I suspiciously eyed the wooden plank swing hanging from the giant oak tree, my head tilted slightly to the right, my sunglasses dangling from my fingertips.
“He says he built it for the grandkids,” my brother said walking up behind me.
I turned to look at him, raising one eyebrow in question.
“I know,” Brian said, chuckling under his breath. “I thought the same thing.”
When we were younger – I was probably about 9 and Brian about 5 – my father built us a playhouse. Seeing as the man built houses for a living, our playhouse was not without its luxuries. Set on 9-foot stilts, the miniature property featured a winding staircase, flower boxes at each window, cedar-shake shingles and a garage to house my Barbie jeep and Brian’s Fisher Price convertible. I think he would have run cable through the backyard had my mom not complained that it was nicer than their first townhouse.
It took a whole summer to build and my brother and I loved to watch Dad work. At some point, about half way through the project, Brian and I stole a piece of scrap wood and some rope and strung up a swing in a big maple tree by Dad’s work site. It quickly became our favorite place.
My brother and I would spend the whole day on that swing, feet dangling just above the grass, watching my dad work. Even hours after he’d call it a day, we’d stay outside swinging and laughing and playing together.
Dad did finish our playhouse eventually, and while it was beautiful when that last shutter was securely nailed to the window, the last petunia planted in the flower box, we only set foot in it a handful of times. Instead, we spent hours together on our old swing.
We’d have competitions: who could swing the highest? Jump the farthest? Twist the rope in circles the most times without throwing up lunch? As we got older, one of us would lean against the trunk of the old maple, the other rocking back and forth on the swing, the grass worn to dirt under our feet, reading books or just talking.
The ropes broke – twice – and had to be replaced. Dad grumbled both times as he tossed the new ropes over the tree branch in the shadow of the untouched, pristine playhouse.
It was always our spot, Brian and mine. The place where we’d go to laugh, where we’d retreat together in sadness, where we kicked the dirt up when we argued.
Of course, kids grow up and move away, houses get sold and divided in divorces, and old plank swings get left behind and forgotten.
“I don’t think he ever really understood before,” Brian said, yanking me out of my day dream and bringing me back to reality.
“Dad?” I asked him, as my eyes flickered between my brother and the swing. “Understood what?”
“He used to buy us all that random stuff, he built that ridiculous playhouse … I think he did it all because he didn’t understand us. He didn’t really get us.”
Of course my brother was right. I think I’d realized the same thing about my old dad a few years ago.
“I think this swing is for us,” Brian continued and pushed me toward it.
“Of course it is. For the grandkids?” I scoffed. “The seat is three feet off the ground!”
“You know, in his defense,” my brother continued, ignoring my comment and beginning to push me as my hands gripped the thick ropes, “ we are kind of difficult to understand.”
I laughed then and began to pump my legs as the swing climbed into the sky. “That’s because you’re weird.”
“What? You’re the one with all the weird quirks,” Brian teased.
“Quirks? What quirks?”
“Oh, where do I start … you only crave ice cream in the winter,” he said and gave me a push.
“You can’t play video games to save your life.”
“You watched Clue the Movie so many times it jammed in the DVD player. You are addicted to those celebrity tabloid magazines.”
“You only ever play the piano like you really can when you’re alone. For everyone else, you just tinker around on it.”
“You read the same books over and over again. You refuse to wear clothes after they get wrinkled.”
“You write all the time. You have 29 journals on your bookshelf at home full of your writing. And who knows how many other random notebooks and post its are scattered around filled with your ideas.”
“Okay, okay I get it,” I said laughing as the swing climbed dangerously high. “You think you know me so well.”
“I do,” Brian said confidently and started to slow my swing. “That’s why Dad never could. We knew each other so well, we didn’t let anyone else in. Not even our parents.”
I thought about what my brother said as I dragged my feet across the grass and hopped off the swing. “You’re probably right,” I told him as he jumped on and wasted no time pushing the swing, and the old tree branch, too its limit.
“Of course I am.”
Marian Sandmaier wrote, “A sibling may be the keeper of one’s identity, the only person with the keys to one’s unfettered, more fundamental self.” In that moment, watching my brother swing under that tree, I believed her.
“You’re over thinking something,” Brian said suddenly and I looked up from my spot leaned up against the tree trunk.
“Oh yeah?” I prompted, closing one eye against the sun’s bright light.
“Yeah,” he said with finality, but didn’t push the issue. It was my favorite part about him. “I’ve got to head back to school this afternoon.”
“I know,” I said quietly, looking past him on the swing and across my father’s backyard.
“Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt …” Brian started before laughing. “I’ve got to go back Blair. You know I do.”
Denial was not a river. It was its own planet. With unicorns. And dinosaurs. And probably creepy alien people too. Stupid planet.
“Did you just say something about creepy alien people?” Brian said laughing. Stupid internal filter.
“Uh, no. Anyway. We should probably head inside so you can say goodbyes and get your stuff packed up,” I said. “And thank Dad for that swing.”
Brian laughed and jumped off the swing, grabbing my hand and tugging me into his embrace.
“I’ll probably always be the only person who will really get you, you know? And I’m probably the only person who will always take your side. Always. No questions asked …” Brian said and rested his chin on top of my head. When did he get so much taller than me? And smarter?
I just smiled and nodded silently as we headed back toward the house.
“… even though you’re really weird.”
Later that afternoon, after Brian headed back to school for his fall semester, I sat on the grandkids’ new swing in the yard of my father’s new house and thought about all the old times Brian and I had spent together in a place not so different than this one.
My phone beeped with a text message as I sat there:
Quit crying. Get off the swing. Go get a smoothie (it’s not cold enough for ice cream.) Feel better and I love you.
It’s creepy how well he knows me.