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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
"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.
When, approaching 20, I was about to get married, my brother summoned me to his office for "a little talk." He told me that sex was only for procreation, never pleasure, because then it would give women power over men. Men had to rule their families, and with that rule came responsibilities. He had to make as much money as possible so his family would feel secure. His talk disturbed me. It was the first time I ever disagreed with anything he said. "What about happiness?" I said. He waved the back of his hand in disgust and said, "It isn't a man's place in life to be happy. It's to be responsible."
That talk was the beginning of a change in our relationship. I got married, left baseball, had children, became a schoolteacher, and dreamed of someday becoming a writer. But most of all, I began to formulate my own ideas of what it meant to be a man, and usually those ideas conflicted with my brother's. Now, when we met for our little lunches at a diner in town, I no longer just sat there, absorbing his monologues. I disagreed with him, got hot, argued, stood up, my face flushed, and stormed out. He'd call me the moment I got home. "Your problem, Brother," he said, "is that you refuse to accept life's answer." I shot back, "I don't even know the fucking question."
After one of our many arguments, my brother looked at me with a knowing smile and said, "Why do you always have to be better than me, Brother?" I was dumbfounded. Better? I was just different. Why did he need my eternal acquiescence? Over the years, I began to realize my brother created these little scenarios at lunch on purpose to rouse my anger. It was his way of fulfilling the role Dad had prescribed for him. The older, wiser brother trying to make a man of the young, hot-tempered, immature brother. He was, after all, always trying to make a man of me, precisely up to that point, but never beyond, at which I would become independent of him.
It was a crushing blow for my father to see his two sons begin to drift apart. "After all your brother's done for you," he said to me. He tried to punish me into reconciling with my brother. When he found out I had been having affairs with other women, he shook his head in disgust. "A real womanizer!" he said, with some satisfaction, as if my behavior proved some point about me he'd always believed. I just looked at him and said, "If it had been my brother, could you have called him a womanizer?"
My father looked truly pained. "I could never do that," he said. "It would hurt him." Then, after a long pause, he said, "Why have you always been jealous of my special relationship with your brother?"
"I'm not jealous. I just think it's sick."
Dad was most crushed by my decision not to become a lawyer and join my brother's firm. I didn't tell my father that it was my brother who discouraged me from becoming a lawyer. He hated the law.
"Then why'd you become a lawyer?" I said to my brother.
He gave me an ethereal smile, turned up his palms to heaven as if presenting an offering, and said, "For Dad."
He shook his head at my ignorance and said, "There's more to it than you know, Brother."
I became a writer in my late 20s, and through my writing I began to formulate my own ideas on how to live a life, often in contradiction to my brother's unbending, joyless life. My brother and I had fewer and fewer conversations. I now tried to avoid his calls, his constant attempts to grind me down to his will, and that's what it had become. A battle of wills. His maddeningly soothing voice, my furious anger, the receiver slammed down. Finally, he stopped calling, relieved, it seemed to me in my 30s, that he no longer had to fulfill the little charade of our brotherhood after all these years. God, how he must have hated always being the loving brother! How he must have hated the terrible pressure Dad, and I, unwittingly, burdened him with! How he must have hated … no, I will never believe that … how he must have resented me. Then, he had his nervous breakdown.
I was in my mid-30s, in a motel room in Orlando, Fla., with a woman who was not my wife, when my wife called to tell me the news. My brother was in a private sanitarium.
"Everyone's hysterical," she said. "Your father said it should have been you. They want you to come home and make it go away."
I flew home the next day and took a cab from the airport to the sanitarium. The cab drove up a long, winding driveway shaded by maples trees. I saw a picturesque pond with swans floating on it, then a vast, perfectly manicured green lawn. The sanitarium was set on a hill, a huge, white, old New England Colonial. I got out and went inside. While I waited for my brother's psychiatrist in his office, I thought to myself, all those years of unbending certitudes must have finally weighted him down. What I had admired so much as a boy, I realized now, had been for my brother an unbearable, debilitating cross he had to bear. It was my fault somehow. I should have always let him be right with me. Why did I have to argue with him, over what? I should have kept my thoughts to myself and just acquiesced to my brother's certitudes as I had as a boy.
The psychiatrist came into the office and sat down behind his desk. He was spectrally thin, with taut, pale skin and a Mephistophelian beard. "Someone has to sign these papers to commit him," he said. He pushed the papers toward me. "We can only keep him 10 days involuntarily. No one else in his family seems to want to take the responsibility."
"I'd like to see him first," I said. He looked annoyed.
"If you insist. But be prepared. He's not the brother you knew." He led me down a narrow hallway and ushered me into a bare room with a wooden floor covered with linoleum. He stayed at the door. "It's better if he doesn't see me," he said. "I seem to disturb him." He closed the door behind him and I waited. The room was completely bare. No plants, pictures on the wall, chairs, nothing. Another door opened and my brother entered the room. His eyes were glazed over as if he had been given a sedative. He saw me and smiled and held out his arms.
"Brother," I said. He hugged me, and I smelled his smell, the smell of the brother I had once slept in the same bed with when I was a child and he was a man. He'd made me scratch his back while he told me stories about "Jimmy and the Ghost" until I fell asleep. The next morning, I asked him what had happened to Jimmy. "Wait until tonight," he said. "I'll tell you tonight." But the story never ended.
I began to cry. My brother gripped my shoulders in a vise-like grip and held me at arm's length.
"Why, Brother," he said. "What's wrong?"
"I love you so much, Brother."
He smiled at me, and nodded. "Yes, Brother," he said. "That's always been the problem, hasn't it?"
I was no longer crying when I walked back down that narrow corridor to the psychiatrist's office. He was sitting behind his desk. He looked up and said, "I told you you wouldn't recognize him." He pushed the papers across the desk toward me. I looked at them and saw, in my mind's eye, my brother, my father, and that delicate false world they had created for each other. Like a house of cards I could finally destroy. But I realized what I had thought was sick all these years wasn't sick; it was perfectly understandable. My father deferred to my brother and was hard on me because I was his natural son. His only blood relation in all the world. My brother had been rejected by his natural father. My father knew how that felt. Alone. Unwanted. Adrift in life. He was determined my brother would never feel that way, too, even if it had to be at my expense. It was their common bond that shaped, or misshaped, their relationship, and, in the process excluded me. So what? I was supposed to know these things. I was supposed to know that despite everything these two men loved me in their way. Everything else I felt was the self-pity of a boy who'd never become a man. A pampered boy who would never realize how blessed he was to have had not one but two fathers.
"He's not the brother you know," the psychiatrist said.
I looked at the paper, then at him. "Yes, he is." And then I left.
When my brother returned home, he was never the same again. He retreated into the bosom of his family. His wife, his children, his grandchildren. He sat at his kitchen table, like the potentate of a small, diminished kingdom. His family acquiesced to him out of fear that if they didn't they might push him again over the edge of sanity. It was painful to watch, for me at least. My brother's life became smaller as he aged, while my life became bigger. Some small fame as a writer. Recognition. Our roles had been irrevocably reversed. So I removed myself from his life so that my presence would not force him to confront what must have pained him.
He didn't seem to mind our long absences. And, on those rare occasions when we did talk, I tried to defer to him. It was a false relationship now, tiptoeing around the unspoken. I think he knew what I was doing, condescending to him, and it must have pained him, "the kid," who had seen him at his weakest moment, now treating him as if he was the child.
Over the years of our parents' deaths, and our increasing old age, we rarely spoke or saw each other. For both of us, it was painful to have our brother in our lives. So we absented ourselves from each other's lives. But we have never absented ourselves from our brother's love. Of that, of all the things in my life, I am most sure.
By the time you read this, my elder brother, Jeff, will have arrived on his annual visit from his home in New Orleans. I am looking forward to it immensely. (I have a younger brother, Jack, of whom I am equally fond, but he lives only a few streets away from me, so the novelty value is not so high.)
I have always got on well with Jack but, to be frank, I used to detest my big brother. My resentment lay rooted in my feelings of rejection from him when I was growing up, as a rather insecure, nerdy kid. Like most big brothers, he wasn’t too keen on his whiny little appendage, only 20 months younger, and didn’t bother hiding the fact.
As a teenager Jeff was (secretly) my hero – cool, good-looking and charming, which is why his indifference to me cut so deep. Tension between us continued up until the year my mother died, in 1988, when we were in our 30s. After that, we began to get closer, until eventually we became firm friends. I now can’t imagine life without him, even though he lives 4,500 miles away.
Why am I telling this story? Because it is not an unusual one – or at least the first part isn’t. Sibling rivalry is a profound part of growing up. Many developmental psychologists now believe that whereas once the father, then the mother, was seen as key to a child’s growth as a personality, it is actually the sibling – your first “peer group” as it were – who determines most strongly the character traits you are going to develop.
Most often this happens in a sort of inversion. Siblings – at least when there are only two of you, close together (Jack came 13 years after me) – influence each other most often by defining themselves as not being the other.
This explains why when two people who share 50% of their genes, and more or less identical family environments, so often end up with radically different personalities.
When I was writing my novel about brothers, Under the Same Stars, I did a great deal of research about siblings, and was surprised to find that hatred – of the kind that I felt as a child – was extremely common among brothers and sisters. That dynamic could continue for a lifetime.
Although the hatred is long gone, the importance of my relationship with Jeff is underlined by the fact that a lifetime after I had shared a house with him, I was writing a book which, in essence, was a coded and fictionalised examination of our own relationship.
The book ends with a cataclysmic revelation about the two brothers’ childhood, followed by reconciliation between the two. That theme of reconciliation is the reason I am writing this column.
Because siblings are simply too precious to waste. They are your longest lifelong memory bank, your shared history, the person who may know you better than anyone else (one of the reasons they are so good at getting under your skin). They are so deeply part of your identity that they cannot be erased, even by their absence.
Many siblings grow apart and stop seeing one another altogether. I think that is a terrible pity, and if anyone out there reading this is estranged from a brother or a sister, I would urge them to make efforts to change that situation before it is too late. If Jeff and I can become so close, after half a lifetime of resentment and harsh words, you can do it. Yes, it may end in failure – some rifts are too deep to heal. But if you can find a way, you will never regret it. Siblings are simply too precious to throw away – because, even more so than your parents, they helped to make you who you are.