Vacation and my big brother

Today I should have boarded a plane to fly to Seattle, Washington. See, I have a half brother. He lives in California. He is one of my favorite people in the entire world, though we did not spend a great deal of time together when I was a child. I vaguely remember him being present at family holiday gatherings at my grandparents’ house on the highway in Mt. Zion. It was a house that my grandpa built himself in the 1950’s. The whole family lived in what is now the garage while he toiled on the house, taking great care to make every corner and board and nail fit just right according to his plans for the house. Around Christmas we would pile into the ranch home, a house that was surprisingly pristine despite almost a half a century of wear. The living room and the bedrooms were all hardwood with slats that were shellacked so deliberately and intensely that it looked like a gymnasium floor. We would congregate in the living room, cousins and aunts and uncles and my grandparents, opening gifts, a process firmly micromanaged by our grandma. As an adult I understand the desire to have children open gifts one at a time so that you can have a brief moment of satisfaction at the notion that perhaps you got precisely the right gift. That is, of course, a fleeting feeling that lasts only until the gift is tossed aside for the gleaming possibilities of presents yet unwrapped. But as a child, I hated that regimented process, as I can only imagine every child hates it.

I remember my brother being present at Christmas time, until he was no longer present at Christmas time. I can’t recall when he stopped coming, and I would learn the why only years later after he and I had reconnected as adults. He was adopted by his stepfather, the details of which I know nothing. What I do know is that his mother and my father went their separate ways long before I was born. We never heard terrible tales from our mother of our father’s first wife, there were never any evil stories portraying her as a bad person who wanted money or wanted to keep her son away from us or our dad, none of the standard ex-wife-baby-Mama tropes.

Maybe those stories existed, and maybe they didn’t. What matters is that they did not exist in our presence, and I find that healthy. I know plenty of kids who have nothing but animosity for former spouses of their parents, and I am old enough to have known more than one couple who has gone through a bitter divorce or breakup process wherein they did not handle themselves with grace or maturity in the face of new spouses or old spouses, new families or old ones. Marriage and family is complicated business, and dysfunctional though we all may be, I have to say that I think my family has traversed that territory with admirable poise. I believe that this is part of what allows me to be friends with exes, this ability to model surprisingly healthy behavior on the part of my parents and stepparents regarding the very real concept of blended families. Perhaps my brother has an entirely different take. And were I stepping off a plane in a few hours to meet him, I could ask him. But I am not.

A few weeks ago I told my brother that I wanted us to get together soon, and that I would be willing to meet him somewhere in the country, anywhere really. I just wanted out of here, needed a break from the daily grind. A friend of mine just came back from an epic vacation in the west, visiting exotic desert landscapes where the sky seems endless. A coworker recently visited Colorado for several weeks. And so many other coworkers and friends have told of their various exploits this year, relaxing vacations throughout the United States. I really need to get away, I thought. And I really miss my brother. Ironclad plan, right? Except I left the c-r-a-z-y out of the equation, and you can never arrive at the true answer that way.

My brother and I began developing our relationship when I was in my late teens. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, or when we became close again, but it was a very natural progression, so natural that it’s difficult to point to any specific moment in time. We started talking again, immediately realized that we are very similar in a number of fundamental ways, and suddenly I had a big brother for whom I had enough respect and admiration to fill up the sky out west that is so big that I have never actually seen in real life but have heard about at great length from several people.

One of my earliest memories of us rekindling a relationship in our adult lives is when I lived in the Quad Cities during election season in 2004. It was before the election, and he was passing through or visiting someone else or something, I can’t remember exactly what. But he needed a place to crash for a couple of nights while he was in Davenport, so he stayed with my then-boyfriend and me in our giant apartment. It was the apartment that was the entire top two floors of an old Victorian house, the beauty of which I couldn’t even remotely appreciate as a 9th-grade-educated twenty-year-old. We decided to go out and do something while he was there, and though it sounds ridiculous, even the concept of going out and doing something was foreign to me. The thing we decided to go out and do was visit a coffee shop in downtown Davenport that was holding a showing of some anti-Bush documentary. My embryonic liberal feminist nature was just barely alive at that point, and I remember being in complete awe of my brother, a real person with opinions that were based on thoughts, and he was related to me. BY BLOOD.

There were maybe half a dozen of us there that night, it was not some great movement with crowd energy off which I could feed. But still I devoured every word of that documentary, and I left that coffee shop completely drunk on the possibility of becoming informed. This was one of the first moments that a deep desire to get an education was awakened in me, and it was the start of this machine inside of me sputtering into motion. This slow thawing of the possibility that I was perhaps both capable and allowed to opine and get educated would culminate in me eventually obtaining an undergraduate degree from one of the top research schools in the world. But in that moment I was merely a girl freshly out of her teens inspired by one of her older siblings. There was no trace of potential bitterness or sadness or brokenness of the past relationships that led us to be siblings. We were simply brother and sister and that was it. That was all there was in that moment. A day or two later, his then-girlfriend flew in and met him, and the next morning they headed out early.

I was still asleep when they left, and he scribbled a message on the whiteboard that I kept on my fridge that said, Thanks for everything! – Brody*

It was a simple message, there was nothing overly sentimental about it, no hearts or squiggly lines or references to love. But that message meant so much to me that I didn’t erase it from that whiteboard for something like eight years. In fact, I never actually erased it, I just eventually had to throw out the whiteboard. Despite my weirdo ways, the love I have for my siblings has always been one of the single most important driving forces in my life. It is hard to explain the way I feel about them, this admiration and pride that washes over me at the radiant and amazing people each of them has become. As a little girl, I frequently lamented the fact that I had a brother who I did not get to spend time with or talk to, and more than once I remember asking my mom if maybe I could just write him a letter, just once. I carried with me an emptiness at the lack of a bridge between us, and when I was twenty and he was in his thirties and we began the process of building that bridge I was so overcome with sentimentality that I didn’t erase a silly whiteboard message for nearly a decade.

We have spent good time together since then, including a trip I took out to South Carolina a few years ago when he lived there. He drove down to Atlanta to pick me up from the airport and we talked on the way back up to Columbia, but also sat comfortably in the quiet. Being comfortable in quiet moments is a hallmark of a true relationship for me. He let me sleep in his bed while he took the couch and he gave me his books to read and took me to interesting restaurants and let me meet his friends. We went hiking and walking around the city and we visited historic Charleston. It was a glorious trip, so there was nothing to suggest that flying out to Washington state and driving around with him and hiking in the Pacific Northwest would be anything short of glorious. Except…except…except.

When I flew to South Carolina in 2006, I was just reaching a point in my life of peak mental health. I was stumbling, yes, but within the year I would be on psychotropic drugs for the first time and I would have a solid handle on how to manage this monster that lives inside me. I was involved in a promising, solid romantic relationship with a great person. I was thriving in school and coming into my own at my job, a job where I would stay for the next four years. I was finally getting my footing in the world, and I was free to let go of the tight, neurotic grip I held on myself and just be for a few days.

Now? Seven years have passed and you would think I would have only continued to evolve and grow, and that I would have reached that peak and kept climbing. But so much has changed, and in so many ways life has pulled the rug out from under me every time I have almost reached a new height. I tumble back down to the base of the cliff, collecting bruises and abrasions and scars on my way.

Last weekend it began to become clear to me that I didn’t think I could make this trip. I wanted to make the trip, wanted it desperately. I had already scheduled the time off work, had talked nonstop about the trip to anyone who would listen, had purchased two plane tickets. But as I realized how taxing it was to both let the dog out and brush my teeth before bed, I started to rethink. I needed to buy things to be prepared for the trip, things like hiking boots and a rain coat. These would be easy enough to obtain, except I was nearly incapacitated by just going into a gas station. Going shopping for actual items that I would need, not knowing specifically what I would need, going into what I call seventeen-tabs-land on the internet trying to figure out what I would need, trying to anticipate care for the pets and how to pack and thinking about navigating airports and TSA rules – it was all debilitating. Beyond debilitating.

So I spent the weekend writing and trying to figure out what to do and how I could get over this hurdle and get out of my own way so I could enjoy a trip for which I had already paid a large sum of money and to which I was looking very forward. This is the sort of thing about which I would consult my mother numerous times while I agonized about my decision. She would remain neutral, pointing out the pros and cons of either side. She didn’t like to tell us to do one thing or another, lest we later decide that we’d chosen wrong and blame her. Naturally not having that touchstone sent me down a wormhole of self-pity and grief. And what about my brother? He was in the Pacific Northwest, had changed his trip around somewhat to accommodate me, and here I was bailing less than a week out.

Given the “should have” in the opening statement here, you can probably infer that I did not board that plane. I did not take the trip. Only this morning did I successfully crawl out of the pit of self-loathing created by that decision. What I concluded was that I would still take the time off. I do need the time off, time away from work and responsibilities and pressure and stress. But instead of hustling and bustling and trying to take a trip, I decided I would stay at home for most of the time. At first I thought maybe I would go away to some cabin in Michigan for a few days with Joseph, so successful was my first trip to Michigan a few weeks ago. And then I realized that my family owns a non-public campground. It’s more like the family compound, minus the stockpiled weaponry and food and hardcore right-wing politics. We have only a moderate amount of weaponry and food and conservative viewpoints stashed down there.

For the next three days, I am going to spend some time at home seeing no one, doing nothing, just regrouping. I was hoping to squeeze therapy in there, but it hasn’t worked out that way. So far today I have taken myself out for breakfast, seen the chiropractor, seen a massage therapist, paid my rent, finished the book I was reading, gotten a couple of things from the grocery store and cooked some food. And now I have successfully written a very wordy blog post working out my feelings on a complicated issue. This weekend I will pack up the dog and we will head to the family campground where my dad and step-mom will be waiting for me. They will head out on Sunday night, and Joseph and I will spend the following three days in the woods, just a couple of crazy gals alone in the wild.

Admitting to myself that I needed to spend several days alone and do something as “lame” as staying in, going to bed early, and not making plans with anyone hasn’t been easy. Honestly, facing the reality of who I am and where I am and what I need has been the most challenging part of this whole ordeal. Eating several hundred dollars because the airlines are evil, thieving bastards has even paled in comparison to trying to come to terms with my reality. But, despite the lack of glamour in my new vacation plans, and despite how sad I am that I don’t get to see my big brother right now, I feel like I am in a healthier place than I have been in a long time. It’s a healthier place than I was in just a week ago. It’s an uphill clawing, I know, but for the first time in several years I sort of feel like I can see the top and maybe I can get there.

*Another reminder that this ain’t his real name. We don’t use real names here. Get over it.


  1. […] me being restless and uncomfortable in a new location. When I was agonizing over whether I should cancel my trip to the Pacific Northwest, I called my sister Yay. She was on vacation at the time in Florida. She assured me that no matter […]

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