My older brother and I didn’t get along as kids. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. We fought, bickered, wrestled and terrorized each other relentlessly.
When I was five, my mom left us in the waiting room at the dentist with strict instructions to behave. Mid-cleaning, the receptionist was forced to go back and retrieve my mom to break up a fight that had escalated from light teasing to both of us rolling around on the floor of the waiting area. When I was seven, Brian hacked off all my Barbies’ hair and flushed the luscious locks down the toilet in retaliation for accidentally breaking his favorite GI Joe. When I was fourteen, he wrapped a vacuum cord around my neck. By then, my mom was so used to our shenanigans that she broke up that fight with a nonchalant, “Brian, don’t kill your sister please.”
Looking back, I think the crux of the problem was how different we were. My brother is still very physical, outgoing and social. He has always lived his life surrounded by an admiring group of people - whether on the football field, out on a Friday night or in the workplace. I, on the other hand, tend to be more solitary. I’d usually choose reading a book over playing outside, and it seemed as if Brian took my devotion to schoolwork as a personal affront to his notions of doing just enough to get by. As kids, we didn’t understand each other and we didn’t try to.
There was a subtle shift when we entered our teenage years. Shortly after the vacuum cord incident, my brother started paying me to write his English essays; it was the first time he acknowledged my strengths instead of mocking them. When he came home upset after an argument with his girlfriend, I was the one he confided in. As we sat huddled in his room, whispering to keep from waking our parents across the hall, it was the first time I ever saw him cry. It was the first time I ever really saw him.
I followed my brother to the University of Tennessee; I came in as a freshman when he was a senior. I suspect that’s the only thing that eased my mother’s mind about sending her youngest off to college.
“Take care of each other,” she said as she held me tight in the parking garage before she and my dad drove back home to Nashville. Removed from our parents’ watchful eye and protection, Brian and I slowly began to strengthen our bond. Once a week, he’d pick me up from the dorm and take me back to his apartment so I could do my laundry. He’d cook dinner (or, more frequently, pick something up from Taco Bell) and we would watch the Thursday night Must See TV block together, chatting and joking. He’d drive me back to the dorm with my laundry basket full of freshly washed and folded clothes and drop me off at the door with the same farewell:
The summer after my freshman year of college, I moved to Michigan for a boy I couldn’t admit I didn’t love. I knew it was a mistake before I crossed the Kentucky state line, but - true to my stubborn nature - I held on for six long months before admitting it was time to call it quits. (No doubt the arrival of my first Midwestern winter helped hasten my decision.)
I told my parents I’d break up with the boyfriend as soon as my final exams were over. My mom fretted over me making the 500-mile drive home alone. I insisted I’d be fine, but the next day, I got a call from my brother.
“I’ve booked a flight that lands in Detroit at 10 a.m., on Thursday morning. Can you pick me up? I’m coming to drive you home.”
The breakup was brutal, and I barely slept that night. By the time I arrived at the airport the next morning, I felt numb. Brian held my gaze as he made his way down the concourse. He pulled me into a tight embrace for a few moments while I regained my composure.
“Let’s go home,” he said simply as he released me.
My brother had been against this move from the beginning. He alternated between teasing and seriousness, but the gist of his message was always the same: don’t go. I braced for eight hours of “I told you so” the whole way home, but instead, he said nothing. He let me look out the window at the barren Ohio landscape as tears rolled down my cheeks. Somewhere outside of Dayton, he finally broke the silence to utter one phrase:
“I’m proud of you.”
It was a gray day in March. I was six months pregnant with my daughter. My brother picked me up so we could ride together to a visitation for a family friend. As soon as I buckled my seat belt, he dropped a bomb.
“Mary wants a divorce.”
I sat blinking in the uncertain silence for a few moments while his words hung heavy in the air.
“Wait, what? You guys just bought a new house – her dream house. You’ve been married 11 years. Your anniversary was two weeks ago. What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know. I told her I’d do whatever it takes to stay together, but she’s adamant. She just keeps saying she’s unhappy. I can’t believe this is happening.”
I don’t remember what all we said for the rest of that car ride. I remember the tenor – shock, sadness, disbelief – but not the words. When he dropped me back off again, I hugged him and told him I loved him and to call anytime.
We talked multiple times a week for the first few months. Or rather, Brian talked and I listened, occasionally offering a word of encouragement or caution but mostly letting him vent. I longed to do more to share the burden, but I was at a loss. I couldn’t transport him to when things would be better, and I couldn’t backtrack to before the bottom fell out beneath him. All I knew how to do was to walk beside him, so he wasn’t alone.
Two weeks after we brought Ellie home from the hospital, Brian and Mary sat down with their children and told them their mother was moving out. When the tears were spent and the kids were asleep, my brother texted, “Can I come over?”
Seven minutes later he was in our bonus room, replaying the events of the evening. I paced the floor with my new baby; she was still in that easy, sleepy phase where constant motion was all she needed to be soothed. I listened, as Brian described the implosion of the life he thought he had. I felt helpless; there was nothing I could do to ease his anguish. I continued to pace and rock Ellie long after she’d fallen asleep. I needed to be able to offer comfort to someone. When Brian finally stood to go a few hours later, I handed her to my husband so I could hug my brother with both arms.
“I’m proud of you,” I said.
For the past two years, I’ve watched him navigate this hardest of roads. I’ve seen him be outwardly calm, understanding and supportive, protective of his children. I’ve served as the safe place where he can share his truest feelings and emotions about it all. After years of battling with each other and ourselves, it seems we finally achieved what my mother was championing all this time. Our instincts changed from how we could hurt each other most to how we could take care of each other best.
Last week, I took the kids to the playground. Ellie insists on keeping up with her big brother, who is blessedly my cautious one. Her wildness at two is a good match for Nathan’s reserve at five, and together they climb ladders and whoosh down slides.
“Two more times!” I called out, with one eye on the darkening sky. Rain was coming. It was time to head home.
Nathan raced up the stairs, Ellie lagging behind. Suddenly, a much older girl thrust her arm out in front of Ellie, stopping her short. I watched carefully, more out of concern for the girl than Ellie. My daughter does not take no for an answer well. I wondered what she would do and how explosive it would be. In the moment that Ellie hesitated to size up her opponent, Nathan reappeared. He looked at the girl’s outstretched arm and said, “Hey! That’s my sister. Stop!” The girl dropped her arm immediately and let Ellie past.
As we walked to the car, I told Nathan how proud I was that he stood up for Ellie. He smiled and skipped a little as he answered me.
“I’m her big brudder, Mom. I’m ‘posed to take care of her.”