The first picture is my sister, my brother Mike, and me laying like a lump of coal. This picture was taken at Grandpa and Grandpa Cook’s house in Rich, when they lived near White Cemetery. The second was taken when we lived in Springdale for a short time.
My brother recently died as he neared 55. Our dad died before he turned 50.
The military was not Mike’s first, second, or third choice. But it’s the choice that got him out of Arkansas and into a career in law enforcement. Whatever else the military does, it spectacularly solves a multitude of problems when people join. It may present others, that’s true, but those are unseen and delayed when you decide to join. No matter how old we get, option fatigue is paralyzing.
Out of high school, my brother recently returned from a very brief stint at Arkansas State University. He convinced me that the military was the worst possible choice for me, even though I was being offered an incredibly cushy spot in the Army music program. As it always does, hindsight paints a panorama of choices and chances for me in the Army.
Mike then turned around unexpectedly and went directly into the Army and off to another life, leaving me with a wtf-face beyond description. He went to Germany while there were still two of them and then to Northern Illinois, where he remained.
Over a decade later, I seriously considered the option of the military again. I had my physical and background check, and also signed up for delayed entry. He got me out of that idea, too.
Because of our upbringing, I often wonder what would have been the course of our lives if he stayed in Springdale and I had left for the Army as a musician. Would his tendency toward drinking and anger blossom so fiercely. Would mine, had I untethered from family?
In those early years, he publicly held the family honor, even as it continued to vex him. Me? I changed my name and kept my distance. Being poor helped me in this regard. Being ignorant didn’t hurt, either. Mike gave me a lot of grief for my dislike for most of the family’s ideas of politics and how to behave. In my defense and as I increasingly learned, racism often disguised itself as politics. In part because he was the big brother and in part because he thought he was indeed the authority, he fought and lectured me to stop sharing family secrets. I often called him Mike O’Reilly, even though he wanted to break my fingers for it. As time passed, it became evident to anyone paying attention thought although I was the weird kid with the weirder name, I was dead on regarding our biography. Mike favored the Terry family while I loved the Cooks. Both had an equal measure of mishap and heartbreak. The Terry family just had a bigger rug they used to sweep everything under.
As late as last year, I was still uncovering skeletons from our family. People make movies and write books about such strangeness. Had I followed Mike’s insistence to let it go, I would have never picked up genealogy or pursued DNA trails.
Who we once were does not determine who we will be; however, its aim is so undeniably true that those who manage to escape their fate are miracles at work. A lot of smart people know their arcs. Few see themselves in the shadow of their choices. I’m often as guilty as anyone. I’ve never doubted that I inherited the infection of whatever ails my family. I’ve felt its breath to varying degrees for my entire adult life.
Mike was smarter than me. It’s unquestionable. There must be some magical sliding scale and accounting that would prioritize other things over intelligence. I would have cashed in a bucket of compassion and a dose of deafness for a lower IQ. When you are as under-prepared for adult life as we were, it is folly to follow our trajectories and assume success.
Somewhere in those years, that shared biography and its litany of grievances overtook my brother. While I arced into a middle-aged life, he let his guard down to how human he was and how inescapable the dungeon of the lesser can be to us.
While I was still talking to him at length, I asked him at least fifty times to take his time and energy and sit and write his stories. He loved to read and had lived a life stuffed with unusual characters. He told several book that he was excited about the book I was going to write. He didn’t take me up on my enthusiasm. So many stories passed with him.
No matter what anyone else said or will say, one of the things I consider a gift is to often recognize the universality of a good story. Mike had many of them. As I’ve often echoed about my youth, though Mike and I often were at odds, I’d be the first to line up to read a book of stories from his life, whether they were darkly shadowed or humorous.
I’m ready to rush ahead to the magical time when our memories shift and shuffle and lose their harsh edges. Nostalgia is one of those things that’s hard to define yet bangs a gong in all of us.
Though my dad died over twenty-seven years ago, I’m still pondering his choices, his secrets, and his pathology. I still find new revelations.
I suspect it will be the same with my brother.
We fought bitterly a few times in my life. As hard as it was for him to understand, I usually fought for quiet.
Some will exit onto the revisionist road, believing that one’s life and echoes end with death and that those who remain can change the stories of a person’s life. Others will individually have their own stories to tell and questions to ask. It is our way as human beings.
As for me, all judgement laid to rest, all I see is a reservoir of memories and stories. Whether they are told or not is not a valid question. They’ll be told, whether in whispers or shouts.