I’d asked my brother one favor in my life—officiate my wedding. He could click a few icons on the internet and become ordained within the day. He laced his fingers and tucked them under his chin before responding.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” he said.
Months later he gave my fiancé, Bruce, and me an answer. He and his wife, and our parents, were visiting from out of town for the Thanksgiving weekend. Bruce and I expected to be under some pressure—it was our first time to host a family holiday. We labored over curried sweet potato soup and pear tarts. Bruce rotisseried the turkey since we’d overloaded the oven. Everyone had seconds. After dinner we squeezed into our galley kitchen to clean up. My sister-in-law and I sang along with the iPod while loading the dishwasher.
Just as I’d declared this to be one of my favorite family Thanksgivings, my brother wanted to see me and Bruce. He beckoned us to the basement. A principal summoning troublemakers to his office. Bruce and I squeezed beside each other on the loveseat. My brother alternated between sitting and standing in front of us.
“I’ve prayed long and hard on the question you asked me,” my brother said.
I’d heard this tone before. He’d come home early from college one night to find our house empty of parents and full of teenagers. He’d tell mom and dad on me if I didn’t.
“A marriage requires three relationships,” he was saying. “Each partner has a relationship with himself, with his partner, and with God.”
His gaze shifted like a finger wagging from my blue eyes to Bruce’s. I’d sat on the same pew with my brother from childhood through adolescence. I’d assumed he managed the long services the same way I did, by daydreaming. But there he stood, dispensing with chapters and verses as naturally as a seasoned preacher. Bruce, not as easily worn out by sermons, leaned forward on the edge of the couch.
“This isn’t easy for me to say,” my brother continued. “I can’t in good conscience vouch for you to God.”
Memories I’d dismissed in favor of keeping the peace resurfaced. My brother was absent for my 13th birthday party and for my high school, college, and law school graduation ceremonies. I never knew his reasons. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he hadn’t just told me in so many ways that for all these years he’d been disappointed with my lifestyle. That what I mistook as disinterest was really his aversion to the partying that accompanies me like a pet. I’d asked him to officiate my wedding to improve the bond we’d lately developed. I had, after all, attended and read a passage at his wedding.
He’d reconsider his decision if we attended church, preferably a Church of Christ, for an ample number of Sundays. He’d let us know when our relationship with God was satisfactory. The wedding was five months away.
“Don’t worry,” said Bruce. “This might do us some good.”
Two weeks later, I was sat down again for a talk. Bruce spoke this time.
“Your brother was arrested.”
“What the hell?” I asked.
Bruce rubbed his palm over his hair.
“Your brother is in jail,” he said. “He’s a sex offender.”
My brother, a high school teacher, had sexual contact with a student. A relationship that was not among the trinity of sacred relationships he’d identified. He was charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony, and unlawful use of a minor in a sexual performance, a misdemeanor. Mom and dad scrambled in the middle of the night, maxing out ATM withdrawals and family generosity to post the $5,000 bail.
The alleged crime occurred five days after my brother rejected us as the ideal candidates for marriage. We’d yet to discard all the containers of Thanksgiving leftovers. I’d yet to discard my resentment over the lecture. Bruce braced himself for my response, familiar with my tendency to yell instead of cry.
“Who does he think he is?” I screamed.
“I’m totally shocked,” Bruce said. “We’ve been emailing each other. He sends me Bible verses along with his reflections. No one’s ever cared to talk to me about this stuff before.”
Bruce slumped in the chair as if he’d been Tasered. I shouted until my throat tightened. I’d grown up wanting my brother’s approval. I’d brought my soon-to-be husband into the quest. How could my brother do this to us?
Somehow I moved past the legal charges. The 17-year-old girl had consented. Pursued even, depending on who you ask. The law even permits women her age to consent. If my brother hadn’t been a teacher, a person of authority, then no laws would have been broken. I pitted myself against his attorney for failing to mount what seemed like an obvious defense. My brother wasn’t her teacher. Wasn’t even her coach or advisor. He’d filed a complaint with the principal that she frequently loitered around his room.
It was one thing to save my brother from a stupid lapse in judgment. But I had no interest in saving our relationship from his hypocrisy. The man who implied that I was unfit to be a wife had cheated on his wife—a development achieved in fewer days than it took God to create Earth. He’d forced his credibility on us like a vapor trail in the sky. Now Bruce and I were left squinting, questioning whether it had ever been there.
For reasons concealed behind the curtain of marriage, my brother’s wife stayed. I admired her capacity for forgiveness. The only reason I spoke to my brother was in an effort to help his case. I unleashed my anger and disappointment through running and boxing. From the outside I was a regular bride-to-be getting in shape before the big day.
Weddings are one of the few times that women get a pass for being completely selfish. My dad didn’t care one way or another, but Mom always had lofty aspirations of my brother and me becoming close. After heartwarming episodes of 1980’s family dramas like “Our House” she’d say, “I just wish you cared about one another like they do.” It was a nice fantasy that I hoped at least once in my life to make come true. With Mom crying every day, there was no better opportunity. But not enough time had passed for me to play the star sister. I was still too angry.
I told my brother we no longer needed him to officiate, just in case given his new circumstances he deemed us satisfactory marriage material. He’d offended me by expecting me to be perfect and now I’d returned the favor. I envied those brides whose temper tantrums were limited to flower arrangements and place cards.
After shuffling the wedding party around, I transformed a bridesmaid into a minister overnight. It took those few clicks on the internet and a long hug. Almost what I’d imagined.
We weren’t sure if my brother could attend the wedding. There was the issue of whether he could travel out of state. Court proceedings had started. The prosecution had tacked on more charges, as prosecutors tend to do. Our family was uncertain about each day. I couldn’t ignore the possibility that mom might have to choose between providing her son moral support in the courtroom and providing her daughter words of wisdom before she walks down the aisle.
Only Bruce and my bridesmaids knew the family secret. It was rare enough among our friends and family that someone was arrested. A sex offense was inconceivable. Back home my family endured newspaper headlines, evening news updates, and trips to the grocery that were filled with insults and glares. I could have given Bruce’s family and our friends more credit for being compassionate, but I didn’t take the chance. I added “shield my family” to my to-do list. At least I could provide one weekend where they felt human enough to make eye contact.
Despite the situation, my wedding brought my best bonding milestone with my brother. We joked, convinced that Dad had stuttered while giving me away. We poked fun, concerned that uncoordinated dancing ran in the family. We posed for one family picture after another. An all-American bride in ivory lace with an all-American family surrounding her.
What I don’t see in the pictures, what I didn’t see that day, was a man who knew his fate. My brother had entered a plea agreement to spare the family from a highly-publicized trial. Behind his sheepish grin, his kisses with his wife, and his socializing with my friends was a man who knew he was going to prison. His ability to distance himself had been the ongoing source of pain between us. During my wedding weekend he maintained an emotional distance from the impending jail cell. It wasn’t the favor I’d asked for, or the skill I’d admired, but it was a sacrifice on behalf of sibling solidarity. He began his five-year sentence in a maximum security prison while Bruce and I were on our honeymoon.
His Thanksgiving speech and behavior drift in and out of my mind like dust particles. It’s easier now not to take it personally. Imparting his beliefs was his way of stepping into the older brother role he hadn’t filled. But it’s upsetting to think that maybe his doubts were instincts about his marriage, not mine. Doubts more likely about his relationship to himself, his wife, and God. Doubts about whether he was in a position to say, “Repeat after me.”
Latest posts by Holly Morse-Ellington (see all)
- A Desperate Man is Hard to Find - October 13, 2015
- Over the Threshold: The Mystery of My Dad’s Missing Love - October 8, 2014
- An Die Musik: Palookaville and Red Sammy Show Down Saturday - December 10, 2013