I imagine elementary school teachers across the country are getting their students to answer that question this Thanksgiving holiday week. My answer to this question never changed from year-to-year: I am thankful for my family, my house, my friends, school, food, money, and video games. Pretty standard.
Of course, I wasn't really thankful for my family, but I couldn't really say that without consequences. It would be quite awkward to be the only second grader in class who didn't put family on his "What am I thankful for" list. I knew better. I was aware of the things that raised flags in the eyes of others. And so every year, I announced to the world that I was thankful for my mother and father with a big smile on my face. No Mrs. Robinson, those aren't fingernail gouges on my arm. Surely you're mistaken. I just fell into some bushes playing basketball outside.
What an idiot, I thought. You can't play basketball at my height.It wasn't until my brother was born that I finally had something to be thankful for. In the black and white portrait of my life, his birth sparked something new: a desire to protect. I'm ten years older than him, so I've always considered myself a brother-father-hybrid. As my father slowly transitioned from an abusive alcoholic who could still earn a paycheck to an abusive alcoholic who could not, whatever positive presence my father had in his life diminished. My mother increasingly put more pressure on me to take care of him, because she was too tired. "I've sacrificed too much for you," she often said.
Note: To my future children, if I ever say that to you, a spirit has taken over my body. Call an exorcist immediately.My brother's existence kept me from severing ties with my family after they refused to show up to my wedding or accept my wife into the family. For nearly three years after my wedding, my mother refused to talk to me or let me communicate with my brother, so we kept in touch in secret. Last spring, she gave me a half-assed apology for her behavior and absence at my wedding. I accepted it with the hope that she and I could work together to ensure my brother put forth his best effort in his final years of high school.
This Thanksgiving holiday, my brother was supposed to come stay with me in New York City. He's a senior in high school and I wanted him to spend some time working on his college applications with my wife and me. We'd planned this for months and even had my mother's approval, but as the departure date approached, things soured. My mother realized that my brother's college applications were my weakness and she threatened to not let him visit. For the entire week leading up to Thanksgiving, both my mother and my father (under the manipulation of my mother) avoided my phone calls.
On the morning of my brother's flight, I finally got in touch with my dad. "I don't know if I'm comfortable with him going to see you," he said. "I need to think about this. What if something happens to me? I need him to stay at home."
Clearly, he was bullshitting me. "Dad, he's visited me before. You even knew about it. Plus, he doesn't even stay at home after school, he works part-time. And if something happens to you, that's because you refuse to quit drinking. Why are you preventing my brother from seeing me? What the hell is going on?"
"You're a fucking bastard. I hate you and your wife. Go to hell. You've never done anything for me," my dad yelled.
I hung up the phone on him. I knew it was pointless talking to him when he was slurring his words anyway.
Trying to get in touch with my mom was futile, so my wife convinced her father to try to talk my dad into letting my brother visit. They talk on the phone from time-to-time, so it was worth a shot. Bad idea: my mom intercepted the call and her inner monster revealed itself. She screamed obscenities at my father-in-law for interfering with our family affairs. She called him some really nasty shit. Poor guy, he was only trying to help. Unfortunately, his call further fueled the fire.
For the next five hours, she repeatedly called me, yelling at me for getting other people involved, calling me a selfish prick, accusing me of being my wife's bitch, telling me I've never doing anything for her, forbidding me from communicating with my brother, the list goes on. Childish. I stopped picking up my phone and let her go straight to voicemail. I think she finally stopped calling after the eleventh voicemail.
The chances of seeing my brother diminished. The minutes passed. Incoming text from my brother: It's impossible man. It really is. You don't know what's going on here. I'm sorry.
For the first time in an eternity, I cried. I think I really could have killed someone at that moment.
Still, I give thanks to you, my dear mother and father. Thank you for reminding me that I am still human. Thank you for showing me exactly what I shouldn't do with my children. Thank you for reminding me how important my brother is to me. I will never stop trying to protect him from you. For his own sanity at home, I won't let slip the dogs of war just yet. I'll remain radio silent. I'll wait.