Edit: I am an avid reader of Mara Wilson’s blog. Not long ago, she wrote a touching story about her brother Joel on his birthday. I loved it and as things go, it inspired me to do the same.
It has sort of become an inside joke between my brother and I that I owe him a lot of birthday gifts. He’s pretty considerate and thinks a lot about the gifts he gives to people, and I do not. I have the best intentions but I’m a shitty person so I only do whatever is within my means. Sometimes that means nothing, last year it was a painting (given three months after his birthday) and this year its…shaping up to be a blog post. That may officially be a downgrade, but I’ll leave that up to Brother to decide.
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Every year for about twelve years, my mom and maternal grandma (“Yaya”) would pack up our Aerostar van and drive us kids to Myrtle Beach for two weeks, to celebrate both of our birthdays, which were five days apart. It was a twenty-hour trip of tupperware totes filled with crossword puzzles and colouring supplies, Sing-A-Long-Kids songs and, at least one time I screamed for 4 hours of the trip before my mom pulled over to discover a crayon stuck in my diaper (it was blue, and obviously melted). We loved the trip there almost as much as we loved the days we spent in the Cadillac Court, a budget hotel located on the south side of the beach overlooking the ocean. We always rented a suite and it was outfitted with an orange pull out couch with yellow and black striped cushions, yellow cupboards and orange carpeting, but it was big with plenty of beds and a balcony that we used to watch the dolphins swim by at five am.
We loved these trips. We were pulled out of school for ten days. Half way there we’d begin sticking our arms out the van-windows to feel the “beach air”, our way of assessing how close to the beach we were. Driving into the beach core was a slew of strip-malls, palm trees and beach shops, something we romanticized to no end. I don’t know what it was about the piles of dead starfish, baby sharks in formaldehyde filled jars, tacky shell mobiles, neon RayBan knockoffs and smelly hermit crabs under fluorescent lighting, but those things had long become a nostalgic treat for me by age 8. The second we stepped foot out into that place, we felt instantly happy. Once we pulled into the parking lot of the Cadillac Court, the adults would get out to register at the front desk, giving Adam and I a chance to run down to the beach. This was more than a tradition, it just happened. A combination of being cooped up in the van for days, and the fact that this was literally our favourite place on earth sent us into an ecstatic frenzy. We’d race down the familiar boardwalk, unchanged in the twelve months it’d been since we’d last seen it, past Bobsy’s bar, past the gazebo, past Eli the janitor who seemed to always be mopping the pool deck, past the fleeing anoles on the white sanded rot, finally onto the beach, dodging washed up jellies, into the ocean to our knees (we were afraid of sharks) screaming in delight. The first day of every trip was always the best, but we’d always pay for it later that evening when we realized we were sunburnt to shit. (THANKS ALOT, MOM!)
I can’t remember any one trip in full, but at some point I remember sitting on the bench next to the beach with Yaya, while she explained she had surgery a few months before to make her better when she was sick. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me she was sick until that day, even though I knew she was, and the only reason she was telling me then was because I’d asked her about the scar on her neck. She was totally nonchalant talking about her cancer and I never got the impression it would actually take her away from me, she wasn’t afraid at all, and people who were dying were afraid. Now that I’m older I realize she was just someone who wasn’t afraid, not like me. My brother appeared after a few moments and sat behind Yaya on the bench. Our mom eventually joined us and took our photo, all of us in red. When I look at that picture now, I think of all those trips at once. I’m sure the lizard-covered bench is still standing, despite not having seen it in ten years. I have visited the Cadillac since, after dropping Adam off at UF when he was in his second year and I was sixteen. I sat on the bench, void of my Yaya and of my brother, both of whom I was missing, and thought about how much had changed. Now that I’m an adult, it feels funny to say aloud all these warm feelings about such a touristy Disney Land like Myrtle Beach, kind of like learning that the “beach smell” we’d come to love was actually the smoke of Marlboro Reds.
There’s a very specific type of pain that I feel when I think about our Yaya, one that hasn’t waned remotely over the years even though I was merely 12 when she died. I don’t know if it’s because I was so young (but not SO young), because I felt it was sudden, or because I turned down the opportunity to say goodbye, but I do know that I am lucky to have someone in my life whom I know feels that same pain of specific loss, one that hasn’t waned, and while that is merely one example, it comforts me to know my brother will always make me feel understood in a way even if no one else does. I am grateful for when I feel like thinking of her, I can share that with him.
Years later when we were in Montreal for Adam’s third and final Olympic (swimming) trials, I played him a song. It was “Ode To LA” by The Raveonettes. Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes is featured on the track, in all her smokey-voice’d glory, and once her part came on Adam looked up at me with semi-glossed eyes and he didn’t have to say anything; I knew he was thinking it too.
While the Myrtle Beach chapter is certainly closed, we still take trips. After the Olympics, he and I went off to Thailand for five days of nonsense before jetting back to North America to start our real lives: him to move to NYC, me off to school. On the day we were supposed to head home, both our credit cards maxed, we were stuck on standby at the Koh Samui airport for ten straight hours. The entire time he kept a smile on his face to the point that it annoyed me, reassuring me that we’d get on “the next one”. We finally got on “the last one”, thoroughly exhausted, and with zero help from me. I remember thinking it was hilarious that he could be in a good mood, waiting ten hours to get on a plane that was built for passengers almost half his size (on the way there he had to move to the emergency exit, his legs wouldn’t fit in the seat). I don’t know if I ever told him this, but I was so, so grateful to have him there that day. I consider myself a great traveler, until it’s time to go home and my plane is delayed indefinitely. Then, I’m an impenetrable nightmare in need of a hand to hold.
Today, he’s 31. Former Olympian, current husband + swim coach, film blogger, father of cannonball Bulldog Swampy, impressive juggler and consumer of fine bourbon & gin.
Brother, Happy Birthday. I love you, thanks for always being my best friend.