My brothers and sister and I used to play make believe when we were kids. My sister, being the oldest, was always in charge. She was the mom when we played house, the teacher when we played school. Always the boss, always our leader.
My older brother was always a firefighter or policeman or soldier or doctor or cowboy. He played the rescuer, the hero – rarely unsung and never a part that actually fit in with our story. (We never fought with him over it, though. He was too much of a pain, even then.)
My little brother, being too young to really understand our games, was usually stuck in the corner with his coloring books and was not invited to play. He didn’t seem to notice, much less mind. He much preferred Crayola’s to us anyway.
And then there was me. I was always the baby, the student, the patient, the cat stuck up in the tree, the bank robber. I played the parts that were necessary, but that no one else really wanted to play. My role was always changing – molding and adapting to fit my big brother’s and sister’s imaginations. But I didn’t realize it then. And even if I had, I doubt I would have changed anything. We had too much fun.
It’s really rather creepy how much my siblings’ lives have come to resemble the games we played as kids. My sister is a teacher; my older brother is a police officer. They both have a spouse and a pair of kids each. My little brother is an art student at the University of North Carolina, having traded in the crayons for more advanced art and prestigious internships all over the country.
And then there’s me. I remain the student, the baby, the cat stuck up in the tree, the patient – whatever part they need me to play, when they need me to play it. And sometimes I can’t help but feel that life is leaving me behind.
I’m getting left behind.
I’ve spent the last few weeks scraping together my resume and writing samples and applying for new jobs that would all take me several hundred miles away from home.
My sister takes the news with alarm. “Where are you moving?!” she screeches. “You don’t even know what you want to do when you grow up!” I bite my tongue to keep from telling her that 24 is considered grown up these days. She won’t listen. “What if I need a babysitter?” she wants to know. “Who will edit my dissertation? I’m working on my doctorate, you know?” Yes, I tell her, I do know. But that’s all I say. She continues to whine. I leave the room.
My little brother is hesitant. “Huh, so thinks are really changing then, I guess,” he says. “Coming home won’t be the same.” He always hated change.
My mom wants to know who is going to take her car for an oil change when it needs it – she really hates doing that.
My father wants to know who will take care of my mother when I go, he won’t be doing it.
My friends say I’ll miss out on our weekly lunches. They say there is more to life than work, I’m not the type who would give up everything for a career, am I? It’s easy for them to say, they all have jobs they love.
Elliott wants to know who will do his homework when I leave. He can’t come with me, he says. He has a job of his own and a life here.
Please stay, they all say. Stay for us.
But no one has ever stayed for me.
My older brother and sister have their own families; my baby brother is away at school. My father left years ago, not physically but in every way that counts. Friends have gotten married or gotten jobs and moved states – sometimes countries – away. Even Elliott made me chase him across the country because he found dreams of his own in Idaho. But now I’m the one leaving, and somehow it’s different.
I am in quick sand. I am hanging on to the door being ripped off of its hinges by the tornado. I am parachuting through the sky.
“So what are you going to do?” My head snaps up from the ground, searching for the familiar voice but I’m alone under the old ginkgo tree. Hearing voices is never a good sign. “You already know what you’re going to do,” Mr. Kelly’s voice rings in my head. “You always know in your head long before you ever admit it out loud.”
It’s almost like he’s here with me. Only he’s not. So when I ask my old friend for answers, he is conveniently silent.
I place my hands on the ground in front of me, fingers splayed out like the roots of a tree, grounding me to that spot. They’ve been my roots, my family and friends, running deeper and anchoring me to the ground tighter than I ever realized. Since the roots don’t plan on going anywhere …
“I’m going to cut down the tree,” I say out loud to the cool autumn day. A woman walking her dog nearby stops and stares at me with a confused look on her face. “Well not literally,” I mumble. “I have to go, Mr. Kelly,” I say, quieter this time. “I can’t stay here.”
What I really mean is, I can’t stay for them.