Monday, November 08, 2004

Last Leaves

"She makes me feel like a little kid," my brother said last Sunday as he walked into church with our mother.

He was three years old when I finished reading Lord of the Rings. My sister and I trotted through the field and the woods behind our house, describing our beautiful imaginary horses and lopping off weeds with our stick-swords. I called myself "Abner" and my sister called herself "Al." Abner and Al were Robin Hood-style warriors, defending the powerless against the depradations of the wicked. When he wanted to play, we called him "Angellor" to continue the alliteration, and the three of us wielded sticks against invisible enemies all year.

It was two winters later when we dressed up in Nana's old clothes, pulling her faded dresses over our grubby jeans and sweatshirts, and he begged until we gave him a dress to wear, too. Then the three of us preened together in our chilly bedroom, twirled and danced, pitched our voices an octave higher to sound like grown-up ladies.

That was the winter we moved. Our parents spent a week scrubbing dog shit out of the new house before we could move in. We spent the week with Grandma and Grandpa; they spent the week shampooing dog shit out of carpets, cleaning spiders and mouse droppings out of closets, and patching holes in the water-stained ceiling. "It's a better school district," they said while they scrubbed. "We're only five minutes from town here," they reminded each other when they lay down aching into bed at night. "Everything will be easier now," they told themselves.

But that house was still too small for their submerged emotions. The alcohol was gone, but that just gave anger and depression more space to sprawl out in, and they started taking their arguments outside where there was room to bellow. My sister and I heard him crying, and we crept down the hallway through the kitchen to our brother's room. We sat on his bed and tried to calm him down. We sang "Jesus Loves Me" and "This Little Light of Mine. When the fight outside filtered into his bedroom anyway, we sang louder, doing the hand motions.

This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.
Ths little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine...
He turned twelve just before I left for college. That year I had to write a paper either defending or questioning the GPA system. I attacked it, writing about my brother's ability to teach himself computer skills in his spare time from the time he was ten years old. I argued that the grading system did nothing to accurately gauge his intelligence, but only to measure his ability to complete rote assignments and memorize facts for tests--tasks he performed poorly. Of course, it wasn't my professor who needed convincing: it was my father, who had taken low grades as proof of my brother's "stupidity" and heaped scorn on him every chance he got.

He was nineteen last summer when he informed me that if I wasn't a Christian, he shouldn't be talking to me because I might corrupt his integrity. "I gotta keep my witness pure," he said. "And if you can't agree with that, I shouldn't be talking to you and letting you make me doubt things.

"I gotta keep my witness pure," he repeated.

As they walked into church together last Sunday, he announced to my mother, "She makes me feel like a little kid, and I just don't want to talk to her anymore."