“Breakable Big Brothers” by Mary Modney


I awoke with a sinking feeling that followed me all morning. It hovered over me as I brushed my teeth and slurped my Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It gnawed at me as I looked up at the photos of my big brother on the refrigerator... Michael clenching a baseball bat in his purple uniform, Michael with his arm wrapped around Mickey Mouse and another of us lounging in a pool.

Ignoring the bad feeling, I began to prep for rollerblading. The neighborhood kids were already out, flying past the window on all kinds of wheels. I didn't waste a minute.

Out in the garage, I armed myself with knee pads, elbow pads, wrist pads and a pink helmet. And somewhere in the process of strapping them all on, I noticed that my brother's skates were missing from the red wagon where we stored our gear.

My mother, hearing the heavy door close behind me, poked her head into the garage to make sure no bare joints were showing. Her face relaxed a bit when she heard the soft ripping of Velcro and saw my brown bangs smashed against my forehead.

"Is that tight enough?"

I nodded.

"Your brother is already down there."

Our steep driveway swept me all the way to the top of the cul-de-sac. I skidded to a stop. The circle was at the bottom of a steep hill. Two sidewalks framed the road like ladders to the top of a tall slide. Kids of all ages piled at the top with skateboards, rollerblades, bicycles and wagons, waiting to fly down again.

My brother Michael was one of them. His long hair flowed as he skated backward in effortless figure eights, unhindered by plastic padding. He flashed his big, buck-toothed smile to one of the older boys and flew back down the hill like a professional skier down a black diamond slope.

I admired my big brother. He knew all sorts of facts--like what planet Luke Skywalker was from in the movie "Star Wars." And he wore the coolest styles--high-top sneakers and flannel shirts. But most of all, I admired him because he looked out for me. Once, when I swam too far out in Lake Ontario, he even saved me from drowning.

My bad feeling returned. It was my turn. My toes rolled over the edge of the hill, and there was no turning back. Faster! Faster! Faster! I rolled. My wheels glided smoothly to where the hardtop leveled off. I'd made it!

"Oouuuccccccccchhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"

My head twisted around. My brother was lying on the blacktop, rocking back and forth, hugging his arm. As I inched closer, I could see the tears streaming down his hot cheeks. I looked down at him and was panicked by something strange in his bloodshot blue eyes: Fear.

It was my turn to save him. My whole body froze.

"Go get Mom! Get her! Go!"

The rest of this day is a little blurry. I can see snippets of my mother racing to the bottom of the sidewalk and bracing Michael as he walked home. She would slip between sympathy for his injury and anger over his lack of pads.

An hour later, in a dim, cramped hospital room, I watched a doctor wrap my brother's arm with a slimy white bandage that would harden into a cast. Michael's face was still red, still vulnerable.

My brother's arm eventually healed, but after that day he never stopped being fragile in my eyes. A year or so later he would be diagnosed with mental illness. But this was the day he stopped being my big brother and became someone I had to look out for.

The days of skating with the neighborhood kids became a thing of the past, just as seeing my brother during the day became a thing of the past. Daytime was now a time for sleeping, not playing. I would tiptoe past his room, careful not to wake him. Months would go by before I'd catch a glimpse him. And for those who wondered where he'd disappeared to, we'd say he "just happened to come down with something." This simply meant his manic depression had locked him in his dark room once more.

No new photos of him ever appeared on the refrigerator again.