One afternoon, soon after all of the college deadlines had passed, I remember sitting in our family room with my high school boyfriend. We were watching a brand new television show, and I was sitting on the carpeted floor. Ken came in and scoffed at the show. "What are you watching?!?" he asked with annoyance after a few seconds. "It's called The Oprah Winfrey Show," I told him. (Maybe I did know a thing or two back then after all!) He changed the subject and asked me how the college application and scholarship process was going. I told him the schools that had made the cut. He looked dismayed. "What about Swarthmore?" he asked. Now, I really never had any true intention of applying to Swarthmore and setting myself up for a rejection letter. Didn't he have any idea how smart he was? I would never be that smart. I told him what the deal breaker had been. "Swarthmore had three essay questions, Ken. Hard essay questions." Never mind that writing was my forte and that I wanted to be an English major. "I would have never gotten accepted to Swarthmore," I continued convincingly. I know all these years later that there was no chance of me ever being accepted there.
But Ken made a face. Then he said something I will never forget for the rest of my life. A sentence that has haunted me for all of these years after. "Oh....well, I spent a half hour in the admissions office telling them all the reasons why they should accept you." I can barely even type that. It hurts me to the core now just like it did then. And I doubt he would have ever told me had I actually applied.
I still know I wouldn't have been accepted. But why didn't I just complete the darn application? Why couldn't I have just done it for him? I had no idea that he really wanted me to go there and share his small college campus with him until then. What if I had been miraculously accepted and I could have been there for him when he needed me the most? What if...what if...what if....
I only got to visit my brother at Swarthmore a few times. My junior and senior years of high school were chock-full of commitments every single weekend for band, show choir, and private flute and vocal lessons, not to mention all of my academic commitments and what was left for my social calendar. But I will never forget the image that greeted me when I arrived at Ken's dorm room. This picture -- blown up -- was on his door for all to see:
Ken and Kristin, 1973
He never explained to me why that picture was taped to his door. But it made me proud. And when I think back to the memories I have of Ken, the Swarthmore application and this photo often come to mind as proof of how much my big brother cared. He wasn't especially fond of showing his emotions, but these two memories are reminders to me when I need them. While our relationship was often typical of a brother and sister who lived to agitate one another, I also have a few gems like these to remember what a gift he was to me and my family.
So, happy birthday, Ken. Thanks for believing in me when I didn't believe in myself, and thanks for being almost as proud to be my big brother as I was to be your little sister.