Stephen, Leaving

In Sojourns
A sister comes to grips with being left behind as her brother leaves the nest.

Home, Fall 2014

“We’ll be back soon, Mom.”

My brother, Stephen, and I are heading out to do some Black Friday shopping. We’ve just stuffed ourselves with warm turkey, potatoes, and gravy at Grandma’s house, and now it is time to shop for Christmas. I look forward to this evening all year; since I’m in college and he’s in the field studying Scrub jays most of the year, this is the one day we know we can spend together. As we head toward the front door, I pat my purse to make sure I have money and my phone, and nod my head when Stephen asks if I’m ready.

Stephen steps forward and twists the golden handle, twisting the front door open wide on its hinges. At the same moment, something shoots out from the festive wreath that my mom has hung outside of the door. It whizzes straight over my head and into the foyer. Nervously flapping and fluttering its wings, it bobs and weaves and then flies into the den.

“Ack!” I scream.


“What? What?” Mom says, rushing over from the family room.

“Sh! Turn off the lights in here!” Stephen instructs me. “Go get a flashlight!”

I do as he says and come rushing back to the den, fumbling with the flashlight button.

“Here, give me that,” says Stephen. Herding the creature into a corner with the flashlight, my brother manages to softly cup it in his hands. He emerges from the dark den with his hands caging some small, terrified creature. Intrigued and terrified ourselves, Mom, Dad, Stephen and I congregate to the well-lit kitchen to see what he has caught.

“Ready?” says Stephen, reveling in the attention. As he slowly unwraps his hands, he reveals a small house finch breathing noticeably quickly. He uses two knuckles to grab it by the neck.

“This is just how we do it in the field,” he says. “This is my time to shine!”

“Well, we’re glad we finally get to see a little bit of what you do,” Dad says. “Let me see.” We all take turns looking at the soft brown feathers and scrawny legs of this little stranger in our home.

The finch is breathing even faster now, overwhelmed by the bright lights and the group of giants ogling it. Realizing this, my brother relents.

“Okay, we should probably let him go now,” he says. I take a quick photo of him holding the bird and then help him open the front door to release it. The finch zips out of the house like a rocket, finally safe at home.

My family and I wave goodbye and chuckle for a moment, mesmerized by what has just happened. I realize I have been holding my breath, and as I breathe in, my heart flutters back to life. Abruptly, I am reminded of our original plans for the evening.

“Alright, better get to shopping,” Dad says, shooing us out the doorway. Mom gives a look of protest that we have to go, but after seeing how well Stephen has handled the bird flying into the house, she really can’t hold him back. We reopen the door and step out onto the porch, turning back to say goodbye.

“Yeah, okay,” Stephen says, waving to my parents and smiling down at me. “We’ll be back soon.”

CLE, Summer 2015

leaving1Dad pulls the car up to the top level of the Cleveland airport and shifts into neutral beside the American Airlines entrance. In a matter of seconds, he has clicked open all the doors and my brother and I have hopped out onto the sidewalk. We dash to the trunk to unload my brother’s luggage. He heaves once and lifts his black suitcase onto the ground, quickly pulling up the metal handle. With all his belongings now in tow, we head inside. I stride confidently in front of him, proud to say I’ve been in an airport once before. He sighs at my silliness and watches as Dad drives off to the parking lot. Stephen’s been here a few more times than I have, and it’s getting to be a hassle. He keeps rolling his luggage along anyway.

Once inside the cool, air-conditioned building, we step up to the counter to weigh his bag. The line is short, but we wait for an eternity. Behind us, a mother barely hangs on to two swinging and hollering toddlers. Ahead of us, a faulty blue computer screen flusters the man at the desk. Stephen curses and turns red. I cringe and wonder if this is how his trips always go.

Eventually, my brother checks his bag in and sends it away on the conveyor belt. I watch it work its way down the line, and as I crane my neck to watch it turn the corner, I see Dad hustling in from the parking garage. He jogs up to the two of us standing in the middle of the entranceway and pats Stephen on the back.

“Well, how long until you have to board?” he asks.

“I still have a good 20 minutes,” Stephen says.

“What!” I say. I’m amazed at how calculated travel has become for him.

He really should be hurrying. We all know it’s time for him to go. Still, we insist on dragging out the goodbye without ever saying that word exactly.

I wrap my arms around my brother, awkwardly patting his heavy-duty carry-on backpack. He goes to hug Dad, too, and I wipe my eyes, which are beginning to brim with tears (from the air conditioning, I’m sure). Finally, they part and my brother walks toward his gate. After a few strides, he turns back for one last wave, but that’s all we’ll have for a few months. Just like that, he is gone again.

Home, Winter 2016

leavingMy brother, twenty-six, is a nomad. Since graduating college, he has driven that same golden Camry back and forth across the country, heading to the lab in Memphis at the end of every summer and then down to the bush in Florida in the middle of winter, with brief stops in D.C. and Ohio in between. He drinks from a water bottle, not a glass. It’s covered most notably in Yellowstone moose stickers, with faded paraphernalia from Arizona and Rhode Island underneath. This is one of his Ohio visits. I look out at the driveway and see there’s really no such thing as a “back seat” in his car. It’s piled high with cargo pants, camera equipment, and mosquito nets. He may have an Ohio license plate, but my brother doesn’t have a home.

Today is no different. Today, he’s using our dining room table as a place to load his duffle bag as he packs up to leave again. He runs from one pile of clothes to the other, murmuring as he runs through his mental packing checklist. I stay to the side, shrinking in the shadow of the staircase. I don’t want to get in the way—I want to make sure that I make room for him here in his old home.

I watch as he packs his bags. First he piles up his toothbrush and toothpaste and stacks his books. Then he rearranges his computer cables, pauses, and looks around.

“Have you seen my laptop charger?” he asks.

Nodding instinctively, I scurry to the family room to look for the charger. I peek under a pillow, lift a couch cushion, but, ultimately, I find nothing. Maybe if he doesn’t find it, he’ll stay a few more hours.

“Found it—thanks!” he calls from the other room.

I turn and walk slowly back to the dining room, looking for things my brother might have forgotten to pack, or things he never intended to pack but might appreciate anyway. I slide my finger along family photo frames. Then I lift up an old record but remember he has no space in that car of his for a record player.

gouldianfinchGrowing quieter, I cross my arms on top of a chair, cross my ankles, and sigh. Looking down, I see an envelope filled with my brother’s photos. I assume they’re from his recent biology conference in Australia, but peeking out of the top is the one I took of him when he caught that bird in our kitchen. I stifle a laugh, pick up the envelope, and offer it to him.

“Don’t you need these too?” I ask.

“Oh, sure,” he says. He’ll probably throw them in a shoebox and never look at them, but I want him to have them, just in case.

Finally, the time comes for him to open the front door and walk to his car. He opens the door and sits down alone in the driver’s seat, placing his hands on the wheel and his sunglasses over his eyes. The lump in my throat grows bigger and harder to swallow, and my vision is getting fuzzy. I start to wave like crazy. He waves once, then rolls down the driveway and toward the next stop. Finally tearing my eyes away from the street, I tell myself that he’ll be back soon.


Submit a comment