Note: This piece was originally posted on my blog back in December, 2018. Lately I have spent a lot of time and some of the space here thinking about family and friends and the role they have played in my life. I had forgotten about this particular posting and when I came upon it unintentionally, it seemed to strike a nerve. Family relationships can be tough–I well know. Some of those in my family haven’t been easy. Perhaps you have had similar struggles. I keep hearing and keep reminding myself of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” the last line of which is “preserve your memories…they’re all that’s left you.”
Now, I don’t expect many to stick around for this posting. It’s one of those long family sagas that I guess I have to get off my chest. No, there is no guessing–I HAVE TO get this off my chest. It’s about my brother, Paul, my only sibling. I need to come to peace or closure as some call it. It is not a happy story, though one with many happy memories. Somehow, I wish the two of us had more opportunity, or desire, to tackle what it was that held us at a distance once we left childhood.
My brother died over three years ago. He was two years my elder. He was the one who inherited the family heart and diabetes issues while I accommodated other, less harmful genes, or perhaps later-developing ones.
I think it is true that children adopt certain positions or rankings within the family. These are sometimes dictated by age, other times by whatever traits have been left on the table for one of the siblings to spoon up and swallow. My bother was the rebel; I the pleaser. The roles were well defined and they played out beyond our family years. More on that in a moment.
My mother always told us that she wanted two children so that, unlike her, an only child, we would have someone close with whom to grow old together. I am sure early on she felt confident that would, indeed, happen—at least based on how well my bother and I got along throughout our childhood.
Two years was a good span between us. Paul assumed the big brother leadership role and I appropriately followed. The difference in age, however, wasn’t enough to stop us from being good friends. We rarely went separate ways. We shared the same friends along with all our activities.
Paul and I were pretty much always together. If one of us got into something, the other soon joined in. We were both big on trains, real ones and the model ones on a basement platform my father built. Paul taught me how to always get on the first car of the subway or commuter train. That way, if the spot were available, you could stand at the very front door and peer out the front window. The subways are especially cool. You can see all the tunnels and the stations ahead appearing as little bright specks growing in size as the train approaches each one.
Despite our compatibility as playmates, that’s where it ended. We had totally different personalities and dispositions. We didn’t even look alike. He was obstinate, bucked authority and usually felt his best advice to follow was his own. He was exceptionally smart, like my father, but he failed to exploit it.
Report card night was always tough. He’d come home with the D’s and F’s and a list of excuses about how bad his teachers were. Meanwhile, I sat quietly displaying my mostly B’s and A’s and a smattering of C’s, the latter always in math and anything technical. I loved my brother enough that I attempted to keep my performance low-profile and even chimed in how terrible some of his teachers were. But I could not help think he resented my decent grades, not in a jealous way, but more because they simply made the evening more difficult for him.
My brother chose not to hone the superior brain my parents built for him. He could have easily had a successful, professional career, if he wanted it. I, of course, went down the other path. Paul left school his senior year and enlisted in the Navy, followed by a variety of clerking jobs and selling cars for the rest of his life. I went on to Penn State, struggled but made it through and launched a bumpy but lifetime career in radio that took me to retirement. Ironically, he never seemed to have regrets about choices he made, although he would have never admitted them anyway. I always have a list of wanna-do-overs.
When he left for the Navy, I became an only child. I got the room to myself, the perks of learning to drive and having access to the family car and eventually inheriting a gorgeous hand-me-down ‘53 Chevy from my grandfather. School was going well and I hung with two good friends who remain so today.
Eventually my brother became plagued with health issues. Again, he would follow his own advice and live as he wanted and ignore the consequences. He was constantly in and out of the hospital during his last few years. Even his death was contrary to me. The details remain elusive. He donated his body “to science,” meaning a bunch of med students got to practice on him and eventually he’d be bundled up and put in a piece a donated cemetery ground with others who had done the same, including my father. There would be no funeral, no memorial service, no family gathering…nothing. Just a lifetime that had passed and, other than leaving behind three remarkable daughters who have successfully countered their father’s otherwise lethargic lifestyle, my brother seemingly left little trace that he had ever been here.
So what now? Well, I have compulsively put things in order for myself, as I am prone to do. I have made adjustments to my thinking…made things right, at least for me. I wish my brother and I had a closer relationship as adults. But if I have to settle for the portion of Paul I got, I should be grateful. I miss the boy I grew up with, shared 15 years of my life with, took extraordinarily long bike trips with, built model airplanes with, went swimming with, played Monopoly with, cut grass and shoveled snow with and a bunch of other endless childhood “with’s.” And intertwined among all these activities is the exclusive family heritage we both share. These are memories indelible and unforgettable. And in some ways, Mom, they have made it possible for Paul and I to have lived on together, just as you had hoped for… perhaps not the whole package you envisioned, but for me, enough to cherish for the rest of my life.