July 17, 2011

The Family Bond: Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Growing up, if someone told me that I would one day have any kind of relationship with my brother that was anything but tumultuous, I would’ve called you nuts. Both middle children, I, on the younger side of middle, and my brother on the older side, we were like oil and water. Aside from both being caught in the middle, our only similarity was that we bore a similar physical resemblance. My brother Joe, a bull by birth, frequently teased me and beat me up, a sensitive fish. My first black eye was from him, as well as my second, if I can remember right. To him I was a “dog” with a “pot belly” who wasn’t allowed in the fort he had built with his friends. The only times we got along was at Christmastime when we bonded over the new Super Nintendo or when he sold me used goods in exchange for my allowance, such as his leather Raiders baseball  football cap and Arrested Development album he sold to me for $14.

During our teenage years, our differences became much more glaring, in part because of his introduction to drugs and my retreating to my own adolescent angst, which consisted of Ben & Jerry’s and Fiona Apple. Then, the only times we got along was when he was high and I had services to offer, such as a ride to his girlfriend’s or to his dealer’s house. Otherwise, he was stealing my CDs and foreign-coin collection for dope, and I was finding ways to prevent him from doing so, such as shackling my bedroom door with a lock and key -- which worked just some of the time.

When he was 25, my parents gave him a one-way plane ticket to California. Seeing him off, I would’ve been content never to see him again in my life. Just reflecting back on that makes me shudder at the frigidity of that former thought. A year and a half later, I was sending him letters to his new home, a halfway house in San Rafael. His process of getting clean and going through therapy is what marked the dawn of a new relationship between Joe and me – one that would ultimately be one of the deepest bonds I would ever have with a family member.

Last fall, I saw him for the first time in six years. He was tall, built, and had eyes just like mine. He was eloquent and polite, a good communicator, interesting, and sarcastically charming. He was the same brother I had been having phone conversations with since he’d left the halfway house, but he was nothing like the brother I had known in person years that last time I had seen him. This version never existed to me in real life before.

This weekend completely out of the blue, I came home from my morning walk to find a package at my stoop.  In it was a beautiful porcelain teapot and teacup from him. Possibly one of the most thoughtful gifts because of what it represented – one of my favorite rituals of tea drinking and the deep bond that my brother and I now share, despite our differences and our past. Because of our history, my brother knows and understands me like very few people do; I believe this to be true of my understanding of him also. The kind of relationship we’ve been able to build in spite of, or perhaps because of our history, says something about the depth of our loyalty to each other and the deep love we have as brother and sister, as well as about the intimacy of family in general. Blood really is thicker than water.

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