I feel like we have slipped back in time. My sister-in-law Leah sits at the head of the kitchen table, her long red hair gleaming orange in the sun. My parents are gathered on either side of her and I sit directly across at the other end of the table. She holds in her hand a stack of letters, our first from my brother Paul since he went off to boot camp several weeks ago.
These are letters, not texts or tweets or Facebook statuses. You can see my brother’s handwriting in blue ink on the white page. Handwriting, so personal, so unique that it reveals his mood and energy level in a way that smilies and other emoticons just can’t.
“It becomes more slanted the longer he writes,” Leah explains.
We huddle like families in pre-television days, awaiting the evening radio hour. We are brought together in an intimate circle, leaning in toward the page, all ears, intently listening. We are family in the truest sense, bound together not only by our shared affection for each other, but our mutual love for the member that is missing. For my parents and I, this separation from one of our own is a new experience. My sister-in-law left Texas and her parents to become my brother’s wife, but as for the rest of us, none of us has left home or family for too long: a few vacations, nearby colleges, frequent phone calls and visits; there have been few occasions for letters or the need to keep each other apprised in this way.
It is strange to hear my brother’s sentences. I am used to seeing him walk through the door. He makes a jibe, I volley back, our sentences quick, short, teasing. Now, he writes his wife long descriptive phrases. He tells how they call him Old Man, the long periods of waiting, his loneliness. He says his arms are hurting. He sounds at turns bored, tired and funny. He asks what’s going on with the world. He saw something about the Boston Marathon briefly as he passed a TV set, but he doesn’t know the details.
I cry when he asks Leah how their oil is holding up – they had a hard time keeping the house warm through the cold winter – and it touches me to see my baby brother in this light. This is such a practical question, but it holds in it all the burdens and responsibilities of being a husband and father. It is a private moment between husband and wife, a shared concern, a challenge they would typically confront together, but he has left her to handle alone. And, he worries…he is not my baby brother at this moment. I have seen him as a cop, a father, now a soldier, but it is in this small detail that I see him as a man. It is jarring and affirming at the same time. My parents and I worry about our boy, but I understand he has not really been one in a long time.
Leah folds up the letters and places them back in the envelope. We unfold from our circle. She opens my father’s laptop and we check out details of the trivia contest Paul’s battalion runs. The first one to answer the Tuesday night question in lightening speed wins a picture of her soldier. We return to our time stream, checking Facebook statuses and making plans to win our picture.
“It would be nice to see him,” Leah admits, referring to the possible photo. “It would,” I agree,” but I realize that I just did.