I looked up to my brother until he started looking up to me.
He was the middle of five children; I was the youngest. He was handsome and charming, six years my senior. He bought me my stuffed Snoopy dog sporting Red Baron goggles when I turned 5. (He also wrapped it in a huge box so filled with wadded up paper that I cried after digging through it because I thought it was empty.)
He rode me on the handlebars of his bicycle shortly thereafter and brought me home for bandaging when I fell off and scraped away half my face. (My mother gave me a homemade Popsicle for consolation.) He taught me to fish and cooked our catch on an open fire in our back yard.
When my parents gave him permission to get a dog, he charmed his way into bringing home two — a German Shepherd for himself and a Cocker Spaniel for my mother. This was after he and a friend had accidentally burned down an entire apartment building sneaking a cigarette but before that friend got hit by a car and spent a summer in a body cast. My brother had been on the scene but made it across the road unscathed.
As a child, I admired my brother. He was my big brother and I loved him.
Until he went away to college and came back looking up to me.
I was a skinny, muscular 7th grader who would eventually surpass 5’10” — not ridiculously tall (for an Amazon woman, which I’m not, although I do shop there). My brother had come home for Christmas break to find his little sister had had a growth spurt.
He took one look at me, then grabbed my hands.
“Look at those hands! Look at those feet! My god, you’re a monster!”
Welcome home, little brother.
He had definitely shrunk in my eyes as his words seared into my memory. As insecure as he may have been being relatively short, I was equally insecure in being a tall female. (I would outgrow the shorter as well as the taller of my two brothers, my two sisters, both parents — and both of my husbands. And I would be OK with being tall — it allowed me to eat more.)
But at that time, I was a developing young woman who had managed to sprout one hip before the other. I was straight on one side and curvy on the other and spent hours each day in a bathing suit as I swam on the boys’ club swim team. (I kid you not. I wasn’t being transgender; the girls’ club in my city just didn’t have a pool, and so the boys’ club invited us to join theirs.) I felt like a monster.
The years passed and my hips gained symmetry and then some. I was less monster-like. My brother was still short. He chose his path and I chose mine. I went to college and never left my college town. After his college and Navy experiences, my brother stayed in our hometown.
We lived our separate lives, occasionally meeting up at family gatherings, though my brother didn’t attend many, and we only rarely conversed via phone. The last meaningful conversation we’d had was shortly after my youngest son — now 20 — was born. On the rare occasion I got his latest cell phone number and sent a text, I would get a “who is this?” as the first response. I guessed I wasn’t important enough to make Scott’s contact list. I didn’t text often.
When I did see my brother, he was usually inebriated — or on his way to being so. He was losing his Robert Redford-like looks; he was smoking and drinking and living rough. I was Miss Goody Two Shoes in comparison. Since I rarely saw him, I was content with an “out of sight, out of mind” relationship.
Early this year, my niece let me know that my brother was in the hospital with a broken neck. The doctor told him that he had been in danger of being paralyzed with every step he took — for he had walked into the doctor’s office, with difficulty, his hands mere stiff claws at his side. Four surgeries and months later, my brother is finally at home, walking with a walker or a cane, but using his hands and recovering — and shorter than ever. His rebuilt neck does not let him stand straight anymore.
I spoke with him nearly every day when he was hospitalized. I called because my brother needed me. For the most part, our conversations centered on his medical conditions. At first, I hardly knew what else to say. But slowly, our conversations became less about medical issues, more about life.
“I love you, Scott,” I would say before I hung up. “I am praying for you.”
“I love you, too. Call me tomorrow, OK?”
You bet I did.
While at first phoning my brother seemed a call of duty, I surprised myself when I burst into tears after a particularly difficult call in which my brother seemed snowed by the medications the hospital was giving him. I was indignant. I was afraid for my brother. I hurt for him. I was his sister, after all.
A few weeks later, my husband and I went on a beach vacation, which just so happened to be about 15 minutes from my brother’s hospital. The first time we visited, we didn’t tell him we were coming. We simply arrived at his room.
From the doorway, I couldn’t see a face, just the end of his hospital bed populated by a pair of painfully skinny legs protruding from a hospital gown with long, awkward hands pulling at each other in an attempt to straighten. How could these belong to my brother?
But it was his room number, the one I’d been calling all those weeks.
So I called out in a sing-song voice, “He-llo-o!”
“Sara Beara? Is that you?”
We entered to see my brother, looking at me from my father’s 70-year-old face. He was only 56. A thin face with big, earnest eyes and expressions as large as life itself. My brother, weighing less than 120 pounds.
As we walked and talked with my brother, my husband, a physical therapist, was making observations as to my brother’s condition. He and I would look at each other and exchange knowing glances. In some ways, my brother was doing well; in others, his prognosis did not seem good.
We returned the next day, carrying a large New York style mushroom pizza, hoping to encourage my brother to eat. He did. The pizza brought back more than a sick man’s appetite. It brought back memories of our childhood, pizza dinners at Li’l Villa, when my brother would spike my rootbeer with red pepper flakes. (Meanie!) It sparked our reminiscing.
At one point in our conversation, my husband said something — and my brother and I looked at each other and exchanged a knowing glance. Instead of my husband and I being in cahoots, my brother and I were. It was sibling camaraderie. Despite the hurt, the divergent paths, the miles and years apart, the neglect of a relationship.
He is out of the hospital and improving day by day. I don’t call as often, but I call regularly — and I think about him and pray for him often. I love my brother. We will always be inches apart in height and likely miles apart in distance, but we’ve closed the gap in our hearts.
He is my brother still. And that isn’t something to take lightly.