Everyone has a cherished first memory; slicing into an ice cream cake on your birthday, seeing a piano for the very first time, listening to your grandmother read Harry Potter as the nightlight glimmers in the corner… Psychology tells us that our first brush with reality is usually something that touches us at the core, something grand and soul-searing enough to kickstart the brain. But occasionally, a traumatic event can start the process early, our primordial instincts kicking in to make sure we learn from our fear; biologically, it makes sense. It makes sense, then, that my earliest memory precedes the typical age, marked days before my third birthday. You see, in my earliest memory I am crouched in a dark basement stairwell, ears assaulted by a cacophony of crashing china and chairs.
The memories don’t get better as the reel plays on; I shut it down whenever my mind wanders. Suffice it to say it took thirteen more years for my parents to figure out they weren’t good for each other, and my brother is too young to remember most of it. Now, my mother likes to preach to me about what a scumbag my father is. I just sit there and nod; it may be too late to save me from their mistakes, but my brother is still young. And if pretending I hadn’t wanted a divorce for as long as I can remember will help save him, well… then it’s a small price to pay for his happiness.
My father was never around much, which was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it meant we didn’t have to deal with him; on the other it meant I practically raised my brother, as I had to care for him until he or my mother got home, which could be anywhere from seven to ten at night. At best, he got in at nine at night to eat and watch the game. He would get up for two things: punishments and a new bowl of peanuts, and the sound of his feet creaking across the floorboards haunts me to this day. You’d think that the birth of the son my father always wanted would make me hate the child, but I watched and bathed and fed Zach, and every night I sang to him. And often, if he’d been well behaved, I’d weave him a story.
Together, we could lie in the dark and map Odysseus’ ancient journey, or spar under Grace O’Malley’s flag far across the seas. I spun tales of Anansi and Prometheus’s grand larceny, the Norse gods and vampires and Irish fairy folktales. At four o’ clock in the morning while I was working on my novels and looking up demonology, it was my brother’s enraptured spirit that kept me writing past a hundred pages. When Orpheus was penned into my poems, my brother’s grin was the smile on my protagonist’s face as he charmed Lord Hades and Lady Persephone. Protecting him from my father’s wrath gave me the courage to push myself, to enter contests, to try new things and write bigger stories. But more importantly, my brother allowed me to write verbally, without worrying about an audience. And eventually, a real audience appeared.
I never thought of myself as a writer. Most days, I still don’t. I wish I could say that my brother gave that to me, but that would be a lie; I’ve known and planned my life ambition since I was ten years old. No, what my brother gave me was a purpose, greater than the trivial day-to-day dramas of a bullied pre-teen with no friends. I’ve been told it’s unfair that my childhood was spent worrying about him, but taking care of my brother let me be important to someone no matter who I was or what I’d done or what grade I’d gotten on a test. Protecting him from my parents’ dysfunctional tendencies taught me that I was capable of doing something important with my life, even if it was just saving him from the jaded proclivities his sister had developed after years of witnessing drunken shouting matches. So yes, maybe it seems a little overdramatic, but my brother gave me life. He gave me the inspiration and the strength to carry on, and he has never stopped helping me. I hope he never will.
Last week, I sat on a stage in front of my mother and read a poem about crying in that basement stairwell to an audience at the World Financial Center. I know my mother must have flinched, but I wasn’t watching her. Instead, I looked at Zach creeping stealthily up the aisle, beaming and trying to snap a picture of his big sister. I read the entire poem without stumbling over my words. Then, I stepped off the podium with a smile.
Age 17, Grade 12
Hunter College High School