Bent at the waist in submission to the hair-pulling pain, I hissed at him, “Let go of me. Let go of me right now, or I’m going to go downstairs into the kitchen. And I’m going to get a knife.”
And I meant it. I meant it with every fiber of my being. And Carl Eric knew that, too.
He released me, staggered back two steps, the color draining from his face, turning his freckles dull and the skin under his eyes blue. Nearly silent, he puked up his lunch on the blue bedroom carpet.
My little brother and only biological sibling was born three years, six months, and one day after me. He was born on a hot August morning, while I was attending vacation bible school at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. After the day’s festivities (crafts and songs and a Jesus version of Red Rover, chocolate chip cookies, and grape Hi-C in the basement fellowship hall), I was summoned to the church office to take a call from my dad at the hospital.
“You have a little brother!” I heard him say through the clunky, black rotary receiver, the cord stretching all the way back to Father Rob’s desk.
Dad told me that the baby’s name was Carl Eric (to distinguish him from my dad, Carl David, and my Grandpa, Big Carl). And that he had red hair.
Red hair? My three-and-a-half year old brain immediately went to Ronald McDonald, rather than my own strawberry blond mother. Red hair didn’t seem like something to joyfully report to your oldest child. It seemed like something you might keep quiet, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s dad tried to do in the annual Christmas special.
I had high hopes when I got a baby brother. But as the years went on, I was stuck playing with a little monster child who didn’t know the right way to do Muppets or Strawberry Shortcake. He cried all of the time and if he didn’t get his way, he’d either go crying to mommy, pull my hair, or bite me. All I wanted to do was play by myself.
It didn’t help that my parents encouraged him – and took every opportunity to point out the difference between us. In their rapidly disintegrating marriage, it’s one of the only things they really agreed on. Carl was the sweet one, the sensitive child, the cuddly boy. “Not like you,” my dad said. “When you were little, I’d hold you and you’d do this,” he dramatically pulled away.
I found a nursery rhyme in one of our books that read, “Monday’s Child is fair of face,” – that’s me! – “Tuesday’s child is full of grace.” Well anyway, Carl Eric was born on a Wednesday, and the poem even said, “Wednesday’s child is full of woe.”
“That’s you, Carl! You’re full of woe!” I pointed to the line illustration of an infant in a high chair, holding a spoon and crying.
“You are! You cry all the time! You’re Little Mr. Sensitive.” I wiggled my butt in the air for emphasis.
“Hey, I didn’t write the poem. I’m just telling you, that’s why you’re such a little crybaby.”
And then he charged me, spearing me with his carrot-topped little head. He did this thing where he’d grab the skin of my torso with his fingers and twist and pull, leaving hot purple welts on the white skin near my ribcage. It hurt like hell, but I knew I had him just where I wanted him. “Mom! Carl Eric PINCHED me!”
These are my childhood memories – white-hot battles with my younger brother fought in sweltering upstairs bedrooms, in the backyard, at Grandma Shirley’s house. I usually didn’t have to hit first, I could make him hit me and then he would get in trouble. In those years, both of us carried bruises, scratch marks, bleeding wounds. He pulled one of my pierced earrings so far down my earlobe, I still have a quarter inch slit on the right side. Once, I scratched the length of his neck with my long pre-teen fingernails, leaving claw marks that lasted for weeks.
When did things start to change? Maybe that first summer we started shuttling between the houses: the hundred year old cavernous two-story that my dad had moved out of, choked with piles of magazines and mail and toys that we were yelled at to pick up, but never did; and the shabby, bachelor duplex that my dad was renting, littered with empty Old Milwaukee cans and dirty dishes and soiled TV dinner trays.
Or the next summer, when our dad remarried and moved us into a Brady Bunch stepfamily house just a block down the street from our mother? Or was it when high school rolled around and we started to have some of the same friends, show up at the same illicit beer parties? Or when I went away to college and he started catching me up on the hometown gossip over the phone and hugging me when I came home for Christmas?
All I can tell you is that by the time it was Carl Eric’s turn to go to college, things had changed. He shocked my entire family by withdrawing his acceptance to Michigan State with his friends and enrolling in Marquette University’s ROTC program. “I hope he doesn’t think he has to do this just for the money,” my mom said to me. And the money was good – the Army was paying for nearly all of my brother’s education. But I was coming to see that it wasn’t just that; it was the responsibility. Our parents had no clear financial plan to cover our college educations. They insisted we go, but there were no major college savings or anything. Lucky for me, I secured a scholarship based on high ACT scores. Carl wasn’t as good of a test-taker.
Over the course of his college career, my sensitive little redhead ended up not only succeeding in ROTC, but thriving. He rose through the ranks and won leadership awards. He liked leading people. He liked the structure and the discipline. And he signed his four-year commitment, becoming Lieutenant Benander, just in time for his graduation, nine months after September 11th.
And, even though Carl Eric and my entire family voted for Al Gore, it wasn’t long before my brother was off to war.
I spent the weekend before he deployed with him in Wisconsin.
“Are you scared?” Even asking the question felt silly, though. This is Carl, six foot two, hulking biceps like the He-Man guys we used to play with, stoic, and sincere.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “This is what I trained for. And you know what? I’m ready to do something with all of that training. To do the job.”
He couldn’t tell me or any of the rest of my family where exactly he was heading, but I know better than to comfort myself with the thought of an easy Green Zone deployment. It’s his job to do the hard stuff, the kicking down doors and gun-fighting stuff. All for a war that’s supposed to be over. A war he doesn’t even necessarily believe we should be fighting in the first place.
“If you don’t come home,” I said, “I’m going to kick your ass.” My heart sick and thick with fear.
“I’ll come home. I’m good at this.”
I looked straight into his clear, river-stone eyes and wanted to believe him. I couldn’t fathom that this little brother of mine, who had grown into one of the only men I can truly say I admire, could die in the desert.
Or that he could die, leaving me alone among the broken shards of our family.
Or that it might be my fault. The years of psychological torture and mean girl tactics I’d subjected him to, did they harden him and enrage him to the point that our sweet boy decided to become a trained killer?
I’m going to get a knife. The words still haunt me.
“Mom!” I had shrieked down the steep and carpeted stairs, “Carl Eric threw up!”
I could hear her exasperation as she headed up to survey the mess. “Why can’t you two let me have one goddamn afternoon of peace?”
Carl Eric lay sobbing in his bed, loud hyperventilating gulps.
“What happened? I could hear you two fighting all the way at the other end of the house.”
I had to think fast. My murder threat was still there, pounding against my sternum. I’m going to get a knife. That’s what I had said. That’s what I was going to do.
I took a deep breath. “Well, Carl Eric was pulling my hair. And he wouldn’t let go. And I was asking him nicely to please let me go, but he wouldn’t. So I told him I was going to get a knife…to cut my hair away from him.” I protectively curled my fingers around the flat hanks of hair that hung limply against my bony shoulders. “And he just … I don’t know … threw up.”
To my surprise, Carl Eric didn’t contest the lie. He just continued to cry and cry into his blue striped pillowcase.