Out-aging my big brother

This week marks 12 years since my big brother David died. David was born 12 years before me. I’m now the same age he was when he fell 200 feet while hiking in the Colorado mountains: 47 years old, 47 years young. It’s weird enough being his age. But, next year, it will be 13 long years without him, and I’ll be older than he ever was. This all seems like very bad math.

I’m the baby of four, and the only girl. You might think I had a pack of boys defending me at every turn, but it was really David who did that. He once told me, after we admitted to each other that we didn’t want to have kids of our own, “You were my baby.”

David babysat me a ton when we were growing up, which was during his teenage years, when he probably would have preferred partying with his friends. Feeding, bathing, and diapering a little sister was not a predictable source of nighttime fun. But he lovingly swore that it had been.

Once I could do those things myself, he continued to look out for me with advice, love, encouragement, money. I’ve missed his protection all these years, both real and imagined. Sometimes, though, I’ve felt it.

Last Thursday was the official anniversary of David’s death. At 2:30 that morning, a crack louder than I think I’ve ever heard shocked me awake. I realized it was raining, and decided I had simply heard an exceptionally dramatic clap of thunder.

In the daylight, my husband discovered the real source: a Norwegian pine on the property line between us and our neighbors had been struck by lightning. A many-feet-long strip of bark had been sheared off one side, along with small branches and startlingly big chunks of wood, all of which had been violently strewn across both properties — including through the neighbors’ window — and as far as the yard across the street, easily 100 feet away.

Foggy with tiredness, I realized the wifi had been blown with the event, eliminating my ability to work at home, so I hustled to my office for the day. I thought about David between meetings, emails, commuting, and my evening Zoom cocktail hour (wifi restored), but surprised myself by never feeling very emotional about the significance of the day. 

The pine is enormous, taller by far than both of our three-story houses, its trunk maybe four feet in diameter. It seemed only affected on the one side, and I felt sure it would be fine. I even referred to it, absurdly, as “a total badass of a tree.”

Then I read that lightning can be as scorching as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (five times hotter than the surface of the sun.). “Wow! It’s as if Thor himself were throwing bolts from the sky!” my step sister said when I told her. Apparently, strikes like this make the sap in a tree boil on contact. The arborist confirmed what we didn’t want to hear: that the magnificent giant was deeply injured by the event and is now a serious risk; it has to be cut down.

My delayed emotions were already catching up with me, and the news about our beautiful shared shade-offering, nest-accommodating, pine-cone-laden tree was a gut punch. After I cried a long time over my old and new losses, I realized with sincere gratitude that the decades-old tree took a fatal hit for all of us. And it was hard not to consider the fact that the timing was kind of mystical.

Even my husband, who is more skeptical than I, said it was odd to have happened on September 3, a date with such heft for me. Though it requires the silliness of essentially envisioning David up in the clouds with Thor, I realized after the lightning strike that I did feel a sense of protection from my big brother — real or imagined.

Part of what seems so wrong about out-aging David is that it’s impossible to stay the baby if I’m older than him. It flips the proper order of things on its head. Which is likely why, just in recent years, I’ve started to believe in signs. Because I still need him looking out for me, somehow.

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