My brother came to us in an airplane when he was one and I was two. He left Guatemala and traveled in the night sky across jungles and sea with a woman from the agency who soothed him over the noise of the engines. They landed on U.S. soil and he was delivered—small, malnourished, with big round eyes—into the arms of our expectant family.
It’s fitting that his new life with us began at night under the stars, because my brother is Mayan, descended from that proud, ancient civilization who looked upward to the constellations. They followed the movement of the planets and the path of the sun, plotted courses, predicted events, developed a calendar. Makes me wonder: could they have read in a comet’s tail how far away their sons and daughters would end up, or what their fortunes would be?
Almost at once this new child pulled on our senses. Our family was the earth and he was the moon, spinning a lonely orbit around us. We navigated our relationship with him by what we could see—his blazing harvest light, his fragile slivers in the dead of winter, his total eclipses in the spring without warning—and what we could feel in the dark emotional tides that swept us under. I don’t doubt that he came here trailing the spirit of a Mayan ancestor, a young male warrior who beat a fierce drum, spilled blood into the fire, scattered broken vessels in the dust…calling him, calling him back to the jungle.
My parents were so young, and my sister and I too little to understand. There was no manual: “How to Raise a Child Who Travels with an Ancestral Warrior.”
My connection to my brother was strung with worry. I was afraid we would lose him in crowded places and I panicked whenever he was out of my sight. He tended to wander, but I would yank him back. I was furious with my parents; weren’t they paying attention? He needed to be safe or I was a ball of anxiety. Our birthdays are next to each other in December, and we share an astrological sign, and yet my brother’s life—despite my vigilance, despite our astral similarities—took a drastically different turn from mine. There was no way I could stop it, no way to yank him back. I know now that our paths are made up of choices, but even choices feel foreordained at times. How else do we learn what we came here to learn. How else do we break free.
For a long time he must have questioned why he was here, and not back there where he was born. He named his first daughter after his birth mother. He started calling himself by his Latino middle name, closer to his roots than his Caucasian first name. He tattooed art and symbols on his body. Not much is known about his birth father or other siblings, but perhaps his laugh was like theirs, or the way he raises his eyebrows. I am sure his ability to tinker with things came from the same advanced minds who understood math and numbers before anyone else in the Western hemisphere. This complex human being, my brother, tugged backward, pulled forward, spinning, spinning, spinning.
When I vacation in Mexico, I see him everywhere in the stoic eyes and high cheekbones of the people who trim the hedges and sweep the walkways, in the young man at dinner who pours my water. We agree this is the game of tourism. But I know—and they know—that they come from greatness.
I went to Chichen Itza once, one of the major Mayan ruins. We stood across from a temple as our guide clapped her hands and a surreal sound came back at us; she said the Mayans built it so that the echo would sound like birds chirping. We climbed to the top of the tallest pyramid into the thick air above the tree tops, then inched our way down the steps, slippery as ice from the treading of innumerable feet. Everywhere the temples and monuments were hacked free from strangling green; carved faces in the limestone stared back at us. We looked out over a large cenote, a deep well into which young females were sacrificed for their power and strength. A snake, coiled on a rock, napped in the shade of a palm leaf. The place was alive, moving. The earth shifted underfoot; the air rang with birds and monkeys and insects. A child with a mischievous face hid behind a stone wall, then ran with tinkling laughter—the ghost of a child from long ago, I imagined.
I wanted to connect it to my brother, that aliveness, but it took years, many long years, before I could start to see, and before he could as well.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this now, except that something feels as if it’s come full circle. We are all grown, my sister and brother and I—even my parents. In the perfect vision that hindsight gives us, no one was right and no one was wrong. We simply carried ourselves heavily on, until the load became lighter. Yes, that’s probably what it is: a lightness that comes with perspective and knowing that you have survived and being able to speak about it with love for those who were there.
My brother is lighter. The jungles of his life have often overgrown him, but he has cut himself free time and again. The eyes of his beautiful children hold glints of his lineage. He makes fervent music and cooks giant feasts and cheers on the Broncos and smiles with genuine happiness. He has made peace with the warrior ancestor and the beating drum; he has told him, “I am all right. You can rest.”
And even though my brother is firmly of the earth now, he still looks up, still searches with his telescope trying to find his place in the night sky.
I hope it is clear to him:
You are a child of the universe,
No less than the trees and the stars;
You have a right to be here.
– from Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata”