He was my first and dearest friend, my steady childhood playmate. Despite divergent personalities–or perhaps because of them–the two of us got along like a house on fire, spending our days romping in the fresh, New England air.
We twirled on tire swings and scratched in the sandbox under the crooked crab apple tree. We built forts in the front woods, cruised on Big Wheels, and challenged each other to hula hoop contests. We hosted picnics under the maple tree, and slung ratty life preservers around our necks as we pushed the tin rowboat from shore to pond. I relied on my brother to capture baby turtles and frogs which I adopted for an hour or two–pretending they were my very own pets. Our greedy hands plucked juicy garden raspberries, blackberries, and Concord grapes–fully warmed by the sun–as a late afternoon delicacy. Nothing tasted finer.
This younger brother of mine, nineteen months my junior, recently called to wish me a happy birthday–the big 50. I did not have to wait long for the jabs to begin.
Happy Birthday, Sister. Have you been fitted for your hearing aids yet?
His wife was on the phone, too.
I know, she sympathized. Fifty is different, isn’t it?
My brother sighed. I really wouldn’t know, ladies.
Ever the wise guy.
He is married to a woman who is his perfect match–giving it right back to him–times two. Their love is an ongoing banter, and their four lovely daughters smile at him, with: Oh, Daddy.
I remember one afternoon– years ago– lounging, elbows resting countertop, as our big family chatted around their kitchen island. As my brother sliced vegetables in preparation for a late dinner, one of his little girls, sporting a nearly toothless grin, wandered into the kitchen–reluctant to ready herself for bed.
He looked up momentarily, never missing a culinary stroke.
Say goodnight to everyone and go brush your tooth.
Daddy! she said as we laughed.
He is forever cooking or baking something savory. It is a hidden love language, buried beneath mountains of sarcasm. In fact each year, at the first whispers of fall, he slips to the kitchen early, pouring himself coffee while pulling out bowls and whisks and spatulas–baking up several loaves of mouth-watering pumpkin bread. His girls awaken to the spicy scent of autumn–an aroma cloaked in their father’s love.
I remember keeping him company on another occasion as he concocted fajitas. This is what I treasure–being summoned into his arena–Come over here and keep me company–as he seasons, dices, chops, and measures. It warms me to be welcomed. A healing balm as he positions a steaming mug of coffee–cream only, right?–directly before me.
His forthright New England sensibilities are deeply familiar and I behold these moments with silence. If I speak of his goodness, honoring this golden treasure with words, the moment might be shattered by humor. So instead, I listen as he shares inner intricacies. The coffee and cream warm my bones–a mug of knowing and of shared bloodlines–we know what we know, together.
He’s working, slicing chicken with precision, cubing Vidalia onions, cutting red and yellow peppers julienne style–with an ease bred only through repetition. His wife enters the kitchen as he angles the vegetables smoothly down the cutting board, gently guiding by way of knife, the cluster momentarily air born before landing with a sizzle in a pool of scorching olive oil. As it crackles, he gives his bride a cursory glance and says with that dimpled smirk: What are you, lost?
She rolls her eyes at me before dishing it right back.
Well, you do need a map for our kitchen he quips.
Always the wisenheimer.
But don’t be fooled–I have seen behind the bravado.
This man is tender and kind.
My mournful, larger-than-life wish, as a child, was to have a dog. In fact, my few childhood dreams remained clear: get married, become a mother to many, always have a dog, and write.
First? The dog situation.
Up until I was twelve, we lived in an old New England farmhouse, divided into apartments. Our landlord, who tended this ancient family property with precision, was a gruff yet tender-hearted man. His name was Mr. Golden, and his one unwavering rule for all apartment dwellers was firm: no pets.
One spring, as flower pollen dusted the breeze, my friend’s pet rabbit birthed many kits. In a remarkable and highly unexpected twist, Mr. Golden relented of his ruling and even offered to build us a marvelous wooden rabbit hutch, to be positioned behind the garage. He hammered and sawed and blew off the sawdust in what he referred to as the breezeway–a narrow, screened-in space connecting the main house to the garage. It was his workshop.
This good man measured twice and cut once, drilling and sawing and smoothing to perfection. The front portion of the hutch was enclosed with thickly wired mesh screening and the back area, cupboard-like, was fashioned with the finest wood–a safe, snug space–plumped with a bounty of hay. Our new pets hopped through that tiny rounded opening and fluffed themselves on many cold, star-studded nights.
Flopsy (my brother’s rabbit) and Thumper (mine) eased my tender dog-ache. In fact, they were the next-best-thing to a canine. We had a grand time, crafting pitiful leashes out of string which the rabbits immediately severed by tooth. Mr. Golden then donated scraps of wire with which to create a safe enclosure –a backyard playpen– for our bunnies to romp. They nibbled the emerald grass, noses twitching at such good fortune, hopping about in utter delight.
We fed them twice per day–as the sun peeked out in the eastern sky, and again as it bid farewell in the west. An old tin coffee can served as our feed scoop. My brother disliked the dark, and hovered behind me, clutching the back of my jacket on those late night feedings as I marched to the backyard, coffee can full.
One bright fall afternoon after school I meandered outside to retrieve my bicycle from the garage. I paused, hearing an odd noise. Was that Mr. Golden working in the breezeway?
I stood, statue-like, listening. It was a low, chesty growl, echoed by other snarls.
I dropped my bike and flew to the rabbit hutch.
The Granville’s dogs–three of them–were growling and tearing at the wire cage. I had been admonished to steer clear of these beasts, who were kept as guard dogs further up the street. The Granville family–a chain-smoking bunch who preferred the dimly-lit, indoor life–posted BEWARE OF DOG signs about their property–dotting their fences, doors, and windows liberally, if not crookedly.
I had been duly warned–these dogs were dangerous.
At this moment I did not care about such trivialities. They were trying to eat our rabbits and my protective instincts crushed all wisdom to bits. I lunged for their collars and began dragging them–or trying to–away from our two terrified rabbits who sat stiff and huddled, round-eyed and still.
Stop it! I screamed, yanking hard at their worn collars while they snapped back, fighting against me and pulling for the hutch.
Mr. Golden came lumbering around the corner as fast as his old legs would allow.
Kristin! he hollered. Stand back!
I must have hesitated.
NOW! he thundered.
I let go and tripped, scrambling backwards. Mr. Golden heaved a heavy wooden plank high over his head, and brought it down hard with a thwank on one of the beast’s rear-ends. The dog winced, a terrible and high-pitched sound, hightailing it out of our yard. His brothers wisely followed suit, slinking away while panting, drooling, and glancing back at the hutch.
Mr. Golden’s wiry eyebrows furrowed, and he looked fierce.
That was THE STUPIDEST thing you ever did, Kristin, he yelled.
His face remained contorted as he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his sweating brow.
Don’t you “but” me. They could have torn you to shreds like that, he said, snapping his fingers.
I hung my head and began to cry.
Now don’t go bawling like a baby. He dabbed at his forehead again. It’s okay for now, and I understand why you protected your critters. He rested his hand on his hip, staring far off into the fields, chewing his bottom lip.
The wind picked up.
I am concerned, young lady. His voice quieted. Vicious dogs like that have a long memory. That wild look in their eyes– he paused. They’ll be back.
On a cold November day, weeks later, the trio escaped yet again and knew exactly where to go. When my brother and I returned home at dusk, just in time to traipse to the backyard with our coffee can, we found only a toppled and misshapen cage, door flung open; bent on its hinges. A slender trail of blood speckled a path leading back to the woods.
I wailed until I could scarcely breathe. My mother rushed me inside, while my father and brother bundled up in layers, grabbed two heavy flashlights, and ran for the woods.
I was a realist even then, drawing comfort in actuality. I whispered the truth to myself on repeat as I paced before our dining room window, crying, heart split wide.
They will not come back with Flopsy and Thumper. No rabbit could ever survive those vicious dogs. Never ever.
I was partially right.
My father and brother eventually returned, red-cheeked and shivering, but clutching my terrified Thumper. They had caught her red eye glowing in the flashlight’s beam. The poor thing had been huddled between a rock and branches that snaked through the undergrowth of autumn’s crunchy leaves. Flopsy, my brother’s rabbit, was gone. Nothing remained except a sizable pool of blood and a few puffs of fur. I cried, feeling a widowed, desperate ache for my brother.
It was much, much later that I learned more. As they hurried back home holding my Thumper, my little brother brushed tears from his face and tugged my father’s sleeve.
If we could only find one, I am really glad it was Kristin’s rabbit instead of mine.
Dear, dear boy.
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. – Clara Ortega
Decades pass, we both graduate from college, marry, and are gifted with four children apiece. We live over a thousand miles apart, and life keeps happening. Years swirl and leap ahead as we spin around and around the sun.
And then one summer creeps in, unsuspecting, and hunts us down.
It sliced in a hundred different ways.
There is a devastating beauty and holiness forged from the uninvited terror called suffering. God allows it. To believe wholeheartedly in the Sovereignty of God is to get out of the way, to grow small on bended knee, to raise your hands in open surrender–an offering to Him. This faith precedes all end results, and is not dependent upon a certain outcome. Our Maker knows what he is doing.
This is awfully difficult to see as the fire burns hottest. Hold on, hold on. God is building something holy from the ruins. He always does, yet it feels like an impossibility to our tender, finite skin.
I am scrubbing dishes so carefully at my brother’s kitchen sink—and everyone—my family, his family, and also his mother-in-law are savoring this evening in their backyard. I see them now—football flying, soccer ball bumping against the slope of hill pressing into a slow, summer sunset. The girls’ ponytails swish as they chase their cousins.
But all I can think is: Clean up. Make things sparkle.
This relentless drumbeat pounds in my head, formed by the recent months of pain inflicted upon our family under the guise of Christendom. Those who were supposed to love us most, loved us least. It was the Granville’s dogs all over again, but instead masquerading before the world as well-behaved pets. My brother plowed through the smoke and mirrors, glimpsed this unfolding nightmare, and plucked us from the flames.
Now just removed from the situation, I am in the pull of severance—a cutting off of a life that I knew. Suddenly there is a before and an after to my frame. What will I do with this cup of suffering? How will I learn to forgive those that are not sorry and refuse to repent?
Tears spill as this soapy water burns hot, but I don’t mind the heat. It is the one thing that feels real, honest beneath my hands.
I hear laughter—what common grace!—and move to the window and watch as my brother’s mother-in-law pats our son’s back with a smile, before enveloping our daughter in a warm, grandmotherly hug. Gentleness radiates this woman’s being—a rising sun—and I know in the depths of my being that we are welcomed here. Her dear husband, the love of her life, collapsed and died but a month ago. She graciously tucks the swell of her sorrow into a temporary drawer in order to bear the crushing weight of ours. This summer has threatened to undo us all.
My brother, too, is in a hard place, now caring for his family and his mother-in-law, while tending to this fresh loss of a father-in-law that he adored. All of this plus carrying on with his job, and now tending to our grief-stricken family of six for the next few weeks.
Yes, we had all been dipped low, low into the well of suffering. In time, and only in that pitch black space, would I ultimately learn to hold fast to nothing but God himself.
I submerge my hands again into the scalding dishwater, and notice a stubborn dark fleck on the white dinner plate. No matter how hard I scrape it remains. So I scrub harder and faster and—
My brother is here, next to me.
Put the dish down. You don’t need to clean right now. I will load the dishwasher.
His hand is gentle but firm on my arm as he takes the plate from my grip.
Actually, you don’t have to do anything. You and Jon and the kids are family, and we want you here. There is nothing to be earned.
It will be a long time before I see the mercy in his words.
He is a sort of Renaissance man—bright and capable and gifted in much—but will retort a quick comeback with any hint of praise. He has been a volunteer firefighter, a newspaper man, a salesman, founder and owner of a granite business, and a financial planner. It did not take long for his passion in financial planning to land and shine brightly upon those families with a Down syndrome son or daughter. He has carefully designed blueprints to offer such parents–mothers and fathers faced with the likelihood that their special needs child might outlive them. It is a delicate and beautiful and hope-filled work.
He was born to rescue–do you see? Gifted with mercy.
Suffering, I have come to know, is not always linear, clear, or heralded. It often cuts jagged, complex, and hidden. But there is a treasure buried in trials, an inherent tension between suffering and glory. In the hottest fires, there is a sifting at play. The gold eventually rises–separating itself from the sand.
The kindness of my brother? Gold.
Beauty from the ruins.
He pulls a soft loaf of bread from their breadbox, lining up slices for his daughters’ sandwiches. Deftly, he smooths the peanut butter from edge to edge and then jiggles grape jelly generously over the second slice before pairing the two.
Girls! he calls as he neatly quarters the sandwiches and assigns them to four plates. Tell Aunt Kristin what my secret ingredient is for my famous PB & J sandwiches?
They gather around and grin shyly at me.
Love! they answer in beautiful chorus.
I laugh and nod.
It sounds just right to me.