Why I no longer speak to the brother who raised me like a father.

Snapshots of life at home.
June 30 2010 9:59 AM

Brother

Why I no longer speak to the sibling who raised me like a father.

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I loved my brother for many reasons, not only for the things he did for me, or because of my father's obsessive insistence that I love him. I loved him for what he was. Strong, manly, tough, disciplined, righteous, with an indomitable will. He was pedantic, too. He always spoke in certitudes that appealed to a young boy like me who was hungry for guidance, discipline, and order. My father had no time for me when I was growing up. And our life, because of his gambling, was always in a state of turmoil. It unnerved me, made me a fearful boy. My brother calmed me, the way one would a skittish colt. When I was in Little League he made me run wind sprints to stay in shape. It never occurred to me then that a 12-year-old didn't get out of shape. But that was not the point. It was my brother's way of telling me that a man had to work hard at the things he wanted. When I was in my late teens I helped him carry a big wing chair up to his attic. It wouldn't fit through the narrow attic doorway. We struggled and struggled until finally I measured the chair and the doorway. I said, "Brother, the chair's 36 inches wide, the doorway's 33. No way." But he insisted. Finally, I left. He called me two hours later. "As usual you quit too soon, brother," he said. "I got it up by myself." A few days later he admitted that he got the chair through the doorway only after he cut off its legs. We both laughed.

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When I was a freshman on my high-school baseball team and my coach refused to pitch me in a game, I told my brother I was going to quit the team. He talked me out of it. "A man never quits," he said. "You'll just set a pattern of behavior that will haunt you." So I didn't.

The one story about my brother that captured the kind of person he was, was one my parents told me often. The moral of this story—stories in my family always had a moral—was what a man my brother was, even at 21. He was standing by the railroad tracks waiting for the train that would take him back to law school when he felt a hand in his back pocket pulling out his wallet. Without thinking, he whirled around, his fist shooting out, smashing the pickpocket's nose. The pickpocket fell to the ground, blood spurting everywhere, an old man, a bum. My brother was so overcome with guilt, he helped that bum up, gave him his handkerchief to stanch the blood, then gave him all the bills he had in his wallet. That story always thrilled me, the hardness of it, and the softness of it, both encapsulating all the mysteries of what it meant to be a man.

My brother used to take me in my stroller around the neighborhood when I was a baby. Mothers stopped to coo and swoon over the beautiful girl with the golden curls. My brother immediately took me to a barbershop for my first haircut. When I began to talk as a child, and called my mother "Mommy," he taught me to call her "Mom" or "Ma," like a man. He even tried to teach me how to shake hands, firmly, like he did, but I could never match his vise-like grip.

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"He was always trying to make a man of you," my father told me once, "even then." That's why, I thought, my brother was so hard on me as I got older. When I struck out 19 of 21 batters in a high-school baseball game, I waited outside my house for my brother to stop by and praise me. He pulled up in his big Lincoln, rolled down the window, and summoned me. I leaned into the car and he said, "You could have struck out all 21 yesterday, but you choked."

When I played on his high-school basketball team, he insisted I call him coach, not Brother during the season. He called me by my last name during practices. He belittled me in front of my teammates while, at the same time, he devised plays for my beautiful jump shot. And when I scored with that jump shot, the moral of my success was never my talent but the brilliance of his plays, for me, his brother. In this way, he not only shared in my talent, but he created it, and controlled it. He told me once that the great frustration in his life was that, "I never had any talent, like you, Brother." So he coached others. "Those that can't, teach," he said.

I sprained my ankle before an important game in my junior year and told my brother I didn't think I could play the next game. He accused me of "dogging it; show some guts." So I played on that painfully sprained ankle and scored 30 points by an act of sheer will. Still we lost. After the game, my brother accused me of being selfish for playing hurt "just so you could score your points."

When I was in my early 20s and I had begun to get fat, he told me that getting fat was a sign I lacked character. Years later, when I took up bodybuilding and became a muscular 30-year-old, and my brother, in his mid-40s had begun to put on weight, he told me that my obsession with my body was unmanly, "a woman's vanity."

At first, I thought these were games my brother played with me to keep me sharp, on my toes. But over the years I began to realize it was his way of making manhood elusive to me. It shifted with whims I was never privy to. Which was the point. I would never be a man, in his eyes, or mine, as long as he kept shifting its definition.

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