I had not seen or spoken to Chris in over 10 years. The last twelve months, I have thought about the time missed, lives apart, conversations silent, wondering what his life was like, what kind of person he had become – ah well. Nothing to be done about that now. Instead, I remember.
I look at this picture of my brother in the garden, me with my over-cut bangs, he in his Army shirt that our grandfather bought him on Armed Forces Day at Fort Lee Army Base; my Dad’s garden in the background, always full of abundance and memories. Those were happy times.
Being 13 months younger than a wildly rambunctious sibling was challenging. I was the brother he never had and always wanted to torment. I was quiet, played by myself effortlessly, read a lot, and loved to be in the kitchen cooking up something. But still, I was challenged by Chris, to be better, to show what I could do, to soar higher than I imagined – even if it was to prove to him that I could rise to any task he could dream up. Climb the tallest tree, race bikes, jump off the high dive, build a tree house, swim across the pool underwater, even play baseball.
Chris is in the back, my sister on the left in a uniform way too big for her – she wanted in on the photo shoot. Then there’s me – tiny, curly-haired, six-year-old nerdy girl – I played left field. I am sure the coach put me there because no kid would ever hit the ball out that far. I tried out for baseball because 1. my brother was playing 2. my Dad loved the sport 3. I was a girl and no girl had ever tried out for little league. My friend Carol and I were the first girls to play in the town, at least that’s what my Dad said. Activism in first grade.
Riding to practice on my blue banana seat bike through the neighborhood, pedaling down the walking path to the ball field, I was part of Chris’ team, one of the boys. Practice, games, each time at bat I had visions of hitting the ball way over center field, crowd on their feet, cheering me around for my miraculous home run. It never happened.
Pitchers could barely find my short strike zone and I walked. After getting on base, I ran fast, signaled by the first base coach’s command. I remember getting one hit – aimed for center field, of course – but bounced between first and second base. After the right fielder fumbled the toss, I was safe. Triumphant! It was a great experience.
Would I have tried out for baseball had my brother not played? Probably not. I would have been content to stay at home, read my books, play with my sisters, but the fire his provocation ignited broadened my horizons. I don’t think he realized how he affected me. If he did, he didn’t dwell on it long. Off to new adventures.
In my sophomore and junior year of high school, I played on the chess team. It was one game I could never win against Chris. Dad taught us to play when we were around five or six and the rivalry began. He played Dad, usually losing. Then he played me, always winning. Hours and hours of strategy, thinking, deliberating over the next move – hoping to outsmart him. The losses mounted.
I played him for seed ranking in chess club meetings. I was fourth or fifth, he was usually first or second. Each game between us meant something – for me, another loss. In a tournament, I played a 10th grader from the next county – a boy who, by the expression on his face, knew he had the game won. I was a girl after all. The match began. I was cool, calm, in the zone, critical thinking engaged and I won in 5 moves. FIVE MOVES. The devastated boy cried. I didn’t care – I paid my dues for victory.
Would I have been as good without my brother challenging me, being the antagonist that was his nature when it came to winning? I doubt it. It would not have held my interest or drive. Sitting in his room just before he joined the Navy, another game of chess – with the countless losses behind me – I finally won – silence. No congratulations or good job – he stared in disbelief at the board and my grin. I don’t remember ever playing him again. Without him there my senior year, chess was no longer important. I’m still pretty good, though.
In 2011, I searched for Chris by typing his name into Google. I came across an Autism Awareness group he and his wife started in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I clicked on pages to capture glimpses of him and his family. I looked at the pictures, found a phone number and an email, but never contacted him. I used to wonder if I had just reached out – but no, I won’t go there.
Then in September 2015, who was this person whose obituary came across Facebook more than a month after his death? Who was this man whose message a few nights before his heart attack sat hidden in my inbox? Even when his widow sent me an audio recording of the memorial service, I listened for a memory or quote that may have matched something I remembered. It didn’t. He was a stranger – this Chris. I mourned – still do.
His life, his work, his words, his books, his encouragement of others, his advocacy for his son’s disabling condition – I didn’t know this person and that is part of my grief. What does matter is that he is remembered – for good, for bad, for whatever memories others hold – he is remembered. His memory continues to challenge me – to be better, reach for the new, write, love, support, work, live, be healthy – he remains my antagonist. I would not be the same without him as my big brother – not the same at all.
Christopher Noel Howard – 1966-2015