While growing up, it seemed inescapable. Every step in every direction was already touched upon by him. The sunlight always seemed a little dimmer as his shadow cast large. My older brother was this larger than life figure. He was loud and boisterous. He seemed to own the crowd with every quip or one-liner. He garnered so much attention that I could merely remain a spectator. Even his physicality: tall, broad shoulders, large hands that could fill my face and size thirteen feet to balance him with a strong foundation. If he had a chlorophyll problem he would easily be mistaken for the Jolly Green Giant. Even with a knocked out tooth, his defined jaw-line and deep blue eyes struck you. Anyone in his presence fell into a blur.
Looking back, I understand I had put him on a pedestal. I guess oddly, I was so enamored with him that the only way to explain it now was as a crush. I know this is cringing as a reader, but in some way our first love is a family member we just don’t romanticize it the way a grown up would. I was in awe of him, his biggest fan, imagine meeting your favorite athlete, musician, scientist, actor, even author for the first time. That is how I felt everyday of my life as a child. I just wanted his autograph so bad and when I finally got the opportunity to speak my words became mush.
The incredible thing about my brother was he genuinely seemed like this real-life superhero. He didn’t appear to have a single power, rather a multitude that could be used depending on the situation. Big Bro was, as I later learned to describe it, a Renaissance Man. It seemed as though he could do it all. An athlete. A builder. An intellect. Incredibly inventive. Because he kept me at an arm’s length for so many years, I was able to maintain this viewpoint. The mystery made him more powerful and just the thought of what he could do intimidated me.
If he said I shouldn’t do something I feared the consequences if I did. I remember accidentally saying “God-damnit” in front of him and him simply grazing my hand in response made me feel as if a bone had broken in my pinky. To this day I don’t repeat GD and it is the only “curse” that somewhat offends me to hear. That seemed to be his greatest power. He was able to guide me away from his mistakes. A walking contradiction, yes, but that didn’t make him any less a hero. For years I did as he said, not as he had done.
Everything he ever touched seemed to come so easy to him. He was a natural. Whether he picked up a hockey stick, spray can, microphone or even a video camera, everything he did was magic. Cue to begin playing that infectious Police song. He had played travel hockey for the Buffalo Regals and then for the Fort Erie Wildcats. I spent many games watching for number 11 in the cold air. He was a forward with a knack for finding the puck and then getting that puck in the right spot. He was often placed in a leadership role on his team. When he grew tired of the rink he’d then take up graffiti and tag around town with artistic flare. When playing guitar in a band lost its tune and he grew an ear for the sounds of hip hop, he began to rap himself only to come second in an open mic competition. He had a cadence and dubbed himself the Profit. People wanted to listen to him and go under his wing. He literally made the only rendition of Hamlet I could muster viewing while in an audio-visual class. All these accomplishments were out of reach.
Alternately, I had to take time to develop any form of skill. Due to my admiration for him, I was simply following his interests.
This lead to constant comparison. I skated on my ankles and could only break the ice on one side. I lacked hand-eye coordination. I couldn’t speak as eloquently as I let a childhood speech impediment impact my confidence in speech. My brother had a book of rhymes and I had journals full of poetry for which I was scared to share. The possibility of embarrassing him was too much. I was held back a grade, which he’d claim I’d failed. Even when I knew my truth his words rang truer. No matter how hard I tried I fell flat on my face. Ultimately, everything I did to bring him closer to me just drove him further away. I became the overbearing, hemorrhoid of a brother.
I was trying too hard. I remember allowing him to do skateboard tricks over me, hearing him blame me for a missed putt as his caddy risking a club being thrown my way, taking slap shots between two tires without any pads, running across the yard carrying a target in my hands as he shot paintballs and bb pellets my way, breaking up with a girl because he didn’t approve or blindly fighting neighborhood kids at the point of a finger. Sure there were moments, glimpses, glimmers of what could be. A speck of light when he ditched a cousin to spend more time playing with me. But unless I fit into the role in his scene, the mantra was always, “when you’re older.” It echoes deep in my consciousness even as I quote it now. Three years is nothing, but as a kid, it felt like Mount Everest was more manageable than trying to climb such a hurdle.
The problem with this was everything I had done was minuscule in comparison to what he already had done. It’s important to understand that I was chasing his shadow. Up until high school age I never tried to make my own lane. He paved a path ahead of me and I took it thinking we could share this ride, but the obstacles I had to face seemed like nothing to him. By the time I hit a checkpoint he was already lapping me. I never saw his struggle so for myself the road blocks were so much greater. During early childhood, this was not as detrimental as it was in adolescence.
As time progressed, I developed into my own person. I wasn’t as willing to do everything he wished. This contrast can be seen in my willingness to throw crab apples at cars with him when I was six, but unwilling to throw snowballs at cars with him while hiding in a snow bunker at age twelve. My friend at the time was more willing to so he garnered more of my brother’s attention. Likewise when he rapped, his girlfriend’s little brother became little C-Gul, when that was a moniker he had given me. My thoughts always came to why am I not extended these olive branches? Why am I not treated like his brother? We share blood, don’t we? These hypotheticals lead me to become even more susceptible to comments and comparisons I was internalizing and then building up in my head. The only real answer I could sum up was, when I am older it will get better. Words that came straight from the source.
Watching from afar, the norms were set. He was the image of the “guy.” He stood as the prototype for what I should be like. It’s naive to say this now but I saw a man as a strong, independent provider, unable to back down from anything, loyal, confident, and most importantly someone who held back their feelings. My brother added a flair to this in being able to woo anyone. Having a slick tongue and quick wit. He could weave himself in and out of social contexts. If I were to make a literary reference he was a less destructive, less prejudice Tom Buchanan. There was this physical and mental hardness that he imposed upon me. Even when he read me wrong his gaze made me believe what he was thinking. As I got older, I fell less and less into this image I sought to project. Yes, I’d wear his hand-me-downs, but looking back at the photographs the cloth never fit quite the same. I was a mere caricature of him. If you squint, you could see his promise in me. I had to accept myself as a Nick Carraway. This was the psyche for years. That every attempt at being cool or manly or even strong was a loss.
Despite our shared genetics, it just wasn’t there, and I never hit my mark. This drove me into deep depression. The feeling of less, that who I was, was never enough. I would literally pray to whatever God would listen to take me off this planet. Suicide was nothing more than a pillowcase over the face. My body fortunately, never gave in to my wishes. I hid all this away from my family. I never wanted to do anything more to harm myself because I never wanted to hurt them in any way, so actually dying was too big of a burden. Fortunately for my family no one ever caught on. I hid it well because there were no physical marks and no one heard my plea as I recited it over and over in my mind or with the faintest of whispers. I would have benefited from opening up about it, but I thought as a boy, my role was to hide these emotions to bear that burden myself and smile outwardly. I played aloof. Every little blow life had to give was absorbed and I simply had to move forward. I would say to myself “one day,” as a refrain to remind myself that things would improve. At my worst my brother wasn’t quite there so he never had to know. He was living his life as he moved out around sixteen and was busy being a man. This internalization merely lead me to carve my confidence and self-image to nothing.
Now there is no exact reason as to why I did this to myself, and I doubt my brother is to blame but looking back, my primary mission was to be more like my brother. It was no secret to him either, he knew my birthday wish. For years, it was merely to have him like me. He did everything he could do to toughen me up, but as he got older, his level of influence lessened, and I began to see some of his cracks. I did everything I could do to protect him. I remember being told from a grade school teacher when I shared with the class that he was someone I looked up to as a hero that he shouldn’t be a role model to me as he always behaved poorly. Probably the worst thing you could say to someone. I let that teacher know she hardly knew him at all to make such claims. I fought for him in hopes people could see what I saw. At times it lead me getting a shiner or two. I’d grin when hearing him ask, “what does the other kid look like?”
Later in life, I learned about his guilt and the way he felt. He didn’t see himself as a role model. As a hero. He was just as torn as me. He saw a flaw within everything about him. All the while I was seeking his acceptance he desperately wanted our father’s approval. He quit hockey because he couldn’t handle the pressure. He stopped skateboarding because Dad said he sucked at it. He may have treated me the way he did because he knew I’d blindly take it. He didn’t internalize the same way I did. He fought hard against the idea of being the golden boy every step of the way. He was outspoken and he’d lash out at any negative stimulus. He ended up jumping from thing to thing not because it came easy to him but rather it was his form of finding peace. An escape from expectations. Now I can see how I was harmful to him rather than him to me. He had to uphold the image of a strong, protective older brother. By building him up he needed to change face, wear a different mask. Each and every task he did he wanted someone to simply let him be and accept him as is. He best worked solo. He made many mistakes in his search for solace, many I would never know. The errors I am aware of are nobody’s business but he beat himself up over them and until he found the right path he had no way to accept forgiveness. He has grown, evolved. My brother can claim he is no hero because he is flawed, but these flaws make him human. His cracks prove how he is a man worthy of praise.
It is impossible to express all the emotions I felt over the years. The most surprising lesson I’ve learned from all this is being a man is not looking around but rather within. I spent most of my life comparing myself to someone who was simply doing the same thing I was. I invented an unrealistic image. Even though I am an adult now with my own spouse, children and understand my brother so much better when I am around him, I become the same bright-eyed kid with my jaw open, desperate just to make this individual so happy. The shadow is long gone, and I have embraced my role in this world, but deep down, I await the day that I am old enough.