Heartbreak Serenade

Family Album

I come from a family of four children: a constellation of daughters born first, three years separating each one from the next, enough years to harden us into being inventions of our owns. And then this boy, gentler than any of us.

My brother John was twelve when he had his first heartbreak. I was twenty; I had already had mine. The day his sixth grade girlfriend broke up with him, he came home from school, took a ukulele from a shelf downstairs (he had asked for it for Christmas several years before and we all had thought it was a strange request), and then went quietly upstairs into his room. He emerged from his room in the evening and said that he had written a song.

We sisters arranged ourselves about the living room, vying for the most comfortable chairs. John sat in the center, strummed the ukulele and began to sing. I think it was our nervousness at how solemn he seemed, for strong emotions tended to stay under the radar in our house, or perhaps it was our surprise at his voice, which was unrecognizably smooth, like a man’s voice; but for whatever the reason, the first verse left us rapt in silence, and during the second verse, we began to laugh.

I don’t know who started the laughter—it might have been my mom, or maybe it was a glance exchanged among the three sisters, some doe-faced guilt that even though we were older and had come to everything else before John had, none of us had taken a heartbreak and written a song. Or maybe it was the knowledge that during his song, he was showing us more about his feelings than we had ever dared show him—or, perhaps, anybody.

At seeing each other laugh, we laughed louder and harder until soon we were hysterical, and even John put down his ukulele and laughed with us. Our laughter escalated to the point that my dad, who had been in bed during the serenade, came into the living room in his bathrobe to join in on the fun. We gaspingly managed to tell him about the song. He did not laugh.

My brother put away his ukulele and mended his heart, and he stopped singing for his sisters. The ukulele broke when we moved houses, and John grew up.

To this day, I look up to my little brother as one of the most comfortable-with-emotion people I know. Maybe that’s just how he came. Or maybe getting picked on for a particular quality (in John’s case, sentimentality) causes a person to branch into one of two directions: either shrivel up and bury that quality, or else let it grow and blossom obscenely, like a wild tropical plant of crazed proportions with colors too bright to hide.

John, now 24 and an actor/barista living in L.A., took the obscene route.

He tells you that he loves you—frequently. He cried at my wedding. He sends my infant daughter hardcover children’s books each month, inscribed in his still-childlike handwriting. He reads everything that crosses his path, and yet he always puts down his book when you walk into the room, and he never looks impatient to return to it.

Many times I’ve tried to recount his twelve-year-old heartbreak serenade, or as much of it as I can. Once I asked my brother for the words, but he said that he had written it too long ago and did not remember. He gave me a smile that implied I was sentimental and a little embarrassing for having asked. I asked my sisters, but they didn’t remember either. So I was left on my own to remember the missing words, and years later the only line I have is this one: “Why should I cry when things are not nigh, and people are doing okay?”

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