Thursday, May 20, 2010

The unexpected Ally

I wonder when the shift happened, the sliding from archenemy to ally.  I wonder which one of us waved the white flag, if there was a desertion or if a third side was formed.  I flip through our childhood archives on the lookout for when we stood side by side instead of climbing over each other to be first in line.  I open the childhood box, remembering how as an almost-three year old, I was home alone with dad in the aftermath, plopped in this alternate universe where dad was the one making breakfast and I was left to wonder who had kidnapped my mom? I'm sure I was told that I was getting a new brother, that mom was coming home, that it was so wonderful and exciting.  I'm sure I was less than excited.  I didn’t particularly see the need for a new brother, and believed that it was a sorry substitution for the dog that I desperately begged for. 

The dusty box of his birth spills open with stories of mutual distrust, filled with the folk-tales of sibling rivalry. Upon driving home after some ‘mommy and me’ time at the ice cream store, I hopefully asked, “Mom, do you think when we get home Benjamin will be dead?” Or Benj, at a swim lesson, tossing a doll in the pool: “Benjamin, go save Lauren – see…she’s in the pool!” as he casually turns away and heads inside.  

This box captures the rare seconds we would grudgingly hold hands and smile, the vacations when we would call a truce in the absence of real friends.  Our youngest years lack the sweet older sister looking after her brother, with our playtimes usually corresponding to the behavior charts my mom created as she placing sticker stars beside our names each time we were nice to each other. 

Plus, if I'm being honest, the animosity can be squarely placed on my conscience.  He begged to play with me, always willing to come up with games that he thought I would like: “Yoren, you can dress me up? You can put make-up on me? (That game abruptly ended after my parents were a tad concerned that he made quite the pretty girl…) Do you want to play in the pool? Want to play teacher in a school?” Reminiscing through his baby box, I always wish that I could have seen his sweetness, his hilarious humor coming from a pint-sized man.  I marvel over his adorable He-man sword and the long scratches he enduring while substituting sticks for swords and keeping them secure in his waistband. I couldn’t understand why everyone else loved him so much, why they cracked up at his 2 year old jokes, why they eagerly coaxed him into conversations.  I could only see the competition, the threat he posed, the way he hijacked attention and garnered love, believing that there was a finite amount, and I was going to be the loser in this sibling game.

I collected the aggravated sighs from my mother after his temper tantrums, catalogued my dad’s clenched jaws when he was ‘for-bissena’ (in non-Yiddish, a pain in the ass).  I filed away the joke/truths about how it was a good thing they had me first because otherwise they would have stopped with one child.  I reviewed the data, holding it up as proof that they loved me more, that I was still ok, that I wasn’t going to be voted out.  Not only did my brother threaten my security in feeling loved and adored, but also he made my job a hell of a lot harder.  Appointing myself chief Self-Esteem Booster, I spent a childhood campaigning for my parent’s happiness.  My platform consisted of giving hugs, saying ‘I love you’ and making sure that they felt like good parents, good people, always appreciated.  My brother was not a supporter.  He seemed to wage a campaign promising the ability to think for himself even if it meant angering those in charge.  He preached speaking his truth and cast his vote in favor of all emotions, including the seemingly forbidden Anger.  No matter how many speeches I gave in efforts to garner his vote, he refused to be swayed.  So I would work overtime, following up on arguments between my mom and my brother by consoling her with ‘I love you mom! Can I help you?”  It was the work of damage control, although in hindsight, reeking of people pleasing saccharine.

So we circled around each other, each letting the other down in the name of sibling rivalry, jockeying for first place with babysitters, grandparents, family friends and parents. 

  I fast-forward through night swimming, diving for ice cubes in the hot summer pool, donned in underwear because night swimming apparently didn’t require bathing suits. I set aside the sand castles and sunburned ears and chocolate milk with donuts after beach walks with my dad.  I mute the songs performed for weddings and fleeting kisses at my Bat Mitzvah.  These are the exceptions.  These are showcased moments of a Paradise Valley childhood, two children smiling in the photos.  But these are not the moments I'm search for. 

These pictures remind me that we shrugged each other off after “1…2...3...Say Cheese” and stormed off into separate rooms.  They remind me of the Sorry games, the monopoly sagas where my win would result in his flinging the board across the room. I pause over fights in the backseat, shoving and whining; recall the new experience of rage after I scratched his face and he sprained my finger, each furious at the other and arguing our case to the babysitter. 

I open box after box, still looking for that point when his opinion started to matter, when I began asking for his advice, when I sought out his company, awake to the realization that he alone knows where I come from.  Was it when I went away to college, packing up my ‘hero child’ presence and finally giving him space to breathe? Was it when I dropped out of college and the subsequent fall from grace that released the pressure valve and evened the playing field? Could it be upon his high school graduation, as we no longer lived in our parents’ home and learned how to be two adult-ish siblings with our own lives? I can’t put my finger on it but somewhere along the way, Benjamin ceased being the one I wished away and started being the one I wished was here.  At some point, I began coordinating our visits home, learned the line “Wouldn’t it be nice if Benj was here?” and expanded my definition of family to secure a spot for him by my side. 

I guess it was a slow evolution, miniscule shifts with phone calls, 1 am poolside chats, and joint Mother’s day gifts that got us here.  And I can’t help believing that I came to the party insultingly late.  That perhaps he would have welcomed my company years ago. But I couldn’t see him.  I couldn’t see that I had another survivor next to me, fluent in the space between the family conversations. I couldn’t see that he was well versed in the customs and rules, holding the unique ability to have stood beside me in experience and yet come away with a completely different story.  He can brush off what I take to heart, can suggest alternative perspectives, and sets the example of how to be a good son while still standing his ground. 

Set to the melody of “Sunrise, Sunset”, I feel old as I wonder, “When did he grow to be so tall?”  When did he become this grown man, sensitive, determined, loving, ambitious, and kind, with a dry wit that induces stomach aches from laughing too hard.  When did I stop seeing him as the competition and realize that there is no gold medal, no family race to win, no finite amount of parental love. It’s an awakening to hear about his successes and be thrilled to watch him shine. I grin as I unlock the door to “Big sister” and sit back, content to cheer from the sidelines.  I wonder if it’s simply a side-effect of growing-up, this alliance, this sibling team, this adoration I carry for my brother, or if my mother’s childhood words cast a spell: “One day he’s going to be your best friend.”

I seal up the boxes and stow away the photo albums, deciding that there was no moment, no turning point where I learned how to value my brother, learned to lean on him, learned to see him as an ally.  It was in the journey, in the hike from hatred to cherished, that ends with holding hands at the mountain top, scanning the childhood scenery and anticipating new horizons.  It doesn’t matter what moment things changed. What matters is that the permanence of a sibling that was a childhood curse has now become a blessing. 

So I count my brother, Benjamin Dov, among my blessings.  

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