Over the weekend in Orlando, my wife and I each picked up several new novels. We love to read, and there are some bookstores there that carry things not available in our area. I saw two Christmas stories by authors I respect, and I decided to pick them up. I like the spirit of Christmas, not the materialism.
Last night, thinking a little reading would put me right to sleep, I started reading Zanna's Gift by Orson Scott Card (though it says "Orson Scott Card writing as Scott Richards"). I could not put it down. Perhaps it was how close to home it felt, and the time of year, but I found myself weeping at times. I wanted to kiss each of my kids and my wife when I was done.
The story centers on the Pullman family and starts around the time of the Great Depression. Their eldest son died in his sleep without any warning, and the whole family took it hard because he was such a wonderful son and brother. Their youngest child, Zanna, struggled with it because her brother had been the only person who could understand her special drawings. The rest of the story swirls around how much Zanna's final drawing for her brother shaped all the family's future Christmases.
A week from today, it will have been twenty-two years since my brother died. He was on his way to meet us for Thanksgiving after taking some midterms at college. He was only eighteen, and had planned a brilliant future as a science fiction writer. His passion for that genre led him to study engineering at Georgia Tech, and that led me to become an avid Tech fan for many years. His life-path, much like Zanna's drawing, shaped much of my family's future, especially mine and my sister's.
My sister followed him to Tech first. She had spent many years following him through classes, as he was just two years older. I wondered later if following him to Tech had simply been the most logical course for her at the time. She finished, even receiving the same degree, and became an engineer. I thought for a time I would do the same.
I wanted to go to Tech because it was such a wonderful school. I just realized somewhere in high school that engineering was not for me. I did not struggle in science or math, but I simply didn't have a great love for seeing how things worked the way most engineers I know seem to. I took apart a few toys as a kid, but mostly I was just happy to leave them put together and play with them. I learned enough about opening a computer to put in parts, but I never felt the desire to build one.
No, I was not an engineer. I hated the idea of being computer programmer, too, even though I had a gift for it. I loved math, and my high school coach desperately wanted me to follow in his footsteps and study that there. Math was something I loved in simplicity and at a basic level because I was good at it. I knew that studying the upper levels of it would likely change me - perhaps drive me to obsess about it like so many in that field. So I could not bring myself to major in math, either. Instead, having developed an interest in investing and financial planning, I decided to pursue a business degree. I still held some glimmer of hope that I could go to Tech, though, because I accepted their generous President's Scholarship to pursue my studies there.
I probably realized my mistake the first day on campus. I was given the wrong combination to my mailbox, and I wondered if it was a sign. At orientation, they gave their standard line "One in three of you won't be here at graduation, so if you look left and look right, one of them won't be here. If they're here, it'll be you." To my left was an empty seat, and to my right was a friend I knew was born for the place, so I quipped "I guess it's me!" Maybe it took me a few weeks to realize how true that joke would become. I finally admitted it somewhere in the middle of my second quarter. I did not belong at Tech. I probably could have found a place there, if anything about it had given me a reason to want to. But no, I fought for the money I was promised because of a computer error that never got fixed. I sat through classes that spent more time focusing on keeping the athletes on the fields and courts than on educating me about business. And I got asked every single day by someone, "Why are you here?" In the end, my answer varied between "I ask myself that every day" and "Don't worry, I won't be soon."
Following my brother had been wrong for me. I was not him, and like the eldest brother in Zanna's Gift learned, I could never be him. I had at least realized I did not want to follow in his exact path by then, but some part of me probably subconsciously wanted to fulfill his dream. I wrote a book in high school, then a book of poetry and another of short stories in college. I even went as far as finding a self-publisher to help me release my work in major book stores. Something stopped me, though, and I let that dream fade with time. Still, I thank my brother for providing me with such a great example to strive for throughout my education. That is probably why Zanna's Gift touched me so deeply. The death of one so special has a profound influence on the lives it touches. It need not be a sad one, either, but instead one that helps each of us cherish those who remain a little more. I know my brother's death did that for me and for my family. I hope it continues to do so for years to come, just as it did for the Pullmans.