Every now and then, life surprises you.
Let me provide a little bit of context:
My (younger) brother and I, grew up in Massachusetts.
For the first 10 years of my life, our family lived in a tiny rural town of less than 2,000 folks. In our early years, my brother and I spent much of our time together hanging out at the house playing or studying (because there simply wasn’t much else nearby, and our family was close). When I turned 10, we moved to the lower most floor of a “triple decker” (3 floor apartment building) in the inner city. From there, we moved to one side of a duplex and attended a charter school, and then finally to a small single family house in upper-middle class suburbia where we both finished out our high school years. When we weren’t in school, we were attending after school sports (soccer, baseball, swimming, dance, etc.), music lessons (violin and piano for me, drums for him), other activities (reading, web-design club, art classes, girl or boy scouts, Vernal Pool Society, martial arts…I can’t even remember them all right now…), and of course spending time with our respective friends and our Maternal relatives (who we saw weekly; our Paternal relatives would mainly get together on holidays).
Needless to say, at only 2 years and 9 months (to be exact) apart in age, with many shared life experiences, my brother and I were close. And even though there was the occasional poking, pushing, argument, and see-who-could-yell-the-loudest-fest, our relationship was pretty solid and stable.
Then when I left for college (and moved to Texas), things changed a bit.
My brother and I didn’t communicate regularly, in fact, we communicated about twice a year – once when I would return home for Christmas, and again when I’d visit during the summer. I’d find out how he was doing through phone conversations and email with my parents, but it wasn’t quite the same.
Sadly, in his Junior year of high school my brother became involved with some friends who introduced him to drugs, and my brother ended up on the wrong side of the law on a few occasions. By this point our communication was pretty strained and irregular at best, and our parents were on high alert constantly. It seemed like every conversation I had with our folks included commentary on how my brother was in trouble, wayward, or just difficult to connect with.
I spent isolated time with my brother during this period, which began about mid-2006. Again, we saw each other at Christmas, and possibly during the summer. Relating was strange.
Initially, I felt angry and sad. I was angry that my brother got into drugs, that he was becoming an increasingly bigger source of strain and tension on my parents, and that when I would be home, he was frequently unavailable. I was sad because I saw him suffering – upset that he got expelled from school, upset that he didn’t feel at home with our family or his friends, upset that he acquired large amounts of debt in legal fees and court costs – and I was sad because here he was, my brother, hitting some really difficult times and I felt helpless. I was in the audience watching a tragedy from the front row and no matter how much I wanted to jump in and change the plot, or close the curtain and hide the pain, I couldn’t.
Things got incrementally better…my parents left the Northeast and moved to Nevada in mid-2008 which caused my brother to have to (mostly) support himself financially (since he had been living with them but did not want to move cross country). My parents went on to their post-child-rearing stage and established themselves in a new State, with new jobs. My brother stopped actively using or dealing illegal drugs and found a couple of part time jobs that provided structure. He focused more on his music, his real passion. I graduated and worked at the university, did some traveling with my closest friends, went on to grad school in New York City, left a poor relationship, dealt with the accident, worked in market research, and found love.
Throughout it all, our family always met up at Christmas. My brother and I both would stay with our parents for about a week in December. During those visits, I would get moments with him – just me and him. But they seemed fragile and short. After the holiday was up, we’d all return to our respect corners of the country and go about our lives.
I didn’t push my brother into any kind of adult connection. We had our own lives, and to be honest, I knew so little about him as an adult that I often felt more connected by our past than the present. But furthermore, I became more my own person and I didn’t want a deeper relationship with my brother to compromise my adult identity – an identity that I’d been trying so hard to form and maintain. I also didn’t want my connection to him to resemble the one I have with our parents (re: emotionally difficult, laced with expectation and misunderstanding), as that was the only other example of a nuclear family relationship I had to draw from.
My approach became one of love from afar: I’d send the occasional text, email, and birthday card – tell him that I cared about him, but left the rest up to him.
I got a phone call from my brother last night.
It was completely unexpected, and it was really great. We talked for about an hour about how we’re both trying to find our way in life, how we are frequently frustrated at what we think our parents expect from us, how we feel misunderstood by our parents, and how we just want lives where we’re happy, loved, and enjoy what we do.
There were multiple moments in the conversation where I was awash with emotion:
– I could hear the exasperation and pain in his voice through the struggles he’s facing
– I could hear the pride and love when he talked about how thrilled he was with what I’d done so far in life
Here was this person, this one point of humanness across the country, who I could relate to instantly, feel strongly connected to, and dang it, really wanted to reach through the phone and give a hug to.
Now, I don’t take this recent phone call as a sign of massive change. I still anticipate that we may not communicate regularly, that we’ll really only spend time quality time together at Christmas, and we’ll send short messages remotely when a brief burst of “love you; thinking of you,” strikes. But it feels great to know that my child self, teen self, and adult self can connect to this person who has been there through all of those stages and still gives a damn.
It’s also nice to know that he and I can start to bridge the gap as adults and redefine our relationship in ways to match the present; something I perpetually struggle to do with my parents (and other relatives). Likewise, with him I’m the 25 year old me instead of the 12 year old me, but if I feel the need, I can invoke the 12 year old me sometimes and it will still be okay. Plus, no one else can quite experience the underbelly of our nuclear family in the same way, with knowledge of all it’s positives, intricacies, secrets, and dysfunction. I only have one person on this Earth I can call a sibling, and that’s him.
My family has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration, frustration, tension, and learning, in my life. It seems like that’s not going to stop anytime soon. I struggle on a regular basis with my relationship to my parents and other relatives, but I’m hopeful for the future as long as I can occasionally reconnect with my brother in a peer-to-peer way and remember that sometimes life (and others), will surprise you.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. As I mentioned above, family is a constant source of mixed emotion for me. A HUGE thank you must go out to Dan, and my dearest friends (Ya, Pa, St, Au, Ro, Al, Ra, Er, El, Ma…), who help me weather the storms and have truly become my own family, apart from that of my genes.