I’ve questioned the existence of unconditional love once. My brother and I were on the way to a family reunion about an hour from where we live. It was the summer after his first year in college and I was a sophomore in high school.
We were about 20 minutes away from the house, driving down the main street of the neighboring town. In the passenger side seat, I got to spend the whole trip looking out the windows. It was when the speed limit changed from 35 to 25 miles per hour that I saw them.
There were two people fighting in their driveway. One of them fell to the ground and got back up, swinging at the other.
“Wait, wait, Steven, slow down,” I said. I had the map, so he must have thought the street we were supposed to turn onto was approaching.
“They’re fighting. Look, there’s a couple fighting. We need to—oh my god.”
There were actually three people. A man, a woman and a screaming 2-year-old. He had white-blonde hair and even from the car I could tell his eyes were a piercing blue. He was being held by a man I assumed was his father while his mother tried to scratch the man’s face and pulled on his shirt, causing him to stagger.
I had never seen a couple fight like that before. I sometimes heard my parents arguing at night, but they never got loud enough for me to actually understand what they were saying. But these people were trying to hurt each other, and that little boy was in harm’s way.
His face was bright red and I could see him taking huge gulps of air to sustain his screaming. His face sparkled a little bit from the reflection of the sun in the tears rolling down his cheeks. The woman straightened up and took another swing and the man turned his body so she connected with his shoulder and not his son.
“I’m not getting involved,” my brother said, putting his foot back on the gas and starting to approach the speed limit. “That’s their business.”
I started shouting that we had to do something and that he was a horrible person for not wanting to do something. The moment I unbuckled, he locked the doors because he knew I was going to try to jump out.
By this point we were several hundred feet past the couple and I twisted around, trying to keep them in sight, but when we turned a corner, they were gone.
It took me a long time to forgive my brother for not stopping that day. I didn’t think I could ever proudly consider him my brother after that because he had let somebody else get hurt. How could he leave that little boy in the arms of a man dodging punches? This behavior was the complete opposite of the fiercely protective older brother I knew he was. He was the man who had taught me wrestling moves and how to use my middle finger in case somebody tried to give me a hard time when he wasn’t there. He was the one who hugged me in the movie theater when the last Hobbit movie came out because I couldn’t handle the ending of my favorite story, or how poorly it had been interpreted on screen. He’s the one who treats the kitchen at home like it’s a restaurant because he believes anything hot or sharp can and will burn or cut you.
It took a lot of puzzling over that weird change in behavior for me to get it.
I was going to jump out of a moving car and throw myself into a full-on domestic fight. It wasn’t long and careful consideration that made him lock the doors and drive away, it was the same instinct that urged me to want to do something. It was my chance to try to protect that little boy, but he had his job as a big brother to protect me.
It was uncomfortable to question how much I could really love my brother, because I had completely forgotten that he loves me too.
Julie Christie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChristieJules