Sister and Brother

Charlottesville, VA.

So I went to UVA last weekend with Maddie. We were the family contingent sent to support JP at his season ending team banquet. There I saw 4 scenes of poetry and love that I want to remember.

First, we are at Mellow Mushroom – the local pizza spot on campus. Maddie and I arrive first. JP is coming from another event. Maddie has watched him at his banquet earlier in the day. She felt distant – I could tell. She was the only young sibling there and her brother now lives in a land of adults. He is making his mark in a place where she has trouble feeling at home. But at Mellow Mushroom JP draws close. He plops down, sits next to her. They eat. They laugh. They talk. She leans into him. He listens. He beams at her. She soaks it up. Her love for him is so great – it always has been. And it is returned. I sit there and witness something so special I strain to give words to it. A brother and sister, tightly joined in love. A bond expressed in the eyes but arising from chords of the heart. A sister delighting in her brother’s presence; a brother loving his little sister the way only an older brother can.

Then there were the scooters. UVA is one of those places where the rent-a-scooter business model flourishes. Scooters, linked to an app, litter the campus. You want one to take you a mile? Hop on, activate your app, and off you go – it charges you by the minute. On a campus conceived by Thomas Jefferson, Maddie thought the scooters were the coolest things on offer. She wanted to ride them. It was on her bucket list for the weekend. So after dinner, I ask JP if he can take her to a safe spot on campus to try them. He agrees and drives her to a spot near the football stadium. Calm streets, quiet and safe. I go get my car and, thanks to Life 360, find them on their scooters ten minutes later. There I see something that feels timeless, like a Rockwell painting: a big brother scooting ahead, amidst the sea of a college campus. Zipping past college dorms, football stadiums, parking lots – while his little sister whirs along on her own scooter, behind him. I try to imagine what Maddie might have been thinking. Safe in the wake her beloved brother carves before her: he etching a line in that great mystery which is college life; she with spirit raised, looking to the heights, feeling safe but also feeling the winds of adventure. I’ll never forget the image of the two of them zipping down a college street made quiet this night, as though just for them. Maddie trailing JP, like the tail behind a kite in a stiff wind.

Sunday morning comes and it’s time for a haircut. From their first locks, I have cut my boys’ hair. It was a way to bond with them; a way to save time and money. And over time one gets as good as anyone else at the job. In his first year away from college, JP discovered, it would seem, that Dad is better than the competition. I get a text earlier last week: “Can you bring your haircutting tools?” “Certainly,” I reply. So Sunday morning, JP comes to where we are staying, this young person who in most respects seems like a man. But on this morning he is like my child again. I am nervous: it has been a while since I cut his hair. Will I mess it up? Maddie soaks it in: just sits and watches. She is happy to be there. With careful hands I do my work. I pass the test: JP approves of the cut. He showers and dresses. I make him some breakfast – Maddie had already eaten. He comes down and eats, with Maddie sitting next to him. She is just full of happiness without needing to say a word. I clean up the hair clippings and watch the two of them together. JP eating, Maddie seated by his side. Small talk. Waves of the past wash over me. Years of being beside this child, for a time broken by distance, now suddenly refreshed. Something hits me. Something like love flooding into the room. Like sunlight pouring through the blinds. Like a veil of the ordinary peeled back to reveal the simple magnitude, the plenitude of the love that pulses at the heart of a family. That love is suddenly here; it has always been here; only maybe I didn’t notice it as much before; maybe I took it for granted; was too busy; maybe the clouds of life blocked the sun; maybe I couldn’t read the letters that life was spelling. But, today, the letters are plain as day. Their meaning is clear. Today, for this sudden moment, to be reunited – son, daughter, father – in this little domestic scene, in an unexpected place; to discover with a kind of certitude that our family has not lost JP; rather our family has grown wider as his world widens. And so I see. Today love stands exposed, her veil dropped; the love of family stands forth in all its wonder and beauty. I glimpse it – and have to veil my face. I step away from the room for I am about to weep. I don’t want the kids to think anything was wrong with this perfect morning. Don’t want to spoil the moment. So I step into the bathroom until I can compose myself. The weight of love was too heavy to bear.

Final scene. The drive home to Cincinnati with Maddie. It’s 6pm on Sunday night. We are driving through the mountains of West Virginia. Maddie is watching a video on her phone. I am praying Vespers – something I learned to do from the monks. I notice something rare that Maddie and I collect whenever we see it: the phenomenon of sunlight visible at the same moment that rain is falling. Sun and rain, we call it. Tonight is an intense example. Heavy sunlight in the western sky, with a steady rain falling in the East. I tap Maddie’s hand. She looks at me. Without a word, I point to the west, to the sun hanging low, with golden glow, in the western sky. Then I point to the windshield, to the pattering of rain drops swept away in intervals by the whisks of black rubber strips. She understands. “Sun and rain!” she exclaims. “Keep your eyes out for rainbows,” I say. Sure enough, not 3 minutes later a splendid 7-colored bow of light arcs across the eastern sky. A full rainbow. Maddie gasps and takes a few photos. We marvel at this. After a time, our conversation drifts to Taylor Swift (yes, my daughters have taught me to appreciate Taylor Swift.) We listen to a few songs, and the road begins to tilt more directly westward. The golden sun pours diagonally through the windshield and falls upon Maddie’s sweet little face. This moment! This beauty cloaked in a golden glow. My little daughter by my side, lip syncing to the longing of young womanhood while a kind of blanket of grace rests upon her nose and cheeks. I keep sneaking peeks at her, wanting to hit pause before this scene more beautiful to me than a rainbow. There’s something about this moment. Maddie gazing ahead, toward the horizon, looking intent, perhaps imagining, I don’t know, her own journey to college one day. Yes, there is a kind of young womanhood in her gaze, even while she is still my 12-year-old youngest daughter; sitting by my side; years away from driving; years away from leaving home. A little girl with sunlight resting on her face – as beautiful as light upon still waters – her eyes looking toward the horizon that maybe her brother has helped her better see. And me, beside her, hands on the wheel, as happy as a father can be.

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