I have never been good at sharing.
I was first, and chosen, and a girl, which was just fine, because my dad was a ladies’ man and my mother wanted a girl to help with housework, which I failed to do. Pictures from the first four years of my life indicate I was spoiled rotten and adored, which was as it should be.
And then he was born, shockingly, in the seventeenth year of their marriage, a child at last, just days before my fourth birthday. For years we had to share birthday parties, which I resented, as I resented almost everything about him.
He looked like Dad, and I was said to look like Mom, which pleased her when people commented on it. But I didn’t, not really. I was adopted, and chubby; she was slim and elegant. My brother had her build, and together they would do stomach crunches on the living room floor when he was a teenager trying to bulk up for sports, while I crunched through a bag of chips and read a novel.
Mom wanted it known that there was no favoritism, that we were both loved equally, as demonstrated each year by receipts for Christmas gifts, showing that even if his pile was bigger, my pile had more expensive items. She spent the same amount on us both. Religiously. Every year.
Tommy Smothers announced my secret fear on television, for laughs: “Mom always liked you best.”
We weren’t rivals in any traditional sense. I was smart, good in school; he couldn’t touch me there. I wasn’t athletic, so his track successes didn’t bother me. He was theirs, though, flesh of their flesh, with Dad’s brown eyes, and as the adopted one, I couldn’t compete.
He was fourteen when I left for college, still more a nuisance than anything else. He teased me unmercifully—not about my weight (he wasn’t cruel), but about a birthmark on my left cheek, which he called “the big, fat freckle.” I hated my freckles and any reference to them, and he knew it.
When I was 24 and my brother was 20, Dad died, suddenly, and my brother was there, still living at home, to help my mother deal with the details of death, to watch as the body was removed. I was working in another state, got a phone call, got on a plane. Together he and I chose a casket and vault, to spare Mom the task. In a rare bonding experience, we made bad jokes as we descended the stairs to the funeral home’s basement to view the options. I was the “religious one”; I planned the funeral.
Not until our mother was dying, two decades later, did I finally realize that my brother the pest had grown into a good and decent man, looking after her, the dog, and the house while maintaining a full-time job, his marriage, stepchildren, and a house of his own. I lived several hours away; he lived in the same town. He was the one who got the phone calls when she went to the emergency room because she couldn’t breathe—sixty years of smoking can do that to a person. He was the one who cut the lawn and took her out for breakfast.
And he was the one who was with her when she died. I beat myself up for that one for years—she’d waited until I left to return to my life and my job several hours away. The hospice nurse assured me that her vitals were good and that she might live another two weeks; she affirmed that she planned to stick around. Yet she waited only to be alone with her real child as she left this life.
He and his wife found the hospice and arranged for her to be admitted. When she died within three days of arriving, they chose the funeral home, the casket, the vault. When I arrived, I talked to the priest, planned the funeral.
He and I talk on the phone now maybe once a month, still living several hours apart. We get together maybe once a year for a shared meal. We move in different worlds, have little in common. But we two share memories and catch-phrases, family jokes. He is the only person left in my life who remembers me before I went to college. He tells me he prays for me every night.