All We Had

by Grace Dearnley

     At my mother’s third wedding, sometime between the cutting of the decadent four-tiered cake and the final farewell to the bride and groom, my brother and I, inexcusably wasted for the ages we were, decided to jump on stage with the band and perform our familiar A-Capella routine of Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back.” Somewhere deep in the archives of Facebook, there’s a shaky video of the spectacle, taken lovingly by my gray-haired Uncle Al while various family members literally hoot and holler their support in the background. For reasons that, to this day, I still fail to comprehend, my mother and step-father allowed this to occur which, I guess, says a great deal about my family.

Every detail I can muster up about the evening is tinted with the soft blur and general euphoria that come with too many vodka shots. From what I can remember, my brother, who was equally as drunk as I was, if not more, decided that the worn-out routine our family had been so used to seeing at each obligatory holiday gathering needed to be presented, right then and there, to all 250 guests. Our audience included, but was not limited to, my mother and step-father’s colleagues, friends, close family, long lost cousins, nosy neighbors, small town acquaintances, and even our catholic priest.

            I don’t know how my brother, James, and I ended up so confidently on stage having hushed the band and stolen their spotlight. I do know that once I was up there, no matter how many of my instincts were telling me that this was not the time nor the place for such a show, I had to go all in. With my brother hopefully looking at me, so anxious to begin what was, truly, an epic performance, I made my best bimbo voice and started the routine we’d been performing since we were kids, “Oh my GOD Becky, LOOK at her butt. It is SO big!!”

Almost five years later I still cringe at that night. I wish that, upon recalling the memory, I could blush and bashfully say, “Oh, I can’t believe I did that.” If I’m being honest, I absolutely can believe I did that. If I’d made a highlight reel of the evening, it would show me and my best friend Hannah getting absolutely wrecked by the catering manager for trying to use the decorative ice-sculpture as a luge for the bottle of tequila we sweet talked from the bartender, my brother running around with a toilet seat around his neck, and my mother and step-father’s respective best friends hooking up in the yard. It sounds trashy, and it definitely was, but when looking at the pictures, I guarantee anyone would stare in awe and be forced to reluctantly commend us for turning such a beautiful event into anarchy in just a matter of hours.

My family has always been a little bit wild. My big brother and I, only eighteen months apart, grew up fervently exploring the world around us and viciously fighting one another to find our own places in it. We grew up in constant motion, moving from state to state every few years and house to house every other week. Our parents divorced when we were five and six, leaving us two as the only part of the family still fully glued together. This would have been fine if it weren’t for the extreme love-hate relationship my brother and I shared. Our lives growing up were really good, littered with front yard mud brawls, sandy football games on the beach, hours spent on bikes terrorizing the neighborhood with our rambunctious friends, and days spent from dusk to dawn rummaging around the woods for pet crawdads and teepee-building supplies. When I think back to that time, every memory I have is bathed in a sort of golden halo, making me miss the adventurous childhood that now I seem so far removed from. Growing up, I remember often feeling slighted by the universe I inhabited, in which my family and I were the planets revolving around James, the sun. Now, I wish that was the only complaint I still had about the world; I wish I could run back and dive into my grandmother’s bright blue pool, the water washing away the real world as I plunge back into my years of childhood innocence.

As we got older, and we both found ourselves incredibly at odds with our individual situations in the world, our not-so-serious spats here and there morphed into a true and genuine hatred for each other. I hated James because I felt like everything was always about him and his behavioral issues. What meds was he on now? How was he doing in school? Had he finally made some “normal” friends? James hated me because no matter what he did right, he felt like he was never as good as me in the eyes of our parents. Why couldn’t he do as well in school as me? How come I was great at making friends, but he wasn’t? We were raised the same way, weren’t we?

Over the years, James’ world of adventure and freedom deteriorated. With just a few years and, in my parents’ defense, a lot of mistakes, he found himself trapped in a monotonous rotation of mental institutions and juvenile detention centers. With every mistake he made, there was a crowd made up of family, therapists, teachers, neighbors, waiting to make him feel like shit about it. If it takes a village to raise a child, all the villagers end up thinking they deserve to voice their opinions on him. It’s like my family and our surroundings created a kind of positive feedback loop for him. The worse the thing he did, the worse they made him feel about himself, the less he cared, the worse the next thing he did was. The truth is that instead of loving James unconditionally, instead of accepting and nurturing the wild thing he was, they just wanted to mold him into their idea of a man, which only instilled in him a sense of inadequacy that tore him up from the inside out, clawing at his soul with talons forged from fear.

With rumors that ripped reputations to shreds and fist fights that left both our soft bodies and hard egos bruised, my feelings towards my big brother festered into a state of active hatred. For a few years I couldn’t even be in the same room as him, refused to share a car with him, loathed my parents for his presence in my world. I was so damaged from the ways his mistakes oozed out of his life and infected mine that I couldn’t differentiate him from the hurt he’d caused me. Through all of this, interestingly enough, we always did our A-Cappella routines. He always wanted to, and whether or not I did, I always ended up doing it. It would be Christmas or Fourth of July, when the extended family was gathered together. I think his trick for roping me in was to tell me about it last, so that by the time I realized what was happening, there was already an expectant audience gathered, leaving me the choice to either reluctantly comply or disappoint the eager spectators.

There’s a picture I always go back to, as my favorite picture of my brother and I, circa 2005. We’re in our dark, wood-paneled Oklahoma living room, our beat-up blue denim couch in the background. I’m wearing a grass hula skirt and swimsuit top and James is sporting a white tee shirt accompanied by a yellow and purple lei. I’m posing like Hannah Montana, wearing entirely too much lip gloss, passionately singing into an old plastic comb. James is next to me on his knees as if he’d just slid across the stage like an 80’s rock god, wailing on his cherry red electric guitar, his mouth wide open, screaming whatever song our hearts needed to perform that day. I don’t remember that exact moment, but it so perfectly captures the essence of so many of my favorite memories with James; us riding in the car begging our dad to play “our song” and him not knowing whether we meant Christina Aguilera’s version of “Car Wash” or Sister Sledge’s “We are Family,” countless trips to Doug’s Music School in our small town for us each to learn Guitar and Piano, with him exceling at guitar and me never getting good at either, hours spent mastering Guitar Hero and Rock Band and memorizing whiny Radiohead songs and Black Sabbath’s greatest hits. But my favorite memory of all is that always, even when all we had to tie us to each other was Sir Mix-a-Lot, we sang our A-Cappella routines, perpetually wanting an audience and unabashedly loving the attention.

While I have many fond memories with James, and twice as many not so fond ones, the first connection that comes to mind between my untamed brother and I, the only connection that survived every stage of our tumultuous relationship, is our “A-Cappella” routines. I put “A-Cappella” in quotes because to say it literally would be an insult to the dedicated musicians who turn the genre into a craft. My brother and I, though our routines eventually became etched into the inner walls of our skulls, synchronized to the beats of our hearts, never quite reached what a true musician would call “art.” In our own minds, though, and on that stolen stage at my Mom’s backyard wedding, we were legends.