In Praise of Siblings

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This weekend I called my older brother Alex, who was at home in Minnesota with his family. I asked if he remembered the day our younger brother Jack was born.

It was June 5, 1988. I was four. Alex was six. Alex remembers watching Road Runner on Grandma’s TV. I remember we were sitting in her den when the phone rang and I heard my dad say, “You have a little brother. His name is Jack.” With that, I was the middle sister of two brothers: Jack, five years younger; and Alex, two years older.

A sibling is a funny thing. Chance made us the product of the same two people and predetermined that, from day one, we would spend countless hours together in the same spaces—the same back seats, the same birthday parties, baseball games, schools, Christmas morning living rooms, dinner tables, with every passing year, as we inch toward adulthood. No one else on the planet is a similar witness to or understands how we were formed. Parents, yes; but they’re our teachers and disciplinarians, too. Siblings, though, pass from awkward new life stage to awkward new life stage with us as peers, on a nearly identical path that only you and they share.

My brothers and I grew up in a town of 2,000 people in central Minnesota. We lived on top of a small hill at the beginning of a dead-end street across from a dairy farm. (This sounds like a political speech but, I promise, this is the way things were.) Prominent sounds of my childhood include mooing cows, wind, and silence. Now, it’s funny to think about the hundreds of thousands of minutes we all spent together doing nothing in our house, just sitting in various rooms. There wasn’t anywhere else to go! And with nothing in front of us but time to pass, the only option was to spend it hanging out together doing nothing, doing anything.

This is what the mid-80s through the late 90s looked like in our house: Unending days spent in our big flat backyard with Alex and Jack. We threw around various balls: footballs, baseballs; or we chipped golf balls. In the front driveway, we played a lot of P-I-G. Alex and I constructed a rollerblade course that took us from the front driveway through the garage, down a ramp, and around the back patio. We skated it on loop for whole afternoons. Sometimes neighborhood boys came over to play a game of baseball or touch football. For unknown reasons, Alex never told me to leave, so I became a girl who played sports with boys; and then I always did.

Winters were frozen, blizzard-filled, alternately windy or completely still, and monstrous. But we played outside anyway. We threw ourselves onto snow banks, or built snow men, or threw snow balls at each other, or ate them like Dairy Queen treats. We went inside with numbed fingers, red cheeks, and wet socks and watched TV. If it was Sunday, Dad had a fire going and the Packers were on (he was from Milwaukee; the Vikings were the enemy).

One year, Alex and I got Cabbage Patch dolls. They were called Eldwin and Nelson. We played with them a lot. One day we held a funeral, maybe for Nelson, while Eldwin wept. When Alex had a friend over from school he asked me to hide Eldwin under my bed. I did and never said a word (at least not right away). Then there were basement hours: It was carpeted so we spent days down there building thousands of legos and listening to a tape deck with speakers. That was where we first heard Michael Jackson sing “Billie Jean.” When Columbia House came around, Alex joined, so it was also the place we heard Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, and The Spin Doctors.

Jack was just enough younger than us that he didn’t idle away hours in our company in quite the same way. It was a combination of age and the unconscious lines that kids draw  with little siblings. But he had red hair and freckles and was tiny and adorable. In my head, Jack still wears footy pajamas, sucks his thumb, and grins with his entire face. He was a goofball straight out of the gate—he does improv for fun today—and he taught me what it feels like to adore someone totally, and to want to cuddle with them all of the time.

As we got older, things got more complicated with the onslaught of hormones and crushes. Privacy became a new thing. One of Alex’s friends was the crush of my entire existence. Everyone knew, Alex, too, but he never made me feel bad about it. He still invited him over, and invited me to hang out in the living room when he was around. I felt like I wanted to pass out and couldn’t speak. But it was nice to be invited.

And then, out of nowhere, Alex got dark. He was 15. He secluded himself in the basement, and played the same chords over and over on his electric guitar. Doors were slammed. The message being: no one could understand how he felt! One day I asked him for a ride to school. You’d think I’d asked him for his right kidney. This was not the Alex we knew, this morose brooder. This was not my older brother; it was upsetting.

Our high school had an exchange program with an Austrian high school run by monks. My parents thought it was best—and Alex definitely agreed—that he should spend a semester there, so off to Melk he flew.

After a few months living on a sheep farm miles outside of an Austrian village, I think he missed us. A couple months later we came for a visit, and met him in Paris. Jack was eight. We brought a tub of Jif peanut butter and his favorite stuffed animal to keep him happy. Jack remembers this trip as the best of his life. One afternoon when we walked near Notre Dame Cathedral Alex handed me his Discman. “Listen to this,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.” It was the first time I heard Radiohead. I was 14 and the screeching building guitars of “Just” were the soundtrack to a blustery stroll along the Seine. It was a perfect moment, and still crystal clear in my mind. It was courtesy of my brother.

This, I know, is a sore spot for Jack: He always wanted to be a part of everything we did, in the same way. A difference of five and seven years now is not so big. But when you are 9, 14, and 16, for example, it is. I get it; his position was probably the least fun. Yet our dynamics—me idolizing Alex, Jack wanting to be a part of whatever we did, and Alex leading the pack—determined in large part who we are, for better or worse. I guess it turned out ok.

Eventually, Alex and I ended up at the same college. I started at one I hated and, once again, he made me feel like I could be a part of his. Transferring mid-year, I had pre-approved status with his friends. After my junior year, he was studying Astro Physics—yes, rocket science—in grad school in Virginia, and I had an internship in Maryland. He let me live with him in Alexandria for the summer.

We became closer—actual friends. We ate Chipotle for dinner most nights and watched movies and took walks around the block. And then, a game changer: at the end of the summer he started dating the woman he married, my sister-in-law. I am an overly emotional baby, and was highly attached, so I had a hard time with this transition. It was the end of our nuclear family—the only thing I had ever known—and I was no longer the center of his attention, whether that was imagined or not. But it was also a crucial lesson. In ways subtle and abrupt, the only constant in life is change.

Of course, his marriage was only the beginning of many bigger changes. Dad got sick and passed away. Jack, too, met his wife in college, my second strong and admirable sister-in-law. Mom became engaged to a man who also lost his spouse to cancer. Alex moved back to Minnesota, became a lawyer, and had two kids who, obviously, are good-looking angels.

With dad gone, Alex’s family has become the anchor for our newly-arranged one. When I see Alex with his daughter, I see me and my dad. Alex is so sweet with her, and they are close in similar ways. I know exactly where he got that from. When I see Jack with our niece and nephew, I see my dad in him, too. I see future dad-Jack when he is with Meryl and Ted. It is a new version of what my family was; but it also keeps alive what we were, in an evolved form.

On the phone this weekend, Alex took me (on video chat) into a side room after I’d talked to my niece. What would I do with the rest of my day, he wondered? How was I? And because he was the one who asked—the person who saw me eat raw snow, like his best friend, and stow away his doll—I let myself turn into a puddle. There he was with this beautiful family, on a Saturday, just hanging out in their living room, like we used to do. What was I doing here, alone?

In the end, it will have been for the best that I moved and stayed away, he said. I’m leading the life I wanted. He chose to move back home. If I really wanted that, I could choose that, too. But I had worked to get where I was. Alex had seen me when I wore North Star jerseys and blew bubbles out of Big League Chew; but he also saw me write unfavorable reviews of our deacon’s Sunday sermons in my fake newspaper for fun, and was there when I went to school to do that professionally; he implicitly understood my dilemma, and why it felt hard.

To hear him say that was all I needed; to be understood by my brother was to be understood entirely. And when we said goodbye, everything was already ok.

Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus