To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time.
Meet Bubby, with his blue eyes (we have the same eyes) and hipster hair, thick-rimmed glasses, long limbs, giant feet.
He’s my baby brother. His name is Jordan now; we don’t call him Bubby. While through infancy and toddler years, he was round and chubby–short features, ruddy cheeks, with a generally displeased look upon his face–he has since stretched and elongated into a six-foot-something young man, complete with stubble and a mischievous grin.
He is the reason I laugh whenever I use thyme in my cooking because at family gatherings, we enjoy the most terrible of puns solely to annoy everyone else. Do we have enough thyme? I don’t know where all the thyme went. Oh, no! We’re out of thyme! Do you think it’s thyme to go? Well, just look at the thyme. I think it’s thyme! What thyme is it? THIS THYME!–holding thyme seasoning in the air. Our puns—and our lives—are better shared together.
We are so much better together.
But we are adults now. Where has the thyme gone? (I couldn’t resist; so sorry.) How did the Hickman children get here, now, in our early twenties, with so much behind us, and still so much more ahead?
Yet, we are back then, too. He will always be my baby brother. And I will always be Sissy. We are synchronic.
We are close. Picture Meg and Charles Wallace from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. We share something bizarre and sixth sense-ish; even through the tough years when we argued and spouted hateful things and stopped talking, that special closeness was still there, hiding behind the turmoil and turbulence of growing up and being unsure how to love one another well.
Jordan was a quiet, stoic young child with a profound, intuitive mind, juxtaposed against my sometimes arrogant, always stubborn verbosity. (Sometimes I think we switched places when we became adults.) I imagine his juvenile mind stewed and bubbled with ideas and cognizance that most children do not have and few adults ever develop. He had dreams–prophetic dreams; his inner mind was lively and intuitive enough to keep him engaged, so he felt little need to express himself verbally. He grunted, pointed. For a long while, he did not speak, which naturally raised some concerns about his development. (Turns out he’s wicked smart, which I always knew.)
I knew exactly what he was saying even though he never said it. Mom says at the dinner table on more than one occasion, Jordan would grunt from his chair.
“What, Jordan? Use your words.”
Grunt. Groan. Point. No word.
“What do you want?”
Grunt. Groan. The pre-cry face–scrunched nose, quivering lip.
“Mooooom,” I’d groan, exasperated. “He wants mashed potatoes.” I probably rolled my eyes, too.
Sure enough, he wanted mashed potatoes.
This could be Hickman mythology–a legend passed down from my parents to us to encourage Jordan and me to remain as close as we were at that age, but I believe it to be true. Jordan and I have an understanding of one another that doesn’t require talking or even being in the same zip code. We always have; God-willing, we always will.
In elementary school, during lunch one day, I remember hearing of someone in Jordan’s class teasing him. I saw him from across the lunchroom, and I knew he was upset. I marched over there and gave the whole table an earful. Nobody messes with my baby brother—my baby brother who was afraid of staircases descending into dark basements and would make me take the first step, my brother who needed glasses with lenses an inch thick in order to see, my brother who was so good at anything he put his mind to but so humble and unassuming.
He doesn’t need me to walk down the stairs first anymore.
I have watched him grow up. Sensitive, intuitive, and possessing a strong sense of justice, my brother is very much like our mother. He also has the hilarity, the work ethic, the determination, and the charisma of our father. He is brave and outspoken, and even more stubborn than I am. He’s confident, highly intelligent, and knowledgeable. He works hard. He makes hard decisions. He runs his mouth (ahem, often).
So this is what it’s like to watch your baby brother grow into a man you are proud to be related to.
I do not feel overshadowed by him, but I cannot help but see all the things he has done that I have shied away from. He takes risks; he is calculating and smart. He is not afraid of losing, but he’ll work as hard as he can to win anyway. He speaks up. He’s decisive. He brings laughter wherever he goes, as well as random facts about the effects of caffeine on the body and lectures on organic chemistry.
He told me today that, if he were to get any tattoos, one would be an anatomically accurate heart on his chest, and the other would be an epinephrine molecule. I can’t think of a more perfect tattoo for him.
“Why epinephrine?” I asked, even though I knew exactly why. (I know him well, after all, and he’s told me all about epinephrine at this point, as well as about various other organic compounds and chemicals.)
His eyes flicker. “Well, epinephrine is your body’s fight or flight mechanism. You take risks, you go out on a limb, and your body produces epinephrine. So, you know, take risks, survive, all that.”
I nodded. “Fight or flight… Physiologically your body still gives you a choice. So even if you feel cornered, you still can choose to fight.”
“I didn’t think of that,” he said.
He didn’t think of it because he already knows to stand and fight. His tattoo would advert his solidarity, his oneness with himself, and his ability to stand his ground. And the heart: his confidence in himself–all parts of himself, from his bosom–the metaphorical heart–to his intellect and knowledge–the anatomical heart.
I will always be amused by this anecdote because it reminds me how we are so strikingly different in this respect. Jordan’s anchored heart, his survival instinct juxtaposed against my tattoo of choice: on my collarbone are birds taking flight, with the eager lyrics of the hymn by Robert Robinson, asking that the Lord might bind my wandering, fickle heart to Him. I see it each morning in the mirror, and I am reminded of my wayward, woozy heart’s need for solidarity, for a tether, for guidance. I am reminded of my propensity to fly away, to flee, to wander; it cries out for my heart to find rest.
For a couple years after my undergrad career, I was working a job that was far below my skill level, not utilizing my degree, and quite frankly draining the life out of me. My mom told me once that Jordan was indignant that I was settling for as long as I did. He knew without even asking that I was afraid to take a risk, to put myself into the career I wanted because I didn’t want to face rejection. I was depressed. I didn’t think I could do what I was feeling called to do.
“What the hell is Kelsey doing? She needs to be teaching,” he said. “That’s what she is supposed to do. She’s a teacher.”
Little did he know that his words would tether my heart to my dream again, giving me the gumption I needed to take the risk of potential rejection in order to pursue something I love: teaching.
When my mother suffered a brain aneurysm three years ago, my brother and I were faced with emotions and fears that neither of us handle gracefully: loss and the possibility of death, grief, mortality. As classic Hickman children, we dealt with it with relative silence. After an emergency brain surgery that very well could have taken her life, Mom, inundated with pain and subsequent painkillers, broke the silence with her slurred and yet somehow sharp words.
“I almost died.” And then she laughed.
The words and the laughter were angular, jarring, inconsistent with the fuzzy figure we saw lying in the hospital bed, our mom who looked nothing like our mom. She didn’t know it wasn’t funny yet–it was too soon–and even though her words were muffled by medication and pain, her face and lips swollen and red, her visage wholly unrecognizable and pallid, hearing her and seeing her was like cutting open a wound that had scabbed over. It was like jumping into an ice bath.
One of my mother’s eyes was completely swollen shut. Bandages concealed the other. Probably a good thing because we would have only seen cloudiness and pain. I had not yet met my father’s eyes because I knew what they would show, and I did not want to know until I had to that the situation was grim. My premonition was enough.
I had not looked at Jordan’s for the same reason, nor he mine. We know what it means to look one another in the eye; we know what it means when we choose to avert them, too. Our eyes would have confirmed the gravity of the situation, would have validated the immense but unspoken fear, would have confirmed what we did not want to know: It will be a miracle if Mom makes it. We didn’t want to grapple with it until there was no other choice.
We have blue eyes, Jordan and I ; in fact, Mom and Dad do as well. It’s our eyes that most people say give us away as relatives. It’s more than just that they are blue; my theory holds with the cliche that eyes are windows to the soul: my brother and I, along with our parents, share a soul. We are a soulful people, and watery blue like our eyes, possessing quiet strength, stubborn but adaptable, a slow impetus for change as we trickle down our path but also make that path our own in some way, carrying surprisingly more than what one might expect.
When Mom woke up and spoke those words, we were forced to meet her there in the pain, in the reality, the fear, in the grief, there, swimming in the clinical blues of a dim hospital room. She had dealt with the pain; we should, too. (I didn’t deal with the pain well.)
I will never forget the moment when Jordan’s and my eyes locked, watery and tired but also relieved. At least now the fear was mingled with hope. It was dark in the room, but I saw what I needed to.
Our eyes gave us away, as they are prone to do: sheer and long-suspended terror mingled with pending grief mingled with relief and a dash of hope. In that moment, we acknowledged and admitted to one another everything we had kept hidden, without words: I’m terrified, this was hell, thank God she woke up, what if she hadn’t, and what now? followed by, I am scared witless, too, and this was hell, but she did, and how in God’s name did she?, and I don’t know, and I’m sorry.
Blue eyes and freckles, we share, but there’s more.
I see my same cerebral, internal processing in him; we careen into other worlds when we let our pensive natures take over. We trail off; we stop talking mid-sentence; we space out.
We work hard, and we do not take kindly to failure. We are competitive and stubborn.
Sometimes we forget to take care of ourselves.
We love to laugh, and we are fluent in sarcasm.
When life gets real, we’d rather sit in silence than share the nuances of our emotions.
We both are terrible liars, and we have that nasty habit of smiling when we are uncomfortable. (No poker face at all.)
We are distraction-mongers; give us Facebook and Tumblr, Reddit and video games, books and studying so we might ignore the harsher realities of life and the feelings that come along with them. We will wrestle with abstract theories easier than our personal empirical realities.
We put Worcestershire sauce on meatloaf, and we handle well a strong drink.
We are not fond of mornings, and we’re a bear without sleep. Coffee is our lifeblood.
We aren’t great at vocalizing emotion or sentiment to one another, so in earnest, we sandwich the mushy moments between some well-placed wit or sarcasm, some silliness or nonchalance.
We have big plans, lofty dreams, and even bigger questions about life. We get lost from time to time, but between the two of us, we have enough hope to find the way back home.
We are what we always were to one another. Time (thyme) won’t change that. We will always connect on a level we can’t articulate; we will always find ourselves safe there, loved and cherished, in a place of effortless understanding and appreciation. We will fight; we will get angry; we will call one another names. But it will always be because we care and know deeply who the other is.
His soul will always tell me to take deep breaths, to laugh, to be silly and goofy, and to not take myself too seriously, to chill every once in a while, but to be serious enough about my dreams that I pursue them. His soul might also use some f-words and tough love, injected with lessons in organic chemistry and various physiological processes of the human body, but somewhere in there is the mushiness of his heart.
I hope my soul tells him something equally worthwhile, probably injected with lectures on why the English language is the way it is, the benefits linguistic descriptivism versus prescriptivism, and many, many monologues about Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.