Advice For Yesterday, Today, the Future

“How old will Haley be when Aidan graduates from high school?”

One of my brothers, I can’t remember which one, sincerely asked this question last year while all eight members of our nuclear family sat around our kitchen table eating dinner. Though I hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation, I began to answer.

“I’ll be,” I said.

“Thirty,” Aidan finished.

Aidan is the youngest.

“No, I’ll be twenty-nine,” I said. “You’ll be seventeen. I’ll be twenty-nine.”

“Yeah, for like one more month,” he said.

My birthday is August 3. Aidan’s birthday is August 5. We were born almost exactly twelve years apart.

“Still, I won’t be thirty yet,” I said.

***

Aidan is still a few years away from graduating from high school. I’m still a few years away from turning thirty. But I thought of that exchange while I was sitting at my brother John’s graduation last week. Nine years ago, I sat where John was sitting, on the steps to our high school, sweating through my white satin dress while speeches were made and honors awarded. I’d imagined what it would be like to graduate from high school since I was little. I’d also thought about the graduation days of my siblings and wondered what my life would be like when I watched each of them receive their diplomas. I would be twenty when Jim graduated. Twenty-one at Tori’s graduation. Twenty-four at Dayton’s. Twenty-six at John’s. Twenty-nine at Aidan’s.

Now: Four down. One to go.

Has my life on the day of these four graduations resembled anything I had imagined?

Well, no. Not really.

As a teen, I thought that after one graduated from college, all of the things that were supposed to happen in life just happened. Kind of like The Game of Life. Get a job, make money, find a partner, buy a house, have children. Or whatever the order is.

I certainly didn’t consider the possibility that these things wouldn’t happen easily or at all. I thought that by now, I’d be zooming along that road, maybe stopping on the “Get Married” tile. (I don’t need to tell you this, but I had a very skewed sense of when certain milestones should occur.) I wonder what seventeen-year-old Haley would think of poor (literally poor), partnerless, twenty-six-year-old Haley. She’d probably judge her. But I – twenty-six-year-old Haley – would tell her to calm down. (Even though she hates it when people tell her to calm down.) Like, you’re going to do some fun, weird, interesting stuff in the next ten years. Also, some shitty stuff will happen. But it will make you wiser and a better human! And also, you’re never going to “figure it out”, so just enjoy doing the things you like to do and stop worrying.

All that being said, I still worry. But not really about achieving adult “milestones”. Mostly about if I’m spending my time wisely, how to fix perceived mistakes, and whether I’m drinking enough water.

***

Perhaps this isn’t the most fitting time for me to be waxing philosophical about life and my past and current selves. This year isn’t a big anniversary of my own high school graduation. My youngest sibling doesn’t graduate for another three years. And I am a few years from finishing out my twenties.

However. There is a reason I was thinking about all of this and I’m getting back to it now.

Again, I was thinking about all of this because my brother John graduated last week. He’s going off to college – Go Irish! – in less than two months. I didn’t give a toast at his graduation party last week and I probably wouldn’t be able to say in person the things I want to say to him as well as I can (I hope) here.

As the fifth of six, John’s in kind of a tough spot. He’s not the baby – though he was for four years – and he could never hang with the big kids, as hard as he tried. Growing up, he took endless shit from those of us at the top. We demanded that he leave us alone, stop telling us pointless stories, and accept defeat in the epic wrestling matches that took place in our basement. And then, after being horribly mean to him, we’d ask him to love us. (He was very cute and also the best cuddler.)

Somehow, John made all of that work for him. Today, at eighteen, he is a kind and loyal friend. An improved storyteller. A fierce-as-fuck competitor, a runner who is always thinking about how to win. And also, still very cute and the best cuddler.

I don’t know how much John thinks about the future. Probably at least a little bit, since the future plays such a huge role in the last few years of high school. But if I could give the John of today a little bit of advice – and I only will if he’ll let me – I would tell him to chill out on thinking about the future. Or I guess, think about it, just don’t have any expectations. Literally, nothing ever turns out the way you thought it would or wanted it to turn out. Learn from the choices you make and the things that happen that are out of your control. And – this is lame but I’m going to say it anyway – always try to find the humor in whatever situation you’re in. It makes things easier.

Good luck, Johnny. (Even though I don’t think you need it.)

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Moving On Up

me + aidan at middle school graduation

me + aidan at middle school graduation

Last night, my brother Aidan graduated from middle school. As we all know, middle school graduations are bullshit. They are ceremonies that mark the end of one harrowing phase of existence and the beginning of another, hopefully less difficult but probably just-as-good-at-draining-any-self-esteem-you-possessed, phase. Therefore, I was prepared to be bored and annoyed and awash with feelings of second-hand embarrassment for Aidan and his peers last night. But instead, I found myself surprisingly entertained and feeling very proud of my brother.

I arrived at the school 30 minutes before the ceremony and sat in the seats my family had saved. I quietly read a book as hundreds of parents and friends of the graduates buzzed all around me, as if they were attending a coronation. (Props to my mom for that comparison. It was spot on.) At one point, a parent sitting near us asked me my name. She knew I was a Flannery, but didn’t know which one. This is a common observation, often made to my face. As soon as I told her my name, another mother, seated behind us, jumped in. “Oh, you must know my kids,” she said. She gave me their first names, which were fairly ordinary and therefore not totally recognizable to me.

“Uh,” I said, my face likely contorted in confusion. She repeated their names. Still, nothing. She gave me their last name. I had never heard of them. I told her that I graduated from high school in 2005 and that I’m almost 26, hoping that would help her.

“Oh, you look so young! I thought you were in 11th grade.” Everyone around her agreed. I told her that I would take that as a compliment, which I do, because there are plenty of people my age who are starting to look not-so-young these days. It turned out that her kids were like 14 and 16 and one of them was graduating with Aidan. So yeah, I definitely don’t know them.

Once my mom reappeared from flitting around the crowd, saying hello to everyone in attendance that she has ever met, I asked her when the ceremony was going to start. Apparently, she told me, the principal had told the boys at their practice session that there was no dress code, so some of them showed up without jackets and ties, while others did because that was the dress code printed on the invitation. Of course, some of the mothers would die rather than see little Winston or  Thatcher graduate from the eighth grade in just a dress shirt, so they took them home to get a jacket and tie and held up the beginning of the ceremony for a few minutes longer than I would have liked.

Finally, it began and we watched Aidan, dressed in a dapper new bow tie and Nantucket reds, process in with the rest of his classmates. The ceremony started off with the Pledge of Allegiance, which for a moment I was afraid I had forgotten, and an opening speech by Aidan’s principal. I have to say, I tuned out for most of this speech. Earlier that week, I’d learned that the principal had “changed” – and by that I mean, censored – a short speech that Aidan was to give later in the ceremony. He took out any specific mentions that Aidan made of classmates and teachers and events, nearly ridding the speech of its context and originality and transforming it into a collection of empty statements about the meaning of middle school. All of this was apparently so that no one’s feelings would get hurt. I think, though, if someone’s feelings are hurt by a mention or non-mention at a speech given during middle school graduation, the memory of that will fade quickly enough. And if it doesn’t…Well, kid, you’ve got a rough life ahead of you. Anyway, I did not clap at the end of the principal’s speech.

When the six or seven kids chosen to share their remarks spoke, they were perfectly poised and lovely, delivering ruminations and a few extended metaphors about friendship and growing up to the crowd. If I may say so, I found Aidan’s speech to be the best. (This statement was not made with the intention of hurting anyone’s feelings. It was truly good. Also, he’s my brother.) He was witty and thoughtful and he even called out a teacher by name, because it was important to his point about learning about integrity during his eighth grade year. I was so proud of him for not letting anyone get him down. It’s one of his greatest qualities.

Soon, the ceremony was over and we joined the reception on the school lawn. It was amusing to reflect on all of the times I stood on that same lawn, all dressed up like an adult like Aidan and his classmates were, with my own friends and classmates. I’ve watched many of Aidan’s peers grow up over the last thirteen years, either because they’re friends of his or because I babysat them long, long ago. I sincerely hope that they continue to enjoy one another’s company – or at least, aren’t too horrible to one another – during the next four years they have together.

We ended the night without Aidan, who attended a party with his entire class at our country club. We happened to eat dinner downstairs from the party on the terrace, looking out on the pool where I spent most of my days during the summers of my childhood. If I’d let myself reminisce anymore than I did last night, I probably would have gotten sentimental. But I didn’t, really. I was too busy laughing along with my family and all of our weird memories of days past and stories we’ve recounted a thousand times. No one mentioned that we’ll never have another middle school graduate. I think this was for the best. We’re all ready to move on to the next chapter.

bonus photo: me & aidan back when i was 13. oof.

bonus photo: me & aidan back when i was 13. oof.

An Evening with Aidan

Aidan at dinner

Aidan at dinner

My youngest brother, Aidan, was born twelve years after me, almost to the day.  It’s well-known, at least within our family, that Aidan never “liked” me when he was younger. It’s hard not to dote on an adorable little brother, but he just wouldn’t let me. As a baby, he would bite and scratch me if I tried to hug him. When I was a senior in high school – all six of us were in the same school building for one year – I would visit his kindergarten classroom and he would go to the corner and turn his back, refusing to look at me while all of the other five year olds wondered aloud how he had such an old sister and sometimes, if I would let them touch my hair. He was six when I left for college.

We lived under the same roof again for one year, after I had graduated. I started working full-time as soon as I returned home and was more interested in lamenting being a 22 year-old office drone who didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life living with her parents  than figuring out what made my then 10 year-old brother tick.

So, what I’m really saying is, I never got to know Aidan all that well. But I think I’m starting to get to know him better. I had the opportunity to spend some time with him this past weekend when I stayed overnight with him while my parents were away. While we were eating dinner out, it hit me all of the sudden that he’s pretty much a young adult. And that was weird but, I guess, kind of delightful at the same time.

As an older sister, I’ve always felt obligated to ask my younger, school-aged siblings the boring questions that kids always get asked. All about sports, their classes, etc. Conversation has gotten easier with my younger three siblings as they’ve gotten older and on Friday night, I finally felt like Aidan and I were having a discussion rather than a Q&A session. We talked about the Oscar movies we’d seen and the books we’d been reading. His English class is doing a unit on the Holocaust and I guess I was something of a YA Holocaust literature connoisseur when I was his age, so we had a good discussion about Night and its sequel and some other non-Elie Weisel books. (Aidan, if you’re reading this, read After the War by Carol Matas! That was one of my favorites.) And he tolerated my talking at him about pre-WWII Eastern Europe for longer than was necessary, which I think shows real maturity.

After dinner we watched The Grey, which I had been meaning to see for a while and it was only made better by Aidan’s commentary – ‘Do you really think you’re gonna get cell phone service in the middle of Alaska?’ – and the fact that my dog actually climbed up in the chair next to me and watched along with us. Aidan fell asleep with like ten minutes left in the movie so I had to tell him the ending, though I don’t think he really cared. Then I got back into big sister mode and made him get all of his stuff ready for his swim meet the next morning so, we were done being friends for the night. I left the next morning after he’d gone to his meet.

A part of me feels like the above might seem boring and sentimental to anyone who doesn’t know me as an oldest sister or know me at all. But I guess the night felt like a turning point to me? Like maybe it marked the beginning of the end of me acting like a third parent. Like now I can be more of a friend to all of my siblings because the distance that’s caused by age is really starting to disappear in my family. I don’t know. If anything, I had fun and I was glad for the opportunity to spend some time with Aidan and am also glad that he doesn’t scratch me anymore.