Dear E. (not your real initial),
Even in this unsent letter, I am afraid to be completely honest. There could come a day—sooner in a pandemic—when Jason calls you with bad news, and you arrive at our house as you once did my father’s, to help my husband sort out what’s left of my life. Instead of Dad’s Army discharge certificate (which you rightly told me I should hang on to for the funeral), you will find this. Even in the event that I am good and dead, I don’t want my voice reaching you like some distant radio signal, like when the baby monitor suddenly pairs with our neighbors’ bluetooth and I hear the sound of a couple arguing. I don’t know if I’m writing these words for you or for me. It’s like that time I drank a bottle of NyQuil right in front of my mother, both wanting her to rip the bottle from my hands and to die before she could. Plea and punishment.
When was it we started calling each other brother and sister? I know it was by the time we were teens, many years after you bought me that peach ice cream cone with blue sprinkles from the Custard Corner, but before you held that boy who’d checked me into a locker out the fourth-story window of the high school. We were two only children raised by single mothers in duplexes a block from the train tracks. Two children who knew how to be home alone by age nine. Why on Earth did my mother believe us when we said we’d wear helmets that time you took me out riding dirt bikes? Where did she think you got helmets from?
There were hollows between us then, too—my bookishness and pack of stoners, your fort in the woods with the machineheads. But we chose each other as family, which is a powerful statement about something, isn’t it? Flat tire, too drunk to drive, dead father at the hospital. Call my brother. That’s real siblinghood as far as I can guess. You’ve got your separate friends, your separate interests—I didn’t go to the fort, you didn’t come to the rented room my slacker friends called The Studio—but an automated response when the phone rings. I’m coming, sis.
I’ve been meaning to tell you: Back in September, on the 19th anniversary of 9/11—the World Trade Center buildings folding like beer cans against frat boy foreheads, and the smoldering plane-sized hole in the Pentagon, and don’t forget about Flight 93 crashing into that field that was supposed to be the White House—I was feeling tired and just wanted to crack open one of those cans of sparkling wine in the back of the fridge (I had two; the pre-sleep hangover was epic). For seven months, the virus had circumscribed our lives in a two-bedroom apartment. You have never seen this apartment. You have never visited me in any of the states I’ve lived since I moved away. You’ll have to picture it in your mind: Jason, six-year-old, and me in 900 square feet, all working and going to school at home, our movements compressed, crushed down to the two rooms with doors on them.
Still, as I do every year, I spent part of the day revisiting those old artifacts: Jon Stewart’s bitten-lip monologue on The Daily Show, Bush’s speech at Ground Zero when he shouted “I can hear you!” through the bullhorn, the voicemails left by passengers on American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 telling their loved ones their planes had been hijacked and it didn’t look good, Father Mychal Judge, the gay firefighter priest, carried out of the North Tower covered in dust, dead like Christ.
Also as I do each year, I re-read Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” an in memoriam for two people seen jumping from the flames of the South Tower hand-in-hand. Their hands reaching and joining are the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death.
What was different this year is that I didn’t dwell on the couple, or on Doyle’s interest in who they might have been, which usually insists on my attention (I can’t stop myself from Googling, even less from zooming in on the contorted bodies in the air). This year, I dwelled on the president cutting $4 million from a fund designated for 9/11 first responders. The ones who inhaled toxic dust at Ground Zero and got sick for the rest of their shortened lives. The ones Jon Stewart pleaded for last year in a nearly-empty Congressional chamber.
When Stewart went to Congress, he brought Luis Alvarez, a retired police officer on the verge of his 69th round of chemo, as well as several pale, diminished firefighters suffering from various cancers and emphysema. As Stewart castigated the absent committee members, I thought of the first responders in my life. My uncle and cousin, firefighters. Hoffman and Shrek, police. But mostly, I thought of you, E.
Were you already at Fort Drum on 9/11 (the actual 9/11, not the anniversary)? What I know for sure is that when the wars started (we knew there would be wars), your unit was slated to deploy to Afghanistan. Somewhere in the woods of Jefferson County, near Watertown, you went out training and busted your knee again—the same one you busted when the dirt bike rolled on us years before, and you stuck your leg under to keep it from landing on me. The doctors said you couldn’t go to Afghanistan. One of us, three hours away at a college she was paying for in borrowed money, sank to her unharmed knees in gratitude; the other, honorably discharged, was crestfallen.
You had hoped to right a wrong done to America, and I can see how that made you come home looking for trouble. There was the debacle with the lighting company you worked for—you and your coworkers stealing extra materials to sell third-party. You refused to rat and took a felony charge. I found trouble, too, but it was the kind colleges cover up—tickets for underage drinking, noise violations at house parties. You pulled your shit together first. Worked a while for my dad at the bar, met the woman who would become your wife and mother to your three kids, started landscaping for Dave—that old, grumpy legend—and then built your own lawn care business. In high school, you and Derek once stole a municipal truck for a 3 a.m. joyride, but now you were an upstanding citizen, giving mowing discounts to people who once shooed you off their lawns.
So no one was surprised anymore when you showed up at the West Corners fire station over six years ago to volunteer. We were even less surprised when you were good at it—the 10-hour trainings with fifty pounds of gear, the Army-style regimentation, whatever inner resources it takes to run into a burning building, the forgiveness it takes to save the homes of people who turned away the latchkey kid with different colored shoelaces and a waitress for a mother.
This year, you graduated from the state fire academy and became the newest salaried member of the Endicott Fire Department. You sit on the porch of the house you now own, listening to the scanner. It’s entirely possible you will save a life tonight.
This year has been a year of fire.
The west coast burned all through late summer and early fall, from California to Washington. In Estacada, the fire surrounded my friend Chelsea’s house—she watched the security camera footage from where she had evacuated some miles away, helpless to stop the smoke from encroaching. On Facebook, folks debated whether or not the fires were from mismanagement of the dry forest brush or a harbinger of climate change. I don’t know if you believe in climate change, but I know you wouldn’t have hesitated to parachute in with the firefighters out there, just as I know you wouldn’t have hesitated to run into the gas balls of the towers before they fell.
After the 2016 election, I went scorched earth, unfriending people online in wide swaths. I booted quite a few classmates. Some people from the bar. It was the viciousness of their glee—how happy they were not that their guy had won but that they’d owned the libs. Derek made a post about snowflakes looking for a safe space, and I told myself you probably hadn’t voted—the felony. But really, I’ve just been too afraid to ask.
This year, the red hats showed up in Jason’s mother’s photos, and he stopped speaking to his parents outside of semi-polite holiday text messages, a few anguished emails, and some passive-aggressive Facebook posts. In truth, it was a slow burn ignited many years ago, when Jason used to “Mmm-hmm” their casual racism at the dinner table and try to change the subject. The hats just finally doused the whole thing in diesel fuel and up it went.
I admit I don’t know any first responders in the city where I live—a city that doesn’t think about the problems back where we come from, E., but that does contain about 4 million more Americans whose votes no longer mattered next to 10,000 votes from small-town Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio.
I know the security guards in the buildings where I teach writing to college students, most of whom will never see a five-alarm fire. When the building across the street from us burned down to its studs, Jason and I watched the firefighters out our front window. You’ve written a couple posts about college students—their entitlement, their protests of Milo Yiannopolos speaking at their campuses, their identity politics infringing on free speech. You’ve criticized their professors, too, those liberal, cancel-culture indoctrinationists as the president calls us on Twitter, only in simpler language: enemies.
The same month you graduated from fire academy, I got tenure from my university. You congratulated me in the comments and I could tell you meant it, at least in the sense that you knew it was important to me, even if my industry is a commie factory. I joked that it was a big February for us sibs, but the truth is, I cried the day you graduated, and then again when my letter from the board came. It had been a while since we’d done something significant together. I hoped we’d both finally feel more secure in the world.
Two weeks later, the pandemic hit. If I see video of you running around pulling your hair screaming, “We’re all gonna die,” I will slap you the next time I see you, you wrote me, joking.
We all make exceptions, though. I know when you say on Facebook that you don’t see your wife and kids as Black, you mean their race doesn’t matter when it comes to your love. I know you’d save the house of an undocumented person, a Black person, a transgender person with as much personal expenditure as any other house that burned. Brian Doyle says that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, and I think of how your actions have always been better than your words. I make exceptions, too.
When the EMTs were trying to save Dad’s life (he wasn’t your biological father, but you loved him like one), I told Mom I wanted to call you, but she said to wait until the doctors returned with news. Your wife was seven months pregnant, she reminded me. What if there was no need to get you out of bed?
When a man who looked like Santa Claus in scrubs, glasses knocked askew, finally came to tell us Dad had died, I turned to her.
“Can I call my brother now?”
For a while, I wanted to believe that when I wrote my 9/11 post this year about the president cutting all that aid, I wasn’t trying to ruffle feathers. I know what the day means to you, E., and I hope you know now that it means something to me, too. Instead of sharing the Doyle essay like I usually do (I wonder if you’ve ever clicked on it, as I wonder if you’ve ever read any of the essays I’ve shared online), I thought I would post something I figured we would squarely agree on: helping firefighters.
But then I looked again at the words I chose to accompany the article about the cuts.
I see now it was sort of a cheap shot. A snarky response to the never-forgets of other people’s—okay, my conservative friends’—posts. A way for me to say the president you supported didn’t really care about firefighters—not the 343 who died in the towers (would he call them losers and suckers?), and not the ones who’d survived. An implicit way of asking you, because I have never asked you, because childhood has provided the exception for a bond we otherwise could not explain, How can you possibly align yourself with this guy?
The next day, you wrote a post of your own: Out of curiosity I was taking a look this morning at all of the 9/11 posts. A day of remembrance has turned into a day of political bashing. A 19 yr old tragedy has been turned into a tool to attack people that don’t have the same views as others. Awesome job, America. A lot of you have forgotten…
Brother, you were right. I had politicized 9/11 (though I also believe 9/11 was a political event, for what mattered more than our government’s response to it, still playing out?), though I didn’t mean to attack you with what I’d written. I meant to plead with you.
Doyle speculates on who the couple were: Husband and wife, lovers, dear friends, colleagues, strangers thrown together at the window there at the lip of hell. What history might they have shared, if any? Does history matter in the face of fire?
Ultimately, it is their final act on which Doyle fixes his gaze. It wasn’t what brought them to the window together, but that their response was automatic. They reached for each other as they leapt.