Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Brother

On Friday, I was putting the kids' savings bonds into our fireproof safe and came across some letters and mementos that I saved from my brother, Jackson. I started to glance through everything, and was overwhelmed again with how much I miss him.

Jackson died October 26, 1996. That was almost 12 years ago. To think that 12 years has passed without him in my life is shocking and makes my heart skip a beat.

I have to tell you about him. He was the middle child. Mary is eight years older than me and Jackson was four years older. I'm the baby. Mary and I always agreed that Jackson was the favorite. He got more privileges (later curfews) and was revered in our household. It didn't help that he was a good-looking, testosterone -driven all-American boy. He excelled at almost everything he tried: football, wrestling, girls. He was popular in high school, and I grew up hearing, "Oh! You're Jackson Steele's sister?" (Like he was the Holy Grail!) I had friends in middle school who came over to my house just to hang out and catch a glimpse of my brother. Sometimes that was hard to deal with (who wants to live in someone else's shadow?) and sometimes I used it to my advantage.

I saw the attention and praise my parents lavished on Jackson, and I guess I wanted some of that too. So I made it my goal to outdo him as much as I could. I took four years of Latin in high school (just like Jackson), and tried to excel in areas he couldn't (like running for student council). One of my goals in graduating high school was to have a higher GPA than he did. I failed: he had a 3.67 and mine was 3.62. (Yes, I still remember!) I did trump him in one aspect, though - I graduated college in three years. It took him FOUR. Ha! The funny thing is that he went to West Point, (like I could compete with that!) and they don't let you graduate in less than four years.

Jackson graduated West Point and was commissioned into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was stationed at Ft. Bragg, NC and accomplished a whole new set of goals: he became a Sapper, Jumpmaster and a Ranger. Pretty cool. In August 1995, Jackson was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. It's a cancer that is more commonly found in children, and it is usually incurable. But in typical Jackson style, he refused to admit that it would kill him. He decided to take a positive mental attitude, and decided that he'd beat it. And, after all, once Jackson decided to accomplish something, it was usually a foregone conclusion that it would happen. He was just that type of guy.

Jackson went through chemo and radiation, and lost tons of weight and looked even worse than he did when he graduated Ranger school. I remember him visiting me after he first started chemo, when I met his girlfriend for the first time. He slept in my bed, and after he left there was all this hair stuck to my sheets. I felt awful for him. Here's this pretty handsome guy who was losing all of his looks. It must have been pretty discouraging for him. But, no, he made jokes about it. I have a photo of the two of us after he was first diagnosed. He's standing there looking at the camera, and smirking because he's pulled up the hem of his shorts to show his catheter bag. Ugh!

Jackson's life changed (of course) when he was diagnosed. He proposed to his girlfriend Bonnie at Thanksgiving, then they eloped just four days before my wedding. They didn't tell anyone because they said they eloped only for legal purposes, so she could make medical decisions for him and could get military benefits. They were still planning the big white wedding for November 1996. No, he didn't make it that long.

Jackson had been getting weaker and weaker throughout 1996. At the beginning of that October, he had been in the hospital and was admitted to hospice. He spent the last two weeks of his life pretty much in and out of consciousness. That's when we found out about the secret marriage, and that's when Bonnie had to finally cancel the wedding plans. Jackson died two weeks before their church wedding.

I remember getting the call from Bonnie, telling me Jackson had died. It was a Saturday morning, and I was just getting ready to shower so I could go to work (I was working weekends in TV news). The phone rang, and I answered and heard crying and the words, "He's gone." I crumpled to the ground and started sobbing. Oh, God. Tears sting my eyes now to recall it.

My entire life changed when my brother died. I think I had convinced myself that he wasn't going to die. Even the night before when Mary called and told me to get down to Georgia to see him, I wasn't totally convinced. What was I thinking? Ugh! I guess I just put too much faith in Jackson's power to overcome obstacles. His death taught me that life doesn't go as planned. One day can change it all.

So... back to the present. I came across his letters in my fireproof box, and started crying as I read them. I spent so many years of my life wanting to be noticed by Jackson. Almost as if I were one of those middle school friends who hung around hoping to be talked to by Jackson Steele. And now that time has given me 20/20 vision, I read those letters and realized something I don't think I ever realized before: he loved me. He loved me. Those letters he sent me from college and afterwards show him picking on me, only because that's what he knew how to do best. But the letters also show him letting down his guard a few times, and handing me a little bit of tenderness too. This was a guy who tried to be tough all the time, but also wrote poetry on the side.

I've always felt there was so much I left unsaid to Jackson before he died. I never told him how much I worshipped, loved and respected him. I think he knew - but there's a difference between thinking someone knows something and knowing they know because you said it. I've tried not to make that same mistake again with people I love. I got a second and a third reminder with Mom and Dad's deaths.

Those letters reminded me again how much I miss him. After 11 years, the pain has dulled and I usually only think of Jackson in nostalgic ways. But reading those letters reminded me how much I lost when he died. I lost my brother, and also all the things we had to look forward to as we matured into adult siblings (who don't beat each other up) and had babies and shared stories about the old days. Like Kenny Chesney sings, "Sometimes I wonder who you'd be today."

Now does it make sense why Dan and I named our son after my brother? Our little Jackson has big shoes to fill, although I don't expect him to be anything like my brother. I just hope to keep the memory alive.


ExtraordinaryMommy said...

This is a beautiful post. Your brother would be so proud of you and so very honored to have your sweet boy named after him. I love that picture!

Jennifer said...

It's extremely possible that I'll have to read all of your postings now...what's a girl to do?

Karen S said...

I love hearing about your brother. I had heard a lot about him before but learned new things about you and him. I love that you named your son Jackson.

Nate Hudson said...

When I first saw your blog the first thing I noticed was your son's name. In Atlanta, I never met another Jackson, but now that I have moved to south GA the name is everywhere. I don't ever hear the name spoken without thinking of your brother. Like you I never thought the cancer would take him. He was so strong physically and mentally. How could he not beat it. Where is that portrait of him?

Anonymous said...

Where is this painting???

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the comments. You really are too good to me, and make me feel so warm and fuzzy. :)

The portrait of my brother was a gift to my dad the Christmas after Jackson died. My dad's siblings had it commissioned as a surprise for him. When Dad died, my stepmother kept it for a while so Jackson could keep her company, and then I inherited it in 2006. It now hangs in my dining room.

When we had family photos taken in April this year, I suggested a photo of my son with the potrait. The photographer took a couple of different shots - one also shows little Jackson standing with his hands on big Jackson's chest. It looks pretty cool, but I like the one I posted best because my son is looking up to my brother.

Thanks for asking, y'all!

Anonymous said...

Hey Elizabeth!
I have enjoyed reading your blog. I'm glad you mentioned taking 4 years of Latin as one of your accomplishments...even if it was in my class! ;-) I loved your brother, Mom, and Dad. Yours is a special family. I hope to meet your kids one day! Love ya, Bouis

WA said...

Your post is so touching. Jackson attacked life with such a positive energy. His charisma and zest rubbed off on the people he was with. I still have letters he wrote to me when he was at West Point. I came across them the other day and was overwhelmed with emotions. I think about trips to the lake, hanging at your house, working on school projects, painting the road... the Steele Family was a huge part of my High School Years and will forever be emblazened in my memory. I am a better person for knowing and being friends with Jackson. I miss him.
Billy B

Unknown said...

I will see so much more in our Jackson now....thanks for sharingl


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