Brothers never get the credit they deserve. Or maybe it’s just my brother never gets the credit he deserves. I have spent a good deal of writing time making up for being the object of my brother’s knuckle punches. (Yes, he really would knuckle-punch but never in a hateful way, always playful, albeit his playful could leave a bruise.)
My brother has been at my side from the beginning.
He was my first playmate.
We spent many happy hours in the sandbox behind the tiny rental house on Morris Street in Columbus, Georgia. It was there that Brother John first displayed his road-making abilities, scooping out the sand, moving dirt around, packing down mounds so our trucks could navigate around them. On rainy Saturday mornings, we could often be found in the kitchen where we crafted this game of swinging from the refrigerator’s door handle. Mama, who was usually tending to our baby sister, was oblivious to this game, which was part of the thrill of it, of course.
The frig was the old kind with the pull-down handle, which made the swinging on the door more like a James Bond sky-diving adventure. (At least in our young minds). One of us would grab hold of the handle and wrap our knees up around it, while the other kid swung the door back and forth. It worked great until the day it didn’t.
That day, Mama was in the back room when she heard a loud crashing noise and rushed to the kitchen to find Brother John splayed out in the pickle juice and broken eggs.
That may have been the first time either one of us got a peek at Mama mad. I can still hear her mutterings as she cleaned up that mess. We offered to help as good children are prone to do but she banished us to the other room where we sat quietly for the rest of the morning. That night when she told our father about the event, they both laughed around the supper table. Daddy laughing harder than Mama since he wasn’t the one who had to clean it up.
When we weren’t in the sandbox, or at the neighbor kid’s house playing, or swinging from refrigerator doors, we could always be found at the ball field at the community park right next door to the house. In those days, t-ball wasn’t an organized sport the way it is now. We didn’t have a T from which to hit the ball. Brother John and I learned baseball the way all kids did in those days – by throwing it to each other. Because it was a ball field at a community center, there were usually enough other kids at the park to make up two teams. I was often the youngest and only girl, but never once did Brother John make me feel less than. He never said “You can’t play. You’re a girl!” He never even said “You are too little to play.” Brother John just took it for granted that I would be included in whatever he did. It’s a trait that remains strong within my brother to this day – this ability to include and honor others, to not treat anyone as less than.
Often, Daddy would take Brother John and me over to the park to pitch a few balls. Brother John preferred for Daddy to pitch the ball to him because he’d have a much better chance of hitting it if Daddy was throwing. Still, he would play along and wait for me to walk him when it was my turn to pitch. Nobody could have hit anything I tossed across base. Once, while I was taking my spot as catcher and Daddy was pitching, Brother John missed the ball which then hit me smack in the mouth. I think I lost a tooth to that event. Daddy said something about how he was going to catch it from Mama. I just remember a great deal of blood and tears.
After Daddy died, things changed between Brother John and me. Lacking the skills or the guidance, or both, we were unable to wrangle through our grief in healthy ways. We became lost to each other in many ways. Sure, we still did things together – rode our banana seat bikes over the dirt roads in the trailer park on Morris Road. (After Daddy died, a series of trailer parks became our home base). We played fort in the woods near the scummy snake-infested pond that inspired the trailer park’s name – Lake Forest. We played spin-the-bottle with other neighborhood kids in the scrub grass yards of abandoned trailers, sneaking to the back of those same trailers to carry out the kissing. We played hide-n-seek with those same kids, ducking among the fireflies on the late summer’s eve.
The one thing we didn’t do any longer was talk, especially not about Daddy, or what was happening to us all. We just went off to our silent corners and pretended that everything was the same as it had always been, when in truth nothing was the same and never would be again.
When Mama up and married a stranger a year or two after Daddy’s death, we never talked about it. When she asked this kindly but complete stranger for an annulment six weeks later, we didn’t talk about it. We never made mention of that man again. For many years I didn’t even remember his name.
When some boys got off the school bus and surrounded my brother and began a form of torture called “pink belly” in which they each took turns slapping and punching him in the stomach, we never talked about it. That was some sort of initiation into high school, one of the girls standing nearby told me. I hoped I never had to go to high school if it meant getting treated like that.
Years later when I did go to high school, I was surrounded in the library by a group of upper class-men who asked the freshmen girl what her name was. When I gave them my name, they asked if Brother John was my brother. When I told them yes, they got up and left the table immediately. Not one more nary word.
Brother John and I went our separate ways when he became a full-blown delinquent, stealing cars, wrecking cars, getting us kicked out of one trailer park after another, creating mischief in the nearby projects, drinking, and eventually turning to drugs.
Exasperated, Mama sent him off to military school in Alabama, because, well, everyone knows how boarding school cures all ills, right? Brother John excelled at everything he did at boarding school – drills, football, academics, and drugs.
My prayers in those days went something like this: “Dear God, send Mama a husband to take care of her. Keep Brother John from killing himself. Make me skinny.”
God answered one of those prayers in the affirmative.
Brother John survived.
He went to college, earned an engineering degree, married a good-hearted woman, and managed to raise up six amazing children, kids for whom their dad has been a model of respectability and kindness. An elder in their church. The smartest man they know. Brother John’s IQ is ridiculous. He has employed a couple of his own nephews on the road building crews he oversees, engineering jobs in cities like Seattle and LA.
When he is not working, Brother John can most often be found on a riverbank fishing. A love he picked up from our father and our mother. Or at a Mariner’s or Angel’s ballgame, where I bet he sometimes thinks back to those early games we played in that Georgia ball field during that season of grace, prior to the chaos that would overtake us both for far too long.
Today, on Brother John’s birthday, I am so grateful that our story didn’t end the way so many others have – in yet another tragedy. It easily could have. We both know that.
This has been another difficult year in our lives as Brother John’s oldest girl undergoes six months of chemotherapy (she could use some prayers) for what we all hope is a curable Lymphoma and our baby sister who is facing yet another surgery for breast cancer (we could all use some prayers).
But whatever may come, whatever may go, Brother John and I and the rest of the family all understand that even in the midst of all the chaos, ours has always been a story of grace.
A story of redemption.
In many ways, Brother John and I are still in that sandbox, scooping out a new path yet unforeseen.
Happy Birthday to my first playmate. Ours has always been a grand adventure.
And, tell me readers, who was your first friend?