I am 35 years old and so is my husband, with three children and a dog, living in our four bedrooms and two point five baths in a wooded, hilly neighborhood in the Piedmont valley when my brother comes to visit. He has driven down from DC, arriving late in the night, and now he locks himself in the hall bath to shave clean and clip his hair close. I knock on the door, “Are you done yet?”, because some things never change. Even when we were teenagers his hygiene ritual was impeccable and precise. Always order. Always.
His voice has sounded like our dad’s on the phone for the last ten years. He steps out with his skin smelling of aftershave and his lower scalp smooth. I just want to hold him in close embrace, and I do. In the morning his Charlie uniform will be pressed and pristine, all hardware and notions in place without error, the tie clipped to his breast, the collar starched, carrying his clean cover in his hand as he waves and closes the door.
The night prior we were landing lines back and forth from the random movies we grew up with: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in The Great Race and Jerry Lewis. The theatrical production of Peter Pan with Mary Martin. It is our mother’s fault we are so oddly familiar with 60’s film. Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady. It is something she still loves to witness–the quick banter that streams back and forth as if we are back in time twenty, no, thiry years.
When he was in boot camp, 2002, he stood east at attention toward the Atlantic coast and sang happy birthday to me, his older sister he admired, and then wrote me a letter telling me he did so. Two years later that same weekend would hold very different memories for him.
I learned when we were teenagers that I could no longer pin him, straddled, and hold him down–tickling his ribs with one hand and holding his hands with my knees until he screamed, and then spitting in his open mouth. Older sisters are cruel until they stand in the shadow of younger brothers who grow taller, that’s for sure. But as we solidified our friendship in high school he still loved Star Wars, Die Hard, Rocky, and all the others; always jumping and skate boarding and wrestling and joking and running. For my 16th birthday he gifted me the Rocky soundtrack.
Now, 15 years after signing the contract, he is in formation at Quantico with his wife looking on in pride, his children reaching out their tiny, eager fingers to him to be picked up, and he is honored for all of his youthful adulthood that has been dedicated. He holds his wife close and tenderly kisses his son with the same care he cleans and loads his weapon. And his voice is singular and sure, just as it should be after all these years, directing troops under his guidance. He has lost comrades in combat, he has lost his mentor after returning State-side. My dad cries proud to see his son. My eyes choke. I always see my brother as sixteen and silly in high school, and yet here he is a man, and I am more proud of the boy that I grew up with than I can ever even say.
On November 8th of each year he goes off grid and meets the others, the Semper Fi palpable as they toast those brothers they lost in the desert a decade before who cannot be forgotten.
They cannot be forgotten.
Firework explosions and sounds in the night are different after sleeping near the enemy, and dodging bullets meant for your flesh, and living when your friend is sent home draped in a body bag–these are only able to be recovered in time. And maybe even time doesn’t erase entirely. To honor them he folds flags and presents them to weeping families year after year, saluting at attention, every shot damning him to remember service and protection. But he keeps his mouth shut in public about politics and bureaucracy, struggling with a nation’s ignorance, even though he fought for their right to own it.
I am so proud of my brother my body aches. He is a hero.
I feel safe when he is in our home visiting. In the dark of night, with the doors locked and madness on the television, a Marine sleeps at attention.
This is the man who, as a young teen, used to ask me if his shirt matched his pants every morning before school, as he stepped out of the half bath plastered in brushstroke 90’s wallpaper. Erin, is my hair okay? I’m not sure why he asked me…I rolled out of bed with the confidence of kings, running a toothbrush over my teeth with sleep in my eyes, and slipping on rumpled, baggy, Ambercrombie and Fitch charcoal khakis, my long blonde hair in tousled, sleepy waves like Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You.
No, literally. I was Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You. Thankfully, we’ve both grown up.
Then I would yell at him to get in the car for school…his morning ritual was precise…legendary, if you will. I’m not sure where I gained this over-confidence and complete lack of the typical older child, Type- A personality. We were the sweet Baptist kids who wore matching clothes for church directory photographs before eating at hot, sweltering summer potlucks in blazers and pantyhose. He looked up to me while acting as a protective older brother…the best and most loyal friend of my childhood.
The thing about friendship is that when it is pure and simple, you see each and every flaw, you fight terribly, and love fiercely. He would ride in my grey hatchback, or I would jaunt with him in the old Taurus with the automatic seatbelts, and we would belt out Five Iron Frenzy or Yellowcard, dreaming of Cali…the place I’ve still never lived to see, but he has been numerous times to report for duty. Every time I would take in the recognition of a boy in high school, his insides would go rigid. When I married, he was sick, just sick, with nostalgia….Why do things have to change? Why must we leave at all?
Because we have people to grow into and become and do good in this world.
For a window of time I felt like I had a life I was destined to live, simultaneously leaving him behind to figure out life on his own, as if it was a betrayal. We both moved to opposite sides of the country within two weeks of each other…I to Virginia with my new husband, he to California for boot camp. We were still kids at 19 and 20 years old.
Today, when we get together, David and I repeat movie lines. Rocky, Paulie, Ernest, Joe Fusco. Push the button Max. As if we’ve lost no time at all.
These Marines, these vets, are such normal, real people. But they are also the fiercest, and most loyal, ready to protect and stand in defense in an instant. My brother never talked about being a Marine while we were growing up. I cannot remember one time at all that he alluded to it. Unless you take 007 on Nintendo 64, Sonic the hedgehog, and skateboarding as indication.
A year after 9-11 he signed his name at the recruitment office. I had sat plastered to the television late on an early, September evening into the dawn after witnessing the plane crash live, eating breakfast. I remember the people jumping…jumping from the twin towers to death as flames hurled above them and seeing the TIMES cover plastered with their last moments. The collapse of the towers is burned into my memory because I witnessed it in real time.
And my brother said, I will go.
The Marines, they call themselves brothers. But my brother, he is mine, over and above all. We grew together through disparate years of burgeoning lives…and I am proud, so proud of this man.
He is my brother.