Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Merry Christmas, brother....
I sit in the den of our 200 year old farmhouse and look out the window, across the front porch, past the old well house, through the trees in the lot that once was an orchard, and I spy the cabin he built a dozen years ago. Its red tin roof is bright and cheerful even in the grey overcast of a mid-December day. There is no one home. It was sold this past July to some folks from Nashville who use it and the surrounding riverfront acreage as a get-away. I breathe in the silence, then hold my breath, seeing but not hearing the only movement in my line of vision, ice melting and running in drops off the eaves above the porch. And, except for the plaintive cry of a stray calf, temporarily separated from its mother, the cold, wintry silence thaws the past and feeds my thoughts.
I like to believe that I am temporarily separated from my brother who once clomped around the wide porch of that red-roofed cabin. A man who was often larger than life and whose voice would carry over the several hundred yards between his place and ours. And I miss that voice, sometimes in an excruciatingly acute fashion. A similar timbre of voice was about the only thing we shared as adults, but he was my brother and I loved him every single day of his life.
I think of him at different times. Though we seldom exchanged cards, I remember him on June 28, his birthday. Whenever talk turns to fishing, I think about how his face would tighten into a smile and his eyes would dance at the thought of heading to the banks of the Elk River with a rod and reel and a can of night crawlers. When my wife and I take one of our trips to the panhandle of Florida, I think of the times he and his wife loaded up their dogs and a couple of cats and headed to their place on St. George Island. For weeks at a time. He was most at home there, I believe. Something about the rhythm of the ocean and blue skies and golden sun. He took to all of that. He grew bananas, of all things.
And, of course, Christmas. Not recent Christmases but the Christmases of long ago when we were boys and he was truly my little brother. When he would sit in his footed pajamas, mesmerized by the bubbling lights and shimmering tinsel on the Christmas tree. How he would tiptoe around until he spied his name on a gift. And, if no one was looking, he would lift it and shake it, taking a stab at what might be inside. When I was ten and he was five, I intrigued him with stories of Santa Claus and how I was pretty sure that if we stayed up late enough on Christmas Eve, we would finally catch old Santa sneaking into our house with a bagful of presents. I cautioned him to the risk, however, of getting caught. We always shared a bedroom and it wasn't hard to convince him that any thud in the night were reindeer hooves on the roof. And how in the world could he say that he hadn't just heard what was most certainly sleigh bells. I would tell him to close his eyes tight and pretend he was asleep so Santa would make sure to stop. And I would close mine.
On Christmas morning, I couldn't remember who had fallen asleep first. But we leaped from our beds at the same time and slipped quietly into the living room. I recall in those times I received a great deal more joy watching him discover his Santa bounty than I did discovering my own. My brother had a way of exhibiting delight that I just never got the hang of. So, on those Christmases long ago, I claimed my delight through his. I piggybacked on his joy. And it grew my love for him.
This coming February he will have been gone two years. There wasn't even time to say a really decent goodbye. And though missing him hasn't eased up much, I take solace in what's available. If you've never heard the the Sarah Darling song "Knowing What I Know About Heaven," I'd suggest you give it a listen. So when my mind insists on trying to bring my brother back, when I want to reverse time and make things turn out differently, when I want to imagine that the cancer hadn't found its way to his body, or when I want to wish him back to the porch of his cabin or settled comfortably on the banks of the Elk with his voice harmonizing with the sounds of the flowing river, I think about the lines of that song.
"Knowing what I know about heaven
Believing that you're all the way home
Knowing that you're somewhere better
Is all I need to let you go.
I could hope that I could pray you back
But why on earth would I do that
When you're somewhere life and love never ends
Knowing what I know about heaven."
Who knows? Maybe there are Christmas trees in Heaven - I see no reason why there shouldn't be - and they are strung with miles and miles of brilliant bubble lights and glinting tinsel reflected in the faces and eyes and smiles of my brother and everyone else who has made that celestial journey. I mean, what better place to celebrate Christmas than Heaven? And, as much as I miss him, I wouldn't pray him back from that ultimate bounty of everlasting life and never-ending love.
But, you know what, doggone it, it sure would be nice to hear that sweet voice one more time.