My older brother Joshua is the sort of person to whom things come easy. A few years ago he took up home-brewing beer. He submitted a bottle of one of his first creations to a national homebrewing contest and won second place, resulting in an all expenses paid trip to Colorado for him and 3 friends. In a family that is short and roly-poly he has managed to attain an average height and weight. He has perfect pitch and a musical ability that is unfairly matched to his complete and total lack of interest in learning an instrument. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Our younger brother Don likes to say that Josh got all the cool genes in the family. The inference being that he and I were stuck with the left-over and less awesome pieces of our family heritage. His theory is hard to refute when you stack up the facts. I love music more than anything (this blog began as a place for me to talk about music). I tried very hard to learn an instrument, but am near tone-deaf and completely unable to keep time. I am very short and more than a little roly-poly, despite an active and healthy lifestyle.
These differences are superficial, but there are other deeper issues. My older brother has always been calm and laid back, in direct opposition to my fretful nature and hair trigger temper. Josh sailed through teen-age years and adulthood with an easy confidence and ability to make friends. At the age of 27 I still don’t feel as though I fit my own skin. Then there is the mental illness - the depression, loneliness and anxiety disorder - that has been my chief genetic inheritance and constant companion since childhood, but has never seemed to visit Josh’s heart or head.
As a small child I was not as aware of this disparity in our natural gifts. Josh and I are eighteen months apart and, being that we were born into the war zone of our parents marriage, we grew up with the camaraderie and interdependence of fellow soldiers. We shared rations and hid in bunkers together during the worst of it. We almost never fought. We couldn’t. We needed each other too much.
Josh was older though, and heavily favored by our father. Somehow as we grew into teenagers I always found myself racing to keep up with him. If Josh read a book in three weeks I would finish it in two. If he got straight A’s, I wanted an A-plus. If he played a video game well, I wanted to play it better. If he had two cavities I had better have three. I needed to win.
My brother bore this with typical equanimity. He was content to finish books in his own time and play video games for enjoyment only. It was maddening, but it might have been tolerable if we hadn’t also started college together at the ages of 12 and 13.
At the time we were both being homeschooled by our father. His definition of teaching involved sitting in the living room smoking weed and watching soap operas in his underwear, like some strange cross between the Dude and Betty Draper. He occasionally barked commands at us during the commercial breaks. These orders were usually issued through closed doors and had more to do with house cleaning than studying. In other words, as long as we did the dishes and stayed out of his way, we were pretty much free to do as we pleased.
For some children that might be a dream, but I wanted to learn. I had loved public school. My older brother and I were both fervent readers and very bright. School was one of the few places where I was singled out for doing well, and I desperately needed the escape. My dad took a couple of classes a semester at the local community college. He had been working towards a two year degree for most of the last ten years. I began begging my father to let Josh and I go to school with him. My father said that I was too young, but agreed to see if he could get his professors to allow Josh to audit the courses and possibly register for his own the next semester.
This was not surprising coming from my dad. In fact, dividing my brother and I was one of his favorite tactics, as was withholding the thing he knew we most wanted. My dad is deeply insecure and has a need to control people. A family counselor that we went to once said that my father was the most skilled manipulator she had ever met (strangely, this was the last insight that counselor was allowed to offer). My dad made it his art form, and our family was his Guernica.
Josh wanted an escape as badly as I did, and couldn’t afford to worry about whether or not I was allowed to come along for the ride. My father eventually agreed to let me go, after I was made thoroughly aware of how grateful I should be toward him. Josh and I started college together, but the damage was done. I was determined to show both my dad and Josh that I was better, smarter, more mature than either of them gave me credit for. I got better grades, joined more extra-curricular activities and took more credits. However, no matter how hard I worked or what accomplishments I attained, Josh never seemed to care that I was showing him up.
Josh never seemed to care and neither did our dad. His love and approval remained just as erratic as the swings of his bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, my parents marriage got worse and Josh and I found ourselves on opposing sides. By the time I was 15 I no longer wanted to prove myself. I just wanted to leave the battlefield. I got good grades, worked hard and moved out of our house for the last time at the age of 17. A friend picked me up in the dead of night and drove me to the room I had rented across town. I graduated college six months later, took an internship in California and never looked back.
Josh continued at his own pace. He traveled to Japan, change his major, graduated 4 years later, met and married a wonderful woman. After graduation he was offered a mid-level job as a software engineer at a California tech company. Like most things he didn’t seek it out, but it found him anyway and he accepted it.
He still works for the same company today. His wife and he are still happily married. He doesn’t love his job, but he fills his spare time with hobbies and travel. Overall he seems content. Meanwhile, I have changed jobs and moved across states at least five times. Things still come easy to him, but it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. He is still moving at his own pace and I am still chasing after myself.
During our childhood I had seen his contentment as arrogance or superiority. I think I envied his ability to accept circumstances more than anything else. As a teenager I had never been able to find a place where I felt comfortable. I thought maybe if I beat him I could find the same easy happiness he possessed. However, these days I am happy. I have good friends who accept me and all my neurosis, financial stability and a plan for my future and I still find myself just as driven and competitive. The difference is I started competing with myself. I no longer want to be the best, but I do want to grow, to change, to be better than who I was before.
My older brother and I aren’t as close as we used to be. We live on opposite coasts and lead separate lives. We exchange birthday presents and emails and talk on the phone a few times a year. We still love each other. We are still family, but, like with most war buddies, seeing each other feels like being back in ‘Nam.
Still I am keenly aware of how interconnected our paths have been. I wonder if I would be as successful and driven as I am if I hadn’t been constantly measuring myself against him. I wonder if I would have come through our childhood as whole as I am if we hadn’t shared a foxhole, if I hadn’t had him to lean on. We have both grown up. We have been through difficult times and come out stronger. We are successful and happy and compassionate. We turned out to be pretty decent human beings and we helped make each other that way.
Our sporadic phone calls usually take place because we have news to share. I still occasionally feel a pang of jealousy when Josh shares some piece of amazing news, but more than that I am happy for him. I am grateful to be able to share in his triumphs, and have him share in mine. When I called him three months ago to tell him that I was moving to a foreign country, quitting my job and starting medical school, he congratulated me warmly and offered any assistance he could provide. His reaction wasn’t a surprise. No matter where our lives take us or what news I call to share I know I will be met with acceptance.