I have to be honest. As far as tragedy is concerned, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life (knock on wood). I still have all my grandparents, my family is generally in good health and we all have a great time when we’re together. I’ve never had to handle a true, unexpected, personal and tragic event. So, when it comes to the serious stuff, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have no idea how to deal. When the unthinkable happened, the only thing I could think to do, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, was to write about it. Get my thoughts on paper and out of my head so maybe, just maybe, a microscopic amount of rest could be found. So, here I am. And I’m going to tell you about my brother Alex.
Alex was born 2 years and 364 days after me, leaving our birthdays one day apart. April 17th and April 18th to be exact. He was born weighing (wait for it) 9 lbs 10oz. Right??! If you’ve seen my teeny mom you’re amazed by this. I’m told that he had a giant head and smooshed face with a nose that could never be duplicated. And as legend has it, he was placed in my mom’s arms and she and my dad stared at him while jokingly stating, “Hmmm. Well, maybe he’ll have a good personality!”. This sentiment was punctuated by family when they visited and upon laying eyes upon him, stated “Oh! He’s soooo… BIG.” I know to the innocent bystander, this may sound mean, but because only a few months later he blossomed into an adorable kid with big blue eyes and then a handsome adult, it was just funny. We all chuckled each time we heard the birth story and Alex would feign dramatic distraught. We always comforted him by saying that if he’d turned out to be an ugly-duckling, we wouldn’t tell the story at all (too sensitive, ya know?). So, the fact that we felt the need to tell it (a lot) was a compliment in itself. To this explanation, we’d get a partial smile (which was partial only because of his attempt to hide it). And we knew we had him.
Our day-apart birthdays, lead to joint birthday parties at McDonalds (or MikkyD’s, if you will) for the first few years of life. I just always assumed that’s how things were. Didn’t all brothers and sisters have their birthdays together? We always had fun and enjoyed the limelight together (well, maybe he’d let me have the larger percentage. Because he was cool like that.).
Around this period of time, strangers often asked if Alex and I were twins because I was so small for my age and he was so tall. I hated this and was super quick to correct people on the fact that I was THREE years older (humph!! Attitude. Attitude.). Alex loved it, though. He thought it was greatness. Here’s what I mean….
We were practically the same size!
My mom says that when we were younger, Alex followed me around endlessly and would do my bidding as I pleased. I would boss him around and he would do anything I asked happily and willingly. I don’t have clear memories of this but I’m guessing that I thought it was pretty awesome. He smartened up eventually, which is probably why I can’t remember. As kids, Alex and I spent a lot of time together. Building forts in our basement, mostly. Alex loved to play an Army guy named “Tex”. And I was the princess (surprise?) whom he was protecting. We sometimes pretended that the concrete floor was lava with alligators in it (aka: mutant lava-tolerant alligators). We would jump around on the furniture from piece to piece until we were hungry and needed a snack. But, my all-time favorite memory, was Alex’s Urkel impression. He did the BEST Steve Urkel impression. (got any cheeeese??? Did I do thaaaatt???). He pulled his pants up to his chest and imitated the PERFECT stance. It was epic. I made him do it over and over and laughed every time.
My dad recently told this story, which I had forgotten until he mentioned it. Around the age of five (maybe), my parents enrolled Alex in soccer. He was on a team called the Jellybeans with my cousin Anthony. Anthony and Alex were a year apart and two peas in a pod. They played together all the time. Positions were moot on the Jellybeans, which was what made it awesome (and super cute). Both teams just pretty much ran in a pack chasing the ball. On one occasion, Alex ended up in a breakaway with the ball and started running towards the goal with Anthony trailing close behind. The crowd went nuts for Alex. “Go! GO! GO!!”. Then, Anthony stumbled and fell. Upon glancing back and realizing this, Alex promptly forgot about the ball and ran back to help his cousin. The crowd screamed “NO!!! Get the ball!!!” But Alex had already forgotten about that. He’d rather give up the glamour of making his first goal to help his cousin. No man left behind. This was just Alex. And how he was his entire life.
Enter our pre-/teen years. We pretty much argued like cats and dogs. Never over anything serious, though. It was always just us pushing each others buttons. And no one knew how to push my buttons like Alex. He could send me from happy to screaming in 5 seconds flat. And here we stayed for a few years. Bickering. Driving our poor parents mad.
Then, I graduated high school and moved to Baton Rouge to attend LSU. A few years later, Alex started at UNT. And somehow we became friends again. We could be in the same space and get along. It was nice. And I always knew that a conversation which started with “So, you’re a girl, right?” meant he needed girlfriend advice. Which I was happy to give. Not that I’m an expert. But, it was nice to know that he wanted my advice.
Ever since his days as “Tex”, Alex had wanted to be in the US Special Forces. After receiving his Mechanical Engineering degree from UNT he joined the military. First, the Navy in an attempt to become a SEAL, and when that didn’t work out, he transferred to the Army to become a Green Beret. It took years of working towards that goal, and many, many trials and tribulations along the way, but he finally earned his Green Beret status….
He spent several years in training, so we only got to see him when he was on leave.
After our son Lucas was born, Alex couldn’t wait to see him and it just so happened that his leave began two days after Lucas’s birth.
He was so proud to have procured his new baby nephew his very first foam battle ax along with a drum set to drive his mommy crazy (like any uncle should). And I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and crack up laughing in defeat when Al sent me a video (while I was at work and completely helpless) of him teaching my then-one-year-old baby boy how to do “see food” while he was eating. He stated that it was his responsibility as an uncle to corrupt my son, so he was simply doing his duty.
Alex was always really helpful whenever he was in town. If I ever needed a babysitter, or help with something in particular, he would make it happen. Even though I lived over an hour away. Even if he had plans. He always helped me out. I sometimes felt guilty, because I knew that he was only in town for a short while. I tried not to ask too often for this reason, but if I ever did ask (not knowing what his plans were), his answer more often than not was some version of “Well, I was supposed to do ____. But I dont have to. Ill just be late/go another time.” And he’d help me over continuing with his previous plans. I was always really touched by this gesture. Always.
The absolute BEST, though, was last year on Christmas Eve. Alex had purchased a Santa suit. And not just any Santa suit. The GOOD Santa suit. He said he wanted it to last for years. He dressed up after Christmas Eve dinner to visit Lucas as Santa. Lucas was terrified, but soon warmed up (sort of) when “Santa” presented him with a shiny green car. It was great. And I loved that Alex wanted to do this for Lucas. What a terrific uncle. Here’s a little glimpse….
This was as close as Lucas would get. I love the expression on his face, too. Somebody was not too certain about Santa Claus.
Then, he met Hope…
…And I knew he’d met someone special. Instead of calling me to ask for advice about her, he called to TELL ME about her, which was a huge change. He seemed content. And even in April (or maybe it was May) only a few months after they began dating, he was already planning to fly her in to Texas to see us come September. I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to meet her. When September came, she didn’t disappoint. She was sweet, pretty, smart, athletic, down to earth… Everything I’d hoped for him. And I couldn’t wait for him to get through his pending stint in Afghanistan so that MAYBE I’d get the news that I’d be gaining a sister. Maybe. I’d hoped anyways.
Then, Sunday November 17th, 2013 came. It was a normal day like any other when there was a knock at the door. I almost didn’t answer it because we get a lot of solicitors and I didn’t recognize the car outside (and we need a peephole, seriously.). I asked who was there and the men stated that it was in regards to Staff Sgt. Alex A. Viola. I threw open the door and there before me stood two very tall men in military uniforms . Immediately, my brain started repeating the mantra “Please, just tell me he’s hurt. Please, just tell me he’s hurt….”. But no dice. They’d come to notify me that while on foot patrol earlier that morning, Alex had stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and had died at a hospital in Kandahar. “…Succumbed to his wounds” were the exact words they used. I can still hear the chaplain saying it. “He was rushed to a hospital in Kandahar where he succumbed to his wounds.”
I immediately lost it, of course. Completely. I mean, how could this happen?? To ALEX?? This can’t be real. This can’t POSSIBLY be real. But it was.
November 17th was a dark day. The worst. My baby brother.
I never told him what an amazing guy I thought he was. What a great uncle. I bragged about him all the time. Behind his back. I don’t think he even knew it. So, if there’s one thing I can say, it’s this….
Go tell your loved ones how you feel about them. NOW. They deserve to hear it. And you never know when your last chance to tell them will be. So, do it now. Never did I think that I’d never get to speak with my brother again. Never in a million years. I took for granted that he’d be home in a few months safe and sound without a second thought. And I was wrong. I was so wrong. And it kills me that I didn’t tell him the things I should’ve.
So, with that in mind…. Alex, if you’re up there, reading with your brand new state of the art Heaven-version iPad, know this…. You were a great little brother and I am so, so proud of you. I’ll miss you always and will accost Lucas with pictures and stories of you constantly. He will grow up knowing who you are and feeling like he knows you all his life. I love you lots and will always have you in my thoughts. And thank you for everything. For everything you’ve done for me. For Lucas. For Mom and Dad. For making me laugh and giving me a hard time. You’re largely responsible for my even HAVING a sense of humor. And of course, thank you for defending our country. I’d be lucky if I possessed an ounce of the bravery you did.
Here are a few more pics of/with my handsome brother…
Now, I know this post isn’t home or DIY related, but I needed to share my brother with the world (or, rather, with my three readers) because he deserves a loud and proud shout-out. He gave his life for his country. I’m not sure what’s more courageous than that. The least I could do was honor him in a post. So, I hope I did his fun, witty, caring personality justice. I really, really hope I did. Because he deserves every bit of it. And will never, ever be forgotten.
(I wrote a follow-up to this post which appeared in our local K Magazine. You can read it HERE.)