Monday, November 26, 2007

I Like My Brother

I've decided to like my brother.

This is a recent decision, and one I realize will not be able to stick through everything my brother and I go through. I am realistic enough to understand that I am not going to like my brother when he eats the last cookie, when he gets me a DVD he wants for Christmas instead of one I want for Christmas, when he sacks out in front of the television and insists on watching five hours of Dane Cook stand-up, or when he sits next to me at the movie theater and texts through all the good parts.

But other than that, I've decided I'm going to make a strong, strong effort to like my brother. It's just that he's a lot more complicated than I originally believed--which is really quite something. I know I make fun of my brother quite a bit, but the truth is I've always thought he was made for more than he's doing right now, which is living at my mother's and working as an assistant head cashier at a tool store. I do think my brother is savvy, smart, and nice, even though he does have quite the tradition of being a giant pervert, a gross boy, a dopey kid, and a cruel little brother.

My brother has qualities that redeem his faults. He is, after all, pretty funny--sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. He's got good comic timing, and he's not too shabby at impressions. He can do a Rain Main that will knock your socks off, even though you have to beg him to do it, do it, just do it already, for God's sake! I don't care what anyone says--that's a handy skill to have, and our family likes him to roll that out at dinners, at holidays, at any event that involves drinking.

But it's not his Ray Babbitt impression that has recently inspired me to like my brother. It's something a little more important than that. It's that I recently realized my brother is an actual human being, a boy capable of feelings more complicated than happiness when his beer arrives or excitement when he has a wad of dollar bills to spend at the strip clubs in Niagara Falls. He's got other emotions--subtle things that fall in between the spectrum of happy and sad--and I finally got to see them. Sort of.

It's possible my revelation isn't entirely ethical. I came upon it by reading something my brother wrote--a crime surely punishable by dismemberment or some other equally gruesome fate. But I have an excuse, and it's a good one. What I read was addressed to me. Well, kind of. It was a letter that was lying on the keyboard of the family computer, and the greeting was Hey, Big Sister!. When I zipped the keyboard tray out toward me so I could sit down and attempt to access my school mail over the sluggish dial-up line, the three page note fell into my lap. I was confused. After all, why was my brother writing me a letter? He was sitting in the other room, watching a Tom Cruise marathon (Days of Thunder, all the Mission Impossibles), so if he needed to talk to me about something why was he doing it in a letter?

Still thinking it was for me, I picked it up and started reading. It was immediately clear that I was not the Big Sister to whom he was referring in the greeting. It was also immediately clear that it was for one of his groupie girls who hasn't been around for a long time. She was a family favorite, a girl who got my stamp of approval, a girl I secretly wished would hook my brother for the long haul.

But this girl had problems. Bad ones. She was a little wild, a little impulsive, a little, well, alcoholic. At just twenty-one years old, she'd crashed her car three times because she'd been drinking, had broken her nose and ribs in those crashes, and had gotten thrown into the hospital for her problem. When that didn't work, she was forced to do a detox program. My brother stood by her side for a long time, but it soon became clear that she wasn't ready to get better, that she might never be ready for that. He and her other friends did all they could, but this girl kept on drinking. They drifted apart, but not completely--of course, they would soon be separated more than they would've been on their own. In July, this girl got thrown into jail because she wouldn't stop drinking and driving and getting into accidents. She got a six-month sentence.

I couldn't believe the news. This girl was not a bad girl. She was not one of those crazy-slutty bad egg-types that need to be thrown into jail--the types that are born to exist in jail. Instead, she was just a lost, sad, confused girl who had trouble with her drinking. I couldn't believe that there was no one in her life who could reach her, get a hold of her, shake her out of believing this was they she should live. It scared me a little, too, because maybe we're all just a thin barrier away from those kinds of problems. Maybe we're all just one heartbreak away from doing something so stupid it lands us in deep, deep trouble.

My brother sort of abandoned her after she went to jail, but I don't think he did it heartlessly. I don't think he sat down and told himself, No, Adam, you will not write her. You must stop being her friend. I think he probably just didn't know what to say or how to say it. I think he probably felt paralyzed by how helpless the situation was, by how much little he could do to help or save her. Words would do nothing. What could he say to help? What could he say to make it better? Even if he said he supported her, loved her, and missed her, she would still be in jail, and she would still be crying herself to sleep every night, and she would still be getting hit and yelled at by the long-term residents of the women's facility, the hard ones who got their kicks by destroying the scared short-term residents who were quiet, meek, and obviously tender from the turn of events that had landed them there.

And I understand that completely. I understand my brother feeling hopeless, impotent, unable to make any real difference. I often feel that way in tragedy--like I'll never find the right words to express my sympathy, my love, my desire to do whatever I can to make the suffering person happy again. In those situations, I often feel that words aren't enough, could never be enough, and I think maybe my brother felt the same way.

And so he's just kept silent as these months have ticked away on her sentence. She's written to him, but he hasn't written back. We know this because my father, who, like me, was fond of this girl, took to writing her because he felt so bad, so sorry for her. He occasionally sends her a card or a note, and this girl will write him back with long letters that outline her day-to-day life, which is horrifying and sad. When I read the letters I wanted to put my head down on the table and cry because I could not imagine this girl--a nice girl I've shared wine and brownies with--living in a cramped cell and being attacked by angry inmates who call her awful names, who spit at her, who tell her she's worth absolutely nothing to anyone.

This Thanksgiving when he came to the house for dinner, my father fanned those letters in front of my brother, and my brother sat down and read them one by one by one. Afterward, he disappeared into his room, shut the door tight, and I heard him typing furiously on the computer. At the time I'd thought he was online talking to friends, maybe arranging some post-Thanksgiving romp at the cabin where everyone would gather to drink margaritas and leaf through the 1970s porn that's still stashed inside my grandfather's bedroom.

But I was wrong. He wasn't doing that. He was writing a three page letter to the girl, and I found it when I happened into the room later to check my e-mail.

I cried when I read the letter, and I cried again yesterday when I discussed it with my mother. My brother--my God--he's really something. In his letter he talked a lot about the EMT training he's been doing through the firehall he recently joined up with. He talked about coming from a family where there are several generations of volunteer firefighters and how proud that makes him. He said it makes him feel like he's a real part of something, that he's doing some small good in the world.

The only time I ever really stop to think about my brother's newest venture with the firehall is when we are forced to go to a family dinner together and he brings his scanner, which he insists on keeping on during the meal, even if he's far, far away from the town where he'd be called into action. I've never thought about this in a good way, as a positive thing. This probably has something to do with the fact that in our school the people who joined the firehall were real weirdos, people who had rumors spread about them and farm animals, people who didn't know how to interact socially, people who smelled like gasoline or manure at all times of the day. This is what I choose to equate with firehalls and volunteering, which is strange, considering that when I was little my father was a volunteer firefighter, and I spent many an afternoon helping him and the other firefighters wash the trucks. They let me sit behind the steering wheel. They let me turn on the siren, the lights. But I didn't think of any of that when my brother joined up. All I could think about was the way those people were treated in high school. When he announced he was intent on becoming a fireman, I thought, Oh God. I just hope he knows what he's getting himself into.

I realize this is shallow and stupid. I realize I underestimated my brother and the effect that being a part of a firehall would have on him.

In his letter, my brother talked about how all of it--especially his EMT training--was making him a better man, a good man, someone decent and kind. He went on to write that he'd been to some accident scenes that really shook him up, made him think about life and death and love. He said he often came home from bad accidents and cried himself to sleep because they were just so awful. He said he wasn't sure if it was making him stronger or messing him up, but he wasn't going to stop. He wanted to help.

My mother told me all that was true. She told me that one night he came home in tears and that all he wanted to do was hug her, talk to her about what he'd seen. There had been a call from an old man who couldn't breathe, and Adam and his team rushed to the man's house. The old man was completely alone in the world. He had no one to help him, no one to watch after him, and he was so, so scared. My brother sat with him and told him he was going to be okay, that they were going to take good care of him. But after they took him away my brother came home and cried because he was so sad for that man who had no one to care that he was sick, that he might die, that his life--which surely must have meant something to someone at some point--might be over.

And my brother had no problem confessing this to his friend. He had no problem opening up, acting human, revealing himself to be sensitive and sweet and kind. Maybe he would never do that to me, but at least he was physically able to do it, and that pleased me like nothing else.

I'll never tell my brother that I read that letter, but I know it will affect the way I act with him from now on. Yesterday when he met up with me and our mother to pick something up from us, I was sweet, sweet, sweet to him. I said hi, how are you, how are you feeling, what's new, what's going on, what's happening, and I smiled and laughed and then when he was leaving I told him to come give me a hug. And he did. He came right over for a hug, and I squeezed him tight and thumped him on the back, right on the EMT emblem he sewed onto his jacket. It was a heartwarming moment--one that I'll probably cling to in moments over the coming holiday season when I will want to kill him, strangle him, disembowel him because he's just such a jackass, such a cranky bastard, such a snippy little kid. I'll just have to take a deep breath and think of that letter and the way he tried to describe to his friend how he was changing, how he was becoming a better man. There's hope for him yet.

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