I struggle with accepting the fact that I am a strange girl. I'm not the kind of strange girl that relishes her weirdness and feels that it adds cachet—most of the time I feel misunderstood, disliked, or acutely alone. My conversations tend to alienate those around me; what I perceive as candor and connection reads like unmitigated gall and oversharing. I've been told that I just have to find people who "get me," and that has proven difficult.
In my mind, I imagine that my brother could be the one who gets me. In reality, we haven't been around each other regularly since I was in elementary school, so who knows what we would have been like in a real relationship? I rang in his birthday this year with the recurring dream I have every few weeks: We're both hanging at our mama's house and he's just a normal guy. It's summertime and our mama made him a sandwich that he's eating on the porch like we did when were young. He's ironing clothes and absent-mindedly watching TV. He's standing in the bathroom mirror cutting his hair. I wake up to find it is only a dream, and the wound in my heart where a "regular brother" should be feels raw and new. Again.
The emptiness of it is physical, and takes my breath away.
My parents only had the two of us. We were born seven years and five days apart. My brother was beguiled by the garish street lifestyle we saw in our daddy's friends, and he committed himself to it early. Meech was a 15-year old presenting as a fledgling kingpin in neighborhood nightspots—complete with the finger waves, Airbrushed jean jackets, random girls, and our daddy's Corvette. To me, he was just my big brother. The person who made me omelets on Saturday mornings, who ate every Snickers bar and every Twizzler from the candy dish; the person who wrote raps and drew cartoons for his girlfriends. I was a maudlin elementary school kid. I wore lace bobby socks and my hair in fluffy ponytails tied with ribbons while lying under our dining room table reading and fantasizing about moving to a white farmhouse with green shutters near our parents' hometown in Mississippi. My brother and I were always different.
But we've also always been the same. The same eyes set deep in the same oval face; the same praline complexion. We both possess the dignity of our mother and our father's biting wit, which has rendered us both as charming as we are insufferable. There's no one better suited to "get me" than he is. If I had my way, my brother would be my closest friend. We would meet at our mother's house for dinner, travel together for our birthdays, send each other judgy texts about Love & Hip Hop. If I had my way, I would never feel alone because the one person who's like me—who gets me—would be in my life and I would have a partner.
Instead I've spent the last 20-odd years brimming with loneliness and longing too embarrassed to talk about it. While I've been going to school, moving across country, falling in love, generally finding my way through life—my brother has been in prison.
The time before my brother's conviction is something of a blur—for years he had been in and out of our house, in juvie, and living on his own. In fact, when he was convicted, he was already in serving time for an assault for which he had admitted responsibility. I had already become accustomed to my life without him, but I thought it was temporary. I thought that his prison sentence would make him realize that he had really fucked up and needed to do better when he got out.
Our visits to see him in prison were frequent and lighthearted. We brought him clothes and took pictures and talked about how life would be when he got out. Even after he was charged with murder, we still had hope. His first trial ended in a hung jury and with no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence, I had no doubt that he would be coming home soon. Then the state changed the theory of their case and called on my brother's former codefendant—our next door neighbor—to serve as their star witness in exchange for clemency. After the trial and sentencing this former friend came to our house, weeping, swearing he didn't have any idea who killed that man, but that he was afraid of prison, so he lied.
Meech was convicted of murder, armed robbery, and assault with intent to commit murder along with a few lesser crimes—more than three life sentences in total. I was in shock. I remember sitting in the court room during the trial having no fear that he would he be convicted, and when the sentence was handed down I was stunned. My ears were ringing and I couldn't believe what was happening. I don't remember anyone's face or reaction—I just remember feeling that this was not real—my brother was not going to spend his life in prison. It could not be real.
Meech has never had a real job. He has two kids who are now in their 20s, but he has never tucked them in or taught them to ride a bike. He can't help our mama paint the garage. When our father was succumbing to cancer, Meech could only listen to his faint, dying attempts at speech on the other end of a collect call and repeat, "I love you, Daddy. I love you. Can you hear me?" He couldn't attend the funeral; he had to send a letter instead.
It's times like this where the feeling of being odd and alone is too much to bear. In sad times, I kick myself because my own condition could be worse—look at what Meech has to endure. In happy times, I kick myself because why do I deserve these good experiences he will never have? My parents had to wonder every day how their actions contributed to their first born's imprisonment. Maybe if our father had been more gentle and more stable my brother wouldn't have had so much to fear and to live up to. Maybe if our mother didn't try to right all the shortcomings of her childhood by overindulging ours, things would have been different. Maybe if they'd sent him to private school like they did me, he would have had more positive influences Their regret and sadness is warranted. My niece and nephew have never had a father to care for them. Their longing is warranted. My brother has been deprived of his entire adulthood. His freedom, his children, his hope. His depression, anger, frustration? All warranted.
Who am I to pity myself in the face of all those reasonable emotions? In the time since my brother's conviction, I've arguably had a fulfilling life—I've earned some degrees, bummed around Detroit broke and happy as I immersed myself in the music scene; practiced juvenile defense in New Mexico, studied in Paris, walked tigers in Thailand, and went scuba diving in the open ocean off Belize. Now I've moved to Brooklyn and started a new life with new love and hopes for a family of my own.
And yet I do pity myself. I feel sorry for myself for not having a normal family life, then I feel selfish for thinking that way. It's absurd to think my sadness matters when compared to the absence my parents and my brother's children experience, so I don't seek solace in them. I try to face it alone. I miss him. I feel obligated to communicate with him because I know he's lonelier than I could ever imagine. I hate that the world has dealt him this insurmountable blow, but I think I'd dismantle if I took on his case as my life's mission. Reading his letters makes me so depressed that I sometimes leave them unopened.
I truly hope that when this missive finds its way to your hands that you & all of those whom you love & care for are in the best of health and highest of spirits...As for myself, I'm taking this shit one day at a time, as I struggle to maintain my sanity which is certainly easier said than done. Several months have passed since I've heard from you…
I often take the coward's path and I don't write back.
Instead of doing something that may be meaningful to remedy it, my longing metastasizes into an ugly, clingy attachment to my friends. When I meet new people, it feels like falling in love. I want to hear all about them, spend all of my time with them; I want to bare myself to them. But at the same time I'm afraid that if I share too much they will start in with the pity and doubt. I fear I will feel alone, again and again. I don't cultivate many close relationships. I'm outspoken and funny and hanging out all over town, but what looks like a thriving social life feels more like drifting because I have no one in my actual life to anchor me. Sometimes I feel more lonely in a crowd than I would anyplace else.
When I have mustered the strength to discuss my brother's imprisonment it's generally met with an intolerable mix of pity, excitement and, worst of all, incredulity.
"You poor girl!"
"You were a juvenile defense attorney and your brother is a juvenile serving life? That's wild..."
"So he was a drug dealer, right? Well…." (Despite all the liberal Facebook posts about prosecutorial misconduct and shit, it seems like no one really believes that a person can be in jail for something they didn't do.)
I hate each and every one of these conversations. I feel like some sort of freak or real live ghetto disaster for people to ogle. And as awful as all of these external interactions feel, they are compounded by the fact that I don't even have adequate standing for my sadness.
So on the eve of my brother's 42nd birthday—October 3, 2014—all these emotions were slamming around in me and left me sobbing. I texted one of the few people who knew my whole story a string of "I'm sad and strange" texts. She told me not to be sad, then texted me pictures of a housewarming gift she'd made for my new apartment, and a picture of her pregnant belly being hugged by her four year-old daughter. These things were simple but sweet, and in a world where I tend to feel isolated, these small kindnesses help me to know that there are people who "get me" and love me in spite of—or maybe even because of—my complexities.
These small kindnesses give me the strength to be a better daughter, aunt, and, most importantly, a better sister to my brother whose loss is infinitely more poignant than mine. In order to be the person my family needs, I have to let people in and allow my own needs to be fulfilled. I have to be open to kindness.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]