My mom and I wandered through J.C. Penney looking for the perfect outfit for my younger brother. She flipped through a rack of shirts as I caressed the top of a soft pile of sweaters, checking for comfort.
Twelve days before, a car with a teenage driver and one passenger, my brother, spun on a rain-soaked curve and slammed backward into the only tree along a flat stretch of road. They were on the way to see a movie. Nothing special, just enjoying the fresh freedom of a friend’s new driver’s license. I saw him pull away from the living room window, just as the rain started to fall. He never came home. My brother spent two weeks in a coma before he “succumbed to his injuries,” as the local paper put it.
And there we were in a crappy department store, doing a chore no family should have to endure.
Clenched lips. A tear on her cheek. A shake of her head, grappling with the unfathomable. The pain on my mother’s face was unforgettable. Anguish weighed her down as she performed a task similar to the ones she’d done countless times for back-to-school shopping and birthdays, for him and me and our other siblings. Yet this was so different.
V-neck or crew? These seemingly inane questions suffocated us and made the reality of our task feel like a knife in the heart. We settled on a white collared shirt, Khakis and a blue sweater.
A lump still forms in my throat when the images come to me even though it’s been more than 25 years.
I’ve been thinking about my brother a lot lately. I always think about him, of course, as pain like that doesn’t go away, it just comes to you less often. But these days, the thoughts have been more regular.
I’ve got kids of my own now, four of them. And recently, my eldest reached a milestone. It’s one I didn’t share with her, nor celebrate, nor even mention to anyone else. Not long ago, my firstborn officially lived longer on this earth than my brother did. Fifteen years and 10 months.
Another milestone awaits my daughter in the days ahead — one that we will celebrate. She will be 16. She’s bursting to get out into the world, and 16 is that first real feel of freedom, the initial taste of adulthood, old enough to drive.
I want to embrace it, but as it is for most parents, this milestone is at once awesome and frightening, liberating and crippling. Add to that the experience of losing a sibling in an accident, and it’s so much more. An experience like mine changes a person in so many ways, some that don’t creep up until parenthood. For me, and many others, it’s a more tangible fear of how everything can go wrong.
Another issue that will make this transition my daughter’s embarking on difficult for me is that I remember so clearly all the stupid fun my friends and I had with our cars. My first vehicle was a 1974 Chevy Nova, which was more than a decade old when it came to me. It was tan with one blue door, bought from a woman for the price of the tires her departed husband had put on a few years earlier. The car was a beast and smelled like wet vinyl. But it had a radio and an engine. The greatest concern of my friends and me was scrounging together the cash and coins to prevent us from running out of gas at the wrong time.
Other friends had better cars, some with sunroofs. We would howl at the moon while going too fast, standing up in the opening like foolish champions with the wind on us, laughing at each other and the universe. We were still teenage boys: dumb and reckless.
I was lucky to survive and, yet, blissfully unaware of my own mortality.
Until I wasn’t.
There was a song in the late 1990s by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones with a line that asks, “Have you ever been close to tragedy?” I’ve been able to answer yes to that for a long time, and I’ve been envious of those who couldn’t. I struggle to remember what it was like to be careless and carefree. To be young, innocent and stupid.
Yet I want my daughter and my other kids to enjoy their youth while they have it, to have their fun, and to be able to be wild for a while, if they choose. I want them to taste that special freedom between getting their first car and receiving their first student loan bill. But I also desperately need them to be safe. If I could cover them in bubble wrap and a force-field before setting them loose on the world, I would. But I can’t. None of us can.
We can only teach them and then trust them and let them grow up. Sometimes that means letting them go and praying each time that they’ll make it back.
I know turning 16 is special. My girl is so excited. And I’m excited for all the adventures awaiting her, driving and going places with friends.
Yet I also know that when she does, I’m sure I’ll be found staring out the living room window, waiting for her to come safely home.