Saturday, September 19, 2015

Remembering the Golden Child

My brother, Greg, was the golden child. I like to say he was my mother’s golden child – long anticipated, deeply desired, first child.  But it was more than that.  We can start with his appearance –  blond from birth with gleaming blue eyes and a smile that could dry tears as much as invite you to mischief.  The twinkle in his eye, shot straight from my father’s twinkle, reminded you that his brain was always coming up with something – plans, inventions, and travesuras.    

For Greg, the world was full of possibilities – both because he was golden, but also because he was open to them.  He saw adventure where others saw the mundane, and he saw opportunity where others feared to tread.  I can only imagine him in the super man cape my mother fashioned for him, running around the house, jumping from the couch.  I wasn’t even a twinkle in my father’s eye at that moment.  It was just Greg and the world was his oyster, until there was Chila, and then there was the super hero and a sidekick who wanted to be a super hero. 

I almost didn’t fit into their world, so consumed by their rivalry and closeness.  It’s a jumble, is it that Chila just wanted to keep up with Greg (and maybe pass him), or was it that their siblinghood was so deep it was more than just in their blood as brother and sister, it was in their souls, in their dreams and aspirations.  I wonder, now, if they weren’t always dreaming the same dream, waking to talk over their different interpretations. (I cursed Greg for not blocking the way, for not screaming for her to not go into the light.  I could only imagine him saying, “Chila, you will never believe how cool it is here,” as they skipped off together leaving a tear so big in our universe we struggle daily to keep it together.)

There are pictures of my big brother and me that reveal our early relationship pattern.  One in particular, I think showed how I relied on him and believed in his ability to protect me.  We are on my great uncle’s porch.  Greg, sun kissed and smiling, me, pale and looking off into the distance, with a cousin who I don’t remember.  I am sitting almost touching my brother as if the unknown girl might pinch me, maybe she already had.   

It is not the way I remember myself as a child – I hear stories about me being dreamy and out there, and clingy.  But I remember being the child who walked up to strangers to chat.  I was especially partial to the hobos, as we called them, in the park.  They were friendly and easy to talk to, but I also remember “making friends” with just about anyone who crossed my path – a habit I have continued to indulge sometimes to my more reticent friends chagrin.  But here I was quiet, scared looking, and leaning on my brother, literally sitting in his shadow for both shade from the sun and protection from the unknown.  I don’t remember that day or the circumstances of that picture.  But I know that feeling of knowing my brother would always have my back.

I could count on my brother – but that wasn’t the only basis for our relationship.  He was protective, but not in the way most people think about older brothers.  [Not in the tradition of my family – solving others’ problems or being over protective – my mother went to the prom with her cousin and was escorted to and from by her three older brothers.] Greg, believing so viscerally in the power of risk, always encouraged taking one more step into the unknown.  I could count on him to push me beyond what I thought was possible.  I won’t lie, it was frequently because my going beyond would further his latest plan.   

I was ever a pawn in his latest escapade, like using me and my neighbor as bait to get the donut truck to stop [yes, we had ice cream trucks, but we also had a donut truck!].  Greg and Ray would place me and Michael (Ray’s little brother and my best friend) on the sidewalk, each with our shiny quarters.  We waved down the truck with the quarters, and Greg and Ray were hiding behind the neighbors hedge.  I never noticed as I carefully picked out my donut that Greg and Ray were climbing onto the back of the truck.  I remember his finger pulled to his lips in a silent SHH and he and Ray sailed off gripping the truck’s bumper.  I am sure they got caught, but I got my donut, and another delicious memory of my brother’s tomfoolery.

There’s another picture, but I remember the circumstances of this one.  Greg, is crouching down and I am sitting on one of his knees.  He has his arm around me.  I look scared (are you sensing a theme?).  We are near the edge of a cliff in Ensenada where we have gone to see the Bufadora.  For the uninitiated, it is a place where the waves crash against the rocks, almost like a geyser, in a pretty regular and yet spectacular way.  I think he wanted to get a picture with the water in the background.  He kept saying, let’s just get a little closer.  Of course, there is no sign of the water behind us, but I remember fearing falling over the edge.  He is smiling in the picture while I look terrified of what might be coming behind us.

It was just mom and dad and me and Greg on that trip – a little consolation prize because Chila had been invited to Hawaii with a friend that summer (and there wasn't a Tim or Angelique yet).  I remember it was a great adventure, and I had all Greg’s attention to myself – it was both a privilege and a menace because it meant I was his only tool in whatever plan popped in his head (not unlike Ethel and Fred being roped into Lucy's map-cap ideas).  I remember the adventure; my mom remembers Greg was in a foul mood because he was in a lot of pain.  Apparently, he had his braces tightened right before we went on the trip.  Really, all I remember is having all of my brother’s attention.  I am guessing I talked the entire time, he probably judiciously ignored most of it knowing I would keep prattling on without need for him to join in.  I vaguely remember a small transistor radio and an ear phone tucked into one ear, probably listening to baseball games as we drove and drove. 

From the tourist experience we headed to my dad’s Tio Ascencio’s farm.  I don’t remember much of that part of the trip – but there is another picture that always makes this other memory come alive for me.  IT is a terrible picture, left in the camera for too long or just not developed for years, it is yellowed and someone’s finger obscured a big part of the picture.   The only other thing you can see is really big pig butts.  The pigs were big and not friendly, and this may be what triggers the memory.  The picture doesn’t show what happened in the least.   

Someone told my brother there were tasty mulberries at the far end of the pig pen.  He wanted those mulberries.  The tree was only accessible from within the pig pen.  No one who was familiar with the pigs was offering to go into the pen to retrieve the mulberries.  Apparently close encounters with pigs was not the type of adventure my brother wanted to experience that weekend.  But since he had an assistant who could be coerced, he devised a plan.  I would walk across the railing of the pig pen to the other side with a little metal coffee cup in one hand.  Once there, I would pick as many mulberries as would fit into the cup and then walk back.  I don’t know how this story turned out because I really only remember flashes.  Now that my brother is gone, we cannot get his version either.  I remember him balancing me up on the rail, holding my hand and explaining the plan.  I vaguely remember the feeling of not being able to really gain my balance on the railing and looking down at the backs of HUGE pigs who were snorting and carrying on beneath me.  I don’t know what I thought would happen if I fell in, but it wasn’t good.  I don’t know if I made it to the other side, if I was able to then carry out the plan and make it back safely with mulberries.  I just remember desperately trying to make the golden child happy and proud of me by being brave. I remember not feeling in the least brave as my brother assured me nothing would happen to me.

So it continued most of my life except that my brother graduated me from pawn or gullible assistant into personhood, sort of.  I remember knowing that my brother was proud of me, that making him proud was important, and that by making him proud I gained respect.  One summer he was home from college, and things were not going well for the golden child.  He had either just flunked out of college, or was headed in that direction.  He was living at home, but avoiding my parents at all costs.  I know it was summer because I wasn’t hounded to bed early with the younger siblings, and my sister was away working at summer camp.  I waited up for my brother every night.  He would roll in long after my parents had gone to bed.  We routinely watched late night reruns of The Twilight Zone, something I probably would not have done alone.  Though it was late, my brother always came in full of energy – he had either just passed by the McDonalds to pick up the Filet-O-Fish that were about to be thrown out or he would make us a feast with the leftovers from the refrigerator.  He was a master at leftovers.  I don’t know what he made, I can’t remember specific concoctions. I just know they smelled and tasted good, and he shared whatever bounty he had.

All day long I must have heard my parents fret over Greg’s future, though I can’t remember them ever sitting him down and talking to him.  I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9.  When we were settled on the couch with our feast, I would replay those words for him.  I am not sure what he thought about it.  I don’t know if he understood that I was just repeating what I had heard, or if he imagined there was some part of it that I understood in my young brain.  To his credit, he always let me have my say, and I learned that my opinions mattered.   At least they mattered to Greg, and he was after all the golden child, so that had to mean something.  

Whatever he thought, imagined or felt, our bond was solidified that summer.  Maybe all he really wanted was for someone to tell him something, anything– to notice his issue and make an effort to help however young, ridiculous or parroted the advice might be.  After those summer nights, I was never just the kid sister. I was always “My sister, Anna,” followed by some signing of my praises.  Let’s not get carried away, I was still the dork who tripped over her own feet, but I was the intelligent dork who said something smart as she fell down.  Loving and supporting me didn't mean I was never on the receiving end of his sharp, sometimes cruel wit.  But no amount of teasing could take away the pure love I knew he had for me.

My surviving siblings might say that I was Greg's favorite -- but they, and many other people, have stories about Greg providing safety and protection, pushing them beyond their comfort zone and making them feel like the center of his universe.  He was the kind of person who lifted the mood when he walked into the room.  He would crack a joke, lighten a tough situation whenever he sensed tension.  But comfort was not his end goal; he loved to push the birdies out of the nest.  Somehow he knew where your line was, and then encouraged you to walk over it.  I never knew how often he had done this for others until he died, and one after one they came over to tell us.  It was his gift, as the golden child turned golden boy and finally golden man, to know how to do this for others.  Maybe that doesn't make me the favorite or special sister.

All I know is that I did feel like the center of his universe, the kid sister who Greg would simultaneously protect and hold up as a shining example to others.  I always knew Greg was proud of me, and he never let an opportunity to tell me how proud he was slip by.  Just a week before he died, I shared a small triumph with my family members via email.  Not five minutes later, I had a reply from my brother telling me how proud he was.  When he died, the floor fell out from underneath me.  I hadn't needed Greg to hold me up for some time, but I knew he was there, always ready to cheer me on and push me forward, proud of me, and believing that I could do anything.  If he is not in the world with me, I have to just believe in myself -- not the easiest task most days.  I feel like I am operating without my safety net - trying to hold myself together for the rest of the family as I hold on to my own hopes and dreams. 

I miss my brother -- I miss him so much - and not just because he was my most ardent cheerleader.  I miss his presence in the world, the calm his existence brought, and the laughter his company inevitably engendered.  I don't know how many times I think something I want to remember to share with him -- to get his take, to hear the joke he'll make, or to try to make him laugh.  Only to remember, there is no more time for sharing those things.

Three years -- it hardly seems possible. 

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