Photos in the family album show my brother, age 5, sneaking up on me, age 7, while I'm reading on the sofa. He's dressed in army fatigues, complete with helmet. He loved those clothes so much that even after our mom ordered them to the dirty-clothes hamper, he'd fish them out behind her back and put them on again.
Nineteen years later, Matt's fatigues are the real thing, and he just finished his third tour in Iraq as a Marine. He kept going back because the pressure, adrenaline and travel are what he signed up for, and he wanted to relieve some of the soldiers with families who are stuck there for much longer stretches.
My brother is the hero of the family. His e-mails from Baghdad, models of crisp prose usually detailing the day's plumbing problems, got forwarded to friends and family who had never met him but looked forward to each update. Last summer, during a family vacation in Maine, several of us visited a strawberry field where you paid for each basket you filled.
While we weighed in, the owner gushed her admiration "for what you're doing over there" to Matt. It doesn't hurt that he's a strapping six-footer whose photos get all my female friends -- and many of my male friends -- swooning.
Before this, Matt was known in the family for the nickname he earned as a chubby toddler -- "Big Pig" -- and his ability to frazzle my parents in the way that only the babies of families can. I was a textbook middle child who kept to myself and tried to get attention by making All-State Band or getting an A in physics. The biggest rise I ever got out of my parents was when I told them I was gay, and that was nothing once my brother told them he bought a motorcycle and had moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a boat. And not a houseboat, just a boat.
I admit that I feel a little jealous. When did I lose my title as golden child? I was the one who got into an Ivy League school, outscored all six siblings on the SAT, got jobs that sent me to London and Milan. This winter I came in last place -- bottom paragraph in the newsletter that my dad cranks out each New Year's, a mutter along the lines of "Andrew is in school, again" -- below Matt's update and numerous grandchildren photos.
And the swooning is just disturbing. "He's hot," say former co-workers and exes. "He's my brother," I say, wrinkling my nose.
My mom wasn't amused by Matt's offshore living situation (it had no bathroom or kitchen) and said as much right before his first deployment to the Middle East in November 2002. This is not the first time my mom masked grief with scolding -- when she dropped me off for college, she barked at me for not tucking my T-shirt in. My sisters said she probably did that to keep from crying. It's her way of continuing to be our mom, as if to say, "I still know who you are and what's best for you."
My little brother is now bigger than I am, and there was little I could do to protect him in the middle of a war zone. I don't have a car to put yellow "Support Our Troops" stickers on, and I can't stand them anyway. But like my mom, I want him to know that I'm looking forward to him being not just back, but a person in our normal lives again. So I make sure the e-mail occasionally starts with "Dear Big Pig," just as a reminder.