Michael Wortman. HorseManDog. The Wort. Or my personal favourite, Bulbasaur (he’s a tad self conscious about his nose. What better way to make him feel better about his snout than to christen him with the same name as a cartoon character with a peculiar proboscis?).
James was born six days before my fourth birthday. I think as a youngster I wasn’t overly interested in this new addition to the Wortman clan; I couldn’t take him for a bike ride in my backpack, what use was he to me? But as this lad grew and started yarning away, with his big blue eyes and blonde bowl cut (the do of the time early and mid 90s), so did my love for him.
Funnily enough, “the talk” didn’t come to my attention from Deb or Hank; rather, I learnt about the way of life and about a woman’s monthly cycle from the little bro. Deb had a little book for when I was ready, but I couldn’t bring myself to delve into its pages. So one day after school, six-year-old James found it necessary to inform me of the birds and the bees.
“Guess what?” He asked.
“What?” I replied.
“One day you’ll bleed out your fanny for a few days every month. It’ll mean you can have babies.”
Well. That blew my idea of a mummy pressing her belly button and busting out a baby to pieces. He proceeded to explain the ins and outs of sexual intercourse (don’t even ask me how he became such an expert; the little book was illustrated I guess) and by the time an hour was up, I could’ve given a sex-ed class to a packed class of pre-teens.
When James was nine years old, he was diagnosed with ALL, or Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (when I saw Henio filling out forms with “ALL” for cancer type, I flew into a frenzy; “James has every type or cancer?!” I despaired). I remember that horrid week like it was this afternoon just gone.
James and I had both been off school for being under the weather. I had a bad case of the runs (why does everything come back to Pop with the trots ATM?) and James had flu-like symptoms. At first Deb had suspected his belly aching was a bid to circumvent folk dancing in P.E, but it soon became apparent the whippersnapper was rather unwell. I returned to school after a trifling two days, but old Jambo continued to remain housebound.
After bedtime James and I would often sneak into one or the other’s rooms, where I would make up stories for him. We’d giggle and chortle as we listened out for the feared footsteps of Hank coming up the hallway and snapping us, but we were usually pretty stealthy.
This week in korero, James started mithering that he had a sore bum. “It hurts,” he would kvetch nightly (we later were informed that this was in fact a sign of Leukaemia. His over abundance of white blood cells were pushing down on his tailbone, thus the “sore bum”). In a bid to take his mind off his agonising arse, I tried my best to make my stories as funny and outrageous as I possibly could.
Anemia was put out as a possible diagnosis and blood tests were ordered by the doc. This was bewildering in its own right; James was like a carnivore, demolishing meats and sausages like a voracious leopard. How on earth would he be lacking iron with his diet? But the results came back with suggestions of a much more serious katzenjammer.
I remember clear as eye drops getting off the bus after school on the Tuesday afternoon and finding older brother Michael waiting for me. He never ever met me at the bus stop. Something was up.
He informed me that James was at Starship Hospital with Dad and things were pretty grim looking. As we footslogged our way home, Michael suddenly went silent for a fair few strides then blurted out, “Can kids get cancer?”
I remember so clearly the sudden breathless feeling that overtook me, like someone was clutching my heart with an implacable grasp. Cancer? James? No. No way.
When we arrived at our abode, Hank was there (Deb was up with James; never fear, he hadn’t been left on his lonesome). James needed some tests, Dad said. So he was staying the night. He told Michael and I to get organised and we’d go to hospital to see the tyke.
When I came back to the kitchen, old Henio was on the phone to a pal. “They think it might be cancer mate,” he vouchsafed to his friend.
That’s the moment I realised our lives were about to turn not just upside down, but to pieces and all over the place (but to be honest, Deb and Hank did a sensationally stellar job of keeping mine ticking along pretty right-way-up).
I’m ashamed to say my reaction to this eavesdropping wasn’t the most germane of rejoinders.
I bawled my eyes out. James had cancer. People died from cancer. James was going to die.
I went to his room and filled a Brobdingnagian bag with his favourite toys and treasures. Who knew how long he had left? He needed his trinkets, all of them, at his bedside. As I played Tetris in my attempts to fit in his Gameboy, Lord of the Rings figurines and Captain Underpants books, I started planning his funeral in my mind. It makes me feel sick to my stomach now to think that was my automatic response.
Dad came and in caught me pretty much packing up the entirety of James’s belongings as I snivelled and sobbed. I avowed that I had heard him on the phone, and he just said to me, “James is going to be ok.” I clung to that for the following three years and nine months.
On the way to Starship we stopped at Pizza Hutt to get James a beloved Meat Lover’s pizza (with a few Hawiians and Apricot Chickens chucked in too) then headed to the hosp.
I was terrified. Would James be lying down, machines all inserted into his body, crying and scared? What would I say to him? Should I mention it or act like all was normal?
As we rose up in the elevator to to his ward, the tears tumbled down again. I gripped the pizza box so tightly my thumbs tore through the cardboard corners. I took a deep, deep breath as we entered his room (which he wouldn’t leave for the next four weeks, bar trips to theatre – and no, not movies or a production space as I initially thought – for operation upon operation).
There he was. Sitting up in his borrowed blue pyjamas with “hospital” printed all over, chirpy, chipper, chatting away. “Hey dickhead,” he said. “Yay you bought pizza!”
He demolished one by himself.
The next day it was confirmed. James had Leukaemia.
I’m not going to get all into the treatment, the chemo, the operations, etc. All I’m going to say is that this turbulent time introduced me to two incredible superstars that I hadn’t encountered in full force before; James himself, the bravest boy I became unbelievably proud of, and Deb – ditto (except a female). I was – and still am – absolutely in awe of how she coped.
Just one mention: James had to do a couple of rounds of steroids, and he blew up to be the cutest, cutest thing imaginable. At first he thought in taking the pills he’d gain major muscle and buffly bulk up; alas for him, it wasn’t the case. Rather, he packed on the pounds to be like a chubby cherub, with a big bulbous belly and portly, plump cheeks. Combined with his hairless head and bubbly blue eyes (the steroids lessened his pupils so the irises dominated) you just wanted to hug and squeeze him.
And he ate. And ate. And ate. He was ravenous all the time, even after annihilating a stack of pancakes or a mammoth mound of noodles. Mum was constantly preparing food for James and his grumbling gut. One night he even woke her up at 2am. “I’m hungry,” he declared. This wasn’t a midnight snack; Deb had to proceed to bustle him a banquet to satisfy his stomach.
James was completely cleared and deemed cancer free at the beginning of 2013 (he completed treatment years before, but routine check ups to safeguard no funny business was going on in his blood was a regular). The Wortman fam went out for some bevvys to celebrate, then him and I went out for dinner. “How do you feel?” I asked him. “I feel empty,” he said. “Like, it’s gone.”
I’m fiercely protective of James. That kid is more precious than anything else in my life, even my adored hiking boots (yes, that much). I’ve always maintained that if I was ever to wed, he’d be my one and only bridesmaid.
I trust him with anything. He knows my darkest secrets, my deepest fears, my ridiculous dreams. We are extremely alike in some regards; both able to detach ourselves from sad situations to be numb, both the same when it comes to views and roles in relationships, both with the same humour (though he is far, far funnier and more witty than I). We never fight or get mad at each other; I may piss him off or vice versa now and then, but it is far and few between and never goes beyond an epigrammatic “Fuck off.”
He can mock me about the things I’m most self conscious about and I just laugh. Cripes, if anyone else termed me “Teen Wolf” in relation to my much-detested facial hair or “Donald Trump” in reference to my bouffant hairdo (growing out a pixie cut is a bitch) they’d be quick-smartly served a backhand.
I always break out into uncontrollable cachinnations remembering once, probably about five years ago now, when he informed me that Elvis Presley had died on the toilet.
“I wonder, if that was you Poppy, what way would you be facing?”
I looked at him puzzled for a beat until it clicked. The bastard; he was referring to my battle with bulimia.
I still maintain that was one of his best ever cracks.
So James Michael Wortman. HorseManDog. The Wort. Bulbasaur.
I couldn’t be prouder of the lad. It sounds so corny (I highly dislike that word, but “cheesy” has already been utilised above and I am eradicating “gay” from my vocabulary in such a context) but he’s not just my brother.