He was the one I could always count on to be there for me no matter what was thrown our way. He was the only person I could call on anytime of the day or night if I needed someone. When I had no friends, he was my friend. And even when he started holding down serious girlfriends, he always made time for me. He was my only rock in my family, the one I knew would be level headed and honest.
And then came 9/11.
I’ll never forget watching the footage replay in my math class. None of my peers seemed to know what was going on, but as soon as we got into that classroom and saw our teacher looking scared and shocked, we knew it wasn’t good. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was about a plane hitting a building. Don’t mistakes happen? Wasn’t the answer that the pilot had lost control of the plane?
But it was a terrorist attack. A deliberate, highly planned hijacking of a major airliner. Even though it was 3,000 miles from us, it felt personal. It was our airspace. And it was meant to disable our country and what our country stands for. So when he could, at 17, my brother left for the military. And after finishing his basic and advanced training, he was almost immediately sent overseas to the war in Iraq.
But we had one conversation before he left for Iraq that I’ll always remember. My family had driven to his Army base to see him off to the war. Jim and I were chatting about how I loved to sing, but he knew I was way too scared to ever sing anywhere but from a back up microphone or in the shower. He told me that I should sing in the talent show at my high school. I could sing for him; it would be one thing I could do to honor his departure. I’m sure my face turned white when he suggested it, but I knew I would have to. He was my number one, the only one to be there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on or someone to laugh with in the midst of the craziness of our family. And he might be leaving.. forever. Hands shaking and head spinning, I agreed.
And then we dropped him off at the base one more time and took turns hugging him and saying our “I love you’s”. I cried as he turned and walked back to his barracks. A while later, we got an email from him saying he couldn’t disclose his location, but that he’d made it where he was supposed to be and he missed us.
I was a junior in high school and just beginning to realize my peer’s opinions couldn’t define me. But I still didn’t want to sing in front of them. I almost convinced myself to “miss” the auditions, but on the last day, I showed up and sung for two girls in my class that were in charge of choosing the talent. My voice was shaky as I explained to them that my song was dedicated to Jim Allen, my brother who had just gone to Iraq and the only reason I was doing this was because I promised him I would. I sang the first chorus, listened to them tell me they would let me know by the following weekend, and walked out as quickly as I could. I was hoping they wouldn’t choose me and I’d have an excuse to not proceed.
I got word that I had been selected and would be somewhere in the middle of the lineup. I spent the whole next two weeks leading up to the show terrified and queasy. I thought for sure I would get sick right in the middle and have to run off stage. On a Thursday night, we had our rehearsal for parents and family members. I was surprised to see a lot of people I knew in the audience, but trying to not think about anything that would scare me.
Finally, the people organizing the event told me I was next and I went to stand by the stage entrance. When they called my name, the announcer told my story as I walked on stage. “Katie wants to dedicate this song to her brother and best friend, Jim, who is currently serving in Iraq.” Oh my gosh! Such pressure! Maybe I shouldn’t have told anyone the back story…
Grabbing the mic from the person walking off the stage, I felt my heart pounding faster than it ever had. For what felt like minutes, I just stood there on stage, looking into the lights and waiting. I was singing a capella and could start at any minute, but I didn’t know if my voice would even work.
I opened my mouth and it was like someone else was forcing the words out, light and beautiful. Full of emotion.
“When I think back on these times… I’ll be glad ’cause I was blessed to get to have you in my life. When I look back on these days, I’ll look back and see your face. You were right there for me… In my heart, there will always be a place for you for all of my life… You showed me how it feels to feel the sky within my reach and I always will remember all the strength you gave to me. Your love made me make it through, I owe so much to you. You were right there for me… I always saw in you my light, my strength. And I want to thank you now for all the ways you were right there for me.”
I saw his face when we were kids, smiling and laughing. I saw him stepping up beside me to raise our siblings when our parents couldn’t. I saw him hold my sister when she got hurt playing baseball while we waited for our parents to come home. I saw him pulling up in his car and getting out as I went running into his arms after an “I need you” phone call. I saw him running up to me and rescuing me when he found me in the middle of a fight my boyfriend had started. I was just standing there, scared and naive when he showed up. He always showed up for me.
I saw of all of this while I sang, getting stronger and more confident with every note. He’d carried me through so much of my life and now he was carrying me through this song.
And then I saw his back turning from me, walking back to his barracks. I sang the last bit.. “And everywhere I am, there you’ll be.” Somehow, I managed to make it off stage before I started crying. I sat in the room to the side of the stage waiting out the last few acts, realizing for the first time that I had just sent my brother off to something he might never come back from.
This was real. This was life. And it was way bigger than any sneers or chuckles I might get from my peers the following day when I would perform for them. It was way bigger than what I’d chosen to wear and whether people liked it. It was way bigger than my emotions or my fears or whether my voice had started shaking. It was way bigger than me.
It was keeping a promise I’d made to him. It was singing for him, knowing that if he never came back, I would have kept my promise to do the last thing he asked of me. And that if he did, I could thank him for making me face my fears. And I’ve never regretted doing so.