My brother expects you to answer the phone when he calls, so I rarely screen him. When I picked up the phone, I assumed nothing more than an informative chat, the only kind you have with Lance. He is, even when off-duty, quite militant.
I don't remember what day of the week it was, which is strange because I have a knack for remembering details like that.
I do remember most everything else about the phone call telling me he had been deployed.
I had just applied some sort of masque treatment to my face that was warm and sticky and cracked when I made an expression. My hair was pulled back and I had on the white fluffy hotel robe The Gorilla got me for my birthday the first year we were a couple.
After the first few minutes, when his voice turned serious, I sat on the edge of the bed and stared out the dark window. We were expecting this. When Lance joined the Marine reserves not long after his active duty ended and soon after the 2001 attacks, our family accepted this possibility. That is to say, I wasn't surprised by the news but my heart raced anyway.
It was the end of winter or early spring, however you choose to look at it. His year-long deployment was to begin at the start of the summer, only nine months of it served in the Middle East fighting a complicated war. It was different, suddenly, to talk international policy theoretically versus the new reality of my older brother - the smart one, the together one - facing serious daily danger.
He was newly married and, just before he left in May, found out he would become a Daddy while he was gone. This was joyous and scary for everyone, especially his petite bride who had relocated to our hometown only to face these life changing events without him.
It goes without saying that it was a painful and emotional year for our family. His third niece was born, the holidays were lacking, then just after the first of the year we welcomed his son into our family with as much love and as few tears as we could muster. The knowledge that my brother, who had recently become a rock in our family, a steady and unwavering voice, was fighting an enemy we didn't understand was enough to rob my breath, sometimes hourly. The knowing was never not there. Many times, I was thankful to be so far from the rest of my family, thankful that I could cocoon into my own terrified thoughts and not have to take on theirs.
I know that's cowardly.
He would email frequently and call occasionally. I lived on the edge of reason during that time, panicked if I misplaced the phone. Though usually his calls came in the middle of the night, from a blocked number, and roused me from a restless sleep.
He was careful with the details he shared from Iraq. He made a special call to me on the day his son was born, and another to talk me through relationship drama. His perspective from half a world away seemed the same as when he was kicking around red dirt in Oklahoma, but it must have been changing. I know it was changing.
His airplane landed in the California desert just shy of a year from his departure. I drove with The Gorilla like a maniac, blasting The Sounds and grinning like a banshee. We reunited at the gates to the base, where he stood, tanner and thinner than before, with his legs crossed at the ankle and his arms crossed on this chest.
We had a steak dinner and I'm sure I jabbered on and I know I cried more than once. We swapped stories about the time apart, subtly ignoring the awfulness of war and the toll it takes.
Hugging him in April 2007 was one of the best memories of my life. It was his birthday.