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My Hero

March 19, 2010

“I know the exact moment I made the decision,” he said.  “I was sitting in the back of my Russian class texting on my phone and not paying attention when the professor gave a surprise exam.  I got a B+ without even trying.”

“Soooo, you want to enlist in the army because Russian is too easy for you?” I asked, truly perplexed.

“It’s not just that,” he said.  “An hour before I had just finished an English Lit test and checked my phone. There was a video from my friend Pat.  He was parachuting from an airplane in Iraq.”

“Annnnd -? …”

“And I just knew in that instant that I had to change my life.”

His decision changed his life all right.  It changed all of ours.

You see, that guy is my 22 year old nephew.  He had been accepted into a great college near his home in Erie, PA on a scholarship and was half way through his sophomore year as a “Homeland Security” major.  He wanted to be in the CIA or some other governmental agency where he could “be a hero – save some lives.”

What I suspect was buried under the ‘hero’ notion, what he wasn’t saying – or maybe couldn’t say – was that he wanted some credibility.  Some street cred.  He was a tall, skinny, pasty doughboy who played endless video games simulating war or police raids.  And he longed for some real action.

When his best friend decided to drop out of high school to enlist, my nephew ranted and raved about what an idiot the guy was.  Thankfully, the army made Pat take the GED before enlisting.  It’s been 4 years and he’s a sergeant now.  In a bomb squad.

He’s been “blown up” 4 times.  The last time put him in a hospital for 6 months in a medically induced coma until the swelling in his brain subsided.

“Pat’s face was unrecognizable,” my nephew told me and I believed him.

He had just called me to ask if he could move in with my husband and I for a while “to get his head together.”  I was more than happy to say yes.

What I wasn’t prepared for was my sister’s wrath.

She called me one night, about a week later, slurring her words and crying.

“I have a letter I’m going to read to you and I need you to be quiet and not interrupt me until I get it all out,” she said.  I heard her light up a cigarette and take a long drink.  Rum and coke is her poison.  She uses it now to replace the 12 pack she used to drown herself in every night – trying to go low carb I suppose.  NO, I’m not exaggerating.  Both she and her husband have been drinking a 12 pack each for about 15 years.  But I kept that observation to myself.  I’ve learned at least that much.

She proceeded to inundate me with the most vicious tirade you can imagine.

“My son just told me he was moving in with you.  My son, MY BABY.  The one I carried for 10 months through hemorrhoids and delivered after 20 hours of pain that ripped me open from end to end!” she ranted.

“Really?  You’re really going to do this again?” I asked.  She had been railing on about labor and hemorrhoids since the kid was born.  Every time we got together, she’d tell me not to make her laugh because she was incontinent after delivering her beloved baby boy.

‘You pathetic bitch,” she said, shaking with rage.  “You are so desperate to have a baby that you need to STEAL mine?”

“Ok, hang on a second…”

“I told you not to interrupt me!”

“I never agreed to that.  Listen, the ‘baby’ in question is 19 FREAKIN YEARS OLD right now and HE ASKED ME if he could move here, not the other way around.”

“It doesn’t matter! He’s going to splatter himself all over a desert in Iraq because of you!” she screamed.

“ME?  You’re joking right?  I’m the one who just went out and bought him a new red convertible to drive around in.  I’m the one who got him a job at our boat club so he could see that, unlike Dreary Erie, the Mistake on the Lake, there IS life beyond drinking beer and smoking in your garage!  If anything you should be thanking me for keeping his ass out of Iraq for another year because that’s what our deal was – that he would take a year to think about his decision and try to live a REAL life away from your dysfunctional existence before enlisting.”

She hung up on me.

A few months after my sister’s 27th birthday, I had called her and asked if she wanted to take a vacation in Florida with me, all expenses paid.  I needed to get away from work and snow for a while, did she want to come along?

I’ll never forget what she said when she turned me down.

“I can’t go.”

“Why not?”

“I’m dating a guy and if I go away now, he’ll go back to his ex-girlfriend.”

“So?  If you have to babysit him to keep him with you, seems like he’d be better off gone.”

“You don’t understand,” she said.  ‘I’m 27.years.old.”

“Okay…?”
“If I don’t have a baby this year, I’ll just die.”

“Wow. No pressure on yourself there.  You sure you’ll just die?”

“Yes.  Sarcastic bitch.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Whatever.  I can’t go.”

“I honestly don’t see how you’re going to force this guy to stay with you by just hanging around there.”

“I’m going to get pregnant,” she whispered into the phone.

“OH, hang the fuck on!  That’s a VERY bad idea.”

“I don’t care what you think.  All my friends are married with 2 or 3 kids by now!  I have to HAVE A BABY THIS YEAR!!!”

A year later, she was married to this alcoholic asshole, who beat her up and left her when she was 8 months pregnant.  Surprise, surprise.

She moved back in with my father, who was also an alcoholic, but at least there she learned from our step-mother how to budget and take care of a baby.

By the time her son was 5, she’d met another guy.  One who didn’t present immediately as an alcoholic, but who was nevertheless, as we’d soon find out.

Within a few years, they lived together and my sister, who had been so very feminine and poncie, drove a pickup truck, wore flannel shirts, started smoking, attending (gasp!) NASCAR events and spent her evenings drinking beer in their garage.

While I spent those nights on the phone (long-distance, usually collect) with her son, helping him with his homework and comparing notes on the latest Harry Potter book we were reading.

He spent every summer with me since he was 7.  I took him to Disney when he was 12. It was clear by then that my sister was never going to set aside a penny of her beer and smokes money to provide any sort of family fun for her kid.

And, get this, when she had been dating this new guy for only 5 months, his ex girlfriend had called and told him she was pregnant.  My sister stayed with this guy and has taken care of his son, every other weekend, since he was 3 months old.

I also took him to Disney when he turned 10.  Again, sister couldn’t be bothered.  [Frankly, I was astonished that his mother, a woman I had never even met, agreed to let her 10 year old kid get on a plane with me and leave for a week.]

For all my sister’s whining and complaining that she HAD TO HAVE A BABY, once she did have one, she abandoned him to go in search of another man – one who ended up dragging her down a few levels deeper than I think she would have managed to go had she been left to her own devices.

And it was this child of hers, who was now an adult, that she was frothing herself up over all these years later.

What she didn’t know, what I have never told her – WILL NEVER tell her, is that when she called that night, I was filling out adoption applications.  We’d just gotten to the part where we had to enter the list of closest living relatives.  There would be a background check, you see, and they’d be calling my relatives – sister included, to determine my “fitness” as a parent.

Now, my sister loves me – or at least she claims to. At least I believe that, to the extent that she’s capable, she probably does.  But that would not stop her for one second from throwing me under a bus if you caught her after, say 5 of her beloved rum and cokes on any given day.

Because she’s apparently having one before work these days, something I found out after my nephew moved in with us.  In fact, she’d have one every morning and a few at lunch.

I asked her once (before all of this) if she wanted some help.  I offered to pay for rehab when she was ready.  This was my way of warning her that the rest of the family (father, step-mother, etc) was planning an intervention for her.  One that I wouldn’t be taking part of. Because, HO! Pot?  This is Kettle.  YOU’RE BLACK! right there.

In any case.  I put those adoption forms away and I haven’t had the courage to take them out again, despite her numerous apologies since then.

It’s been nearly 3 years since my nephew moved in with us.  He stayed true to his word and worked at a decent job for a year before enlisting.  They picked him up from my house one week before Thanksgiving a year ago.

He ships out to Kuwait on Saturday at 0h seven hundred.  Two months later, he’ll be in Basra, Iraq, where he’ll be deployed for 10 more months – if we don’t invade Iran, that is.

We’ve talked on the phone every day this week.  When I asked him what really made him enlist – was it the hopelessness of the life he’d been exposed to there in Erie, with my sister and all her issues, or maybe that he’d been forced to read Little Women while his buddies were jumping out of planes he said simply this:

“When I looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see the man I had wanted to be.  When I’m old and my body is falling apart, I can still sit in a classroom and learn.  Today, while my body is young and can take it, I want to make a difference in the world.  Today, I want to be a hero.”

I sincerely hope he comes home a hero.

I sincerely hope he comes home.

He is a medic, which is odd because he used to squeal at the site of blood.  But that was when he was 12.  Ten years later, he’s off to save some lives and I can’t help but wonder at the irony of the situation.

My sister’s ‘baby’ is leaving for a new life while I am, hopefully, finally going to be redecorating “his room” in my house and making it into a nursery to welcome my own.  The baby (if we make it that far) will be due the week before Thanksgiving.

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