When I was little, I used to bathe my big brother, Bryan, in slobber kisses, partly because I loved him like no other (I cried inconsolably when I found out I couldn’t marry him when I grew up), partly because it pissed him off, so it was sorta like kicking him under the table, only I couldn’t get in trouble for it. I’d plant one on him in the middle of dinner, just after taking a sip of milk, because he hated it worst when I was drinking something.
“Gross!” he’d yell, wiping at the sloppy spot I left behind. (To this day, my kisses, I’m sorry to report, are legendarily sloppy.)
From his place across the table, my dad would smile and say, “Let your sister kiss you, Bry. She loves you.” He’d set a glass of milk on the roughly hewn table he’d built with his own big, cracked hands, along with almost everything in the house, and the house itself.
Bryan would glare. “But Dad, she gives slobber kisses!”
“Bryan, be nice to your sister.” Sighing, Mom would cut a hunk of homemade bread off the loaf she’d made that day, butter it, and plop it on his plate, as if that was a consolation prize for having a sister with big, slimy, nasty lips.
Smiling triumphantly, I’d kiss him again for good measure. Tawni: 10 points. Bryan: 0. Go me. Then Daddy would decide to make the whole thing into a hippie-preacher teaching moment and start singing, “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”
Despite the pleasure I took in torturing him, my brother was my best friend. Our family moved to an isolated New Mexico mountain when I was four, and only one other family lived on our side. We had no television and very few toys, as our parents wanted to encourage our imaginations to develop. We were one another’s everything. We read books together and made 1,000 piece puzzles together and dressed up in our bathing suits to become Superman and Wonder Woman. We gathered pine sap from trees to play a game called Booger Factory, which was kinda like the tooth fairy story, only we made boogers and put them in people’s noses while they slept. We caught horny toads, colored their spiny backs with crayons, and released their bedazzled asses back into the wild, secure in the knowledge that we’d recognize them next time we saw them.
The relationship between Mara and Iggy in my first novel, Beauty of the Broken, is unabashedly based on my relationship with my brilliant, other-worldly brother, though lucky for us, our parents were amazing (unlike Mara and Iggy’s), so my brother never ended up with brain damage. That scene at the end of chapter one, right before the brain damage sets in, is me and my big brother all the way. We shared a room until I was nine and we moved to a bigger house Daddy had built, where each of us got our own room. It turned out to be a pointless gesture. We slept in each other’s rooms every night anyway. I’d crawl into his bed, or he’d crawl into mine, and when we got too big for that, one of us would put a blanket on the other’s floor, and we’d fall asleep holding hands, whispering secrets.
I’m not sure what made us stop being like that. We grew up. Went to college. Got married. Had kids. And our beloved father died suddenly when we were both in our early twenties, packing us each into our respective cocoons of grief. Bryan took over pastoring the church my daddy had founded. I started following rock bands, writing things, and wandering the world. Over time, we stopped talking, except at holidays and family reunions. But I always loved him profoundly and always felt I knew the secrets of his soul the second I saw him, as if one of those bedazzled toads I’d released into the wild had come back to me.
As is my way, I dreamed him often. (Secret about Tawni. My dreams are magic. I dream the people I love, and the dreams are always, always dead on. I see what’s really happening in their lives. It’s better than Facebook. I almost never see pictures of their food.) In my dreams, my brother kept whispering his secrets to me, and though I couldn’t hold his hand, I buried them in my heart, the way the Bible says Mary buried the secrets she knew about Jesus, secrets no one would understand even if she tried to speak them, shiny things that would lose their luster and light the moment they hit real world air.
A friend one told me the root of the word mystery means “to close the mouth.” I’m sorry to report that I never bothered to find out if it was true, but true or not, I found the thought poignant, knowing there are inexplicably beautiful things in this world, things too transcendent to be spoken. So I kept my love for my brother like that, one of my most precious mysteries. I didn’t even tell him that he talked to me in my dreams, not even when I started to see something, a dark presence, stalking him, trying to kill him. Instead, I begged God, who has an uncanny way of listening to me, to save my big brother. Night after night, I scribbled Bryan’s name in the sand of my prayers, let the tide of sleep wash it away to God in the night, scribbled it again in the morning. (Maybe God has an uncanny way of listening to me because I am enormously stubborn and capable of being an epic pain in the ass. I don’t stop asking until I get what I want.)
Almost exactly a year ago, a devastating trauma drove me back home to the arms of my family. We’d all grown apart over the years, but suddenly, there I was again, a 44-year-old little girl being rocked in the arms of the people who loved me most in the world. The renewed relationships I found with them made the trauma eventually feel like a mercy. It ripped my heart out, but it gave me my beautiful family back, and they filled in the empty spaces.
During this time, my brother and I started to share secrets again, and one afternoon about a month ago, he came to me and told me what the thing I’d seen in my dreams had been. I won’t divulge his secrets. I’ll only say that his revelation brought us closer together than we had been in years, maybe than we had ever been in our lives.
Last week, he came to visit me in Phoenix, and we road tripped back home to New Mexico together, laughing and crying and secret telling and listening to music. He had a playlist of about a hundred of his favorite songs, songs that had changed him profoundly. (Don’t think they were all necessarily deep by nature. One was “My Momma’s Broken Heart.” You know the one where she gets drunk and cuts her bangs with rusty scissors? Yep. That one.) Despite our decades long distance, his songs were the same ones that had deeply impacted me, as if our hearts had been hammering out the same beat all along, space-time be damned.
Even though members of his congregation might frown on him going to a bar, my brother loved me enough to want to see the thing that matters most in the world to me, so I took him to see Roger Clyne play at a bar in Pinetop, Arizona under the stars. Bryan couldn’t stand the push and shove in the front of the stage, but he hung out in back and watched over me, making sure no one hurt me, taking in the music and the beautiful man who, even though I don’t go to concerts much anymore, I still credit with making me the woman I am today. Once upon a time, his concerts were the safest place in the world to me. I haven’t felt safe at those concerts in a long, long time, which is part of the reason I stopped going, but I felt utterly cocooned in love with my hulk of a brother watching from a few rows back.
After the show ended at midnight, we headed back to the mountain we grew up on, where Bryan still lives in the last house my daddy built with his precious hands. Bryan drove all night while I slept. He traveled 70 miles in the wrong direction, turned around, saw elk, met some pit bulls at a closed down gas station in a tiny town. I missed all this, waking to hear updates once in a while, falling to sleep again, dreamily wondering at the mercy of God who had found a way to add two life crises up to equal the reunion of a brother and sister who would never really be quite whole until they found each other again.
Yesterday was Sunday. I drove to church in my brother’s beat up Ford to hear him preach. I haven’t been much of a church goer for the last decade or so (unless you count the church of Roger Clyne), so I don’t know many of the songs people sing in church these days. Still, singing in church is one of my favorite things in the world. One lyric in particular stuck out to me, as it talked about God’s grace embracing the world with a wet, sloppy kiss. It felt so unchurchy. I loved it.
When my brother got up to preach, he explained that he had changed the lyrics to the song because God’s grace had come to him as a slobber kiss. He said if people wanted details, they should ask his little sister after the service, and aforementioned little sister almost lost it in the front row, though she refrained for the sake of her mascara. After church, I gave him the sloppiest kiss ever. This time, he didn’t complain.
My brother is the only person in my family who knows why I came running home last year. And I couldn’t change a lyric in a church song to tell him, but he is my amazing grace too, the strongest, bravest boy I ever knew. He used to dress up like Superman. As a man, he has become one. He keeps sharing his weaknesses with me, weaknesses very few people ever get to see, thinking I’m going to at some point agree with him that I am not the only black sheep in our family. Au contraire. These raw glimpses of his humanity leave me more in awe of his courage.
While we were driving, Bryan told me sometimes he thinks Dad is guiding us, calling us forward through space and time into deeper and wider loves, bigger and broader truths. I think about our daddy, who still talks to me in my dreams even through the veil of death, and I think he must be smiling right now, seeing all these slobber kisses going down, watching his little boy and little girl curl up side by side again, staring at the moon, whispering secrets. “Come on people now, smile on your brother,” he sings from his place just the other side of death, a place that life has taught me is not too far for love to reach. “Everybody get together try to love one another right now.”
We are loving one another, Daddy. Your truest legacy isn’t in those tables or houses or even in the church you built. It is in two children, a man and a woman who have endured some of life’s harshest blows to emerge on the other side still loving, still tender, but stronger. In loving us so deliberately and gently, you and Momma gave us the strength to stay soft. In our ways, we each stand as human monuments to the love you poured into us.
During that car ride, we found out my song for you was (cheesily) “Wind Beneath my Wings.” Bryan’s was “You Raise Me Up to be More Than I Can Be.” Different songs, same sentiment. After all these years, Daddy, your love still makes us fly.