Friday, November 21, 2008

Dear John

Family time is usually challenging for me. I grew up in the cornfields in a big, evolving family of siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, temporarily adopted siblings, parents, and step-parents. Sometimes I think I grew up in a family of black sheep, and if that's true than I'm not black at all, but sparkly rainbow-colored. When I graduated college, I saw no place for me here in Michigan, and even though I love my family, I had to leave. I'm not sure if it happened in high school, college, or after I left, but we drifted apart. Physically and emotionally.

I can blame politics for at least some of the distance. Politically, I'm so far to the left that it takes binoculars to even see my right-leaning family. To the horror of my mom, I became a vegetarian at age 17, then I voted for Clinton, then I studied feminism, then I started traveling and there was really no turning back. I had become a damned liberal. And I had the distinct impression that my family was personally insulted by my political views. We tried just not talking about politics when we were together, but it's become more and more difficult. The personal is political, and politics have a way of creeping into even the most innocuous conversations. We could be talking about salad, then about produce prices, then suddenly about immigration and NAFTA, and our safe little salad discussion has gone the way of last week's lettuce: bitter.

So, what do I do? I visit two weeks before a major election. Way to go, Eva. Never can do things the easy way. I knew it would be hard, but I thought we should just let shit hit the fan and then get the hell over it already.

But I have to take at least a little responsibility here. I moved away, and haven't done a stellar job of keeping in contact. As a result, I think maybe I've let my family cease to know the real me. Instead, they know me mostly by various aspects of my identity: as a liberal, as a traveler, as someone who's eccentric. I've let them forget that I'm just a boring old midwestern gal who likes casseroles with mysterious ingredients, watching home decorating shows on HGTV, and hates shopping for jeans. It's my job to keep in constant contact, to call or write them each week and talk about whatever is going on in our lives. Maybe if I did that, they wouldn't see me first as a straight-ticket socialist liberal. Maybe they'd just see Eva, the girl who dances to Tori Amos in her underwear and socks in her living room in the evenings, and who likes to make poop and fart jokes.

When I'm alienated from my family, there's a deficiency in my emotional self. I'd go as far as saying that even a dysfunctional relationship with a family member is better than the absence of one. Family ties are something I can't do without. They are the B vitamins of my life. If I don't have them, I might still survive, but living just won't have that healthy glow that it could have. My siblings and my parents are my history, and I want them to also be my present and my future. Relationships don't grow themselves, so I gotta get my ass out into that garden and start weeding and hoeing. I start today by writing a letter to my brother, John.

John is sixteen months older than me and probably about sixteen times more of a believer in justice and fairness. Hardly seems possible, I know. He is sensitive and thoughtful, endlessly honest, and funny without even trying. When he smiles, his grin conquers his face, an army of teeth lined up, doing battle against foul moods everywhere. When the four of us kids were little, John provided nonstop entertainment. Once, he took a trip to the bathroom in a restaurant and didn't come back. We found him sharing a table with an old man he'd befriended on his way back from the bathroom, eating ice cream. John could talk to anyone.

Now, my big brother is married and has a three year old daughter. He is currently in Iraq, on his second tour there with the US Army. I don't like him being there. I have disagreed with this war for a long time, but for the past three years it's been personal as well as political. I want John home safe. Not only physically safe, but emotionally safe. I want his brain to be okay after seeing what he's seen. We don't talk much, and I think a lot of it has to do with our political differences. I find it most difficult to talk to him, though, because I'm terrified. When we don't talk, it's easier for me to pretend that he's just in Texas with his family, and I don't have to face the fact that he's in danger. I can't come to terms with the risk he's taking, can't even begin to accept the reality of it, because I'm in such strong disagreement, but also because it's just too scary to imagine something terrible happening to him.

Breaks my heart

On the flip side, I do respect his decisions. He's the only one who knows how to make himself happy, and I applaud that he has the courage to do that. I would never suggest that he's made the wrong choices in his life, even though they're so different than the choices I'd make for myself. It's a tough job to transcend our differences, but I think we have enough love there to do it. I realize now that this starts with me.


Trina said...

Oh Eva, I want to meet your brother John! I can't believe you have a sibling that is funnier or more entertaining than you. I think about him a lot, for what it's worth, sending my liberal, Quaker, loving energy to him in Iraq. Hope it's doing some good, and that some of it hits you when it passes you on its way there.

Ainsley Drew said...

I love you, Eva. Brave f*cking post. Godspeed to your brother, and you.