My Brother’s Keeper
Disclaimer: My brother gave me permission to post this- I talked about it with him.
The pint-sized princess in pink was clearly the big sister. She wore her sparkly dress and tiara with the careless, unstudied abandon that only children have. She unselfconsciously wiped her nose and pushed her crown higher up into her light brown hair as she danced to the free big band concert that was taking place on the green of Golden Gate Park, part of a San Francisco summer. She stomped her feet and waddled around to the beat of a piece that was supposed to evoke the sounds of the 1920s. She made paddling motions with her hands as she turned in circles.
A little boy who could only be her brother mimicked her every move. It was evident even from where I was sitting, yards away on a hill, that he worshiped her. He watched to see how she moved and moved his chubby limbs in a jerky simulacrum. When she stopped dancing to laugh or poke him or climb up the slick modern looking rock statue near her self-proclaimed stage, it was like watching an Abbott and Costello routine. He would do a double take as he suddenly noticed she had moved on to doing something else. You could see him stop, think, and re-engage with the new notion of play.
Sometimes she would slyly look back, to make sure her baby brother was following in her footsteps before plunging off again. But most of the time, there was no need: she knew he’d be there.
I have been thinking a lot recently about the role siblings play as one ages into adulthood. When I was a child, my most constant companion wasn’t my best friend, but my two and a half year younger brother. He was my partner in crime, my doll to dress up, my confidante, my ally against the adult world, my annoyance, my embarrassment, my responsibility, and my servant. He did not necessarily agree to filling all these roles in my life, and he probably saw me similarly as both his protector and his jailer, someone to emulate and someone to scorn. And God, we could be horrible to each other. I would hold his Power Rangers hostage, and draw him maps to point to where I had tied them up in his closet, but use cursive handwriting so he couldn’t read the map labels. I used to giggle when he bellowed with rage. We sometimes fought like cats, physically scrabbling with each other, me punching him into submission when he disrespected my authority, all the while taunting him to learn to ‘use his words.’ What can I say: children are Id, and my superego was later than some in developing.
But despite the fights, when I was in elementary school, having a brother meant having fun. Having a follower, someone relying on me, made me creative. I had to be fun not just for my sake, but for my brother’s. So I invented little games: the buying and selling of pool toys in micro morality plays of the dangers of capitalism, which usually ending with him upending the ‘shop’ and saying ‘I don’t like this game!’; dressing him up in a tutu and me in green rock star glasses and parading around the house in circles to ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic.’ In the summer, he would run and clip the heads off tulips with the kitchen scissors while I shrieked with laughter and consternation, secretly thrilled he was being so naughty, as that meant I could be bad too and still be ‘the good child.’ We discovered that baby powder fights were infinitely more fun less likely to end in bloodshed than pillow fights, and besides, we smelled great afterwards. In imaginary games my brother was always willing to play the dead body lying behind a tree. We sometimes would read books together, him holding on side of the book and me the other; we read at almost the exact same frenetic pace, and when I turned the page sometimes he’d grin at me and wriggle in excitement.
He was innately much kinder than me, my brother. He would cheerfully do chores. Sometimes I’d tell him to fetch me a glass of water just because I knew he would do it, and that made me feel both loved and powerful.
When my parents divorced, that relationship changed. He began to act out, became violent in school and talked less at home. He had always had some learning disabilities, but they were having a bigger impact on him now. I started sixth grade, middle school, a time of change and social misery even for many who had an intact home. My role vis-à-vis my brother changed: I was less whimsical Pied Piper, and more parental unit. I asked him about whether his homework was done; sometimes I picked him up for school and quietly carried his backpack. I held him when he cried or grew sullen and withdrawn.
This shifted into resentment. Why did I have to be responsible for my brother? Why did I have to enter this cold world of logistics, of care for someone besides myself? I was bitter without even really allowing myself to recognize the undercurrent of anger that was snaking its way through me. For instance, I remember that mom always sent us to the same camp for the summer. It was partly to make pickups and drop offs easier, but it was mostly so I could be there to ‘handle’ my brother. Because inevitably, at least once or twice a summer, I’d hear a counselor’s flapping Birkenstocks hurrying towards me, her eyes wide. She’d lead me away from my age group where I had been peacefully throwing a pot or playing kickball a moment before and would bring me out to a parking lot, a dark room, a patch of scuffed-up bleached summer grass. My brother would be lying on the ground, screaming and thrashing to make it impossible to grab hold of him, or staying with his back to the wall, his fists up and his eyes watery. And I’d be expected to deal with it. ‘Oh stop it,’ I’d say huffily, going over to him and roughly picking him off the ground or away from the wall. I’d give him a hug and ask what happened and lose respect for each and every counselor who stood impotently by, unable to handle a nine year old child. And afterwards, when we were in the car while mom held a whispered apologetic conference with the counselors, I’d ask him, “Couldn’t you just… NOT be this way?” But then I’d give him a hug.
Middle school growth spurted its way into high school. At home it had gotten a bit better: Mom stopped watching chick flicks and Dad laughed on a regular basis. My brother still did poorly in school, got in fights, and drifted off in video game landscapes that, despite having aliens with guns, were less formidable to him than real life. Because genuine emotional connection could be hard for him, he communicated through the filter of media: TV shows watched, books read, video games played. To calm him down if he was upset, I’d ask him to construct the best Star Trek Enterprise crew of all time from all the shows, or discuss feminism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Intellectual mind games would soothe him. He was so smart, and so underachieving at the same time, and I took both attributes personally. Not that I realized any of this at the time of course; I just knew I was the big sister with the accompanying rights and responsibilities.
When I got to college I basically didn’t call home the first year; I hadn’t quite realized how trapped I had felt before until I was free. It was glorious and painful all at once- like when your foot is asleep and then you move it and blood flow starts again and it is pins and needles and it hurts but kind of feels good too because it is becoming alive and useful once more. It was pins and needles realizing how angry I had been before, but it was also hopeful because I no longer had to be that way.
And yet the roles were entrenched: big sister responsibility doesn’t stop after turning eighteen, but morphs. I still feel responsible for my brother’s failures and happiness, despite myself. When he almost failed out of public high school and had to be enrolled in private school, I thought to myself If only I had been less selfish and given more time! But as failures mounted up, the internal dialogue changed. I still cared about his successes like an older sister or parent would, but I no longer genuinely thought he would always succeed. The action ‘of failing’, which happens to us all, had turned into the noun of ‘a failure.’ I no longer believed in my brother.
And so I started to shame him when he failed, because I was so tired of feeling angry and impotent as I watched him self-destruct, again and again. I shamed him, and he took it, and that thread of shame tainted our relationship. I brought that to our relationship, not him.
There were still good moments, of course. The best times were when we went on vacation as a family to the beach. I watched my brother slip on a wetsuit and become a seal, or read on the sand, or look up drive-in movie theater times, or play the buffoon in the latest play I directed. These comforting, familiar actions made us feel close.
Two winters ago, about a week before my first law school final exam period, I found out from my father that my brother dropped out of college during his last year because he failed a class that was a prerequisite for graduating. I was furious, without really understanding why. I decided to get through the exam period and examine my feelings later. There is really no place for emotions in law school; they get in the way. I flew home a few weeks later for the holidays.
My brother was home too; I wanted to wait until after the Christmas holiday to discuss with him why he dropped out. I thought I was controlling that river of anger pretty well; we had a lovely time for the first few days I was home. But on December 26, my brother and I were playing a board game when we had a disagreement about the rules. It got heated, mostly because so much had not yet been said between us. My brother went online to verify that he was right, which he was. He came back in a rage, sputtering, “You just think I am a liar huh? Someone who lies and cheats to get ahead in a game?” And I said the worst possible thing in response.
I said, “No, I just think you are the kind of fuck-up who can’t handle school and drops out.”
My brother lunged at me and punched me in the face. I was so shocked I didn’t even react. He punched my nose twice more before my mother’s 6 foot 5 boyfriend pulled him off of me. I sank to the floor. Oh my God, oh my god, oh my god. I couldn’t stop saying it, like a broken toy. It was the litany of protection. I had short circuited. I couldn’t stop saying it. The truths of the universe no longer existed, safety was an illusion.
Processing that night has been really hard. Something fundamentally broke that day, and it wasn’t my nose (hairline fracture, healed in less than a month). For a while, I became alienated from my entire family. I wasn’t logical and I knew I wasn’t and I couldn’t help it just the same. I remember the next morning (I had fled to my father’s house in the night), I remember the next morning my brother showed up looking for the car keys. I heard him in the other room and I picked up the frying pan on the burner and I screamed at him to get out of the house. I was beyond reason. I knew, intellectually, that he wouldn’t touch me, but emotionally I wasn’t so sure. My heart was rabbit fast, I could hear it, I was aware of it. The frying pan’s handle was slick in my hand and I felt infinitely fragile and scared as he stood there, my brother, my baby brother, the person I used to protect and joke with and chastise. I wondered if I would actually swing the pan if he came closer. He left.
I went back to law school early.
He sent a two sentence apology email in January. (Apparently, he also left a voicemail, but in typical brother fashion, hadn’t realized that I had a new number for the past four months). I called him and told him I forgave him in February. I thought it was the right thing to do. And that’s been that. I know I am still technically a big sister, and when I see a little princess running around during an outdoor concert followed by her thrilled little brother, I recognize our relationship in them. I haven’t lost the childhood memories I have, but they have become attenuated by present realities.
It has now been over a year since this incident. My brother and I have been in each other’s presence, enjoyed each other’s company since then. But there is still a cautiousness, at least from my end. I am not so sure, moving forward, what exactly will happen between my brother and me. Will we ever be as close? I no longer feel responsible for his actions, no longer feel complicit in his failures nor overly invested in his successes, of which he has had many. Recently, he has been doing well: he found a job, and is working almost full time. He is to graduate from his college soon, having completed his degree. He has a game plan, he has matured. I am hopeful for our future together, spending family vacations at the Cape with our yet hypothetical children. But I still haven’t fully healed.
Back at the concert, the princess decides she is done dancing. I watch as she slips down off of the concrete steps and finds her father and mother, lying next to a picnic on the grass. The little boy looks around. He doesn’t see his sister. He jerkily dances a few more steps. It isn’t as much fun alone. She hasn’t come back yet. He stops and looks like he is about to cry. And then there she is, right in front of him, holding out her hand.