Lonely are the Free *

(* – Note:  The title is taken from a great Steve Earle song I just discovered – somehow it seems to fit)

Six years is a big difference when you’re only seven years old.  It’s an eternity, it’s a lifetime, it’s the world lived and experienced and known.

I remember the time my second grade teacher, Miss B., at the end of her rope, was disciplining me, had me out in the hallway, holding me firmly by my shoulders and pushing me up against the lockers, yelling something at me, when I saw, at the end of the hallway, you and your eighth grade class heading out to somewhere.  I couldn’t conceal my glee at seeing you, my big brother, which only added to Miss B.’s frustration.

Then it’s four years later, a warm spring night.  The front door opens and you walk in, dressed in a suit and tie, with a pretty girl in a pretty dress.  You introduce her to us, she is the preacher’s daughter, and she laughs, and you laugh at some stupid thing I say, but your laugh and your smile are so warm and real, and I know you are responding not just to what I said but rather the accumulation and the entirety of our time as big brother and little brother.  You are still six years older than me, and with girls and proms and suits and ties you are running interference for me, leading the way down life’s long and winding trail.

Nights later that summer you and your friends are in the basement.  From the living room upstairs I can hear the thumping bass of the music, usually the Doors, and I can hear pool balls crashing into each other and the deep laughter of you and your friends in voices that no longer belong to boys.  And I long to be down there, to be welcomed in the company of men, and I creep down the stairs, and you in your anger that was always so imposing bluntly make it clear I am not welcome, that I am not ready for this part of the journey yet.

Then a couple of years later you are in the army, home on leave after basic training, your hair razor short.  We pick you up at the airport, where you flew in from Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, which to me feels like it is on the other side of the world.  Then a couple of weeks later, Mom and Dad take you back to the airport, where you’ll head out first to Fort Dix, New Jersey, then on to Germany, which really is on the other side of the world.  By the time you get out, I am almost 16, but you are still six years older than me.  Still the big brother, you still lead the way, the trail now taking you across oceans.

Then you are home again, and we share a room.  At first it is great, I tease you and we joke around constantly, we wrestle, and you make me laugh like I haven’t laughed before, and I make you laugh.   You teach me about music and books and movies.  But eventually things change, and we start to fight.  I am 17, 18 years old now, and you are still six years older than me, but I don’t understand you anymore, and I no longer recognize the path you are taking as one that I want to follow.

I remember one night in our shared room, when we weren’t getting along very well.  I came to bed late, and you were already lying in your bed, and the light came through the window, and I saw that you were still awake.  It was only for a moment, but in your eyes I saw something I had never seen before.  I saw vulnerability and maybe a trace of despair.  For a few minutes before I fell asleep, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe you didn’t know any more about getting along in this big and frightening world than I did, and that we shared not just the same blood but maybe the same doubts.  But that spark of recognition was quickly put out by my own cold and damp inaction.

Flash forward about twenty years and you are living in the small house on the dirt road in Northern Wisconsin.  It’s a warm and overcast summer day.  You and I are sitting at the picnic table outside your house, and we are talking about the Packers and baseball and philosophy.  You are explaining string theory or chaos theory to me, and I am trying hard to keep up.  I ask questions and you answer very patiently, and you let me know when I’ve asked a good question, when I’m getting it, and I feel so proud that I am almost keeping up with you.   After a while, I have to leave, return to my wife and children, who are waiting for me to take them swimming.

It’d be a few years later, on a Friday afternoon, when I’d get the news that you are gone.  There was and is so much I felt and so much I didn’t and never will understand.   But tonight it occurs to me that you are still out there and still my big brother, and it occurs to me that I’m still following the trail that you were always blazing for me.  The only thing is that now I realize how lonely it had to be for you at the front of that trail, and I cannot comprehend the emptiness you found at its end.  For all those years, for all the light you shone on my path, I remained blind to your darkness and pain.

I continue my journey, the trail marked by dark stains from tears of regret.   I can only hope that someday, when I catch up to you, I can thank you for all you gave me, and shine enough light to make you see what a beautiful soul you have always been.


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