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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Shadow of the First Born

I will begin at the beginning...and post in order of what was written. Please keep checking back for updates! Kisses.

(For the record, much has changed in the year and a half since this was written in my brother's life and mine and between us.)

July 2005

It’s hot. I’ve just discovered my wireless networking does work. That’s a relief. Let’s just hope my new disk drive works too; then something will have actually gone right in these last few days. I’m working downtown, starting tomorrow–got lost on the way there, turned around about 4 times. Every directional instinct I had was incorrect–it made me uneasy. If I thought about it anymore, I’m sure I would convince myself it meant something about my choices in life too. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m not happy here. Not yet, anyway, and I, of all people, have a tendency to make grand generalizations when it comes to anything having to do with my own state of contentment. Something to do with catastrophic thinking or Murphy’s Law. I want instant solutions; I want things to be fixed. I tell people they can’t do that, can’t demand anything of anything really...but then I’m the first person to assume that if I’m unhappy now, I’ll be unhappy forever and that anything that could go wrong will. It’s all very irrational of me really. Old habits die slow, painful deaths–in fact they refuse to die.

I’m supposed to be writing about my brother; we’re supposed to be writing a play together. He’s going to write about me, and I’m supposed to write about him. We’ve rediscovered each other these last few months, since the end of April. All of a sudden, this voice at the end of infrequent conversations, some more satisfying than others, this vague notion of “brother” came into sharp focus and I had to reorient myself around him. Figure out how to be a grownup with him around. Parts of that were much easier than others–we got drunk together the night he visited; I was affectionate with a boy I liked while he was around--and then he was gone again, leaving me with words of sincere encouragement about how I was doing and my lovely friends, my chosen family. I’m trying to figure out how to be a “sister,” since I survived a lot of years basically being an only child. All of a sudden, I have obligations as a sister that I need to remind myself don’t apply to us, but now we’re supposed to fall into habits that we never even practiced.

It’s all very complicated and confusing, and then I need to remind myself to just be myself because if there’s anyone who loves me unconditionally (which I still find shocking), it’s him. He told me I was his litmus test for women in his life, that if he can find someone who loves him and whom he loves as much as we love each other, he knows he’ll be OK. It’s not a sentiment I share because my brother, like my father in so many ways, gives and takes away. Ours is (or perhaps more accurately was) a relationship based greatly on him dropping bombshells that I felt I needed to clean up after. My vivid analogy during one therapy session was that my brother was blow-torching the trail that I followed him down, trying to make it presentable and pretty as I walked in his wake. It’s a vivid enough image that it’s taking me longer than 2 otherwise pleasant visits with him to get over. I’ve never been one to take what I can get, unfortunately. Like I said, I want quick fixes. To somehow be totally fulfilled by this new relationship all of a sudden, to not feel obligations based on the title of “sibling,” to never have to talk about my family with my brother, because we were pretty much raised in different ones and I don’t think we’ll ever be able to reconcile the damage and the support we both experienced from our fractured family. I was an only child with a brother; he was an orphan with four parents.

I’ve never seriously talked to my brother about the 6 years he excommunicated himself from our family, starting when he was 14 and I was 11. I haven’t lived in the same house with him for more than 10 years. I remember total unrest and unease as I became both the forgotten child in his absence and the cherished one. Mixed messages even from my parents. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forgive them for. And while I was living at home, in turmoil and not asking any of the questions that, in retrospect, burned the backs of my eyelids, no one really knows what he was doing. I speculate it was nothing more severe than doing a lot of drugs and having a lot of sex, but I don’t know where he slept or if he slept or what or if he ate, how sick he was or even how sane. In my frightened and paranoid family of ex-addicts, this recklessness was unacceptable and acted upon irresponsibly. Rehab facilities and interventions and no one really listening to anyone, least of all my brother, who was just a really angry teenager, as far as I can tell now. Still, it’s a painful and fairly taboo subject between us. Not because I don’t want to know, but because maybe at this point, it’s irrelevant. Water under the bridge, as they always say with self-satisfaction.

Again, however, those days are burned into my memory, into my everyday existence in ways that I can’t escape. I was never allowed to be scared or angry or reckless; those were my brother’s departments. No, I was the peace maker, the one who, through my silence and compliance, my “goodness,” proved that no one had failed as a parent, as they feared. Of course, as a 22 year old, I take credit for it all. I gave them what they needed, so they didn’t feel like failures but it was the person that was older than 11 years in me that somehow knew that’s what they needed. It wasn’t their good parenting. These patterns of placating turned me into someone I didn’t know or care to learn about. It felt much deeper than anyone else’s adolescent silence because there were things I knew I couldn’t talk about, questions I knew would go unanswered, slaps on the wrist if I tried to be honest, keeping me in the hole I had dug for myself. So instead, I stayed quiet and internally angry.

It’s my brother, now, who has somehow mended his relationships with these people who betrayed him, literally locked him out of our family, arrested him on the corner so he would stop leaving home, sent him away so someone else would take care of him. I recently remembered that my brother was put into therapy at around the age of 11–it was a decision made for him that I’m sure was far more counterproductive than helpful. I remember sitting outside his psychologist’s office, the white noise machines humming, drowning out whatever was going on inside. I often heard the drone of voices inside the room anyway but could never make out anything specifically. This memory now makes me sad and disgusted because I understand a bit more how stifling the situation must have been for him. I think forced therapy is just as unsuccessful as forced rehab is (and was for my brother). It doesn’t help unless you seek it yourself. Despite all of these apparent injustices, he is on far better speaking terms with a bigger percentage of our parents than I am. It all feels terribly unfair, and I hate to play the victim, even though it’s awfully easy.

We’ve lived separately for more than 10 years–it’s a situation nobody else in my life can relate to. I go for months without seeing my brother, and it’s something that nobody quite understands. But that’s the nature of my family. It’s something I’m not sure will ever change. We’ve always lived far apart from each other, and even when we are in the same city, it’s easy to keep trucking with my own life. Block them out a bit and just keep trucking. At this point, it’s my mode of survival. And it’s how I’ve taken care of myself for a long time. Maybe it’s called denial.

When he came “crawling back to us” as I cruelly called it, at 18, I actually had a hard time coming to terms with it. He was accepted back into our family so completely and so easily; it took more adjusting on my part than that. Perhaps I’m still adjusting. Sometimes there were days and weeks when I didn’t think about him once. He was far away, out of sight, out of mind, as it usually is with my family. We call it “compartmentalizing,” as if giving it a label means we’re coming to terms with it, which we aren’t. But I was consumed with high school and my own unhappiness, trying to make sense of a cross-country move and adjust to a much smaller town, trying to survive my adolescence, still treading lightly through my own life.

After getting tired of making no money, riding on his GED, he decided he would join the Navy, at the urging of our parents. I entered college less than a year later. As I finally began to carve out my identity, literally putting the pieces of a shattered puzzle together, clarifying the image of the me I figured out I wanted to be, his apparent impulsiveness would sometimes shatter my new calm in ways that I didn’t have time or patience for but that overwhelmed me anyway. All of a sudden he was going to Japan for 6 months or had a wife or was getting a divorce. It was always something significant, and I was, again, left to somehow react, stay on the straight and narrow while my older brother lived with no regard for the rest of us. I was always infuriated by the swiftness with which I was sent back to that familiar role. Even as I began to find my niche and become comfortable with the adult I was discovering, I was still the good little sister, the good daughter. The one who was doing so well, the one no one ever worried about. And I couldn’t figure out if it was my “nature” or if I was living in reaction to my unpredictable brother, resisting the chaos of my childhood and my family relationships by doing what was expected of me, making it my responsibility to sustain order among the tumult.

He mentioned once, in his stay in the Navy, as he swiftly acquired college credits and discovered he actually liked school, that he wanted to be a doctor and I realized suddenly, not without some due amusement, that I was ending up the impractical one (with my theatrical aspirations), and he was going to be the one who picked the straight and narrow path. Little by little our roles had reversed, and I didn’t want to give him the credit he was due for having turned his life around, for having goals that he made clear. My future seemed tenuous and trite now–he was going to be the upstanding son; I just wanted to be on Broadway. He was back in the glow of our family, even if he didn’t want to be. And I was back in the shadow of the first-born, a sister again instead of an only child.

I graduated with a degree in theater; he wants to study English now, following his passion instead of something “practical,” even though he’s some kind of engineer (and bored). We seem to have reached a kind of stasis. I’m not sure how to explain it, except that suddenly, he is actually someone I can be honest with. No slaps on the wrist, no false assurances, no cliches, no lip service. There’s a lot of time to make up for, but I don’t think looking at it like that is the right way. I sort of met my brother for the first time in late April. There needs to be some kind of starting over. We disagree and even argue about our scholarly family and the pressures that they do and don’t inflict on us to be academians. I don’t understand why someone who lived several years having nothing to do with this extended, he says snobby, family would care what they had to say about whether or not he has a college degree. But what I do understand is that perhaps now I’ve forged the path ahead of him. Maybe he’s even felt, like I have, that he lives his life in reaction to mine, in some ways.

In fact, maybe I’ve just been stumbling through my life, more connected to him than I thought, unaware of or refusing to acknowledge that family can mean obligation but it doesn’t have to mean everything.

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