He was born almost 18 months to the day after I was. He came sporting the same freckles, the same pearl white skin. But his fluff of baby hair had a red tint to it, a slight curl. And, oh, his voice was deep! People used to stare at my brother, Ted, as he romped across the playground thinking he was so big. It was his manner, that wide-eyed, mischievous, mud-pie-making grin that he plastered all over his freckled face, that disarmed people. He looked like the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting: an entirely American boy ready to play, to get grass stains.
But sometimes he did cry. And when he cried, he howled! I used to kneel next to his baby rocker and tuck him under the chin with my finger, mimicking our mom, and say, 'What'sa mattah, Teeeeeeed?' in my high, big-sister voice. Not that this always worked, but it made the grown-ups laugh, and it's a good memory.
I loved my little brother. We stuck up for each other. On the playground a boy in my grade poked me until I cried. Ted, little Ted, ran up and wrapped his chubby arms around the bully, picking him up into the air and dropping him on the ground. When both of us were hauled into the Principal's office, we stood our ground. It's a sibling thing. Later on, much later, when bullies were actually mean, when Ted's ears stuck out and his feet were too big, clunking around at the end of his long, skinny legs, I was able to do the same for him. Nobody was going to mess with my brother.
I'll never know him as I did so long ago, when I sang him to sleep after a scary movie, or when I told him stories, or when I pretended to count and name each of his freckles, or when we'd play football one-on-one in the parking lot (Dad was permanent QB). Ted had these giant hands, always. And Dad coached him to catch the ball softly, cradling it and bringing it home to rest under his arm, safe from me. I think of these times and I smile because a brother's love is a strange, beautiful thing.
He called me ugly, stupid, mean, rotten. He hit me, hid from me, tattled on me, hated me. But I did all that to him, too, and sometimes more. I could talk faster. I could think of more things to say. It was later, after the fight had died down, and we became friends again, that love shone. We danced together. I made him dance with me. But secretly he liked to pick me up and twirl me like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We imagined. I made up a game and he would pretend to be anything I needed him to be. We raced. I ran faster. He ran further. Though you could not meet two people more opposite than we, deep down ran that same love that will be there, red like blood and strong like steel, until the day we die.
Everyone goes through an awkward phase. Ted's lasted a while, but he grew into his feet and his ears, ditched his glasses and embraced his freckles. My friends all had crushes on him at one time or another. He was my best friend's first kiss, something I was conflicted about. It happened in my parents' hot tub, too. Thank God I didn't actually have to see it. The Ya-Ya he didn't kiss, he did take to junior prom a couple of years later. We're a tight knit bunch. How do we not feel weird about all this? You've got me.
School didn't click with Ted the way it did with me. Academic achievement wasn't his goal, nor was it a byproduct of his choices during high school. And when graduation came and he scraped by, you'd never have guessed it. In his vibrant green cap and gown, holding his diploma, he was proud. Relieved, too, of course. But proud. We have one particular picture of Ted, after graduation, with his best friend, Don. They are cheering and laughing at the same time, bellowing like the Marines they were both destined to become. When Mom snapped that photo she caught a glimpse of Ted without trouble or confusion or the lack of options. In that second he was poised for absolute joy.
The rest of Ted's life so far is too entwined with the Marine corps for me to understand. Much of it has been kept from me. I'm sheltered. After a year on a tour in Japan and in the Philippines, where Ted rose to the challenges he faced and literally fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless, my brother learned about manhood. The control of the military grated on him, though. He longed for home. History was being made, however, and after a short leave he was shipped to Iraq. I knew vaguely that he drove any and every vehicle on his base. He transported troops and supplies, food and oil, across vast stretches of dangerous territory.
My brother has seen men die. I can't wrap my head around that. When I look in his eyes I know that he has seen more than I could ever have feared seeing, he knows more of suffering and pain and conquest. Yet he doesn't understand it. There is still a boyish innocence there, behind those big blue eyes of his. All he has seen has not quite been able to harden the hope I knew when we were children. There must, he believes, be a reason for it all.
We've come quite a ways from our games of hide-and-seek in Newark. Along the way we lost touch. Not just after he joined the Marines. It was before. When I chose my path, he took a completely different one. In my worst moments I have screamed at my brother, telling him that he chose wrong. Choose again! I implore him. You'll see I'm right. But really, when my loudness and self-righteousness took over, when I screamed, I was really just calling for my little brother. Follow me. Everything will work if you come this way. And if you don't, I can't protect you.
While Ted was in Japan, I met and fell in love with Jon. While Ted was in Iraq, I got engaged and then married. I sent him pictures and letters, of course. I thought of him, too, on that day. And while I was getting my hair done that lovely morning, Ted called me. I cried as we spoke. Because every conversation we had while he was over there had an element of desperation in it. This, I knew, we all knew, could be it. More than anything I just wanted my brother home, safe, to meet my husband and be my brother. Simple things.
Tomorrow, September 29, 2005, Corporal Theodore Edward Pancoast will be 21 years old. He is currently stationed at 29 Palms in Southern California. May God bless and keep my brother.