Happy Birthday, Brother…

I knew I was off as soon as I opened my eyes this morning. When I sat down to write today’s words, nothing came out. I felt tired and lackluster. I hid my nose in a book for a while, hoping I’d feel better. I didn’t. I jumped in the car to pick up the kids and mid-way through the short drive, my heart felt like it was expanding, in that uncomfortable way that forces hot tears out. I hate crying. Get a grip, I told myself, you’re driving.

Sometimes the words you want to write are not the words you need to write. Today I need to say a few words about my brother, Jeff, who died in July. Because it’s his birthday today. He’s been on my mind ever since I looked at the calendar this morning and realized it was the 17th, but reminders have been everywhere today: Facebook, a nice SPAM-mail reminding me to wish him a happy day, messages from family members.

It’s a strange thing to grow up with a brother who is 16 years older than you are. He was driving before I was born. So my first memories of him are as an adult, with a young family of his own. We never lived under the same roof, we’re not even of the same generation in some ways.

His sweet children are closer in age to me, and have been on my mind today, too. Jayson, who spent so much time with us growing up that I think more people assumed he was my brother than realized he was my nephew. Jaymi, who grew into this amazing, fashionable, gorgeous mama-bear seemingly over night. Megan, who was the first baby I got to watch through every step from birth to beautiful adulthood. And Justin, who is impossibly taller than I am (by a lot) now, an amazing athlete, and on the verge of adulthood himself.

Jeff was quick with a smile or a joke and more than a little inclined to break the rules, which just increased the cool factor in my young eyes. I’ve mulled over many favorite memories today, but the one that stands out is of him, shirtless, sunglass-clad, one hand on the wheel of his ski boat. We screamed over the water in that boat, summer after summer, the wind making my eyes tear and taking my breath away, the sun blazing off the surface of the lake.

When he slowed down on the particular day I remember, his wife, Karen, was already snugging fingerless gloves onto her hands in preparation for what came next. Someone tossed the tube into the water and Karen jumped in after it. She climbed on and we all cheered. He gunned it and she rocketed forward the second the slack left the line holding the tube to the back of the boat. Laughing like a maniac, he circled again and again, tighter and tighter, until the tube tipped sideways and Karen, still hanging on, cartwheeled across the water with the tube, until it finally shot her across the surface of the water in a heap. She came up sputtering with a few sharp words about his crazy driving, but laughing as well. He took it easier on the littler ones when we were in the tube, but more than one cousin lost swim trunks in that lake, and I ate more than my share of water on those wild rides.

There are other memories less bliss-filled than this one, as there always are over the long trajectory of any family’s life. But this is the one I want for his birthday today: one with sunshine on the water and joy in all our hearts.