Thursday, March 02, 2006
I don't know if I'd characterize myself as a "good sister." My brother Patrick is three years younger than I and we have nothing in common. While I was dressing my stuffed animals and preparing them for make-believe photo shoots and dance recitals, he was playing outside, running around with the neighbors, catching frogs, or watching cartoons. I was bizarre and aloof and inexplicably indignant, and he was warm and acquiescent and eager to please. So eager to please, in fact, that I could occasionally coerce him into Saturday afternoon doll recitals, or even, when I was really lucky, a festive day filled with brother dress-up time. I turned him into a turkey with place mat wings on Thanksgiving, Santa with a stuffed gut and a red turtle neck on Christmas, and an old man with a felt-taped mustache during an interminably long car ride. As I grew up, my taunting games elevated to new levels. I invented the highly entertaining game of "shove and throw," where we'd disappear into the basement after dinner and smash into each other until one of us was unable to get up. I, a foot taller, never lost. He, still eager to please, was always willing to play. We played bloody knuckles on car rides or occasionally just hit each other as hard as possible in the back seat for fun until my dad would yell at us to stop. During all of these games I was the perennial winner, and he the perennial good natured participant. It was something I took entirely for granted - having my own personal punching bag with amazingly resilient human emotions.
When I reached middle school I stopped playing games and turned my chronic pre-teen angst against my brother. My best friend and I would make radio mix tapes in my room and talk about how much we hated our respective families or create master plans to find proper relationships, and my brother would knock on the door to see what we were doing. A typical response:
"Get out of my room, genius boy. Can't you see we're busy? Go get me some juice."
And he'd trot down the stairs only to come back a few minutes later with a glass full of juice. It wasn't until my best friend looked at me and asked, "Kate, why are you so intolerant of him? He'd do anything for you", that I realized she was right, so I changed.
Like any personal metamorphosis, though, it wasn't perfect. I found myself occasionally relapsing into evil big sister mode. For the most part, I tried to put down my anger and redirect it at an equally undeserving recipient, my mom.
I went to high school, got my license and started driving him around. I taught myself how to have civil sisterly conversation: about relationships and sports and our parents. It was my duty, once I was a mature teenager, to impart my wisdom upon my brother (presumably the only person alive who believed I was "wise.")
I went to college and left him alone to tend to our parents and to grow into his own person; a person I was too busy at college to worry much about. We saw each other on holidays and during my breaks from school. Occasionally I could still convince him to do things with me - go for runs or out for ice cream or to jump my car for me when the battery was dead. It was interesting, too - the person he grew into during my absence wasn't bad. I actually liked the guy. I started to think that maybe all of my pre-teen misdirected anger might have had something to do with jealousy. It was possible. My brother was, after all, popular and athletic and funny, and he didn't have pimples or ugly feet like I did. Plus, I used to think my parents liked him better. Yes, I think I was jealous.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I was diligently training for the upcoming cross country season, and asked him to go for a run with me. He said no, he had a lacrosse game later that afternoon and he didn't want to be tired etc. I, unwilling to take no for an answer, bribed him with a post-run swim in a nearby gorge. I told him I'd drive to Cascadilla Falls, we'd go on a short, slow run together, and then go swimming. Hesitantly, he agreed.
We ran our four miles together, and hiked from the road down the rocky, uneven steps to the swimming hole. He'd never been there before. I had. Once again feeling the need to impart my sisterly wisdom upon my impressionable brother, I boldly walked to the edge of the water's rocky edge, and attempted a swan dive into the murky water ahead. My effort at grace was thwarted by a sharp crack as my nose collided with another level of rock beneath the surface. The only thing I remember thinking was, 'get out of the water.' As I pulled my head out of the water, I awkwardly turned around and faced my brother. It was then that I knew something was about to change. The blood rushed out of his face, and, with an expression of sheer horror he mumbled,
"Kate, you are seriously messed up."
That's when I looked down at the pool of blood in the water, and asked him to hand me my white tank top at the water's edge. He did, and I jammed it against my lacerated nose while the two of us began an unsteady ascent to the nearby parking lot.
My brother and I reached my mom's car, and I noticed the blood had soaked through my wadded-up tank-top. I'm sure my brother was talking to me, but I remember nothing other than the pulsating of my entire face. The two of us drove home at approximately 60 miles per hour through winding small town streets, and we picked up my mom. She met us in the driveway, ice in hand, and the three of us drove to convenient care. To make an excruciatingly long story short, I waited a long time, never had my lacerated nose cleaned-out, and ended up with stitches, a broken nose, and a fairly hideous scar. Unfortunately, due to the lengthy wait and the aforementioned "murky" water, I also ended up with three serious bacterium that procreated beneath the stitching and caused a 10 day infection. The infection resulted in hospitalization, fevers, IV drugs etc., and that, in turn, led to Multiple Sclerosis. I guess my immune system went into overdrive - it didn't stop at the nose infection, it attacked my whole nervous system and began diligently eating away at the myelin that coated my nerves. Secretly, while a little misguided, my immune system kicks ass.
So that was my last run with my little brother. Actually, it was one of my last runs ever. I was diagnosed with MS a few months later and my days of "shove and throw" in the basement were definitively terminated (as was my running career).
Shortly after I was diagnosed, I pulled away. From my brother, from the rest of my family and even - to a certain extent - from my friends. I biked when I couldn't run, swam when I couldn't bike, and wrote in my journal when I couldn't do either. I stopped talking to my brother because he couldn't make me feel better, and directed my anger elsewhere. I studied until my eyes yearned for contacts, and then studied more. No longer a runner, I defined myself as "busy" or "stressed." I was too busy to talk to my parents, listen to my brother, extend myself socially, and most definitely too busy to confront the actual cause of my stress. All the while I developed a serious case of resentment. And while my resentment was effectively masked, it took a toll on my relationships. Especially with my brother.
Pat and I spoke occasionally after I got MS, but conversation seemed strained. We continued to have little in common and I was too impatient and angry for inane conversation. When he wouldn't ask about my health, I'd get mad. I defined him as superficial and self-involved in my mind and lumped him into the category of "Those who don't understand."
It wasn't until my 23rd birthday (four years after I was diagnosed), that I stepped outside of myself for long enough to let go of the anger. After years of complaining to my mom or my roommate about his apparent disinterest with my life or my health, I got a birthday card in the mail. It was one of the strangest cards I've ever received, with a giant picture of old people about to sky dive on the front, and the cheesy phrase, I just know something wonderful is out there waiting for you, on the inside. It wasn't the card itself, though, that made me abandon my internal resentment, it was the words he wrote. Scratched in manner of hieroglyphics was the following:
I got you this card for numerous reasons. First of all, how funny is the picture on the front? Second of all, is sky-diving with old weird people supposed to be considered something wonderful? Third of all, and truthfully, I do see many wonderful things in your future. Not only may you someday sky-dive with geriatric retards, but I think you may win the Pulitzer for your novel. Seriously, though, you are kind of like my hero, and I know that no matter what you end up doing, you will have a positive impact on a significant amount of people. Thanks for being a great sister and helping me grow up. I looked up to you my entire life, and I idolize you now more than ever. Happy birthday, Kate.
I read the words, checked the return address, and read the words again. Yes, the card was definitely from my brother. It was from the same brother who I'd intentionally injured in my parent's basement and bossed around for over a decade. It was written by "Genius Boy" who obsequiously got me juice whenever I asked, allowed me to dress him up as a turkey, and begrudgingly accompanied me on runs before lacrosse games. It was from the same brother who seemed oblivious to my MS and who, to my knowledge, didn't even know I planned to write a book. He called me a "great sister"? The whole thing took me a while to digest.
Wisdom has nothing to do with age, I guess. Wisdom, I think, is the ability to do what you can with what you have and Pat might be able to do that better than anyone else in my life. He doesn't necessarily ask about my health, and he'll never properly "understand", but he's the only person alive with the ability to send me a card with "geriatric retards" on the front that can still make me cry.