My youngest brother and I were very close growing up. Although there was a five-year age difference, we shared a similar sense of humor and the same critical eye for bullshit. We moved around a lot when we were kids, and often those first few lonely weeks in our new house were spent cross-legged in front of our Atari until we made new friends. And it’s hard not to know everything about your sibling when you are forced to ride the hump seat on every cross-country family vacation for 10 years.
So, yes, we were very close — until we weren’t.
When I moved out of the house, our relationship changed. I was focused on graduating from college and getting married when he was barely graduating from high school. Our priorities were different, and the Atari was long since gone. When I accepted a job across the country, opportunities to see each other were few and far between. Neither of us had the funds to spend on expensive flights or phone bills, so we didn’t speak or see each other as much as we’d like.
As we drifted apart, brought together by the occasional holiday, glimpses of our relationship as kids were still there. He’d rib me about my acne and headgear, and I’d tease him about how ridiculous his 6’9’’ frame looked in his high school wrestling singlet. He was the keeper of my sibling history, and he was bound and determined to never let me forget that I never did make good on taking him and his buddies to the movies when he was 12 (sorry, not sorry, bro).
By the time we were adults, my relationship with my brother was strained and sporadic, and my father’s death did little to help matters. Both racked with grief, we said things we didn’t mean, and ultimately, our bitter words led to a three-year estrangement. It was a painful and difficult time, and it caused a lot of hurt within our family. While it was painful for me, it was excruciating for my kids. The sudden rift confused them, and it was difficult to explain why their uncle wasn’t around.
As the years of our estrangement wore on, the kids asked questions. Why wasn’t their uncle at holidays? Why didn’t we send birthday cards anymore? Each time their small faces inquired about the situation, I took the time to be honest with them. Grown-ups fight, I’d say, but I assured them that I still loved my brother. We talked about hurt feelings and apologies and the importance of forgiving life’s little transgressions, so that when big hurts happen, there’s a foundation of hope and trust to fall back on.
I used the time I was apart from my brother to help my kids learn from my mistakes, probably to a fault. I was hypersensitive to their silly bickering and name-calling, and I was convinced that every fight would lead to a crack in their relationship that would eventually become an insurmountable canyon. I worried daily that I wasn’t doing enough to keep their relationship strong, and I prayed that they wouldn’t wake up one day not speaking to each other. There were days that I cried, not because I missed my brother, but because I couldn’t bear the thought of my kids not speaking on a daily basis.
Thankfully, my brother and I have reunited, and we continue to mend fences. My kids watched as I tearfully accepted his unexpected phone call six months ago, and they were there when we shared our first reunited holiday with him. Yes, there are hurts and bruises that still need to heal, but my kids got to see us working to put our relationship back together, rather than throwing those Atari memories away for good. And he was more than happy to regale them with stories of their mother and her youth.
When I look at my kids, I see a sweet, strong bond, and I pray every day that my husband and I are helping them to lay a foundation that will last a lifetime. As I police their bickering and discipline them for being rude to each other, I’m hopeful that I’m teaching them that, while friends may come and go, it’s your siblings who will love you through the years you wear parachute pants, jacked to Jesus hair, and headgear. I want them to count on each other and to help each other remember our family traditions when I’m gone.
Part of me wants to give my daughter the recipe to our family Christmas cookies and divulge the recipe to our traditional Thanksgiving stuffing to our son. They’d be forced to talk to each other at the holidays at least.
For now, I will have to trust that I’m living by example and that when we are at family parties, they see my husband and I interacting with our siblings, regardless of past hurts. I want them to see us laugh uncontrollably at the stories of our youth and to watch us support each other when we have to face grown-up problems. If they see me making my siblings a priority, it’s my hope that they will do so too.
And when I see them sacked out on the couch playing Xbox and Wii, I smile and tell myself they’ll be just fine.