When I was a teenager, it wasn’t my parents that rolled their eyes at my outfits or the ever growing number of piercings. Neither one made threats of ultimate disappointment about the prospect of tattoos. It was my brother.
He’s a few years older, and we weren’t the sort of siblings that hung out together and shared our lives. We physically fought – hard – as younger kids. He could easily pin me down and bounce a frisbee off my nose until it bled; outsized and out-powered, I would resort to petty destruction of his toys to get revenge. It all changed with a tectonic shift one night, when he had just become a teenager. He had me pinned as usual, and as he threateningly raised his arm, something flashed through him. I saw the realization dawn on him that he could really hurt me. He staggered back, releasing me, confusion and fear in his eyes. He left without saying a word.
Our bedrooms, twenty feet apart, were two closed-door isolated continents – passing through our teens, we grew to be comfortable mostly staying in a silent truce of non-interaction.
We were very much opposites in the eyes of the outside world. I was seen as academic and eager to please; he was tactile and determined to find his own path, the rest of the world be damned. On my first day at high school, the teacher went through the class register in detail. He paused seeing my last name, and cautiously asked if I had an older brother. I confirmed, adding that I was nothing like him, which was greeted with a relieved sigh.
My brother was popular, but the same attitude that made the teacher so nervous also meant he had a couple of enemies. One night as I walked home from school alone, one of them sidled up beside me, introducing himself as someone who knew my brother. He was friendly and asked how I was doing. Then he asked me to make sure I let my brother know that we’d chatted, and that he knew the way I walked home very day.
I didn’t understand the dynamic that was at play; I really didn’t get that I was being threatened as collateral damage in the wars of boys playing as men. I dutifully relayed the message. There was a flurry of phone calls I couldn’t quite hear, but shortly after my brother left the house and met up with a couple of his mates in the street.
He returned an hour or two later, quiet and tense. He told me that I didn’t have to worry, and I would not be approached again coming home from school. It was never mentioned again.
Years later, on a trip home from college, my curiosity was peaked and I made a slow walk down the narrow corridor to his room. He gruffly answered my knocking, and I opened the door.
“What do you do at work?” I asked.
“I know your work van is from the auto shop, but what do you actually do?”
“I’m an electrician – I install alarms, stereos and stuff”
I went back to my room. A few minutes later there was a knock at my door.
“Yeah?” I was suddenly nervous that I’d crossed some unspoken boundary.
“What are you studying at college?”
“You like it?”
I moved after college, and then we were physically on two different continents. I’d come home nearly every year, for whirlwind visits that crammed in reliving as many rose-tinted memories as I could manage. With each passing year I learned to be more selective with my time and my memories. Increasingly, without thinking, my brother became a priority.
As adults, we finally saw each other as real people, and for a while just played catch-up and started to really get to know each other. We became closer and closer, through hours of late night conversations and laughter around his kitchen table. Later, with trust and comfort growing, we shared perspectives on our childhoods, and helped fill in the gaps of understanding.
He married last year. I was coming out of a depression, but I could immerse myself for a week in his joy. At the reception, we danced together under a full moon and a sky full of stars. We laughed that the universe should have ended at such an unlikely event, but it was the purest sense of happiness I’ve ever felt. He gave me hope.
I don’t know how we shifted, how we closed the gap between us in our youth to the friendship we have now. I do know that having him behind me – which I now appreciate he’s been my whole life – is a rare and precious gift.
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