It’s a beautiful summer day in Michigan. Every time I look at my mom I can see the joy in her eyes. It’s not too often these days to have the whole family together under one roof in my parents home. My brother and I are talking about music, one of the few things we agree on. Then, something strange happens, something that not only changes the day, but something that ignites a shift inside me. And it all starts because of the not-so-subtle, yet playful, competition between my brother and I.
I’m seeing red. I’m furious. I can’t stop asking myself how this is possible. My brother taught himself to play the guitar in three months. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud. Just pissed and a bit stunned.
Over the last two years he went from living in my parents basement to joining the United States Marine Corps.
He went from chasing zombies on Call of Duty to answering the very real duty of serving our country. Yet, somehow, someway, he still had time to learn to play the guitar.
The line, “I’ve got a big fat bucket of bone to pick with you my darling” from Alkaline Trio’s “Radio” sums up my feelings best.
And, it just so happens that’s the song he decided to play.
Everything about today, besides my brother playing this guitar (quite well), feels normal. But we both know it’s far from a normal day. All of the bickering we are doing means nothing. Tomorrow none of this will matter. Because tomorrow my brother will be sent to an undisclosed location until arriving in Afghanistan for the next 14 months.
We both know at the end of the night we’ll have to say goodbye. We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know when, or even if, we’ll see each other again. So I made a promise. To him, and as it turns out, to me.
I will learn how to play the song “Radio” by Alkaline Trio, and I would play it for him the next time we see each other. I made the promise with a simple statement, “You’re annoying, I can totally do this too. In fact, I will next time I see you. I’m going to play this song.”
Five months ago, I made that promise. I remember the moment so clearly.
On the outside, the promise is to learn something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s about showing up my brother. It’s because I can’t wait to say, “See, I’m the smart one, don’t forget that.”
But under the surface, in my heart, it’s a promise that we will see each other again. It’s a confidence that he will be safe and return unharmed. It’s my promise to him that I believe things will be okay. It’s a promise that one day, we’ll be sitting in the same place. Right here, in the comfort of our parents home, together. Playing guitar.
It’s a moment that I remind my mom of when I see the tears welling up in her eyes whenever we hear about the war on the news. It’s the promise I’ve reminded my brother of each of the three times I’ve been able to talk to him. It’s what I whispered in my nephew’s ear the first time I met him: “Aunt Lizzie is going to show daddy up on the guitar when he gets home.”
To date, my brother has been in Afghanistan for five months. During those five months, his son was born. My family and I can only talk to my brother through Facebook and Skype at 5 a.m. his time. Every night he gives commands to other Marines, to some of his best friends that are out in the field. As his wife put it, “he hears all of the bad stuff.” In the next couple of days he’ll switch jobs — he’ll be flying in an Osprey gathering detainees. To put it simply, he’ll be doing that “bad stuff.”
So, what does he do to make the most out of a bad time? What was the one item he requested be sent to him? His guitar. So, I know he’s getting some practice in. I know it’s game on.