When I was 16, my brother gave me a military flight jacket. At the time, he had just graduated from the Naval Academy and was waiting to start flight school. When he gave it to me, there were only two patches on it…a patch from one of the summer cruises he had to do while he was at Annapolis…and a name tag he had made, with my name on it.
Almost 30 years later, I still have this flight jacket. People tell me its one of my signature wardrobe pieces because I have worn it so much over the years. I’m surprised the thing is still in one piece but thankfully it is. Over the years, the look of the jacket has changed as I have added and removed various patches so that the jacket is a symbol of his military career. Squadron patches, cruise patches, deployment patches and patches from the various planes he flew while serving.
Since my brother died, I wear the flight jacket less frequently, wanting to make sure it is preserved as long as possible…maybe to give it to my sister’s son one day so he can have a piece of an uncle he never knew.
Today is one of the days I am wearing it though. See, today is my brother’s birthday.
I find it ironic that my brother, the man who knew he wanted to fly as a career from the age of 5, was born on December 17…62 years to the day after the Wright Brothers made their historic “First Flight” at Kill Devil Hills, NC. It was only fitting that he be born on that day. It was only fitting that he died doing what he loved.
Its been almost 16 years since my brother died and most days, most days I’m fine. Most days I smile when I think about him. Most days I can tell stories about him that will make people laugh and trigger a string of funny stories about him from those who knew him. Those are always fun conversations to have and allow me to know him even more. The anniversary of his death is still hard. Memorial Day is a struggle too as he died while serving. His birthday is still hard too.
My brother was just an amazing man. He always worried so much about me, and everyone in the family for that matter. He was the peacemaker in the family, always doing what he could to help resolve and minimize conflict in a very dysfunctional family. He looked after our sister and I after our dad died, stepping up to be a father figure at the age of 15 because he felt it was his duty. When I decided I needed to get out of our hometown to go to school, my brother took me on my visits for college. He helped support me financially. He let me live with him during my summer vacations so I could save money for school.
I know one of the things that was really hard for him in the years leading up to his death was the fact that he never saw me happy. There was a conversation he and I had just a few months before he died. We were talking about why I hadn’t finished undergrad at that point (I was in my late 20’s then). As we were talking about that, well…it was more him talking and me trying to avoid the discussion…he asked me why I was never happy. And he summed it up best when he said that he didn’t think he had seen me happy since the age of 5. When I think back on the times he and I had together, it does sadden me that he spent so much of his life worrying about me and my well being.
It saddens me that he never got to know the real me. Despite the struggles I may be having now, I am still so much better mentally than I was when he was alive.
Having said that, I want to write this to him in closing.
I am sorry I never had the strength to share with you who I was inside while you were alive. I admit, you were and continue to be my hero. I have looked up to you as an example of how to live a good, honest and honorable life more than anyone I have ever known. You had one of the kindest souls of any human being I have met and the way you stayed connected with others was always amazing.
I am sorry I was too afraid of being judged to be honest with you. Growing up in the small town that we did, with the pressures to be the “perfect family” that were pushed upon all of us, my fear was based as much in being a disappointment to you as it was in being afraid of disappointing the entire family. I know now that despite what some would like to say, you were one of the least judgmental people to ever be in my life. I know it would have been a shock at first for me to disclose and I know there would have been struggles…but I also know how devoted you were to M and I.
I want you to know I am doing much better these days. The holidays have been hard for a lot of reasons, your absence during all that is going on being one factor. I wish you could be here to see me graduate this month. I wish I had you here for support with the family turmoil brought on by my need to be on this journey. I wish I could spend Christmas with you, as it was always your favorite holiday and you always reminded everyone that the child who believes in Santa Clause lives within each of us.
Even though we never had those sentimental conversations, I hope you know how much I always loved and respected you. I hope you know how much I looked up to you. I hope you know how grateful I always have been and always will be to call you my brother. I hope you know that anyone I date or possibly choose to marry will have to have the heart, respect for self and others, and dignity that you possessed because you were just that good a man.
I do believe you are watching me and looking over me. I do believe you still take care of me today even though you can’t be here with us physically. I just know that’s who you are. So I am assuming you are reading this. Know that you will always be my hero.
Happy birthday, brother, and fly high.
See it on Flickr.