Today is my brother’s birthday. It is also a day that was his birthday, since my today is already his tomorrow in Sri Lanka. I wanted to write something about this brother of mine, something that speaks to the intensity of the love I feel for him, the regard I have for him, but mostly the ineffable quality that keeps us looking out for each other from this great distance. It is not something that needs to be mentioned, really, but it is something we both understand is there, like the magic potion concocted by Getafix, or the secret strength of super-heroes. That thing you call upon when you are all out of luck and yet you remain standing, secure in the knowledge that help is near and that you know its source.
I recall a time long ago when I was visiting my brother while he was studying in Boston and I in Maine. A friend of his was telling the story of how he and my brother were together playing tennis at a court near their apartment in Cambridge, and the altercation that unfolded. Apparently, their laughter over a joke they were sharing was (mis)taken to be derision aimed at a White teenager, who decided to fight my brother. My brother is the one whom the piano teacher pitied for the weakness of his fingers. “Yeah, Malinda of course,” she would say, with a little inhale-exhale, dabbing at her powdered nose with one of her innumerable fresh handkerchiefs, “his fingers… he has to practice.” My brother is the one whom I, the younger, could frighten out of his wits simply by leaping out at him from behind fridges and doors. My brother is the one who caught hepatitis, suffered a fractured leg that put him on bed rest for months, who had his forehead cut open, and who was always served milk with Marie biscuits each evening while my other older brother and I were deemed sturdy enough for tea. Perhaps it is in compensation for this perceived fraility of body that my brother grew up to withstand more emotional and spiritual upheaval than the rest of the family combined, weathering imprisonment and loss with an equanmity that the rest of us are yet to match.
But that was yet to come.
On that day, listening to this story, I remember the anger that built up in my own body when his friend answered my question as to what he did for my brother that day, with a “I was scared! I ran.” How could he? I demanded to know. “You ran? You had a tennis raquet in your hand and you ran? I would not have run,” I declared, all 100 pounds of me quaking with rage, ready to go back and find the thug who had threatened my brother. I remember my brother laughing. He said, “X is Sri Lankan, but he grew up here. That’s why he ran.” I just want to say, he was wrong. It has nothing to do with where we grow up, it has to do with love. I may be 8,771 odd miles away from my brother, but I would fight for him any day. Even without a tennis raquet. This poem, not mine, explains why.
For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
(Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us” from Of Gravity & Angels. Copyright © 1988 by Jane Hirshfield)