Contributed by Ann Hite
The morning I began work on this essay a large red-tailed hawk came to sit in the tree outside my office window. My urban neighborhood is just a few miles from the Atlanta city limits. The mighty bird lives on a strip of undeveloped land that separates me from a gathering of large buildings. He has a lovely speckled brown breast, and his high-pitched call can be heard throughout the neighborhood all day. The span of his wings gives me goosebumps. At fifty-six I've walked through a wide range of experiences with an array of emotions, but the event that still stops me, hits me in the gut, is the years when I lost my brother. Older sisters and baby brothers have unique relationships. Us sisters feel responsible for these guys, who most of the time do not have a clue about our deep connections to them.
The first time I saw my brother, mother held him up to a window. I was standing in the deep snow with my father outside the base hospital in Germany. The year was 1964 and the cold war raged between the United States and Russia. But I had bigger things to worry over. My brother was bright yellow.
"He's ugly." I cried. "Somebody made a mistake." Reassurance that this condition was temporary did nothing to console me. This baby had intruded into my life. Little did I know my brother and I would be survivors. Each taking separate paths.
When our father left his small family in Georgia with our grandmother, I became Jeff's protector. Mother was an undiagnosed/self-medicating bi-polar. Granny had her hands full helping Mother present a normal life to the outside world. My job was to be there for my brother whenever he needed me, making sure he ate his breakfast, dressed in clean clothes, and arrived at school on time. This went on for years until at the age of sixteen, I left home for good. My biggest regret was leaving ten-year-old Jeff behind.
After a scary few years of bad choices, partying too hard and drinking too much, Jeff settled down, found the perfect girl, and married, creating a family of his own, a way to right all the wrongs we experiences as children. He became a plumber, moved into a nice home, and had a beautiful baby daughter. Life was good for both of us. We saw each other occasionally at holidays and family birthdays. We never talked about our childhood. We even tried our best to pretend Mother was normal, an old trick of ours. It was as if none of the bad times had happened. Who said children from dysfunctional parents had to pay a price? We were successful, smart, and good-looking individuals. We beat our fate.
Jeff's daughter was seven when his son was stillborn. A devastating blow for any parent, any family. A worry knotted in my chest for him. He was distant, withdrawn, all natural. Right? This didn't mean he would go back to drinking. Did it? I watched and hoped. A year and a half later a perfectly healthy baby girl was born after a scary pregnancy. All was well, on track. Once again he had beat the odds.
When I decided to marry after being divorced for six years, Jeff gave me away. In his tuxedo he was broodingly handsome. Quiet. Off to himself. He hated dressing up and being in crowds of people, so I knew this was a gift to me. I cherished it. In my heart a knowing grew with every step I took down that aisle dressed like the princess I always wanted to be. Jeff had problems. He was struggling. The connection I had with him warned me.
I was caught up in life, dealing with a mother who only became more mentally disabled with each week. Jeff's visits became rarer. When he entered my mind, I pushed the thoughts away. We all have defining moments in our lives, those choices we wish we hadn't made. When my daughter was born, Jeff came to visit. He stood before me with a glazed look in his eyes that was similar to our mother's when she was abusing prescription drugs. My heart sank. Who was this man? Where was my brother? I could have/should have asked him what drugs he was using, insisting we do something about this. The thought of losing another family member down the dark rabbit hole of abuse sickened me, turned me angry and selfish. How could he do this to me after all we had been through? I couldn't be expected to stand by and watch him destroy himself. No.
The hawk came to visit again when I struggled with the truth of this essay. That I had no control over the past. I worked at a table on the back deck of my house. This magnificent bird landed only feet away. For several minutes he watched, as if he knew the pain I walked through as I extracted a small bit of soul. He cocked his head, spread those beautiful wings and took flight.
The next time I saw Jeff was at our mother's funeral. We didn't speak. He was lost. Gone. Only a shell of some strange soul. He walked away and I let him. That night I understood not only did I lose my mother, I had lost my brother too.
Red-tailed hawks soar in wide circles at great heights. The male dives steeply, then shoots up again at a precarious angle. He approaches the female, extends his leg, and touches her back briefly. Sometimes the two will lock talons and spiral toward the ground before pulling away just in time to gain altitude.
Five years after my mother's death, I came home to a message on my answering machine. "Jeff..."
I prepared for the worst news possible.
"Jeff would like to see you, Ann. He is afraid you are too hurt, that too much damage has been done. He's been clean of meth for two years. Would you like to speak with him?"
Native Americans believe the hawk provides wisdom, allows a vision from a higher perspective, uses the power of observation and focus to tackle the task at hand.
This is a story about a brother who got lost and a sister who loved him the best way she knew how. There is a happy ending. Today I have my brother. He's been clean for eight years. We talk several times a week. Both of us understand this gift is never to be taken for granted. That each day is a new one to be lived to the fullest. And most of all there is always hope.
Ann Hite’s debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, not only became a Townsend Prize Finalist but won Georgia Author of the Year in 2012. The Storycatcher, her second Black Mountain novel, and Lowcountry Spirit, an eBook novella, both available from Gallery Books wherever books are sold. Where The Souls Go, available in 2015, is Ann's third Black Mountain novel. Ann is an admitted book junkie with a library of over a thousand books. She lives in Smyrna, Georgia with her husband and daughter, where she allows her Appalachian characters to dictate their stories. Connect with Ann on Facebook and Twitter @annhite.