I have a brother who’s 2 years younger than me and since we were teens it’s been a rocky relationship. Both of us had our issues and personality quirks, and when we crossed paths it was usually either a tense conversation, or an outright profanity-laden clash of words. We seemed best off just avoiding each other and getting updates through our mom. He was so far removed from my life that friends often didn’t know I had a sibling.
Then for 2 days in April of ’09, we were thrust together in a hospital room, watching a machine breathe for our mom as the life slipped away from her, holding her hand and making hard decisions. Shortly after she took her last breath, my brother said in a cracked voice, “She’s gone”.
And the next day, we screamed and threw punches at each other on the way to the funeral home.
After the week of multistate funerals we returned to our lives. I took over the process of managing the estate and getting our mom’s house ready to put up for sale. Raw from grief, we sparred furiously with email finger-jabs and character assassinations. Then after he’d just had enough of it, he decided he wanted nothing more to do with me and told me to get away from him and his family.
Yes, his family – at the time, his girlfriend was expecting his baby. So this little child, his daughter, my niece and my mom’s granddaughter would not know me. I despaired over this. I called him when I heard his girlfriend was in labor, thinking maybe the baby’s imminent arrival would soften him, only to have a text snarl back at me, “I don’t want you. I don’t need you.” I was in a taxi heading home with my freshly pressed wedding gown overflowing my lap, and I burst into tears, completely bewildering the cab driver.
My aunt emailed me one of the first pictures of my niece, swaddled and sleeping with my brother’s finger pointing at her – nearly the length of her little arm. I stared at the photo and fell in love instantly, choking to myself that I wouldn’t hold her. I started looking into a college fund for her and asked family for updates.
I settled uncomfortably into this distance, fantasizing that maybe his girlfriend would allow me to see the baby some day, or family would intervene heroically on my behalf. Staring at forwarded pictures as her blonde hair grew full and her blue eyes lit up with a toothless grin. I heaped it onto my I’m-so-stressed-my-life-is-so-hard pile, and moped around on the brink of tears for many months.
Then, one afternoon (credit: The Landmark Forum), I had a breathtaking realization. The way for me to have a relationship with my niece was for me to get right with my brother, and in a wave of the proverbial owning my part, I realized what a total shit I’d been to him through the years and since our mom died. By treating him like a family outsider. By rolling my eyes at him. By commandeering the funeral arrangements with what I wanted. By not filling him in on what was going on with the estate. By cutting him out of sorting through the house. By treating him like some antisocial buffoon who couldn’t get his life together, I’d alienated my only brother and he was justifiably livid as Hell at me.
It was time to step up.
So I called him that weekend, and left a message that went something like, “I’ve been a shitty sister, call me back”. On and on I called, leaving messages. I finally got a response akin to fuck off, and I responded, nope, not gonna happen. Over the course of a couple of months I called, texted and when he texted back saying to leave him alone, I said no, I’m not going away. I made plans with my dad to go out and visit. That was the weekend of the hurricane, so my dad and I rescheduled. Last week, before our plans, my dad emailed me to reschedule again, and I said this is too tenuous, I’ll go on my own.
All along, I’d been keeping my brother updated on the plan to come visit. I texted him that I was coming out this past Saturday, and he wrote back “Nope”. I wrote, “I want to make amends” to which he replied “There is no amends. Piss off.”
Then my resolve began to waver and the cautious and pitying looks I’d been getting from friends and family when I shared this intention of reuniting with my brother came to mind. I didn’t want to make almost a 2-hour trip to Long Island for nothing. I wasn’t positive he would be home, or let me in the door. I kept it on my calendar but started to let other plans intervene.
Then a text arrived, “Bring guacamole.” Followed shortly afterward by, “And Coronas”. So I jumped at it; I went to the supermarket for the fixins for guac, a six-pack of Coronas, and limes (of course). I stopped at my favorite novelty store for a baby gift, went home to pull it all together and hit the road.
When I arrived, tote bags in hand, there was no answer when I knocked. And knocked. The motion sensor light went out and I stood there in the dark. I could hear the TV and a baby crying. I tried the doorknob and it was open. I had a stab of panic, do I just walk in? What if this is trespassing? But I pushed it open, stepped into the unlit foyer and knocked on the inner door. I could tell they heard me then, and a female voice said, “Answer the door!” It opened and there was my brother. Smirking. “I told you I was coming”, I said, to which he replied, “I know, come on in.”.
I then walked into the apartment, immediately got down on the floor and said hi to my niece. After a little while he said, “She looks like you when you were a baby.”
I stayed there until after 1am, chatting with his friends and girlfriend, respecting his political views, smiling at wisecracks about my liberal disposition, snapping pictures, playing with my niece, laughing at Saturday Night Live. At one point I asked, “How’s the guacamole?” And he said, “It’s all right.”
I think the highlight was when he beat my ass in Mortal Kombat.
When I left I said, “I’ll see you next month”, offered to bring our baby pictures and our dad, and gave him a hug. He hugged me back.
What an awesome night.
If I had continued to wrap myself in that shroud of self-pity and consider my brother to be so damn wrong, I would not be standing here with a world of possibility for a new relationship with him based on love and respect. Will it be easy to work through this? Yes, because it’s a whole lot harder to sit in front of a computer screen than it is to simply play with my niece and hug my brother. But I know it will take time, and I’m OK with that, because the guacamole is going to get made no matter if I share it with my brother or not.