Despite being number five of eight children, if it weren’t for my brother, Rick, my childhood would have been lonely. Rick and I are sixteen months apart, and possess the kind of telepathy reserved for twin-twins, not just Irish ones.
We’ve always had this kind of connection. Even as adults, we seem to know when the other might need a text or phone call of support across the cosmos. That’s just how it is. That’s how it has always been between Rick and me.
Although we don’t talk regularly (we don’t have to) our love language is sarcasm and words of violence. I don’t know why. Jokes about disemboweling one another with mom’s sewing scissors (the forbidden shears that were for nothing, absolutely nothing but for cutting material) seemed lost on everybody else. Still, Rick has always been my hero.
The earliest memory of his heroism happened when I was two and a half years old, and Rick was nearly four. We lived for a short time on a little farm in American Fork, Utah, in a small white house right off I-15 and the beautiful lush green lawn of a golf course.
We had some cows I don’t remember and pigs that have slipped my mind. I do remember those hateful chickens penned inside a raise chicken coop and a big old tree in the front yard.
The tree was a giant, planted at least a million years before man, that hemorrhaged thick roots creating peaks and valleys out of our patch quilt grass. A single fat tree branch reached across the front yard, and someone had fastened twenty feet of dangling rope and mounted it to two wooden slats side by side.
I loved those swings. A girl who refused to wear shoes and wore only dresses tied at the waist and smoothed out into a perfect circle when she twirled could spend all day on swings like those.
Each flat wooden seat was wide enough to lie, stomach down, arms stretched out in front, perfect for pretending to be Superman in flight. They were also big enough that two small children could stand together, side by side, leaning in unison, forward then backward, forward and back, until momentum pushed them high, high, high, into the sky.
Besides adorning the front of the house, the swings were also the spot one would run to and touch, shouting “Safe!” during an intense game of tag with the older kids. Safe meant a no-touching zone, where one might be able to catch her breath or else find protection from one of those mean old hens.
I don’t like chickens. I mean, I’ll eat them, but I don’t like them as living creatures. I’m often puzzled by people who dream of owning chickens, especially if they have children. And I think people who collect prized ones are downright insane.
To say that chickens are mean is to say that Mike Meyers of the Halloween franchise is just having a really bad day. Chickens are malicious, cantankerous fiends that bite, scratch, and peck. They are nothing but fury building just beneath their fluffy white feathers. That’s just what they are, horrible monsters, born mean and are mean when they’re dying. Maybe it’s their love language?
Usually, I never saw beyond my dad or oldest brother grabbing an unsuspecting hen, then in one single yank, wringing the bird’s neck. Mostly, the birds were tucked under an arm and taken to one of the sheds on the side of the house, where a sharp ax hacked off its head. I certainly never connected either of these two acts to the roasted dinner served later that night.
However, sometimes, after the chicken was taken to the shed and its head cut off, it would escape out the door. Imagine it, a headless body sprinting seventy-five-miles-per-hour across the front yard—wings flapping, body spotted in red, a steady blood flow spirting out its neck cavity—seeking revenge.
I was chased a couple of times by a dead bird, once with the chicken’s head off, and once when, after its neck had been cranked and overstretched and its head dangled parallel to its body. I saw the pinpoint black inside a wide white eyeball as it watched itself run. Both times, Rick saved me.
He appeared out of nowhere. “The swings!”
He would outpace the menacing bird, and we, together, would race to the swing and hop on, the momentum forcing us back and up, up, up, just in time to smash into the soft chicken body upon rebound. Once, for a split second, the zombie chicken somehow clutched the seat with its wings and rode with us backward until gravity took hold and ended it once and for all.
Once safe, Rick and I would remain on the swing, panting, letting the back-and-forth movement die, just like the bird.
When we were a few years older, Rick and I discovered Under-Roos—a tank top and underwear combo featuring Superheroes. I was always Wonder Woman. He was Superman, of course.
My family moved to a nowhere town, Green River, Wyoming, where tumbleweeds outnumbered people a hundred to one. There were seven of us kids then, all living in a crowded two-story townhome, the height of something three-stories.
My parents were fighting a lot, more than ever before. One day, I was hiding in my bedroom when Rick came to my door, armed with a peanut butter and honey sandwich.
We climbed on top of the bed I shared with my sisters and out the window to perch on the roof’s steep slant. Rick handed me half of his sandwich. Wearing our Under-Roos, eating our sandwich, we watched as our mother, behind the wheel of our wood-paneled station wagon, sped out of the apartment complex parking lot.
“You think Mom’s coming back?” Rick asked. I detailed the cloud of dust the car had kicked up.
“No,” I said.
“That’s okay. I’m here.” He patted my hair, smashing sandwich honey into my roots.
I was wrong. My mom did come back. She always came back, usually after an hour or so spent grocery shopping. Among the paper bags of tortilla chips, blocks of orange cheddar cheese, and an array of cereal boxes, my parents were fine again. But I always felt most secure knowing that my brother Rick would always be there. And he was.
Throughout my childhood and the many, many moves from house to house, town to town, as well as through the brutality of adolescence, my brother Rick has been my protector and my built-in-friend. I have always felt loved because he is my big brother.