(I remember once when my brother was 3, he wiped out on his Big Wheel at the end of our driveway, and ended up with gravel pushed deep into his gums. It was bad, bad enough to go to the doctor, which was only for emergencies: one of the many costs of poverty. Of course my brother started crying. And my father was furious with him for crying, spitting cussing scary-mad: he would have swung if I wasn't standing in front of him. I mention this so you can understand some of how we learned not to cry. The tears got beat and scared clean out of us: but they never go away until you can finally cry them. I know that now.)
I think my brother Charlie must have been 6 when this happened, which means I was 12. We were back in my room talking: it was after dinner, all our chores were done, and we were leaning peacefully against each other and wandering through ideas. Charlie suddenly stiffened up, and I felt him clamp down hard on his emotions, clamp down iron-hard and belly-tight. I said, what's wrong? He shook his head, still struggling to master himself. I felt a terrible fear rise in me: see, I KNEW what was happening, and I didn't want him to learn that. I don't know what I thought I could teach him, since I didn't know how to cry anymore either, but I could see the scars as they were being laid on his soul and I wanted to fight against it somehow. I tried to tell him that it was safe to cry in front of me and that no one would ever know: but he understood better than I did, that to give in at all was to risk losing control later, and losing control could lead to one of those beatings where you wondered if he would kill you, this time. I finally stopped trying to help and let him compose himself: but the mood was lost, and he went to bed then, alone with his darkness.
My father was in his bedroom, and I marched in, quivering with fury. I tried to explain, what it was doing to this brother I loved, to be poisoned by his unshed tears. My father thought about it, and he started telling me a story.
When my father was young, he was very smart, and he was moved up a few grades. Teachers loved him, which did not endear him to his fellow classmates, who were much larger than him. There he was, this smart skinny kid with the ears that stuck out,: a fierce sharp boy who knew the sting of every lash you can imagine, and who had the crazy quiet defiance that enabled him to survive his own schizophrenic father. In Texas, football is compulsory: even the girls play it. So my father's classmates took their revenge on the football field. There was a move called the nutcracker, which is what it sounds like, y'all: standing at the front of the line, facing your opponent, when that whistle blows you raise your locked hands together and smash the testicles of the boy in front of you.
How was he going to fight back against that? Tell the teacher - not fucking likely. Physically he was more than outmatched. So he came up with a plan. He learned to look them right in the eye while he was waiting for that whistle, and when they swung, he smiled. HE SMILED. I cannot imagine the effort of will that took, but it was the only way he had left to hang onto his dignity. And it worked. As matter of fact, he scared the crap out of them, and they left him alone after the first few times. He learned that swallowing his pain, never showing any weakness, was what allowed you to retain your place in life, maybe even your soul.
When he told me that last part, he had a strange gleam in his eye, a look I had never seen. He was still lost in that horrible past, recalling a moment of victory: he was smiling to himself. He had forgotten that I was there. I finally understood that he had been trying to save us somehow, teaching us the only lessons that he knew. My stomach twisted in pity and sorrow for this man with the big ears whose only defense against pain was to fight. I knew he would never escape his past: it would haunt him every day of his life, and he would never know it. But I also knew then that he loved us, no matter how twisted it was: and that knowledge opened a new world to me. It had never once occurred to me that he loved us. It was tragic, yes, but love is beautiful for all that. I cherish that memory: I have so few clues left, to know that I was loved.
But it matters. I am glad to have these clues. Love is love. And he loved me.