The Star

When I was a little girl, I wondered where the stars went on rainy nights.  I thought there was some kind of weather switch that turned on their lights when the skies were clear, and shut them off when drops of rain pattered against the window of my upstairs bedroom.  I remember being quite surprised when I realized that the stars remained where they were, but were just temporarily blocked by the churning clouds that brought rain and snow.

Last week, I was reminded of this as I watched my brother Kevin.  I was at the hospital with my mother when he strode in.  Kevin is hard to miss.  He is huge- 6’5”, with large shoulders, huge hands and a huger smile.  When he arrived, I had just begun to give my mother a sponge bath, and rather than staying outside until we were finished, he rolled up his sleeves to help.

I watched as my younger brother gently and carefully helped bathe and dry my mother, and as he brought her to the bathroom and back.  She leaned on him, confident that his strength would compensate for her weakness and he responded with a grace and ease that left no room for embarrassment or humiliation.  He enveloped her shaking hand in his firm one, and supported her weight as we got her settled again in her bed.

I had never seen this side of my brother.  I know his training as a firefighter/EMT has taught him how to help the sick and injured.  But I had never seen how gentle, how kind, how graceful he is.  He knew when to speak, when to smile, and when to move.  His silent strength filled the room, easing my mother’s discomfort and my anxiety.

Initially, I had been frustrated that the hospital staff had not been as responsive to my mother’s needs as I would have liked.  I know that they were doing the best they could with the staff they had, but I was angry that she had to wait so long for responses to her calls for help.  I was frustrated that nobody had taken the time to help clean her body and comb her hair.  I wanted to point out that she was not just the woman in Room 4030, but she was somebody’s mother, somebody’s teacher, somebody’s friend.

But now, I see that I was given an opportunity to see my brother at his best.  Had my mother’s needs been met by a stranger on the fourth floor, I would not have observed how my brother shines. For a brief moment, the dark was split by his light and I was privileged to witness it. I should have known all along, the star had always been there, just waiting for the clouds to part so he could fill the dark with his silver light. 

Thank you, Kevin.  You are a shining star, and I love you.

Brothers and Sisters

I am very fortunate to have seven siblings.   Having siblings was important when I was a child.  Without siblings, who would tell me that I was stupid to wear lipstick to the beach, or that I threw a baseball like a girl, or that it was my turn to dry the dishes?  Without siblings I would have relied upon the guarded answers from friends when I asked if they thought I was smart enough to go to college, or if my boyfriend was cheating on me, or if my prom gown was too babyish.  Instead, good or bad, I got a straight shot of honesty no ice, no chaser.

There are many ways in which my siblings and I are alike.  It appears that DNA determines more than facial characteristics, so I suppose it should not surprise me that we share many of the same traits.  For instance, we say “anyways” instead of “anyway.”  I don’t know why we do this, but we do.  Anyways, (see?) we love to eat, especially homemade bread, warm and slathered with creamy butter.  We all love music, from rock to folk to jazz to country, and play it often and loudly– especially in the car.   Most of us have a strong sense of altruism, and many of us thrive on the adrenaline surge that comes with speed, danger, or a combination of both. 

For as many ways as we are alike, we are all different.  It is my belief that some of these differences are gender driven.  There are definite differences in the way that sisters and brothers relate.

Sisters nurture. They comfort broken hearts.  They bring solace and anoint you with soothing murmurs, gentle hugs and chocolate.  Sisters will tactfully tell you that your swim suit has crept up over your butt cheek.  They will whisper that you have a whisker protruding from your chin, or there is a stream of toilet paper caught on your heel.  They save their favorite baby clothes for your first-born.  They feed your children, and they offer coffee and tissues when you’ve had a fight with your husband.  They give advice about diaper rash, cooking, and making third pregnancy maternity clothing look new.  They will offer their teenagers as baby sitters and surprise you with black balloons on your fortieth birthday. 

When my heart ached from a broken marriage, it was my sister Martha-Jean who soothed me.  While tears slid down my cheeks and splashed upon the soil, she and I worked side-by-side to plant flowers in her garden.  The fact that the blooms would perish by the end of the summer made it all the sadder, but the knowledge that we could plant yet again gave me hope.

My sister Robin is forever my confidant.  From our bunk beds we pretended we were cowboys, swapped paper dolls and shared pictures of heart throbs cut from teen magazines. When I was expecting my first child and she her second, we entrusted only to each other how much weight we each had gained.  She never told.  Neither did I.

My sister Teri surprises me with unexpected text messages to my cell phone- just to check in and see how I’m doing.   They come at all hours, for no reason, but it always warms my heart because I know she is thinking of me.

Sisters love you even when you are at your worst.  When I was a teenager and my baby sister Missy was a toddler, I was often charged with the responsibility of giving her a bath.  One day I was mad at my mother for some unremembered reason and took it out on poor Missy, roughly washing her hair and scrubbing her little round face with a wash cloth.  Totally consumed in self-pity, I stood her up to lift her out of the tub.  She stood there, naked and shivering in the cold, teeth chattering.  She looked up at me and tenderly stated, “I love you Garrie.” 

I had never before been anyone’s hero.  To this day, whenever I feel weak, or alone, or insecure, I pull that memory out, dust it off, and gaze at it for a while.  It never fails to remind me that no matter how badly I have behaved, I am still loved.

Brothers are different. Where sisters shroud the truth with tact, brothers barely take time to aim- they shoot straight from the hip.  There is no gray in a brother’s opinion.  If you ask, be prepared for a black or white answer.  “Yes, that’s a great idea” or “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. “   There is little in between. 

Sisters leave the door ajar for you to gracefully exit if the situation becomes uncomfortable.  They present you with a couple of options from which to choose, and allow you an opportunity to decline.  They delicately tip toe around subjects that might cause you to be embarrassed or upset. 

Brothers don’t leave you an out.  When the Atlantic Ocean is so cold it turns my feet numb, my brother Scott coaxes me out of my beach chair and shames me into swimming at his side.   He knows the salt water will ease my aching joints and invigorate my sleepy soul. 

My brother Kevin reminds me that my faith must direct my path, even when the road is difficult.  He stands tall, like a lighthouse, and guides my path with gentle nudges.  He draws me in with his infectious laughter, and before I realize what’s happening, pulls me from the place I was to where I need to go.

When my fears of failure threaten to paralyze me, my brother Eric charges ahead, dragging me in his wake before I can find an excuse to stay behind.  He does not cajole.  He does not negotiate.  He yanks me from my solitude and leads me through unknown territory because he knows it is by doing that I will believe I can.

Some people may not have been born to be part of a large family.  I have heard that in large families there is not enough to go around.  For me, it is different.  Each of my siblings has carved a spot in my heart that nobody else can claim.  Each has enriched my life in a way that no one else has.  They keep me balanced.  They remind me of who I am and who I need to be.  They set me straight when I am on the wrong path and they cheer me on when I am on the right one. They challenge me and try my patience.  They celebrate my joys and they share the burdens of my failures.  Despite the years of hand-me-downs, common bicycles, shared toys and dormitory style bedrooms, I would not trade my loud, idiosyncratic, boisterous big family for anything.   I love them passionately and deeply, and yes, there’s enough to go around, because when it comes to siblings, love doesn’t divide. It multiplies.

My brother Eric

It’s a cold October evening in western Massachusetts, and it’s late.  I’m sitting across the room from my brother, Rick.  He’s settled his six-foot-four-inch frame into his favorite leather recliner, telling me about working a house fire as if he’s relating the plot line of a situation comedy.

It was several years ago, when he was a captain.  He and another fire fighter, Mike, went to the second floor of a cape style home to try to contain an attic fire.  Although they were less than an arm’s length from each other, the smoke was so thick and black they were unable to see each other.  Mike fumbled for the ceiling hatch, and realizing the heat had quickly reached an unbearable intensity, Rick radioed his chief to send crews to ventilate.

“All of a sudden, the room turned bright red and I could see Mike’s face, clear as day, in front of me.  The line went dead- there was no water coming out of it at all.  Mike yelled for me to run, and we both bolted down the stairs.  I remember hitting the cement steps to the enclosed porch and Mike pushing my back, yelling for me to keep going.  The next thing I knew, I was on my knees on the pavement, and the cops were dragging me across the road.  I remember looking back at the house. There was fire coming out from every direction.  We never were able to find out if it was a methane explosion or a flash over, or what it was. We know it wasn’t a back draft,” he adds.

“I looked at Mike and he was all black, with smoke coming off of his clothes and his helmet.  He was rubbing snow on his ears, and I could see that they were already starting to bubble.  I remember thinking, “Wow, Mike almost bought it!” and then people were asking if I was okay.”

He leans forward in his chair.  His grin hasn’t changed since he was a little kid.

“I looked down and realized that my clothes were black and smoking, too.  We ended up having to trash our bunker gear and helmets.”

“When I took off my mask there was this searing pain on the underside of my chin.  That’s when I realized I was burned.  Still, all the way to the hospital, I kept thinking everyone was making an awful big deal of this.  It wasn’t until I got back to the station and my chief had me in a bear hug that I realized how close a call it was.  He told me he was sure he had lost two fire fighters with that house.”

“Anyway, I had a long drive home that night, and then the reality sank in.  I had a huge bruise on my hip that was really starting to ache. My chin was a mess.  I finally got home, and the first thing I did was kiss Colleen and the kids.”

He pauses, his face growing uncharacteristically serious.

“It changed how quickly I send men into a building.  I’m a little more cautious since then.  A little more reluctant to trade lives for somebody’s house.”

I study my brother.  He is in his forties now, his short blond hair sprinkled with gray.  When I look at him, I don’t see Chief Eric Madison.  I see my baby brother, Ricky.  The seventh of eight children.  As a youngster, he had a low flash point.  My father called him “Eric the Red” because when he lost his temper, he would rush headlong at his victim, fearless of consequences.  Now here he is, telling me about rushing headlong into burning buildings.

When he was a little boy, I would sneak him out of his bunk bed and into my room so he could watch late night TV with me.  I drove him to his hockey practices and came home from college to watch his games.   I gave him haircuts and yelled at him for burning rubber with my car.  Who would have thought that this skinny little kid we called “albino spider” would grow up to be the man in front of me whom I so much admire?

I ask him why he never told me this story before.  He grins and shrugs.  This is typical Rick.  He feeds snippets on a “need to know” basis.  He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t volunteer information about himself.  He dwarfs me, not only in size, but in accomplishments, and yet I have never in my life heard him brag.

He shares stories of going to Ground Zero in the aftermath of 911, and of visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, and his eyes betray the kindness and sensitivity hidden behind the professionalism necessary for his position.  As I listen to him, I realize that there is a lot about this man I don’t know. Somehow, we both got caught up in the busyness of our lives and forgot to nurture the friendship we had when we were young.  Tonight I can see that the essence of my brother has not changed.  We still share the same absurd sense of humor, often finding ourselves squelching a burst of laughter at an inopportune moment. We both have a keen dedication to community service, determined to give back and make the world a little better.  And although it is I who has the degree in English, he writes with passion and simple eloquence.

In a moment of bravery, I share with him a writing project I have been secretly considering.  As I wait for him to answer, my stomach churns with anticipation. I trust him to be honest with me, but I’m afraid to hear his response.  Hard as it is to admit, his approval means everything to me.  

His reaction is one of enthusiasm and support; more positive than I dared hope. He offers ideas to augment mine and volunteers to advocate for me. I should have known.

I should have known because whenever I call or email him, he makes time for me.  I should have known because he drove four hours in one day so he could help me move to a new apartment.   I should have known because he spends every day making sure that other people are safe and taken care of.   I should have known because his life has been a series of selfless acts about which most people will never know. 

Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.”

I’ll sit on the curb and applaud for my brother any day.

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