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I Am My Brother's Keeper

What is your earliest memory?

“Brianna, I have a secret to tell you.”

The 18-month-old’s eyes lit up and reflected the dim, greenish hue of the restaurant. The air overhead falters under the weight of Mexican music playing just a little too loudly. The salty chips are left forgotten on the table as the little girl leaned in excitedly. Her mom’s smile sent a thrill through her.

“A secret?”

“You’re going to be a big sister!”

The child clapped her hands with joy, and I turn the page with a bittersweet feeling as I leave this earliest memory behind. That mall restaurant is a delightful place preserved perfectly in the holiday memories of my youth, frozen in the optimism of innocence. The building was demolished before I could see it as anything other than an adventure, and as I flip through the handful of mental snapshots that remain, the thin layer of dust blurring out the background feels almost sacred. I can’t remember all the details, and I know I’ve rewritten some of them, but I don’t want to try to change them back. I don’t want to risk losing them entirely.

But I’m not looking for memories of a place. I want to revisit the precious memories of the sibling who first made me a big sister.

I select a blurry Polaroid, just a couple of pages past chapter one in my memory book. I close my eyes, draw the snapshot closer, and plunge in.

I’m at the store with my grandma to select a toy for my new little brother. I’m two years old, and happy I don’t have to keep his name a secret anymore–something my mom had trusted me with after being pleasantly surprised at how well I kept the pregnancy secret until she announced it to everyone else. My eyes are drawn to a small stuffed lion, and I pick it up with glee. I can’t wait to meet the baby.

His name is Zachary; he still has that stuffed lion today.

My next memory of my brother is not so pleasant–in fact, it’s a nightmare. Literally. I was three years old when torment entered my sleeping hours.

We’re in a store. He’s missing, I can’t find him. There are a dozen little changing rooms, each one (unexpectedly) equipped with a full shower and tub. I dart in and out of these, thinking he must be here. Three men come out of one, laughing, and walk past me crouching in the corner. My stomach drops, and I get a horrible feeling that possesses me like a demon.

I run into the room they’ve just left.

My brother lies drowned–murdered–in the bathtub.

I didn’t want him to take a bath for weeks after that, terrified the dream would somehow come true.

I start running through the memories now, trapped inside my memory book, not quite sure what I’m looking for. I find myself standing on the edge of a precipice. There’s a big gap here, but I don’t care. I take the leap.

I’m six. We’ve just changed churches.

This new one seems alright. We have a potluck lunch every Sunday, which is great. At least, it is until the day I fear someone has found a way to “drown” my brother after all.

I’ve just finished my lunch. There’s a little playhouse in the corner of the lunchroom, one of those colorful cubes of chaos with a slide lolling out the front like a stilted tongue. Its entrances are so tiny that children will outgrow them long before they grow tired of trying to fit inside.

I’m walking by it when I hear a sound. My brother is in there right now. And so is the church bully. I don’t remember my brother’s words, but I can still feel the distress in his voice. I’m fiercely protective of my brother by this point–I even get teased about it by some of the other girls, though that never really bothers me. However, I also know I’m no match for the bully, so I run to where my parents are eating lunch.

Coincidentally, they’re visiting with the bully’s parents. I don’t want them to overhear what I need to say. Looking back, I don’t know why; maybe I was afraid they might be bullies too.

I put my hands on my mom’s shoulder and don’t wait for permission to talk like I usually would. I can feel her hair brushing my lips as I lean in and whisper, “Zachary is getting beat up in the playhouse.” Instantly, she’s on her feet and following me.

She breaks up the two boys, and relief washes over me.

He’s okay.

He hasn’t been drowned after all.

I step out of the memory book, and I can’t help but smile. He still hasn’t been drowned–and now he’s a strong and brilliant young man who’s kept me from proverbially drowning once or twice. I turn to the middle of my memory book, skipping through several years. The next scene is bittersweet–my dad and I are fighting.

I don’t remember why. It could’ve been any number of reasons, none of which deserve space here. This trek through memory lane isn’t about him. It’s about Zachary.

I finally escape the fight and go to my bedroom, frustrated and angry. But there, waiting for me on the pillow, is a piece of paper. Did I leave it there?

I pick it up, read it, and start to cry. It’s a note from Zachary.

“Dear Brianna, I know things are hard right now. I’m really sorry you had to go through that. I just want you to know I love you. -Zachary.”

The next day, he gave me one of his hugs that are so rare. He doesn’t like them much himself, but he knows they’re special to me, and he will always try to cheer me up if he can.

Every year, he grows older, wiser, and more thoughtful. I grin as I lay aside the memory book and look over the sheet music of a lovely classical piece he composed for me for my birthday. It is a blessing to watch him grow more and more thoughtful and intentional with every passing year.

Looking back, I couldn’t have possibly known at the time just how important being a big sister would be to me, but I’m so glad finding out the news is something I remember. My brother is a gift I wouldn’t trade for anything.

We are siblings who keep each other afloat in this wild ocean of a world, and I’m so grateful to have him in my life.

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