My brother, Ryan, never made it to my high school or college graduation. He’s missed several birthdays, countless holidays, and important moments in my life where I needed him most, or just wanted him to be there.
Now in their sixties, my parents have had an empty room upstairs in their home for nearly the past ten years. There are not really any Mother’s Day or Father’s Day celebrations, let alone birthdays, or Christmas mornings with the four of us gathered together by the tree. In fact, I have felt like a family of three for quite some time now.
Now that my parents are grandparents, they can count the number of times they have seen their granddaughter on one hand since she has been born. And, as a first time aunt, I am realizing how much distance robs me of the simple things: discovering what gross things she may try to put in her mouth, learning to crawl, what color her ever-curious eyes are, and the way her laughter sounds. I only know by the videos that are sent to me.
Sure, a lot of this can be chalked up to “growing up.” Things change- I get it. People get older, move away, get married, and start their own families. There is no denying that it is simply a part of life, and sometimes it sucks.
However, our lives are different for another reason: the military. My brother joined the Air Force right out of high school. He became engaged to the love of his life, Alesha, at age 19, and they were married at just 21. Since then, they have lived in England and Italy, and traveled all over the world. My brother has slept in countries I probably couldn’t even find on a map. Despite the deployments and distance, Alesha has remained a pillar of strength for my brother and supported all of his endeavors, even if it means a rough road ahead for her. She has endured the difficult adjustments of living in foreign countries and being separated from her family back in the States. I can only imagine the many nights she has slept alone, struggling to keep the house in order, while working full time, just keeping her mind busy until my brother’s safe return. Ryan and Alesha have shown me what it means not only to sacrifice, but to love, honor, trust, and support your spouse unconditionally. They have fully put their faith in one another, and I admire that more than I have ever told them. In June, after 5 years of marriage, they welcomed their first child, Cora Rae. Now, they are thankfully back in the States, but still a 10 hour drive away.
It is hard for me to admit that Ryan and I did not have the best relationship growing up. I was (as he would say) the annoying little sister, grappling at every chance to spend with him. In the end, all it did was smother him and push him further away. Yet, during my years in college, and his overseas, our relationship stabilized significantly. Though the calls were few and far between, we grew closer. I finally visited him in England in the winter of 2010. It was there that my desire to travel ignited, and could not be ignored. In a sense, he is the reason behind what I have been able to accomplish, whether he knows it or not.
But in the typical fashion of life’s many surprises, my military ties didn’t end with my brother. In April of 2013, I went on a date with a friend from college, J.J. And- wait for it- he was in the Air Force as well.
(Ryan, left. J.J., right)
We have been dating ever since, and though I have been lucky to have him stationed out of the 911th Airlift Wing right here in Pittsburgh, he has still faced his fair share of obstacles to overcome. I have seen firsthand how dedicated he is to serving our country, and how hard he works to be a better son, brother, boyfriend, and Airman. In past conversations, he has emphasized the way that the military changed him, both for better or for worse.
Friends have asked me, “Well, what if he gets deployed? Are you going to stay with him?” Part of me is always shocked when I hear that. The answer is yes. I chose him, and though I didn’t necessarily choose the military, it comes as a package deal, and I am aware of that. I support my brother and J.J. 100% with everything they do, and despite distances or the strain on our relationships that this lifestyle may cause, I am forever proud of them.
Every year during this time, similar to Memorial Day, 4th of July, etc., I see countless posts on social media about thanking our armed forces for the sacrifices they make. But I also see those people at barbecues with their families, and significant others. I see them photographed with their siblings on family vacations. I see them partying with friends, at fancy Valentines Day dinners with their spouse, or together around the table for Easter dinner.
I am not denying anyone’s right to celebrate, or comparing sacrifices, or condemning those people. I cannot (and do not intend or wish to) sit here, innocent, because I too have taken far too much for granted, and we all have lost or sacrificed something- there is no need to measure the size of those scars.
But I would be lying to you all if I didn’t sometimes get upset over how I do not have the luxury of having annual family vacations, or weekly dinners, or even Thanksgiving with my brother. I know that the time together we have missed is something I can never get back, and will always be looking forward to- especially now that my brother and sister-in-law have a family of their own.
I would also be lying to you if I didn’t admit how frustrated I can get sometimes with J.J.’s unreliable schedule with ever-changing shifts, or the months he is gone for training. Having him not be there for certain things, or be unable to plan trips together (you all know I LOVE to travel) can still be upsetting, even though I understand fully and respect why they can’t happen, and feel selfish in confessing these feelings.
Because I certainly cannot complain.
For all of these things, I am lucky.
I may not have a brother (and consequently, a sister-in-law & niece) who are close by to visit. But I have a brother.
I may not be able to pick up when I’d like and travel with my man, or spend important days with him. But I have a man I love, and who loves me.
Some people don’t get their loved ones back. Some women lose husbands DAYS before they are supposed to return from deployment. Daughters and sons lose fathers, just like they do mothers, while they are serving our country- sometimes before they even get to meet them. Parents have had to bury their children without ever even saying goodbye.
I cannot imagine surviving the unthinkable. I do not even know the half of it, nor will I pretend to. I do not know what private wars still rage on in their minds when they return home, or the horror of the sights they have seen. I don’t know what they eat, or where they sleep, or the extent of everything they sacrifice, and from my brother’s silence, sometimes I don’t think I want to.
So yes, I am very lucky. And I am thankful. And all I know is that they deserve to hear this more than just on today.