(Photo courtesy of: Erin Donovan)

When Number Two is Number One: My Big Little Brother

(Photo courtesy of Erin Donovan)

Never forget. This is what we’re told about September 11th. Most of us couldn’t forget if we tried. The images of twisted steel and even more twisted faces have grabbed our memories with a grip that will not ease. What we remember differs from person to person depending on how close each stood to the epicenter. My dearest friend on the East Coast, who was working in the adjacent building, keeps the memories the media cannot convey — the moans of breaking metal, the smells of a city ablaze, the breath of a stricken populace racing by. My dearest friend on the West Coast remembers only that her local coffee shop didn’t open that morning.

I, protected by the tall walls of a Missouri college that fateful day, have a dimming recollection of cancelled classes and a candlelight vigil on that particular 9/11, but September 11th has always been a day of seismic change for me.

Because my brother was born that day.

Shaun was the second and final child of my parents, and as he grew, he made it his life’s pledge to prove the playground taunts that first is the worst and second is the best. If we had been a typical set of siblings, I would have been the one to overachieve at everything, like firstborns naturally do. Shaun would have been left in the dust to marvel at how fast I ran, how high I jumped, how rapidly I completed times tables. Instead, Shaun outran me. Out-jumped me. Out-times tabled me. Out-mostly-everything’d me with exception to watching Phil Donahue and gaining water weight.

I realized early in the game that I would never be greeted by my parent’s friends with, “We have heard so much about you!” Those were pleasantries reserved for Shaun. Though I was occasionally asked things, like, “Do you go to all of your brother’s varsity games?” I learned it was best to nod and drift over to the cheese plate where I could really shine.

Shaun was the second and final child of my parents, and as he grew, he made it his life’s pledge to prove the playground taunts that first is the worst and second is the best.

Shaun showcased a special set of traits from an early age. He was selected to join an elite group of students who were shuttled out of their homerooms and into a no-man’s-land classroom brimming with tools and concepts laypeople couldn’t understand. My parents were not quite as impressed when I was given a similar appointment by my social studies teacher: He selected me as the one who left class each day to get him Saltines from the cafeteria. In the summers of our youth, we did lifeguard camp on the beach together. I watched, through sand in my eyes, as he won ribbon after ribbon. The one day my relay team squeaked into the top 3, thanks mainly to a girl built like The Rock, I dared to parade my green ribbon in front of the family that night at dinner. At the very moment my family should have begun my coronation, my grandmother guffawed, “Amazing what one can accomplish when one puts one’s self in a group two years younger than one’s age.”

These scenarios continued throughout puberty, which — for the record — Shaun seemed to catapult right over before landing squarely in manhood. He even began sleeping with my friends from time to time, an unfortunate thing to learn during truth or dare.

It took moving away for college to comfortably settle into my role as the less impressive child, but once I embraced my position, it allowed Shaun and I to become more than unlikely siblings. We became even more unlikely friends. We texted each other with absurd observations. We called each other just to check in. I hung up happy to have heard from him and only vaguely moved to cry into a pillowcase of surely lesser thread count than his.

When the 9/11 that all of us remember — and cannot forget — occurred, I was, like most of the denizens of the world, paralyzed by the enormity of what had happened. I’d been plotting a move to the city after graduation and felt I had to do something for her in order to be welcomed into her gritty fold. I called my local Red Cross and signed up to donate blood. I phoned my parents to tell them that their daughter, their firstborn child, was serving her country.

“That was thoughtful, dear,” my mom said distractedly. “Your brother enlisted in the Navy.”

Shaun didn’t just sign up for the Navy that day. He became a Navy SEAL. A real one, too, not even a Demi Moore one. The calamitous outcome of 9/11 urged him on through icy swims, thigh-chafing runs and exercises utilizing the sort of logs that soldiers of yesteryear used only to build forts. He has now completed tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as top-secret missions in locations that he will only reveal were not Ohio.

With his success, the unintentional one-upsmanship returned to our relationship. On my son’s third birthday, I gave him a plastic pirate ship. My brother handed him a skull and crossbones patch taken from the jacket of an actual Somali pirate. When he came to visit me at the media firm in which I worked, one of my superiors who had only stopped asking me to fetch his coffee after six years on the job, had to steady himself against a desk when faced with Shaun’s star-spangled glory. He even gave him the coffee right out of his hand.

It was on September 11th, 1981 that Shaun was given life. It was on September 11th, 2001 that he became larger than life. While most of us do our best to get through this day, straining to remember how precious it all is while also trying to blot out how quickly, and without warning, it can all come toppling down, Shaun immerses himself. He remembers why he committed himself to protecting people he will never know. He validates why he spends so much time away from his family so that others can keep close watch over theirs.

He never forgets. And because he is my brother, I never do either.

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7 Responses

    • Erin Donovan
      Erin Donovan

      Good memory – but it’s not the same essay. The motivation is obviously the same and parts of it – that are historically impossible to remove from the telling of my brother’s story – are in there. Tue Night gave me greater license to expand on the story than a newspaper column can allow.

  1. Alexandra Rosas

    Those that hear this call, to rise and come to the aid of country, are a unique and selfless breed. They go because they know they are the ones. And I am overwhelmed each time I hear and read a story like yours, Erin. He is a lot to be proud of. Please let him know how grateful his country is for him.

  2. thekitchwitch

    I thought this was a beautiful tribute to your brother. My heart hurt a little for you as the “second fiddle” growing up, but you turned it into something lovely.

  3. Ann

    Loving, funny & insightful. Beautiful tribute to siblinghood, Erin.

  4. Pam

    A beautiful essay. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your family’s story.

  5. Quirky Chrissy

    I found myself always in competition with my brother, but not because he was the successful child that did no wrong, but because my parents had higher expectations of me than they did of him.


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