In March 2004 my brother Mike, an Army sergeant major and Internet addict, returned from Iraq to discover the teenage girl he’d emailed while at war was actually a detective. In December 2004, while awaiting trial, Mike entered his final battle—gathered the rope, ladder, and conviction to hang himself—and died in full BDU, his boots touching the ground.
Three weeks before his suicide, Mike told me, “I’m lucky to have you for my sister.” He was right, and I know why.
Mike joined the Army when he was 20 and I was 16. He was four years into his first addiction—alcoholism—four years into drinking, driving, and disappearing. At some point I decided my brother’s salvation lay with me. Why couldn’t I at 16 or 17 do what had eluded our parents, sponsors in AA, and scary Army officers? If I had enough nerve to step onto the railroad tracks, why couldn’t I redirect Mike’s life and prevent it from becoming a complete train wreck?
As an undergraduate in journalism, I censored his dispatches home before reporting to our family. As a master’s candidate in English, I crafted Mike’s trips back to Texas until they were stories of a hero’s homecoming. As a college professor, I demanded enlightenment from students; yet, when I suspected my now sober brother was drowning in cyberspace, I turned my gaze toward shadows.
Mike was in Iraq in 2003 when I gave birth to my daughter and named her Marlene Michael: “Marlene” for Marlene Dietrich, who’d been woman enough to defy Hitler and his men; “Michael” for the paratrooper who—without his permission or my awareness—had become my favorite fictional character. I imagined my daughter armed with satin and stealth, jumping from a plane into uncharted territory and flying without fear of where she’d land.
Marlene was six months old when Mike was arrested. He’d been back in the States only a few hours, his first stop the rendezvous with his fantasy.
When I learned of the charges against him, two concepts—that I loved my brother and that the brother I loved stood accused of a despicable crime—wrestled in my mind like panicked castaways in an ocean. Each truth surfaced for air at the expense of the other, both believing only one could survive. I was first in our family to see Mike when he was bonded from jail. When I placed my arms around his neck and felt his head against my shoulder, I sighed with relief as both swimmers walked onto shore.
Now more than three years after my brother’s death, when I hold my Marlene Michael—her arms around my neck, her head upon my shoulder—I know that whether her life is one of adventure and valor or turmoil and tragedy, the best I can do is always love her. The best I can give—my unconditional love—will make her lucky to have me for her mother. This I believe.
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