July, Siblings, "Family" and Gratitude

July is finally over. A month that brings bittersweet memories, much reflection and a guilt free opportunity to take a stroll down memory lane. In July, I practice being grateful with all my heart. I visit all the people that are most important to me, and make sure they know I love them. I visit my memories yet consciously work on not being so blinded by what has happened and what I’ve lost that I lose sight of what’s in front of me. I celebrate. I hope to one day live all twelve months with this kind of open heartedness, but what can I say...I’m a work in progress. Being grateful is difficult, and I find it to be one of my less traveled roads. It’s a lot of work, and self work, is the hardest. Baby steps. But, here I am, climbing  onto my soapbox of victory to shout to the universe, “Look at me - I’m grateful - and I survived another July." July, historically, has also been self portrait month...

But this year, after a hike into
 "location territory", I said f*ck it...
I'd rather do this instead. So I did,
without guilt, as I pondered July.

I remember when we were kids, Dustin and I, we would stay up and watch scary movies. Waiting on purpose for it to get super dark, just to up the spook factor. We would get ourselves so scared that if one of us had to pee, we would ask the other to stand by the bathroom door to keep watch. Just incase. (Side note: We lived in a real creepy house, where spooky shit would happen all the time. No kidding.) It was such a comfort to know that you had your sibling keeping watch. Lame, I know. But it was what we did. During the dark times, figurative and literal, one of us was always waiting by the door. Indoors or out, no matter the circumstance or activity. Be it camping, hiking, walking the mall, going to the movies, fishing, hunting (I know! I’m sorry fellow veterinary friends...it was a different time!) and even in our own house...we were each others protector. An act of solidarity. We had each others backs. Who knew that being the watch dog for a bladder emptying sibling held such weight?! Dustin was very protective of me for a younger brother...and I miss that, terribly. Having someone in my life that no matter what, was going to be on my side. Make sure I was ok. Always had my best interests at heart. (Now, before you start hearing a tiny violin screeching in the background, let me tell you that this isn’t that kind of post. It’s not about what I’ve lost, it’s about what I have. This is actually about gratitude, but sometimes you have to wade in over the mud and rocks to get to that place that’s fit for swimming.) It’s been 12 years since Dustin died, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about him, miss him and wish he were here. I wonder about what kind of person Dustin would be today, what he would be doing. If he would have a family, kids. I wonder as a full grown adult, if he would still want to hang out with me, still be relentless in his quest for frequent hugs, hold my hand  sometimes and sit real close to me on the couch while sharing blankets for late night movie marathons. When life quiets down, and I have time to wonder, this is always the first place my mind visits. 

Family is what you make it, and who you make it. My life has been teaching me this all along, but it rings more true the older I get. We all get to choose who we let in, what roles they will play in our lives and us in theirs. The level and duration of the relationship are all decisions to be made. Dustin and I had a surrogate family. A family that we made many memories with. No more or less important than our own family, just separate. It was my very first lesson in choosing family, or having them choose you, and how it really works. It meant a lot to both of us to have those people in our lives, and it still means so much to me. Whenever I get a chance to spend time with them, I run! It’s like a little piece of home in a way. The fond memories I have of how much they did for us floods my heart. I am so very grateful that they were there, and were willing to accept not only me, but my little brother as well. We were a package deal, and they were good people. Back then, it was amazing to me that people like that existed. But now, all these years later, I realize I have been lucky enough to meet folks of a similar caliber throughout all the turns my life has taken. These are people that I have added to my heart and life, and so my family grows. Anyway, that passing thought turned into a long sappy ass side story that I’m not sure ever landed squarely on its feet. The point is, I am glad they were there to teach us the things they did and to allow Dustin to experience some of the things that he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. This IS about gratitude after all, right?! And I can’t think about the course of things without thinking about them, the kindness and generosity they showed and the lessons that were learned on what constitutes family. 

Blah, blah. Ramble, ramble. How do you encompass a lifetime of memories, a heart heavy with loss and a spirit light with love and gratitude in one blog post? I’m not sure. I  don’t think it can be done. But yet somehow I feel obligated to try. I almost feel like I have to, to be respectful and fully aware of what I have.  A yearly tradition of showing my love and appreciation for having been blessed with such an amazing brother. Now, I’m fully aware that my human nature is to romanticize the past, view my memories through rose colored glasses and all that shit. But I remember very clearly that it wasn’t all glitter and rainbows. Trust me. Dustin and I fought, hard. We threw punches, ruined each others stuff, did terrible things to each other. But as dramatic as our fighting could be, our love for each other held the same kind of intensity. You name it, we went through it...together. For as long as I live, I’ll wish we could have gone through some grown up stuff together too. It’s a delicate balance, the memories of the past and the actuality of the present. 

I can’t write this blog about celebrating survival and family, blood or otherwise, and not mention Andrew. I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful step brother in my life. In fact, the “step” has just fallen away, years ago. I owe a large part of my healing, recovery and present happiness to Andrew. He has helped to fill that spot in my life and heart that Dustin filled for so long. It’s not about replacement or taking over where someone else left off...it’s more like an expansion of my actual heart muscle that has allowed me to embrace our relationship and it’s importance to me. My mom brought David into our lives so many years ago, and he brought his children. It wasn’t a perfect fit in the beginning, and there was plenty of disgruntled kids at times, myself included. But I could not be more grateful for the relationship that Andrew and I have built out of our merged families. I am so proud of him, and what he has accomplished. I get excited when I think about his future, and what he will make of it. Proud actually doesn’t begin to describe my feelings when I think back to Andrew at 3, and Andrew today. He has taught me so much over the years, and I can only hope I have done the same for him. Most importantly, he has shown me that my heart is big enough to cherish what’s gone and embrace what’s here at the same time. It’s our several times a week phone calls and random texts that often times keep me going! Now...I don’t know if Andrew would stand outside the bathroom door, just to make sure I was safe, but I think that I’ll ask him the next time he comes home! 

As I’m getting real close to wrapping this up (I know right?! When will it end?) I can’t help but think about a sibling relationship that I was fortunate enough to witness recently. One that made a lasting affect on me, moreover helped me see that I may already be where I’ve been trying to go. Make sense? Don’t worry, it doesn’t really to me either, but I’m running with it. Being in the presence of these two adult brothers, well, it melted my heart. The connection was powerful, the embraces emotional. Their laughter was hardy, abundant and unpredictable. The jabs came just as swiftly as their heartfelt smiles. It was so clear that they really loved each other, and that no matter the situation, if they were together...shit was going to be all right. They’d make sure of it. One of these brothers is a friend of mine. A good friend, you know, one of my people. Someone I have known for years and years, yet have never seen this side of. I wasn’t surprised by his kindness, I have known him for a real long time remember, but more in awe at how much richer his life is than I had thought. I found myself observing from a place of longing and sadness, feet firmly planted in anger and jealousy. But only for a moment. I do have this. I had it then and I have it now. What I had with Dustin doesn’t cease to exist because he’s physically gone. It’s still here, with me, and tangible. It’s just private, as it lives in my memory and heart. The relationship Andrew and I have built is just as real, and it’s happening now. We have made each other family, and that counts. 

I’m grateful that my “can’t see the forest for the trees” days are getting less frequent! 


Twenty Nine

“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, 
even when the people in it do.”  - Andy Warhol

Birthday’s were the best when you were a kid, not just another mile marker in the passing of time like they are today, but a real celebration. I mean seriously, what ever happened to party hats?! A goal of sorts, one step closer to being “big” and “grown up”. Obviously MY birthday was (read: still is) my favorite, but Dustin’s was always pretty awesome too. It was kind of like the spring board into the official summer. June 15th. School was out, the days were just starting to get hot. It was the first outdoor party of the season, nothing but twelve hour days of fort building, dirt digging, camping and the river ahead! Good times. Joy was abundant. 
I take myself here, every year, and for a few moments the weight of being big and grown up is lifted. I can feel the paint of the picnic table, warm and sticky from the sun, beneath my legs. The air smelling sweetly of fresh cut grass and sugar, the cake heavy in my hands. Clearly, I can hear the sounds of wrapping paper and innocent laughter. My insides are alive with excitement...this is such a big deal, a first birthday! My heart swells and I feel joy. It’s real. For a moment, I am truly present, in the past. 
Seventeen. The number of times we got to start the summer off with a party, carrying with us only wishful anticipation of what the next few months would bring. Summer’s are different now, the loads are heavier. The memories, feel heavier. I still celebrate, just differently. I lay down everything inside of me that’s ugly and angry and hurt, and I am grateful. Grateful to have been blessed with such an amazing little brother and for the lifetime of memories that I hold so sacred in my heart. No hate or anger, not on this day. On this day, I celebrate. I celebrate a life that brought much love and joy into this world, especially mine.  
Twelve. The number of times I’ve circled the sun, to return here, to this day, to this photo, to this moment. It’s with arms wide open, speaking in exclamations that I celebrate his life, and all he brought to mine. So, with all the courage and faith I can gather...I am grateful.
Until the otherside, Dustin, all my love...


Ponytails, photos and promises.

Things have been rough, for a while, REAL rough. I was needing something that only one of my very best, and oldest friends could provide. To be hugged. Really hugged. The kind of hug that can only come from someone who knows you, knows your story, knows your flaws (and in my case, knows I’m crazy)...and chooses to love you regardless and without familial obligation. This long weekend away from my real life and problems was perfect. I got everything I went for, and more. I met some great people, people that I hope to someday call friends, and spent some much needed time catching up with one of my best. It was fun, comfortable, easy and sadly, it was over. I thought.
Three SOLID days of knocking back adult beverages containing, what I truly believe in my heart to be the sweet nectar of Idaho’s soul - in fact I’m certain it is the very liquid that cuts it’s way through the twists and turns of the Snake River (It’s huckleberry vodka, people. 44 North. Huckleberry Vodka!), I board a teensy remote controlled plane for the flight home. 
Row 20, seat A. Ugh. Seriously?! I’m finding it hard to believe this thing has 20 rows as I make my way down the aisle. Perfect, row 20 seat B is being occupied by a single mother who looks like she has recently partied much harder than myself and is trying to restrain a jumping infant on her lap that is screaming bloody hell from underneath it’s little, red, illness encrusted face. It’s gonna be a long hour I’m thinking. After a quick round of Twister, I am seated and trying desperately to act like I have no idea that spitty animal crackers are being thrown at me. Those of you that know me well, know this is going to be a problem. Anesthetic emergency, bring it. Screaming child, I’m out. A few minutes go by, and a flight attendant shows up to let this desperate young mother next to me know that the two seats in front of us will not be filled, and she and her monster baby can relocate if they so choose. EXCELLENT! Now, I’m thinking, I can catch a quick nap and sober up a bit before we land. I slouch down, put my sunglasses on and shut my eyes. A few seconds later I hear this: “Perfect, why don’t you sit right here so I can keep a close eye on you. Can you show me how to buckle your seat belt? Good job. Can you show me how to unbuckle your seat belt? That's great. I’ll check on you in a bit”. Not so much as a sound mumbled by my new seat partner. Eyes still shut, having no idea what kind of company I’m keeping (and frankly not caring...I mean, I haven’t been hit with anything edible yet best I can tell, so I’m good) I reach up and pull out the rubber band that’s been holding up my messy, tangled hair and really get settled in. I can feel the relentless stare of my new seat buddy, but refuse to give in, open my eyes and commence idol chit chat about nothing in particular that will inevitably prolong my planned nap. Then, I hear this tiny but confident voice say: “It looked better in a ponytail.”
Instantly hysterical with laughter, I pull off my shades and sit up to get a look at this bold traveler. To my right, is quite possibly the cutest little man I have ever met. Excuse me, I say, still smiling in disbelief. “Your hair, it looks better up”, and the best hour of my mini vacation starts here...
Meet Roman. 

We exchange our obligatory hello’s, as polite travelers do, and sit in silence for a few minutes. He tells me his name, and how to spell it. I tell him mine, and let him know that my friends just call me B. He admits that he might forget Brandy, but can remember B. “Can I call you B” Roman asks, huge brown eyes unblinking with anticipation. Sure, I say, I guess that’ll be OK. Big smiles and more silence. Turns out this little home slice is 6 years old, and is flying solo, home from a spring break vacation.
I’m turning off my phone as we are heading down the run way when he asks me, “Can you take pictures on that?” (Sigh. A man after my own heart.) Sure can, I say. “Can we take ours?” Of course, I respond...and hold my breath as I hand my iPhone over to a tiny kid I don’t know. He asks for help to get us both in the shot, short little kid arms are a bummer. Reverse viewfinder on, we take our first photo.

  “Can you put your hair back in the pony tail for the next one”, Roman says. He’s totally serious. He’s too cute, I can’t resist. I do it, but I ask questions. When I asked him why I needed a pony tail, he started cracking up...in that little kid sort of way where even if the topic of laughter is not funny...you start laughing too. He makes his hands go all squirly around his head and through squeaks of laughter tells me, “It’s all big, and messy”. OK, fair enough. I didn’t think I boarded this plane looking like an African bush woman, but I do smell strongly of camp fire and have mud on my pants...so perhaps I do. He asks for another photo, a “crazy one this time”. 
This might be a good time to mention Green Lantern. Roman never travels alone, he tells me. “It’s always best to travel with someone, and I like to travel with Green Lantern”. Hmm, I say, that sounds like a pretty solid plan to me. “Which Green Lantern is your favorite? The old one, or the new one?” Roman asks. (Quick Brandy, think on your feet... A) Who the hell is Green Lantern and B) How much can I make up before this kid is on to me) Umm, well, I think the classic is hard to beat. But personally, I’m a fan of the new one. Whew, I’m thinking. Passed that test with a cool edge and flying colors! I do look like a rock star after all, how could I go wrong? “You don’t know who he is do you?” Roman asked. Awkward silence, followed by a brief yet informative overview to get me up to speed. “If you don’t have anyone to travel with, you should travel with Green Lantern too. I’m pretty sure if you go to McDonald's you can get one...even if you order big people food”. OK, I say, I will. “Promise?”, says Roman. Promise, I say.
Our conversation flowed easily and the photos kept snapping. 362 of them to be exact. 

Roman had been in Idaho, visiting his father and family. He is bringing home a bunch of new DVD’s in his tiny Disney suitcase that he’s been trying to keep a visual on the entire time. He has one brother, Collin, who is also 6 years old. They are not twins. He has one small dog named Soft Paw. What kind of dog? “Brown and black”, Roman says, “with short hair”. Roman’s favorite color is blue, and he is left handed. Roman tells me that he’s “pretty tough, and not afraid to fly alone”. Take off is his favorite part, I learned, as he squealed with excitement as we lifted off the runway. 
“Take a picture of me looking scary, I can’t get a good one” I’m ordered.

Roman was satisfied with this one.

We talk about everything from Scooby Doo, sports, school, my job, what I was doing in Idaho (read: rapid fire questions from Roman) to velcro closure Iron Man shoes and zip up Uggs. I’M IN LOVE! If this kid were in the lost and found, I’d be taking him home! We take a break from our question and answer session when Roman asks me to help him make a jet pack for Green Lantern and eat some pretzels. 
I know what you’re thinking...but it really ISN’T a straw...it’s a jet pack. 
Roman completes a thorough photographic archive of our surroundings, and gets me laughing hysterically again with his persistence to photograph a reluctant flight attendant. 
He thought she was tall, really tall, and wanted to take her photo. She politely refused, but smiled anyway. Lucky for Roman, he is a quick draw on the shutter, and was able to get the following shot.
(She was quite a bit taller from Roman’s perspective)
Pleased with his journalistic documentation of others, Roman turned the camera back on himself for another twenty minutes of self portraits.

Before I knew it, nearly an hour had passed. My hangover headache was nowhere to be found, and my cheeks hurt from laughing. I found myself wishing the flight were a little bit longer. As we prepared for landing, one of the flight attendants approached me with some kind of carbon copy document and a pen, stating without emotion, “I need you to fill this out”. When I asked her what it was, she only repeated herself. I reached for the form, totally confused and wondering if she thought I was some kind of creeper trying to steal a kid from the plane. Clearly having seen this type of panic stricken look before and recognizing my worry, she informs me that “most people, when seated by an unaccompanied minor, try to be invisible and never say a word. You really went out of your way to help him out and make his trip enjoyable. I’d like to offer you a 50% discount on your next round trip ticket”. (What?! Roman made MY trip enjoyable, I’m thinking!) Almost offended at the thought of being rewarded for such a great flight, I declined. Twice. Apparently, you do not argue with a flight attendant, no matter the reason. I had just won, twice, in the same hour!
I waited until the plane was completely empty, before helping Roman get his bags and exit the plane. We ended our friendship with an exploding fist bump on the tarmac and went our separate ways. Though, I found myself walking slowing, and looking over my shoulder to make sure Roman was safely near his chaperon flight attendant as they made their way into the airport. Feeling joyful and somehow kind of sad at the end of our encounter, I commit to walking forward trusting the airport staff to reunite my buddy with his awaiting family. 
“B”, I hear shouted with exclamation from behind me. I turn to look and see Roman, waving wildly and trying his best to shout over the crowd now separating us. “Don’t forget to travel with Green Lantern”, he says. I wont, you take care Roman...I shout back as I turn away for the last time. 75 minutes and 362 photos later, I am certain, we are BEST friends.
How is a pretty standard one hour flight blog worthy? When it reminds me that I get to choose how I experience everything. I was so close to being one of “those” passengers, the kind that ignores kids (or anyone for that matter) and anticipates landing so I can get the hell out of there. I actually am that passenger. But, on this particular day, I chose something different and it changed something for me. Now, again, for those of you that know me...or are paid to read this blog (Aunt Barb, your check is in the mail, PROMISE!) don't freak out. There are still no babies in my future, ever. I mean, they’re great and all, but no. Besides, I have been blessed with the two best nephews ever (Thank you M and C!) and am anxiously awaiting my first niece (Thank you A!). That’s plenty of kids for me to practice liking! Sorry mom, it’s still a lifetime of grand dogs for you! I think what changed for me, was the ability to recognize a few moments of joy from a place I wouldn’t normally expect it, and to truly be grateful for the experience. 

As I promised.