My brother is a missionary. M-i-s-s-i-o-n-a-r-y. I swirled the word around in my mind and let it churn up all the latent emotions that had settled like dust on keepsakes. But I resisted the urge to put words to the tingling and clenching in my body. I just looked at the photo our grandmother emailed me of my brother Paul in traditional Hmong ceremonial garb and tried to recognize my kin. Something to connect this image to my memory of the pudgy boy with a mop of golden hair who would trail after me, believing any story I tried out on him.
The man in the photograph had our dad’s receding hairline, but he had the sharply angled Scandinavian cheekbones and deep set eyes of my mother’s side of the family. His tall, lean body was wrapped in black cloth covered by embroidered panels of the brightest oranges, pinks, and reds. The panels were edged with metallic gold thread and multicolored tassels. He was standing next to his wife, Maria. I thought, she looks more and more like her mother every time I see her. Meaning she looked rounder, heavier, louder. Her waist-length black hair had been gathered in a thick bun at the base of her neck. She was wearing a hat with strings of beads that dangled from the brim. She likes hats, I remembered.
Next to these two vaguely familiar faces, on either side, were people I didn’t know. People I assumed were locals because they wore the clothing more naturally and were about two-thirds the height of my brother. I looked at the unfamiliar, smiling faces and tried to pick out the one who had spent weeks bent over a sewing machine crafting Big-N-Tall versions of her dress for the Americans. I burned with the urge to call my mom tell her about this absurd photo. But I knew she would only fade away from me in a thick silence and spend the rest of the call thinking of him, no matter my desperate attempts to rally her attention back to me. Her loyal one. Her friend.
The Greeks went looking for patterns in nature, mathematical sequences thought to be the fingerprints of the gods. Ratios of perfect balance, like the endless spiral embedded in a rectangle. An esthetic of symmetry that was built into the church-funded monuments of Western Europe and taught in fine arts classes across America. I’d asked my professor if this golden ratio had been discovered by different cultures, like spinning yarn, or if it was just a Western concept. Nature pressed into the borders of a dogma. I was suspicious of these things now.
When he admitted he didn’t know, I could hear the disillusionment in his voice. I understood that kind of loss. To my father’s side of the family, I had become like Moses’s sister Miriam. A prophetess disgraced. They were all waiting for me ride out my affliction of corroding doubt and come back to them. But seven days past, and seven years, and finally they picked up their tents and moved on. I like to reimagine her story this way, wandering free and wild in the wilderness. But I know there would always be a part of her that would long to go back to the comfort of certainty. Before the questions formed in her mind. But knowing is not something that can be undone.
I glanced at the photo one more time and noticed something I hadn’t before. Behind the cluster of people was the plain stage of a Kingdom Hall. On the wall to the right of the simple wooden podium was a scripture printed on a vinyl banner, first in English, then in unfamiliar characters. It read, “For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, that one is my brother and sister and mother. – Matthew 12:50.”
I clicked delete.
Paul was nineteen when he married Maria. She was twenty-three. Cradle robber, I joked to friends. But not to him. He was already tucking his polos into belted khakis like a middle-aged banker. And he had such conviction in the flawlessness of his chosen mate. He played CDs of Maria singing Pop songs that sounded to me like bad karaoke, shaking his head in amazement at his good fortune. I smiled dishonestly.
Maria’s mother has always believed her litter to be the Mexican-American version of the Von Trapp Family Singers. At any gathering, the troupe would inevitably find a piano or a guitar lying around and the mother would corral the guests into a concert audience. I could only imagine what that kind of reinforcement does to a person.
“They’re good people,” Dad would remind me later when we were alone. Without prompting, I noticed.
Our mother wasn’t invited to the wedding. Sinner that she was, even her existence made our family tainted in the eyes of Maria’s mother. She relegated us to a nosebleed table at the reception, assuring us that her family had everything taken care of. She only needed Dad to play his guitar and the chosen moment. But I was determined to find an occupation. I went to stand next to the large man frantically serving cake and started handing him a paper plate for each slice. He furrowed his brow and asked who I was, like I didn’t belong there. A customer coming behind the checkout counter. I told him I was Paul’s sister. He furrowed again as he sucked a glob of frosting off the edge of his thumb. He didn’t know Paul had a sister.
After the cake-line had dwindled to staff and seconds, someone got a chair and set it in the center of the courtyard outside the reception hall and had Paul sit in it. I followed the crowd as they filtered out the door and formed a loose circle around him. Dad sat in the front row, his Martin guitar resting on his thigh. As Maria emerged from the crowd with a microphone in hand, he started to pick out the intro to “When You Say Nothing at All.” Maria’s voice rose to the first chorus, wavering ever so slightly on the high note.
Paul just sat there staring into her eyes. Adoring. Saying nothing at all.
When I was thirteen and Paul was eleven, we moved from North Idaho to the Big Island of Hawaii. We left behind the family cat and my first bike and Dad’s welding business. Dad stayed in Idaho for a couple weeks to finalize the sale of the house. When he got off the plane in Kona, the thick, floral air came at him like a plastic bag pulled over his head. He couldn’t breathe. And he couldn’t stop sweating. He thrashed about his new life in a panic of suffocation. No fragile things were safe.
Seven months later, Mom moved out. That night Dad packed us kids up in the car and took us to the McDonalds drive-through. Then he drove us to the playground by the beach and said to sit on the bench by the swing set and eat. He told us our mother wouldn’t be there when we got back. He told us she was the one who sinned. He told us about the man she worked with and how he was married, too.
Was that when it started? The centrifugal pull of our lives from each other. Paul was looking at Dad, into his eyes. Nodding. Crying. I could only look at the merry-go-round that was turning and creaking in the warm breeze and think, there will be children playing here tomorrow.
Years later Mom confessed to me that she had been shocked when I chose her and Paul stayed with Dad.
In elementary school, there were bussers and there were walkers. Paul and I were walkers. Not that we walked together. I would walk ahead, by myself, lost in thought, taking long-legged strides. I could hear the din of the kid-pack behind me. I knew Paul was somewhere in the group. Sometimes I could pick out his laughter, but I knew he wouldn’t let them laugh at me.
One day Jenna jogged up to me, hollering out to wait up. Jenna the cool girl. Jenna the Nike high-tops.
“Hey,” she said. “Is it true that Paul is your brother?”
“Yeah.” I wrinkled my brow. “Why?”
“It’s just weird. He’s so not like you.” She paused. “Hey, do you think he likes me?”
Maybe it was Paul who first saw the tiny yellow and white butterfly and called me over and pointed to it with his little grubby boy fingers. Dirt and booger fingers. But I was the one who cupped my hand over it and slid my other hand underneath it and felt the tickle of its wings against my palm. And I’m the one who gave it to him. Knowing he was a giant. Knowing his fingers were stubs that didn’t bend enough.
I made him dig the grave. He was snot-nosed bawling the whole time. He named it Buttercup.
I remember when Paul would sit at the Fisher Price keyboard, sunglasses on, head swaying, lip-syncing to Stevie Wonder. Our mom the groupie fan. A twenty-three-year-old woman clapping along to a child’s imitation a full-grown man. Me, his agent, planning future gigs.
There is a photo of me holding my newborn brother. I’m looking down at his red raisin face, my tiny hand cradling his head. I imagine our skin is grafting together. The parts of us that pressed up against her womb.
My first memory is of a wall of yarn. There were center-pull skeins in every imaginable color.
My mom always wanted two children, a boy and a girl. Chocolate and vanilla, she’d say. One of each flavor.