Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Jewel Among Brothers

April 16 is my brother's birthday. When I look at my brother the man, I see my brother the kid. His hair is thinning. He's not the skinny boy he once was. But, he still has the same smile and the same giving nature. We had our spats, as siblings will. We each may even have a few scars. But, when the dust settled, we were always friends. We still are. I think that's the way it is—we carry the past with us, and sometimes it rises to the surface of our consciousness, ebbing and flowing with the present. So it is with me and Mike.

What I remember most is Mike's quick smile, his willingness to help. He was outgoing, whereas I was introverted, contemplative. I thought about things. He just went and did them. He was a good son. My mother could talk him doing almost anything for her. After he was grown, I remember his great friendship with our father. They golfed together, they played softball on the same team. We lost dad too soon, but in the time there was, to each of them, the other was the brother he never had. And it was beautiful to watch.

As a 17-year-old, I remember forcing myself to get up early on cold winter Sunday mornings to drive Mike around on his paper route. I hated to see him take his bike out in the bone-chilling pre-dawn night. We always ended our adventures at Dunkin Donuts, with hot chocolate and warm glazed donuts. We laughed about the mailboxes I had hit, as a new driver. In the summers, we went to Friendly's (my treat—I was working part-time). Mike's favorite was the Jim Dandy. Five scoops of ice cream, a whole banana, and five toppings. I never knew where he put it all.

I remember the time Dad chewed Mike out for leaving his tools outside overnight. We had been building a fort in the woods nearby. (I'm sure this happened more than once.) Mike tried to light a campfire in those woods one day, and boy was there hell to pay when the fire trucks showed up. In the Adirondacks, we took the motorboat out—just the two of us—and poked into the creeks off the big lake our family camped on the shore of. At the beach in New Jersey, we challenged each other in the rough surf, and played skee-ball and bought 10 cents worth of penny candy on the boardwalk. With grandma, we rested on the warm blanket and listened to the Yankees games. I cheered Mike at his Little League games. We bowled together, on different teams. We played ping-pong after dinner; loser had to clean up the kitchen. At night, we saved each other from nightmares.

I remember several years ago, when I found myself saddled with a nasty boss—I was actually afraid of him. Mike, usually a peaceful guy, threatened to come up and "take care of him." All I had to do was say the word. Mike had a temper, but you rarely saw it. If someone hassled one of his kin, though, that's when it would surface. I laughed. I would never give him that green light, but it cheered me to know he was there to protect me. I knew I had to quit that job. Mike sneaks cash to my kids when they're in college, and writes them big checks when they get married. On his off days, he volunteers at his church. His pastor knows who to call when he needs something done, and done right. Mike likes visiting shut-ins best, and I'm sure they count the days until they will see his smile again. He drives clothing to the poor in West Virginia and Katrina victims in Louisiana.

In adulthood, our lives took different paths. I chose college, editing, and writing. I married, settled in Pennsylvania, and raised a family. Mike stayed in New Jersey, took a series of jobs laying tile, bartending, and working in a supermarket. Eventually, because of his integrity, business acumen, and affinity for hard work, he found himself managing a branch location of a large company in the service industry, doing the work of a college grad, his degree earned from the school of hard knocks. He, too, married (a sweet girl named Laura) and had a child—a son—on whom he dotes. They've taught Chris to work hard, and he does—on the scholarly route—achieving A's in high-school honors and AP classes, playing the saxophone, helping out at their church. Ask Mike about Chris looking at colleges—he's so excited about it. I'm so proud of both of them.

We grew up in the same household, but today, our politics are different, our religious perspectives are different. Our hobbies are different. My husband and I sail and rock climb; Gary builds robots, I publish a magazine. Mike's a sports fan. His TV is a fourth member of the family. I'm a bookworm. I could not own a TV and never miss it. Our childhood, our shared memories, draws us together. What's more, I respect him. He's achieved so much with so little. In today's divisive world of black and white, where everyone tries to compartmentalize and marginalize everyone else, there are shades of gray, even shades of rose, of happiness. And, for me, Mike's part of that—the happiness, now and in the past, that I have in my life. He's the kind of guy you would want for a brother if you could pick one out yourself. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. And, I honor him on his special day.

Happy Birthday, Mike!