I was born into a family of penless storytellers who crave the years gone by even as we sit in the middle of all we ever wanted. At Christmastime, nostalgia comes tied up in ribbons and old ornaments on the tree, and with the opening of boxes filled with tissue paper wrapped decorations, the stories come. Remembering loved ones far away and days we thought would never end brings smiles tinged with sadness and the shocking realization that time passes and takes a part of us with it.
It feels like a betrayal, spit in the face of all the moments I lingered on rain soaked grass, enjoying the feel of the water falling on my face. I want to scream at time, I want to remind it with curses and tears that I enjoyed it, I soaked in all it had to give, and because of that, it owed me just a little more.
This year when I opened the box of Christmas decorations, the first I saw was one that belonged to my brother. Every year Dad, Caleb and I drove a few miles from our house to Pike’s nursery to pick out a Christmas’ tree, and because of my Dad’s strong desire to leave us with traditions we cherished, we each picked out a new ornament. I wanted to be deep but ended up annoying, always trying to force my choices to mean something, but Caleb usually looked for the goofiest or the heaviest. He told me one year when we were a little older, that he liked the idea of being remembered for picking out the problem ornament that caused an annoying amount of thought before being placed on a tree.
This year when I pulled a frog with skis from the box, I knew who picked him out. He’s dressed in a red sweater and cap, with a middle that bounces on a spring. Whoever designed him probably wanted him to look like he was skiing down a hill, but because his bottom half is so heavy he looks like he’s being pulled in two and weighs down any branch that he’s placed on. The ugly skiing Christmas frog is the worst, but seeing him and remembering the 7 year old hands that plucked him from the display tree when I was 12 made me cry.
Anything that has to do with my brother these days makes me cry, because while I see him in the faces of my children every day, I haven’t seen him in the flesh for almost 5 years, and those who have seen him aren’t sure if what they’re looking at is Caleb. The knowledge that my brother has become a beloved memory, someone my Children only know through the stories I tell is too painful a realization.
Once all Caleb wanted was peace. When my Dad and I fought, Caleb was the one who would open the door to my room and stand without a word, waiting for me to tell him to get out. When I did, he’d come and sit on my bed and tell me that he knew I wasn’t really as mad at Dad as I said I was. He’d break into my sanctuary of self pity the same way when I fought with my Mom or Step dad, or when I was just sad. We fought, but it was Caleb who was there in the quiet of so many of my tragedies.
“Take care of each other” my Dad always said, “You’ll be all you’ve got one day.”
Drugs, drinking, and my mother, do a lot to anyone’s body and brain and my brother is no exception. He’s not the little boy he was when we played soldiers in my grandparent’s backyard and he was more concerned about the people who fell and got hurt than overtaking the other team’s fort. Now he’s at the center of fights and bitter words, when we know where he is at all. The little boy that always wanted to help, refuses to be pulled from the pit of his self inflicted turmoil and an anger that threatens to be the end of him. He’s 22 and lost, and I’m 1,000 miles away and can’t help but think that he may spend some nights wondering why I’m not coming into his room, putting my hand on his shoulder and telling him that everything is going to be alright. I can’t help but think that I’ve failed him by not taking better care, by not doing more. I wonder if he’s ever somewhere scared, convinced that he hasn’t got anyone at all.
I would give up almost anything to be able to tell him that his life will work out, or to be able fix things for him, but I can’t. The other thing that time seems to love to do is force us to live with the decisions we’ve made, as it forces us to get over the bad things that have happened to us in life that have caused us to make bad decisions. Time doesn’t stop or go back, no matter how many pictures we hold with reverent hands or how many wishes we make on dandelion seeds blown to the wind. The only thing I can give my brother is a reminder that he is loved and will always be.
“Keep going. Don’t back down. It’s going to be hard but it will be worth it.” All cliches that my Dad repeated to Caleb and I when we were having trouble in school or tired of hiking behind him up another mountain. They seem to mean so much more at the distance of 15 years when troubles are bigger than bad grades and what we were sure were wasted summer vacations. I hope they’re words that my brother remembers, stitched to carefree moments in the hot Georgia sun that seemed so ordinary when we lived them but are now where my thoughts wander when they need to dream, and where I see my brother every day.
Age hasn’t improved on our poor Christmas Frog’s flaws, and when my 4 year old ran around the tree trying to find a place near the bottom he stopped, looked at me and suggested that we try to find a place on the bookshelf for him. “He won’t fit.”
I almost relented. I spent many years trying to find a place for the trick ornament, but my Jewish husband who had never celebrated Christmas or put up a tree before, walked in from the kitchen and said, “Every ornament belongs to a branch that’s perfect for it. Don’t give up so easy.”
Callie Armstrong © 2013