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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

My brother doesn't know where I live. He doesn't know who my friends are. He doesn't know I have two new puppies. He doesn't know I am talking again to my daughter after 20 years. He doesn't know if Susan is still well and free from cancer. He doesn't know if I am well or sick, working or not, vigorous or an old man. I know nothing about him either. I have not talked to him in three years. I have not seen him in five. I have seen him only three times in the last 12 years, at my house in Florida in 2000, at our mother's funeral in 2002, and at my father's funeral in 2005. He doesn't know what I look like now, at 69, whether I have gained or lost weight, whether I have lost my hair like Dad, or still have it like him. But I know what he looks like because he has never aged. He looked old when he was young, but when he got old he looked the same. He's 83 now. With short hair like Brillo, a long horsey face, and small eyes (his friends called him "Moose"). A tall, sturdily built man with a vise-like handshake that made me wince, his reminder that he would always be stronger than me, like a solid oak unbending in the wind, while I would always be a sapling whipped by the wind until uprooted.

At my mother's funeral in 2002, my father, my brother, and I greeted mourners in the back of the church in our hometown of Fairfield, Conn. My brother, 6'4", wore his Ivy League suit from J. Press Clothiers in New Haven, and his wing-tipped cordovan shoes, as sturdy as Dutch clogs. My father, 5'6", at92, wore his navy blazer with brass buttons and his regimentally striped tie. I, 6'1", wore my black leather sport jacket, jeans, and work boots. I had long gray hair and a white beard. My father looked at me and said, "You look like a bum." My brother said, "Leave the kid alone, Dad. He came all this way." My brother always defended me to my father. That's why he always called me "the kid." It was a sign of affection. To him, I would always be "the kid"; it was his way of excusing my behavior among adults. And whether my brother realized it or not, it was a way to diminish me. Which was the problem, one of them anyway, which is also why, at 69, I have reconciled myself to the possibility that I will never see my brother again.

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We have never called each other by our given names. We have called each other only "Brother" all these years. It is a half-truth. My brother is not my father's natural son. Our mother was married briefly when she was a teenager, and then divorced after she had a son. When my father married her years later, he promised to raise her son as his own. And he did. In fact, he was such a good father to my brother, better even than a natural father could ever have been, that for years it never dawned on me that my brother was only my half-brother even though we had different last names. I was 12 when I learned the truth. At the time, my brother had some small fame as a high-school basketball coach. Each week his name would appear in the local newspaper after yet another of his team's victories. One day I brought one of those newspaper stories to school. I showed it to my friends. "That's my brother," I said. My friends refused to believe me because we had different last names. I got hot, always my problem, and in a rage bloodied one of those boys' noses.
 
When I told my father about the fight, he told me the truth about my brother. He had a different father, with a different last name. My father had not changed my brother's last name to his own because my brother's natural father was a wealthy man. My father thought that by not changing my brother's last name he would make sure my brother would share in his father's wealth when he died. My father was a professional gambler, a con man, and a grifter, and our circumstances were always precarious, the house for sale after a week's losing streak betting on the Knicks, and he knew he'd never be able to give my brother the things he wanted for him. College. Law school. Respectability. Legitimacy. A career that would make an Italian-American father proud. He thought that by keeping my brother's real last name he could ensure such a future. When my brother was ready for college and my father had no money to send him, he journeyed to Massachusetts to talk to my brother's father, who had, for all intents and purposes, disowned his son. My father stood before that wealthy man, humbled, not my father's natural demeanor, and pleaded for the money to send his son to college and then law school. After he got it, my father returned home. It was late at night. From my bedroom I heard my father cursing the day my brother's father had ever been born while my mother said nothing.

My brother was so grateful for such acts from my father, for my father's very real affection for him, that when he married he wrote my father a letter. He told him not to worry, that even though he had a wife now, that didn't mean he'd ever neglect his brother. When I was in my late teens my father thought I was old enough to be told about that letter. It was a sign of my brother's love for me, he said, with tears in his eyes. It did not dawn on my father, or my brother, that my brother's promise to repay my father for his affection made me only a piece of barter between them. I have always felt outside of what my father called his "special relationship" with my brother. It was a relationship I never questioned for years because there was so much about it that I didn't know until the day of my mother's funeral.

My brother slid out of the pew and went up to the pulpit to talk about my mother and father. He said my mother's full name. I never knew her middle name was June. He said my mother was always unflinchingly honest (I knew that). When my brother asked her as a boy why she always told people he was handsome, she said, "You were my son. What the hell else could I say?" The mourners laughed. My brother was never a handsome man. But what my brother didn't mention was that our mother always said I was the pretty son and my brother was the good son. That defined us all our lives. One day, in my 20s, I told my brother what a pain in the ass it was always being the "pretty son." He said, "I'd like to be 'the pretty son' just once before I die." I said, "Yeah, and I'd like to be 'the good son' just once before I die." We both laughed.

Then my brother told the mourners the story of my mother's and father's great romance. He did not mention his own natural father who had abandoned him and my mother shortly after he was born. That would be the basis for my brother's and my father's unshakable bond. My father was an orphan, abandoned at birth. He never saw his parents except one time, when, as a boy of 6, he was taken out of the orphanage where he spent the first 15 years of his life, to visit a young woman dying on a hospital bed, his mother. She asked him for forgiveness, told him she loved him, then died.

When my father left the orphanage he supported himself by gambling. He hustled pool, shot craps with loaded dice, played poker with marked cards, and past-posted horse races. The first and only woman he ever fell in love with was my mother. He was a teenager then, and she was four years older, a married woman with a son. My father hung around my mother like a lovesick steer. He ingratiated himself with her family, especially her father, a local club fighter. My father bankrolled that older man's fights and "waited patiently until my mother turned his way," said my brother. They were finally married when my brother was 9. I never knew that. I always thought they married when my brother was a baby.

My brother concluded his talk by saying he inherited my mother's and father's indomitable will, and then returned to his pew. Sitting there I thought it strange that all his reminiscences had to do with their life before me. My brother, my mother, and my father shared a past I was not a part of. I came late in lives that were already formed. My father told me that he was tired after raising my brother as his son, so he turned over my raising to him. My brother was always more of a father to me than a brother. All my life my father punctuated that point by telling me stories about my brother that were designed to show me how good my brother had always been to me, how I owed him the utmost gratitude and loyalty. My brother changed my diapers. He washed toilets to get money to buy me birthday presents. These were stories my father didn't need to tell me, stories I remembered on my own. When I was a Little League pitching star, my brother would come to our house for lunch and then have a catch with me on the sidewalk while my parents sat on the porch steps and applauded my pitches. I can still see him in my mind's eye, tall and horsey-faced, in his Gant button-down shirt and tie, going into his catcher's crouch and calling out, "C'mon, kid. Show me what you got." When I graduated from high school, pursued by a host of Major League teams, my brother traveled to those teams with me and negotiated my bonus contract. When I tried to repay him by buying him a car (he had an old Lincoln Continental at the time), he refused my offer. "It's your money, Brother. You earned it."

Is it any wonder, then, that all the years of my life I have loved my brother, more even than my parents? For years I tried, increasingly against my grain, to emulate him. As a boy I told my parents I wanted to be a lawyer, like my brother, and work at his law firm. My father was thrilled. Before I got married, at 19, I told my wife-to-be that I wanted to have six children, like my brother. We had five. And when I got a job as a high-school English teacher in my 20s, I went to school each day dressed in the tweeds and plaids of J. Press Clothiers, with ponderous wing-tipped cordovan shoes on my feet.