Pick Me Up

My first car was a 1983 Toyota Station Wagon. It was turquoise on the outside. And the inside. I  took it over from my older brother in an uncontested transfer. The year I got my driver’s license, my brother lived at a therapeutic boarding school, three hundred miles north of our house. He had no place, or reason to drive. I was moderately grateful for the freedom, but deeply resentful of the vehicle that gave it to me.

My brother got his driver’s license the summer before his sophomore year of high school. Six months later, he was tasked with picking me up from middle school, while my mom was in the bay area, visiting her best friend.

Ten minutes after the bell rang, I gave him travel time from his high school parking lot. At the thirty minute mark, I assumed he got caught up talking to his friends. At forty minutes, I wrestled with the idea of disturbing my mom.

An hour and a half after it’s scheduled appearance, the turquoise Cressida rolled into the parking lot.

I was too sad to be angry. I climbed into the back seat behind my brother’s squirrely, teenage passenger. I don’t remember greeting anyone, or that anyone greeted me. My brother took recklessly to the road, and we all traveled home in silence.

That afternoon, my future first car had a particularly pungent odor. The thick, soft upholstery, smelled faintly of Hugo Boss cologne, but powerfully of something else. I was a high school senior, driving my passed-out boyfriend home from a party, before I could identify the smell.

My brother disappeared quickly into his bedroom and my mom returned later that night. I weighed the consequences of full disclosure against my desire to air my afternoon grievances and have my neglected, little sister voice heard.

I wasn’t up to the emotional challenge posed by another, fiery, family fight.

By December of that year, I was a high school freshman. I’d passed my written driver’s permit test, and my brother had been shipped out of state to the first of his many stints in rehab.

He left our house a week before my fifteenth birthday and we never lived together again.

I had my first kiss, went to my first prom, and on my first date, with my first boyfriend, all without my big brother around.

Growing up I pictured us together as teenagers. How I would come home after soccer practice and sit at the end of his bed. He’d struggle through calculus homework and listen to me complain about my friends. He’d have hilarious insight and infinite wisdom. He’d universally evaluate the boys in my life as immature losers who were good for nothing but wasting my time. We’d commiserate over the eccentricity  of our parents, and the plague of the performance pressure inflicted by my dad. We’d laugh and bond over an upbringing, and identity,  no one could understand but us.

We’d have favorite tv shows and weekend rituals. We’d shamelessly flirt with each other’s friends.

He’d be my classically overprotective older brother and we’d be life-long best friends.

Reality felt like an empty promise. Like high expectations left completely unfulfilled. Like abandonment. And Loneliness. And betrayal.

My brother missed many of my adolescent landmarks, but the heartbreak of missing him felt most powerful in my every day life. During Sunday morning football hype and on warm summer nights. Drinking Hansen’s soda on the trampoline in our backyard. Driving to school in the morning down the route we first commuted together on bikes. I was a Kindergartner and he was in second grade. One afternoon he triumphantly escorted our first pet home from school. A goldfish, named Ed, who died three days after we got him. My brother comforted and encouraged Ed through the bumps and turns of suburban sidewalks and our narrow, tree-lined street.

“Hang in there, Ed” “We’re almost home.”

Some nights I spread my whole body out flat on the floor of his empty bedroom. I let the woven carpet soak up my tears and filled myself with his memory: Christmas morning whispering in anticipation before dawn. Keeping each other entertained during 12 hour drives on family vacations, a decade before DVDs were playing in back seats. His laugh and the way he told jokes. How it felt when stood up for me, and rooted for me, and that with him, I was always safe.

Last Saturday night I was stranded in San Francisco. Poor planning and inattention to logistical details left me without a ride from a BART station in Berkeley, to my car, eight blocks away. The night was creeping past my bedtime and although I’m typically brave and bold in the face of solo-woman night walking, something felt eery and dangerous about the plan to make the trip alone. I spent several minutes agonizing, unable to shake the sensation of risk.

Then, it hit me.

Minutes later my brother is narrating my route to our rendez-vous point. I complete his instructions by climbing the steep concrete staircase out of the 19th street station and I see his hand wave out of the driver’s side window of his big, black sedan.

Right on time.

En route to my car we talk about my dad, and my new job, and the perils of crowded music festivals. He has hilarious insight, and infinite wisdom. He walks me to my car and watches me close the door as I buckle up.

My eyes get glassy and my heart bursts. A flood of old hurt and new gratitude rush through me. Forgiveness, and healing and love and hope.

The feeling that I’m never too old to be rescued by my big brother. And that it’s never too late for us to be who we’ve always been.

That was a tough goodbye

A week after my seventeenth birthday my family took a road trip to Redding, California to watch my brother graduate from boarding school. It had been two years,  two weeks, since my brother left home. He’d grown eight inches. He looked healthy and muscular, almost unrecognizable from the pasty, acne-faced, alcoholic teenager who departed in a terrifying frenzy of aggressive resistance and law enforcement intervention. I hadn’t grown at all but I’d learned to drive, taken the SAT and survived more than half of high school in the time he was away. My parents had separated.  Each of their faces wore the lines and expression of ten years passing, not two.

My mom drove my red 4runner north on highway 5. My best friend and I serenaded her from the back seat with impassioned  covers of tracks from  Garth Brooks’ album, “Sevens.”

I packed a pink turtleneck, my black J. Crew pea coat, a pair of dark denim and side-zipper, heeled black boots. A carefully chosen wardrobe, selected to display my junior-year sophistication. To illustrate to everyone just how much I’d grown up.

For the car ride I wore sweatpants and my River City Magic hoodie. In my lap, I kept safe the stringy remnants of my childhood blanket, mostly a tattered wad of disintegrating fabric.

I called it “blanky,” and even then, it was my most valued possession. I inherited blanky as a hand-me-down. My brother failed to recognize its magical, healing powers and passed it up without ever getting attached. At seventeen I felt like my brother robbed me of many things, but blanky, I stole from him.

Blanky survived countless family vacations. I battled my fear of flying by anxiously poking my fingers in and out of the spaces between the cotton threads. When anxiety turned to terror (frequently) I’d clench all ten fingers together and hold the fragile strands up against my face. I’d breathe in it’s comforting smell, slow and deep. My mom swore it emitted a fragrance of filth and decay. But to me, blanky smelled warm and safe. Before and after harrowing plane excursions, I schlepped blanky in and out of rental cars and between hotels. I slept with blanky wrapped around my wrists, or snuggled beneath my nose, every night.

I took blanky on overnight school field trips and to sleepovers with friends. When I got older, I’d hide blanky in my pillowcase, take it out when no one was looking, and stash it discretely under my shirt or between my legs.

Somewhere between a gas station pit stop in Red Bluff and our accommodations at the Best Western Inn, blanky disappeared. My first sensation was panic, followed by the launch of frantic phone calls to every place we went that weekend. For forty-eight hours I held on to the hope that blanky would be recovered. Every time the phone rang, I heard the miracle in my head. The voice on the other line assuring me blanky was safe, promising to fold it gently in a fed-ex envelope, and ship it, unscathed, to Sacramento.

A week passed, and nothing.

I cried myself to sleep every night. My mom was helpless and distraught. She couldn’t even look at me, so sad and pathetic.  I’d wake up disoriented at 2a.m. and reach into my sheets, desperately feeling for blanky. The race in my heartbeat would settle when I’d brush against something warm and soft. Then, awakening to clarity, I’d realize it was all imagined.

Blanky was gone.

I was heartbroken.

It was the deepest, most painful loss of my life.

Blanky had been my last shred of sanity and security, and comfort. The only thing salvaged from the wreckage of my brother’s alcoholism. The sole remaining artifact from the life I was living before everything came unglued.

The days after my brother’s graduation were dark, and long, and difficult. I felt both inconsolably sad and indescribably angry. I held my brother responsible. For all of it. The loss of blanky was both the “final straw” and the ultimate symbolism. If only he: wasn’t such a fuck up, finished regular high-school, hadn’t ruined my life…

Everything would be different. And blanky would be safe.

On Easter Sunday, twelve years later, my brother and I reminisce about blanky. He shares that his favorite childhood toy is still tucked away in a hall closet at my dad’s house. I admit I’m still angry that “funky” survived and blanky didn’t.

In the discussion, I feel a surge of old emotions. Heartache and longing for something I haven’t seen, or smelled, or touched, in over a decade. Resentment, sadness, anger, grief.

On the car ride home I blast the a mixed CD my best friend made me. It begins dramatically with the lyrics, “that was a tough goodbye.” My eyes fill with tears.

It sure was.

Tough goodbyes still haunt me. The struggle to gracefully move through endings, and peacefully accept loss. The mirror image is me clinging to old: feelings, relationships, ideas, even when I know it would serve me better to let them go.  I think about about the hurt I was burying, every time I picked blanky up. The emotions and sensations that I wadded up, and tucked away. I gripped blanky like it would stop time, or speed it up. The illusion that if I could dig in deep enough, everything around me would evaporate, and I would be “o.k.”

I roll the windows down and turn the volume up. I sing as loud as I can and when the tears come, they pour down hard. My face is red and swollen and my throat is parched. I feel all of it.

That was a tough goodbye.

Gratitude: My brother’s monologue

When we were kids, I was mesmerized by my brother. He could talk to anyone. He made everyone laugh.

My older cousins would hang on his every word when we’d gather in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house.

I’d watch him talk my parents into all sorts of things. He reminded me of a charming t.v. lawyer. He was part salesman, part comedian, pure charm. I wanted to be just like him.

My brother is the funniest person I know. He could easily have a stand-up career or his own show in late night. He has the type of dry sense of humor that makes people famous, the type I could only dream about.

Last night, my mom’s living room vibrated with laughter. The kind where you haven’t recovered from the last funny thing you heard when your body reacts to something even funnier.

Where you laugh for 20 minutes straight without taking a deep breath.

I feel grateful for the ability to laugh that hard, and to be in my brother’s presence when he delivers a real-life monologue.

To My Brother

I took an unusually ambitious study break yesterday. I made Black Bean and Roasted Sweet Potato tacos with avocado and cilantro. Pretty fancy for my single-lady-life.

I felt confident and accomplished. Like a sophisticated grown-up. Not two years ago, the only edible thing to ever come out of my kitchen was a peanut butter sandwich-no jelly.

In a moment of self-congratulatory inattention, I mangled my right-hand pointer finger on my cheese grater. There was blood everywhere. The cutting board, the sink, the pepper-jack. This morning I found blood on the inside of my blender.

I had tortillas on the stovetop, sweet potatoes in a skillet and a half-carved avocado open on the counter. I swiftly wrapped my finger in a bulky papertowel (something I’ve seen my mom do 800 times in my life. It would appear this kitchen-specific clumsiness was inherited).

I spent the next thirty minutes fumbling around the kitchen, more helpless and clueless than the first time I cooked anything. I burned the sweet potatoes. I dropped black beans all over the floor. I got avocado in the tip of my ponytail. It was a total disaster.

Once I’d half assembled my pathetically unsophisticated tacos, I sat down to eat them.

Assuming the blood flow had been contained, and predicting I was going to be challenged by one-handed taco-eating, I unwrapped my finger.

Blood gushed immediately. The paper towel was soaked.

I would have to soldier on, one-handed.

I re-wrapped my finger and sat down to enjoy my tacos. My forehead was sweating, my mind plagued by my inadequacy and the wasted time of this unexpected obstacle. Digging deep in my memory to my wilderness medicine training and in hopes of stopping the bleeding, I held my right hand above my head.

I could barely squeeze the tortilla sufficiently to lift the taco off the plate. Once I had it airborne, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get it into my mouth without releasing the contents into a waterfall-like failure.

The whole debacle was ridiculously frustrating.

When I finally finished, I slumped back into the kitchen to face the mess I’d created. I couldn’t do it. I left all the food out and every dish unwashed. Cleaning was clearly a two-handed job.

Defeated, I sat back down at my desk to keep studying.

In the stillness, I thought about my brother. Five years ago he crashed a motorcycle and paralyzed his right arm. He does everything left handed. He makes it all look effortless. He drives, he cooks, he folds laundry, wraps presents, ties his shoes. I’ve seen him move furniture, hold babies, even clap with one hand. He is remarkable. and resilient. and inspiring.

I felt humble. And a little humiliated. And immediately I was filled with deep love and admiration for him.

I felt like sending him a hand written (with my left hand) note that says: To My brother: It’s harder than it looks.

I picked up a sparkly blue ball-point and failed to even connect pen-tip to paper.

Today, my wounded finger hidden by a mickey mouse band-aid, I write this, with both hands.

To my brother: You are incredible. I love you.