My husband's youngest brother is 17 years younger than him, 15 years younger than me.
I am an only child.
I used to beg for a sibling.
When I began dating my husband, his youngest brother was only 12.
At 16 he came to Alaska to work for the summer, staying with us in our tiny apartment and giving us a chance to spend some extended time together.
Maybe all of those factors conspired, or maybe it's just him, but somehow a deep place in my heart was carved out for my youngest brother-in-law. And since I have no siblings I can only guess that what I feel is some amalgamation of the love one feels for a brother, a nephew, a friend all mixed in to one.
Now he is 19 and 2 days ago we watched him graduate from the United States Marine Corps boot camp.
My husband served in the US Coast Guard and he knew that bootcamp graduation would be important for my brother-in-law, that it would mean more to him for us to be there for that, than it would mean to be at his high school graduation, which happened earlier this year. And since we live far away we knew we would only make it to one.
So last week we flew to San Diego, to join my in-laws to celebrate this massive accomplishment.
Though I'm not sure I knew what to expect or knew how profoundly it would impact me.
I was proud of him before we went, my brother-in-law had been here in the summer and both my husband and I had listened at length to his new found excitement for the Marine Corps.
Listened to the ins and outs of opportunities and responsibilities, quizzing him on if this is really what he wanted to do. Pressing him about how much he had considered the realities of war, vocalizing our worries about PTSD and brainwashing. He was not in the slightest bit deterred, he'd given the matter a lot of thought and it was obvious to us it was a decision he had not made lightly.
He was already committed, both in spirit and in contract. He was all in, for the next 5 years. And so we all were.
I've never been hugely supportive of military endeavors, some of my best friends purposely chose not to register with the selective service when we were younger and I sympathized with their reasoning. You would have been far more likely to find a peace sign on my bumper than an American Flag.
And yet you couldn't have got me to give up the "Proud Sister of a Marine" t-shirt that I wore home yesterday, for any amount of money.
Here was someone I loved making this huge choice in their life for all the right reasons. So we rallied behind him and what he cared about.
His letters from boot camp were like gold. Cherished. Read over and over. He sounded good, calm, resilient and still like himself.
And he told us he would look different, 24 lbs lost, on a kid that wasn't overweight to begin with.
I mentally prepared for the physical changes we would see, but I don't think I was prepared for the whole transformation.
I wasn't prepared to be blown over by this person who had become even more respectful, self aware, thoughtful and focused.
I wasn't expecting to see this 19 year old who I had to force out of bed at 1 in the afternoon, just a couple summers ago, become a self possessed young man naturally commanding respect. A leader already and with so much potential ready to unfurl.
I wasn't expecting to find this place in my heart expand even more, this fierce love take up residence. And this sudden desire to know and understand as much about his world, the USMC, as possible. To try to absorb as many acronyms, definitions and principles as I could. As a civilian I will never know what his experience is truly like, but that doesn't mean I won't try to follow along.
When the people we love direct their heart and soul towards something, how can we not open our hearts in that same direction.
If we are to understand them in this new experience mustn't we try to at least learn the language of their new culture, at least a rudimentary lay of the land. This seems important, keeping a pulse on the ways he is changing and growing, our best defense against distance and unfamiliarity.
I wasn't expecting how painful it would feel to say good-bye. How unknown and uncertain it would seem: When would we see him again, for how long, where would he be sent? How much danger will he be in?
Would it hurt like this if he was just at college or living in a different town. I don't know.
I just know that I want to hold on.
I think this must be brotherly love. I see the same sadness in my husband as we readjust to being away from him, the same joy that turned to sorrow when we had to say good-bye at the airport. The same reoccurring tears that keep showing up, unbidden.
And the same pride and hopefulness as we think about his accomplishments and what the future might hold for him.
I am truly thankful for having him in my life, thankful that it seems he's on the right path for him and thankful for his service. What greater service is there than to risk one's life for the protection of others.