The annual Army-Navy football game always makes me think of my younger brother, James, who claims it’s the best contest in sports.
“They’re all on the same team,” he once said to me, “except for one afternoon.”
Fresh out of La Salle, James had planned to enlist in the Army, until a close family friend directed him to the Coast Guard. My brother’s four years of service off the Georgia and Florida coasts prepared him for his life’s work captaining charters, working on tugs and, most recently, refurbishing vintage Riva wooden boats in Fort Lauderdale. His kinship with those serving in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces is deeply felt.
Before this year’s Army-Navy game, CBS aired a film celebrating the “same team” concept that James had first brought to my attention. I found one clip in the piece particularly riveting: parents and their respective cadets and midshipmen being told they had “90 seconds to say goodbye” before the young men and women began earning their commission as officers-in-training.
The poignance of that moment made me gasp, I told James on the phone.
He reminded me that our mom had asked if he wanted a ride downtown to the recruiting station the morning he left for boot camp and that he told her he would walk.
Years later, my mother wrote a bittersweet vignette about James’s departure from her apartment on Federal Hill, starting with these words: “He threw the knapsack over his shoulder, walked down the stairs and out the door. I stood watching this exodus, this walking away.”
The day after this year’s Army-Navy game, my brother brought up another family parting.
“Mom and I had that 90-second goodbye with you at the train station in Providence on your way to Ireland,” he texted me. “Profound day for us all.”
It was. James and I were tight despite the more than five years between us. When our parents separated, one directive from my mother superseded everything on my chore list: look after your brother, who was about to turn 4. And I did, happily. During our childhood years, whether we were walking to school, playing Wiffle ball in the backyard, or just hanging in the bedroom we shared, James was always on my radar.
I set out to study in Dublin at the start of my junior year at Brown, leaving my hometown and family behind for the first time. James had just turned 15. As the Amtrak train slid into Union Station, I kissed my mother goodbye and then turned to my brother. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides. I tried to say something above the deafening screech of the braking train, but no words came out.
“I was gutted by that goodbye,” I texted James now. “Don’t think I had normal breathing until New Haven.”
“Gutted is an appropriate way to put it,” James texted back. “Having the closest person in my life go far away was a hard lesson.”
I watched the bouncing dots on my phone screen with anticipation, and then my brother’s message made me smile: “How cool is it that so many years later, we can be as close as ever and revisit our decisions in life.”
A quote attributed to Clara Ortega reads, “To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were.”
Almost 1,500 miles separate James and me now, but a phone call can make distance and time vanish. We re-tell jokes that no one else gets. And we resurrect childhood memories that leave us laughing and coughing and wiping our eyes.
Still, I welcome the promise of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m overdue to head south so my younger brother and I can breathe together again.