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Being the Big Brother

  • Posted on April 20, 2012 at 8:00 AM

I had an awesome big brother growing up.  Pat fit the role of big brother perfectly.  He was the guy I wanted to tag along after.  He was the guy who was always willing to include me when we moved somewhere and I didn’t know how to get started making new friends.  He was always bigger, stronger, smarter, faster, braver, and surer of himself, and I was always pushing myself in a futile attempt to keep up.  At the same time, he didn’t set an impossible standard I could never hope to live up to.  He wasn’t the kind of big brother that made me feel like crap because he was so perfect.  He protected me when I felt threatened.  He would talk to me and he would take my thoughts, my dreams, and my fears seriously.  He was also willing to accept my help and came to me when I had something to offer.  He was a manly man on the outside—strong, tough, with enough of a violent streak to keep the bullies of the world in check, but not so much that he was a danger in himself.  He was also tender on the inside—a poet, a philosopher, a man willing and able to contemplate the universe and our small place within it.

While the purpose of this post is not an ode to my brother (which would be written in verse), I have to say that one important lesson my brother taught me is that hero worship isn’t worth the cost.  When I was a lot younger, still living with my parents, it was hard not to feel hero worship for my brother.  He was all those things I said, and he was athletic and creative, and he got along in society.  He fit in.  Then, after he became an adult but before I did, he made a mistake.  It was a big one.  The way he handled the fall-out made sure that I lost the hero worship without losing the respect and love I had for him.  It was a tremendously valuable lesson:  To look up to people, to love and respect them for all that they do, but not to set them on a pedestal from which they must inevitably fall.  (Having read Madeleine L’Engle’s A House Like a Lotus probably didn’t hurt, either.)

When I married Mark and “inherited” a step-son, I was glad that my children would have a big brother.  When Willy was born first, I was again glad that my younger children would have a big brother.  When it turned out that all my children were boys, I was still glad that they had big brothers.  In my mind, Brandon and Willy were each going to fill that role that my brother filled so perfectly (with all the necessary and wonderful imperfections), each in their turn.

Yeah, parents are known for their unreasonable, unsound expectations.  So, I let that go.  And that’s fine.  I don’t hold on to stuff like that.

Recently, though, I’ve been looking at my two big boys who are rapidly growing up (though, admittedly, not as rapidly as they like to think) and watching them be the big brothers that they are.  Brandon in the midst of his moody, teenage angst and boredom, taking the time to play Trouble with Willy, to engage with Alex in the silly ways that Alex loves, to pick Ben up and spin him around in ways that makes him squeal with delight.  Willy in the midst of his awkward, teenage rush to be older, trying to get Alex and Ben to behave in more appropriate, less antagonistic ways to each other, to show them things, to teach them things, and to defend them whenever anyone is too critical.  I see my boys redefining the role of big brother to suit themselves and our family, and it’s so good.  It works.  It fits.  And I’m so proud of them.