I was around three, my brother Donnie eight, when I spotted the mysterious box on the edge of our driveway. I can picture Donnie approaching it, picture his shocked face, hear him scream "Run!" as the snakes, dozens and dozens of them, poured out of the box, slithering down the sides and along the ground after us. We ran toward the backyard and Donnie shoved me up and over the chain link fence to safety before trying to save himself. I looked back and the snakes were within inches of his bare feet.
That's when I woke up.
It's amazing to me how vividly I can remember this nightmare (I won't go into all of the things I can't remember!) Even though nothing like this ever really happened (thank God!), one aspect of it is true: my brother Donnie's self-sacrificing actions...his heroic nature. I already sensed it when I was three.
He wouldn't let me tag along with him and his friends when they were headed off to do cool things like go skinny dipping at the Sand and Gravel pit or build a fort in the Field or play baseball in the Vacant Lot.
He liked to sneak up on me and sing the theme songs to "Goldfinger" (James Bond) or the television show "Weird" because he knew they both scared the stuffing out of me.
I remember a specific time when Gary Dale (two years younger than me) and I begged Donnie and Gary Dale's big brother Terry to let us tag along for something. They agreed to let us, but we had to pass a test: we had to clamp down on the end of this seedy weed with our teeth and...
...I can't remember what we were supposed to do, but I do remember Gary Dale clamping down on it (I probably talked him into going first, poor kid), and then Terry jerking the end of it hard (laughing) so that all of the seeds remained in Gary Dale's mouth.
That is, until he threw up seconds later.
And I can picture Donnie standing on the couch, laughing and screaming in mock terror during Brenda's 'Spaz Attacks', pushing me down, keeping me between him and "danger" (even though both of us knew we weren't really in danger.)
I knew that, no matter how much any of my siblings complained about how spoiled and bratty I was...no matter how much they didn't want me tagging along...they (somehow) still truly loved me and would never intentionally harm me.
...Although, Donnie did try to kill me once. It was partially justified. He had gotten in trouble for something, I can't remember what, and (bratty little sister that I was) I piped up with a "nyeh-nyeh-nee-nyeh-nyeh" to rub it in his face... then I saw the Look in his eyes.
I knew that Look. It said "I'm going to kill you!"
I turned and ran down the hall to the bathroom, screaming "Mama, Mama, Mama!"
Still screaming, I slammed and locked the bathroom door and braced myself as he pounded and pounded on it. Just as he finally broke it open, knocking me back in horror against the cabinets as his hand reached out for me, Mama arrived and pulled him back. Whew!
(Needless to say, I never said "nyeh-nyeh..." to anyone else ever again!)
Other Donnie memories...watching "The Wizard of Oz" together - he can do a perfect imitation of a Lollipop Guild kid... lying on his bed going through the toy section of the Sears catalog deciding what we wanted for Christmas ... listening to stories he made up about a talking cockroach (I can't remember the stories, but I remember my giggles.)
Donnie is the funniest person I've ever known. I love to laugh, and I've known a lot of funny people that have brought tears to my eyes and taken my breath away, but Donnie is the only one who has ever made me laugh until I actually cried.
Real tears, not just watering eyes. Actual happy-to-sad tears. It was the weirdest thing, and it happened more than once. Usually around the dinner table, of all places.
As he became a teenager, he was more often serious than silly. When he smiles, it's like sunshine has entered the room. But when he's not smiling, he can look pretty fierce. One of my friends from high school told me he never asked me out back then because he "was scared of Donnie."
He always showed he cared - for a few years I was the only one in the family he gave a Christmas present to. I always loved whatever he gave me, even the hand-me-down orange rubber motorcycle wrapped in a shoebox when I was about five...his old stereo and 45's when I was twelve (he upgraded to albums and a new stereo.)
Best of all, when I was an insecure pre-teen, I knew he would give me honest advice about clothes and boys...not tease me or laugh.
As I prepared to enter high school, he was just graduating. He gave me some advice based on his own rocky high school experience that I believe was life-changing for me: "Get involved in as much as you can so it goes by quick."
So although it was more my nature to try to blend into the woodwork, I stepped out of my comfort zone and ran for class secretary, then joined the Spanish Club and every other organization that I heard about. I'm sure it's because of him that I tried so hard and achieved as much as I did in high school, and why I have the self confidence even now to continue stepping out of my comfort zone and trying new things.
Donnie went into the Navy, went to college, married the love of his life, became a daddy. He suffered heartache, losing most of his best friends too early. And then just a few years ago, his wife Haila died suddenly, right before his eyes, probably in his arms. When Donnie loves, he loves totally, gives his whole heart, holds nothing back. It broke my heart seeing his ripped apart like that.
I thought his smile was lost forever, that he would never find joy in life again, nothing at all to smile about. I wouldn't have been surprised, but I'm glad I was wrong. I know he hasn't forgotten the pain, but he has remembered reasons to smile: his children, his dog, good memories and old friendships - and discovered new ones: two Harley Davidson motorcycles.
The smile is still rare, and it can't quite take away all of the sadness in his eyes, but even when it's hidden, I know it's there. That's what matters. Because I really do love my big brother who turned fifty-five last week.
And I love to see him smile.