I was emailing recently with other journaling friends and someone raised the question of persona: how close – or far – is the self we create online from our actual self. I answered that I make a conscious effort to keep my online self true and real. I am not prone to Superhero entries (not for lack of trying; they simply do not come easy for me), and I tend to write abstract rather than storytelling, anyway, making it much harder to see, imagine, touch this persona that’s been “created” through one year of writing.
But that does not mean I don’t edit. There are facets, edges, deep caverns of my self which never make an appearance, neither here online nor in my personal life. It goes without saying that what I share with my friends is vastly different from what I share with my husband, my coworkers, my readers. One subject that I generally omit from the online dialogue is my family.
Not for dark secrets or tawdry exploits, not emotional scars, not fueds, not fear. I simply find myself unable – and frequently unwilling – to talk about my family. It is too much, it seems. My family, dearer to me than anything else on this planet, is a dark and polished weight I carry with me, low and near my belly every where I go, every day, every day.
If I sound dark, heavy, trite, overreaching, false, sophomoric, clichéd, dramatic or depressed, please know that I am none of those things, and that often it takes only one phone call, one email, one memory to remind me that no matter how far I’ve come, no matter how many miles between us, my family is with me, in my heart, my soul, my gut. And it is in my gut that the pain and fear can strike, it strikes low and keening, an uncomfortable token that forces me to question why here – at 3000 miles from my family, I finally felt at home.
I have three younger brothers and I adore them with all the fire and rain and sunshine I can summon in my heart. My lungs tighten in those deep, dark hours before sleep at the thought of any of them hurting, wanting, trying, struggling. They are my second heart, only a half-beat behind me.
M is the oldest of my brothers. He lives with his brilliant, compassionate girlfriend in Southern California and is a teacher and swim coach and he is as bright and open as a sunny day. I don’t worry about M. I miss him, and I love him, but I don’t worry about him. From his first days, he has been the golden child, without mirth or malice. J is next, and he and I are most alike. J is guarded and thoughtful, meticulous and serious. He is the closed door to M’s open façade. I don’t think any of my friends would describe me as closed-off, but with my family, sharing comes hard. I see the same traits in J; he is funny and charming and sincere with his friends, guarded with family. He and I are the brooders. The artists, I hope. The careful ones.
But it is N who worries me the most. N keeps me awake at night, rips my insides to pieces, has warranted tears and prayers and hopeful, hopeful wishing. N is 22, and like M, an open book. Unlike M, however, N was born in a dark and windy storm. N has the charisma, the wisdom, the intuition, but he is also saddled with the sad, sad soul of being born improbably last. He is somehow older than all of us, older than me, older than the hills. His eyes are huge and green and deep. It breaks my insides to pieces to tell of his teen years, but suffice it to say that drugs, theft, abandonment, anger, mistrust, distrust, lies and pain spent a good long while at my family’s home. But I was safe here. I could easily withdraw, avoid phone calls, pretend the worst wasn’t nearly as close as it was. But for the better part of three years, a dark beast lingered just around the corner, and every phone call left my skin crawling. What did I fear? To put it bluntly, that N was dead. I carried that fear with me for many, many days. I do not want to over dramatize what I went through; believe me when I tell you I had it easiest. But we made it through. N came back to us, and every wound still shows on his young, young face. He is the wise one, the old soul, the heart.
And for all the struggles the boy has been through, he struggles still. For work, for home, for stability and respect and money and opportunity. He was recently diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease, and is awaiting a surgery he can barely afford – yes, he has health insurance, but the time off from work is unrecoverable. He struggles. He and his girlfriend V – his salvation, I sometimes think – are the best of people. And they struggle. To think of him, unable to pay rent, bills, tuition…I can’t. To think of him riding his bike 20 miles to work for lack of a car, to think of him desperate for a job, the pain creeps up my spine and settles in my jaw and eyes and throat. N is our family prophet, his hardship has brought all of us closer together, but the boy has not yet been rewarded for his sacrifice. It hurts me, deep in a place I pretend doesn’t exist.
And it is N who spurned this entry. My mother called this morning to tell me that she wasn’t able to see N yesterday; they were supposed to go running together but he called her, frantic and sobbing. He and his girlfriend are living with her parents, in a tiny dilapidated house not far from my own parents’ home. My parents have invited N and his girlfriend many, many times to move in with them, but some unhealed scar from adolescence prevents N from accepting. Anyway, yesterday, as N pulled out of the driveway at his girlfriend’s house, he backed over her family cat, who was sleeping behind his rear truck tire. The cat died in his arms on the way to the vet.
So my baby brother called my parents, inconsolable and sobbing. I’ve never killed anything, he kept repeating, he who has been vegan since age 17. I’ve never killed anything. He sobbed and sobbed. My baby brother sobbed.
And the hurt I feel is secondary to his, but still of a sort that I can’t fully process. I pretend that I am the independent one, the urban, brave, curious one, but in truth, I am the coward. It is too hard, family. It is too hard sometimes, and here, in my safe, clean bubble of marriage and friends and cocktails and Gotham, I am safe. It is easier here. I am a coward, and my baby brother sobs.