Monday, April 07, 2008

To The Duke On the Occasion of His 19th Birthday

A few months ago, a young man knocked on my door selling newspaper subscriptions. It was a Sunday evening, and one of our lessons in church that day had been about charity--"true religion is this"--but had, I thought, come perilously close to justifying keeping wealth: the sort of lesson, then, that drives me crazy, because I want so badly to rail against the idea, or even hint of the idea, that God loves the rich or wants us to be rich, but, every time I open my mouth, I realize I am a total hypocrite, since, after all, when was the last time I sold what I have and gave to the poor?

So I was already, basically, a golden opportunity for this young man, practically itching to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, but the boy would have persuaded me anyway: he was, he said, going door-to-door selling newspaper subscriptions to put himself through college. I'm still not quite sure I believe this story, but that didn't matter--"he must be about 18 or 19," I thought, "just my brother's age. Boy, this would be a hard way to pay for college. Poor thing." It took a minute for it all to add up: going door-to-door. Talking to, and being rejected by, strangers. 19ish years old. Pretty soon, The Duke will be on a mission, doing this exactly.

And so now I have a subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle, which I never ever read; the newspaper piles up in our front hallway, unopened, until someone remembers to take it downstairs to recycling.


The Duke at his high school graduation


We've been talking about The Duke's mission call, as a family, for a while now, starting at about the time, in my memory, that missionaries stopped seeming old and wise to me and started seeming like kids, much younger than me. I remember once in India, after we had the missionaries over for dinner, joking with The Duke about how that would be him soon, trying to eat tuna casserole with his hands and asking my father, "So, what place you from, Brother?" It was funny then to think about The Duke on a mission, eating with some other family, causing them to giggle at his strange foreign antics, because it was still all hypothetical--those days were ages away.


Riding bikes together through a bird park in Rajasthan. Check out his hair.


I called The Duke today, on his birthday. "Happy birthday!" I said. Without missing a beat, he replied, full of enthusiasm, "Thank you! You too!"

The Duke's sense of humor is one of his best traits: he's funny, much funnier than I am. He never calls attention to himself or his jokes, but if you're listening, he's always ready with a quip or off-the-cuff remark that not only reveals that hey, this kid is funny, but also hey, this kid is smart. One of my favorite Christmas presents of all time is a photocopied set of cartoons The Duke had been drawing in his spare time. They're offbeat little sketches, perfect reflections of the Duke's quirky humor, and looking at them never fails to make me smile.


One of my favorite cartoons.


His mission call came last week, and so we set up a family conference call, all of us on speakerphone. The Duke started reading the letter: "Dear Elder P********..."

And, just like that, my mom and I both started to cry. Elder P. Elder! How could they send him on a mission! Two years! He's just a child!


The Duke, Klement, and Petra, Easter Sunday, 1994

But he's not a child anymore. The Duke is a young man, and, what's more, a young man excited and ready for a mission. He's steady and mature, remarkably mature for someone his age; he spent the summer hanging out with me and my friends, all at least five years older than him, and never once reminded us, in his behavior, of his age. He's constantly thinking about and considerate of others. This isn't surprising, given his childhood self, a little boy who was kind to his younger brother, afraid of Old Maid cards, and tolerant towards the older sister he shared a room with, who woke him up every night, without fail, to play Twenty Questions. (The answer, for the record, was always Uncle Sam. I don't know why.) He's a fair and even thinker, not given, as I sometimes am, to angry tirades or fits of pique. He's intelligent, questioning, and genuinely curious about the world, and has spent his life building up an impressive array of diverse skills and talents: computer programming, physics, acting, fencing, rock climbing, drawing. He's naturally obedient, but certainly no mindless clone--he somehow manages, as with his "white Afro" in high school, to develop and maintain his own style quietly, unobtrusively, without ever making a fuss. Actually, that last bit may be the best descriptor of all: The Duke does not make a fuss. He does what needs to be done, and does it well, with no complaining and no boasting. And on top of all that, he's good company--easygoing, interesting, and, as I said, funny. I tell you the truth: some lucky missionaries, starting at the end of July, are going to have an excellent companion. And some lucky mission president is going to be thanking his lucky stars for Elder Duke.


The Duke and Obed, one of my 10th grade students in Indonesia


This is starting to sound like a eulogy, which it's not meant to be; he's not dying, I know, I'm just more emotional about this mission thing than I expected. I'll miss my brother. A lot. I can write him letters, and he'll be back before I know it, but what will I do without late-night emails from him pointing out funny things on the internet? Who else will message me on gchat to remind me about Biggus Dickus? Who will hang out with me on vacations, playing Go Fish over and over, or watching and re-watching our favorite Monty Python sketches? Plus, of course, I'm terrified for him--missions are hard.

That's not all, though. More than missing him, more than worrying about him, I'm excited for him, and, more than that, proud of him: my baby brother is all grown up and going on a mission.


Sailing down the Mekong


The Duke continues reading:

"You have been called to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in..."

We all hold our breath.

"...the India Bangalore mission."

Of course. It is perfect: he will have his old seminary classmates as companions. The Duke has lived in India, and now knows how to live there, how to balance the chaos, how to weigh beauty and tragedy, how to overlook, how to forgive, how to love--or, at the very least, he has a head start on knowing. He will be himself, always himself, and that self will be not too hot, and not too cold, but just right.


Family Christmas picture, 2004


Happy birthday, L.


Anonymous said...

...this is very very sweet late night reading and you have now made me wish I were your brother...on a lighter note your easter sandles in the picture look very much like a certain brown pair I've seen you wear more recently (sans socks). Your fashion taste hasn't changed much.

-The SLO

Th. said...


Will he spread the gospel of the Christmas Camel?

Diane said...

Yes to the Christmas Camel. It is true and must be share with the world.

On another true not, it took me along time to read this because I kept having to wipe my tears. At this point in life I must beg to differ with Philip Larkin: no matter how we tried we did not succed in ##**%%!! you kids up.

Anonymous said...

i have distinct memories of when you and the fam were that little in '94. the fact one of those tikes is going on a mission is mind-boggling. but i'm so happy for him!! what a cool way to spend a mission!

Anonymous said...

How sweet! Sounds delightful. Pray wish him luck from me.

Seagulljaap (Brother of Alea)

Connie said...

so i've read this post on five separate occasions. and EVERY TIME i've choked up a little. my relationship with my brother is so similar...down to the shared room and late night games.

but i like this part best:

He never calls attention to himself or his jokes, but if you're listening, he's always ready with a quip or off-the-cuff remark that not only reveals that hey, this kid is funny, but also hey, this kid is smart.

i did a double take and had a weird "hey did i write this about my brother?" moment. and maybe i feel a little less special and am running the risk of you feeling a little less special. but instead you should just know that i understand 100% every emotion in this post and believe every single word as if it were my own.

blargh it sounds like i'm bearing my testimony. i know this post is true, i've read it, i've felt it. i've prayed about it...

Petra said...

Aw, Connie, just think: someday soon you'll be the weepy but proud older sister!