July 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Home Life

Family keeps the worst at bay at the hospital

The boxer shorts were hanging on the back of a bench in the sun-filled courtyard at the University of Michigan Hospital where patients’ families wait during surgery.

That my brother’s underwear was on full display in this most somber of settings was only surpassed by its outlandish fabric. The boxers were replete with “Homies”: gang-like cartoon characters that are apparently all the rage now.

“What in the world …,” I said.

“Oh, Aunt Marney,” Casey said, laughing. “Those are my dad’s.”

Casey is my brother Peter and his wife Carol’s middle daughter. Joined by sisters Devon and Brenna, they dropped whatever they were doing to be here, suspended in unknowingness and at the mercy of surgeons in whom we have no choice but to trust.

“Pete wanted clean underwear,” Carol said, like this was completely normal. “And, in my rush, I grabbed those from the washing machine.“ Then I realized what little sleep Carol was going on. Not just in recent weeks, but, all told, in the last seven years since her beloved has fought off, on many fronts and with an artillery of clinical trials, stage four prostate cancer. I don’t cotton to the notion that couples can be soul mates, destined since birth to complete each other — except when it comes to Pete and Carol. I don’t know another couple more in sync. And that dates back to B.C.: before cancer.

“So what’s with the Homies?” I asked.

Casey explained that a friend gave her a Homie figurine, which led to Homie gifts from friends who just assumed she was collecting them. She’d given the boxers to her dad. “The same thing happened to your grandmother,” I said. People thought my mom had a thing for cows after someone gave her a cow-shaped creamer. Pretty soon she had a stash of little cows she’d have tossed if only they weren’t gifts.

And so the conversation wove itself through the next several hours: One thread of memories latticed into another. My brother Rob remembered a young Peter smoking cigarettes out the window in his bedroom — while Mom and Dad were home! Which led to Peter’s pick-up line to Carol as grad students waiting for an elevator: “You’re not really going to study are you?” Which led to 3-year-old Sage’s latest adorable quote: “Whatever, Mom. I just really love you, OK?” Which led to the highs and lows in extended family and Devon remarking: “I just couldn’t imagine not being able to talk to my sister.”

Interspersed, of course, was the subject at hand: Peter’s emergency surgery on his spinal cord to remove a cancerous tumor found the day before. We marvel at his astounding attitude, how he jokes that he’s a “prayer slut.” But the unspoken — what this means for the future — is a tangible presence, a shape, a form. Our collective foreboding has washed ashore.

Still no one wants to put their toe in the water too soon. So the conversation veers again, to Rob’s Twitter ineptitude, to Carol’s movie trivia expertise to the millions Peter would rake in as a “Jeopardy” contestant.

This is the nature of surgical waiting room conversations: They ebb and flow and dip and rise; segued by laughter, tears and sighs. They are nothing if not authentic. For the time being, everyone is stripped bare of all pretense; there is no other concern in need of tending, no other role to be other than the person who is right here, right now.

Even among strangers, sitting in the circle of chairs a ways down, there’s camaraderie. When you must surrender to the fact that the most important thing that’s happening to you is beyond your control, you recognize the yawn of anxiety across the room, or the rubbing of the eyes over there, the glance up from the book, the repeated checking of the watch. You know exactly what they are thinking. They are thinking what you‘re thinking. Please, God.

In our case, when surgery was done and they buzzed us (they have these light-up boxes like in restaurants) into the conference room, the surgeon talked way too fast, but what we absorbed was: “The surgery went very well.”

While Peter was way too woozy to see Rob and me, he needn’t have felt bad about it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Rob told Devon. “We weren’t here for him. We were here for you.” He was half-kidding but there was a lot of truth to it.

A couple days later, Pete was home. He texted us: “Sitting down to an amazing dinner and doing well.” Then Carol asked me: “You didn’t grab the underwear did you?”

I checked my backpack, and what do you know, I must have scooped them up when that unnerving buzzer went off.

In any case, I’m putting everyone on notice: The only homies I collect are the ones I’m related to.

mkeenan@detroitnews.com