A friend sent me a link to Mona Simpson’s eulogy for her brother Steve Jobs and the speech was beautiful.
I couldn’t tear myself away the morning I was reading it and the delay caused me to be late leaving for work. The piece prompted me to think about my relationship with my own brother, my only sibling and how it has grown and changed over the years since we were children.
My earliest memory is of us fighting over a new game called Atari Pong. Though the game was meant for two people to play and there were only two of us, somehow we managed to fight over it until my father threatened to take the damn thing away. The dinner table was another battleground. I was a fervent reader and I used to bring a book to the dinner table, prop it up against my plate and read through the dinner hour, avoiding the uncomfortable silence that tended to permeate the meal. Daniel would exclaim into apparently dead air, “She can’t do that. Make her stop.” My father would ignore him for he was busy downing his scotch and my mother just didn’t want to disturb the fucked-up peace.
The four of us existed on our own planes until I went away to SUNY Buffalo in 1978 – as far away as I could get from home and still attend a state school. Can a four legged chair stand on three legs? Daniel, who is eighteen months younger than me, followed me a year later. It remains unclear to me why, when we never got along at home, he chose to follow me to the tundra.
It was in Buffalo hunkered down for a shared three long winters that he and I found we could exist apart from our parents’ dysfunction. While we were both busy experimenting with illicit substances (me marijuana, him marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD), we found time to spend with each other and for the first time we didn’t fight. We talked about our experiences growing up in that household, our different perceptions of our parents and how we viewed each other. “You were the favorite,” he insisted.
“Maybe,” I acquiesced. “But you got more attention.”
After graduating from college Daniel and I proceeded with the business of growing up. We got jobs in different fields (he in finance, me in advertising) and we developed our own circle of friends, but we continued to check-in with each other often and he, my mother and I would occasionally have dinner and remind each other that we were a family. My father had withdrawn into a depression and by an unspoken agreement that families seem to have, he was no longer to be included.
Our comfortable threesome was shattered in 1988 when I was diagnosed with anorexia and depression at the age of twenty seven. When I was thirty I attempted suicide and was sent for long-term treatment at a private psychiatric hospital in a suburb north ofNew York City. I was to cycle in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the next fifteen years, but Daniel never gave up on me. He may have become frustrated and angry at times; “Why isn’t she getting better? Why can’t she get her shit together?” but he never showed this side of himself to me and he never abandoned me.
My mother passed away in 2002, before she could witness my last breakdown which took place from 2006—2008. I can’t be sure but I would bet the farm on it, that he made a deathbed promise to my mother to look out for me, to keep an eye on me and he has kept that promise.
When my mother first died, I looked to my brother to help me make almost all my decisions. I felt adrift, lost, almost orphaned although technically I still had a father. Daniel walked a fine line between parent and brother; it must have been difficult for him for he had recently married and was just starting a family of his own. He never lost patience with me, he always made time for me. We grew closer, but the relationship continued to lack a symbiotic feeling that would have been better for both of us.
When I took a job in Queens in 2008, near where we had grown up and where my father still lived, my brother who had kept in closer contact with my father, would call me periodically,. “Dad needs some groceries. Could you pick some things up for him after work?” It got to be more than an occasional errand as my father became increasingly incapacitated. He refused our offer to hire assistance for him, and I grew resentful.
In the summer of 2011 Daniel called me at work. He had been trying to get in touch with my father for three days without success. I went over after work and found him lying on the floor. After I called 911 (over his protests) and he was admitted to the hospital, I was the one who took charge and coordinated his care with the doctors, nurses and social workers. I was the one who called nursing homes and tried to get him admitted for my brother and I believed he was no longer capable of going home.
Regardless of my father’s outcome, this incident with our father was a turning point in the relationship I had with my brother. This crisis had transformed the relationship from one of parent-child to one of equals. He no longer saw me as someone who was ill and needed support and taking care of, but someone who could effectively manage a situation without falling apart.
Daniel and I have the same nickname for each other. We call each other “Spooks.” I don’t know where it came from or when it started, but it is meant affectionately. When I hear it come out of his mouth I know he means as a term of endearment and I mean it in the same way.
I am sure my mother is happily gazing down at us, chuckling at this nickname we have chosen for each other that has come out of nowhere. She wanted nothing more for my brother and me to have an airtight bond after her death. Without having to say the words out loud, the three of us know, if my mother was alive, she’d be a “Spooks” too.