My Oldest Brother Is Younger Than Me Now

Memorial Day feels different when you’re actually mourning a veteran

Image by Vivian McInerny of Fort Snelling cemetery

My oldest brother is much younger than I.

He was 19 years old when he was killed in Vietnam. I was 13. At the time I felt the sorrow was too much to bear and I would crumble. But here I am five decades later, standing on the precipice of old age while my big brother remains forever young.

My perspective has changed a thousand ways since 1970. Things happened that I could never have imagined possible. For one, I met a man who befriended my brother in the army. That contact eventually led to a score of others who fought alongside my brother. I’ve phone-cried with the commanding officer who wrote the letter to my parents. I’ve exchanged emails with medal of honor recipient Peter C. Lemon, who received the award for his heroic actions in the same rare hand-to-hand combat that vanished my brother. I find some comfort in these tenuous threads.

When we five remaining siblings get together, we share goofy childhood stories that include our missing brother. Our parents, who have outlived their firstborn by 50 years, try to imagine what kind of man he might have become. I find myself missing my brother at random times and also during designated mourning days like this weekend. Memorial Day was specifically created to remind us to honor those who died while serving in the armed forces. The holiday has morphed into a weekend of shopping discounts and barbecues. Call me un-American. I’ve never been big on barbecue.

I try my best to maintain respect for those whose proclamations of patriotism seem to me so ill-informed as to be deliberately stubbornly stupid.

Obviously, I fail.

Finding common ground is difficult so I’m trying to use this federal holiday to remind myself of our most fundamental commonality: mortality. Once upon a time, we were united in death and taxes but it’s clear now that some people have finagled their way out of paying taxes. To date, none have managed to scam death.

Yet most people deal with it like a character in an old movie: Fuhgedaboudit!

Maybe losing a loved one when I was so young left a permanent mark like a physical scar that I cannot ignore. Maybe it created a different kind of wrinkle in my still malleable young brain that changed the way I viewed the world and my time in it. I’ve spent most of my life grappling with the inevitability of death. Like an eternal version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, my thoughts continually loop through a mix of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of death, over and over again.

When I first neared the age my brother was when he died, I wallowed in a classic existential crisis. Why was I here? What was the point? What was the reason for any of this? And by “this” I meant absolutely everything from war, famine, humans, the Earth, the stars, the universe, and beyond. Even the stuff beyond the beyond that we didn’t know for sure existed, I wondered why we hypothesized its existence. Surely, the hormonal rush of adolescence added to the particular hot mess that was my interior dialog. The religion of my youth fell short on answers. It seemed to offer only a stay-within-the-lines coloring book when I suspected an infinite canvas was available. I rejected the one but had no idea how to access the other.

A gnawing restlessness crawled up from the hollow of my bones through the layers of my skin like an itch I couldn’t scratch. The only thing I knew for certain about life was that it would end, sometimes abruptly and at a tender age. I became determined to live life fully. I did things wonderful and terrible. I reached for the heavens and raised hell. I saved every penny I earned at the mall and a few weeks after my 18th birthday took off to see the world in search of something I couldn’t begin to define but was sure was out there and urgently needed.

I can’t say I found what I was looking for, only that I will never stop searching.

Whether or not we are out flipping burgers with friends and family this weekend, I hope we can pause long enough to consider those who died in war. But please, do not exalt them. Worshipping the fallen soldiers glamorizes combat and puts a mawkish Hollywood sheen on the horrors of war.

I choose to remember my brother as he once was: a paperboy, an altar boy, a boy all of 19 years old when he died in service to this country.

Career journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and life-long spirit-quester.

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