I’ve written a lot about people who have influenced me in good ways. My brother was more complicated than that.
My brother was the product of my mother’s first marriage. She had two boys with a pretty awful man. The youngest died in an accident two weeks after my parents were married so I never knew him.
My brother’s early life wasn’t easy. He was aware of the abuse of our mother and then ended up living with our grandparents for a time while my mom worked various jobs to support them.
My father adopted him as soon as he could after my parents married. But the trauma from his early childhood and the death of his brother were heavy blows and my brother was never one to talk about his feelings.
I was born about a year into the marriage and there was a lot of ambivalent feelings about me as well with him. He felt like I was there to replace his brother as much as he loved having a younger sister. Add to that 11 years difference in age and it was never a super close relationship.
On top of being a horrible human being, his biological father was an alcoholic. My brother started drinking when he was in college. There was also a lot of heavy drug experimentation. He was a talented photographer, but he ended up dropping out of college and spending the next 10 years doing odd jobs and construction. He couldn’t keep a job and was continually on the move.
He would visit from time to time and even lived with us twice for a few months. He was my big brother, but he wasn’t there enough for us for forge a bond after I was about 7. And I learned the first time that he lived with us that he couldn’t be relied on.
It was a silly thing. I needed a few things to make a kit to test rock hardness for my science class in middle school. He promised to get them for me, would forget and then promise again. They weren’t even things that my parents couldn’t get–he just wanted to be part of things. The problem was that he would drink and forget everything else. My dad ended up scrambling for the last few things and I learned my lesson–don’t trust my brother to do what he said.
He disappeared again except for the occasional phone call until I was a senior in high school. My aunt had thrown him out of my grandmother’s house. My grandmother would have done anything for him, and did, but she didn’t have the tough love to force him to go. He had no money and nowhere left to go and came to live with us.
We learned quickly that he wasn’t functional. He would bring home beer and get drunk each night. He was angry and volatile and my parents wouldn’t allow me in the house alone with him. He drank their alcohol and replaced it with water or tea so they wouldn’t know. And he almost died getting hit by a car because he crossed a busy street while drunk.
The hardest thing my parents ever did was telling him that he couldn’t stay in the house if he didn’t get help. They weren’t sure if they would ever see him again. But, he went to a detox place and then into a residential rehab facility. He lived there for a year and finally faced everything that he had hidden away for years. He came out the other side and stayed clean and sober for the rest of his life.
He went on to build schools in Botswana in the Peace Corps. He moved in with my grandmother (technically in her barn) and was her companion. He got a job with a newspaper as a photographer. He bought a kayak and spent weekends on the water.
He had a heart attack at 46 and had to have a quadruple bypass. The alcohol had done a lot of damage to his body. Then, right after he turned 47, he had a massive heart attack and died in his editor’s office.
How did he influence me? So many different ways.
I never wanted to be seen as a person who let other people down. I know that it was the alcohol, but it didn’t make the pre-teen me feel any better. At the time, I just knew that I didn’t matter.
I became the kid who did everything to keep her parents happy and not worrying. They had enough to worry about and I didn’t want to add to that. It made me a good student, but it also took away some of the experimentation that goes with being a teenager. It took me years to let go of that perfectionism and be me.
He also taught me strength. It took so much for him to face his past and talk about things that were hard. He lived his dream in his 30s of serving in the Peace Corps. He went back to his photography. We found thousands of prints in his place after he died. He made himself back into the artist that he was before.
And mostly? He taught me that tomorrow is never guaranteed.