In Honor of Father’s Day: Halves

9-7-2011 112839 AM

This story is obsolete.

When I wrote it ten years ago, the parallels between my brother’s life and mine were startling.  Since then, our lives have continued to diverge, to the point that there are no parallels.  He’s a Master Sergeant in the Air Force with two kids and a fine house in Georgia.  I’m a divorced paralegal in New York City who’s just moved into a smallish apartment with his girlfriend. 

Still.  Ten years old or not, obsolete or not, I believe that this story is some of my best work (it was almost my biggest sale, but it was cut for space at the last minute).  I think it says things that I can’t say to my brother any other way, and it bothers me that, while it was passed around my family at the time, I was never able to shout it to the world like I meant to.

So why post it on Father’s Day?  Well, he is a father, even if he’s not mine, so it’s not inappropriate.  But there is more to it than that.  The story is called Halves; that means that it’s not just the story of him and me, but also the story of the man that we are halves of.

For another story of my father and my brother that should be told today, check out my old blog here

Then, without further ado, dear readers, I present to you:

Halves

Someday, I’m going to bury my brother.  I was born fifteen months before he was, but I’m no less certain that, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I will be the one to stand in front of the church and give a eulogy.  This isn’t bitter knowledge to me, nor would it be to him.  Hopefully, that day is still a long way in the future, but I’m sure that when it does come, he won’t have many regrets.  He lives his life hard, a life that breaks things and wears them out early, and a life like that doesn’t leave much room for regrets.

I might have a few.

*

Those who know my brother and I often wonder how two such opposite people could be born of the same parents.  Although we’ve both said the same thing ourselves, we’ve known the secret since we were very small: we’re not opposites, but separate halves of one man: our father.  This is a man who was voted “Most Likely To…” by his class in high school (the accompanying picture shows him falling off the shoulders of a girl, who is herself falling off the skateboard she was standing on) and flunked out of Clarkson University…only to go off to Vietnam, then come back to the World and go on to become Superintendent of Schools and one of the most respected citizens of Camden, New York.

I don’t mean to say that we deliberately chose, as infants, to divide up our father’s personality traits between us, or which of his examples we would follow.  There are always other forces.  What a terrible thing it would be if parents were the one and only factor in what kind of people their children became!  The responsibility would be even more crushing than it already is.  Still, you can’t look at the men my brother and I have become without seeing the reflections of the man we came from.

Not that our mother wasn’t there – but her influence is less visible, while the similarity to our father is as obvious as the smile lines on our faces, differing from his only by twenty-eight years of depth.

What were those other forces?

My brother and I were close enough in age to count as “peers”, even by the extremely narrow standards of children.  That is to say, we were within one school-year of each other.  There was no big brother alternately bullying and protecting the littler, no younger brother worshipping, pestering, or tattling on his elder.  No, we saved that nonsense for our sisters, who came some years later.  My brother and I stood as equals and competed on even terms.

That is to say, we were equal in theory.  But a few of those other forces interfered:  I had asthma when I was younger, so running and playing with the other kids wasn’t something I did for fun so much as something I suffered through.  Instead, I developed a love of books and reading.  He developed athletic and social skills that I couldn’t match, while I developed academic ability that he couldn’t approach.  Our parents were a bit distressed by this “self-limitation”; they wanted us to be a bit more well-rounded.  My brother was required to get good grades – which he got, making honor roll more often than not, though he was still frustrated by how high I set the bar (once he asked me “Why couldn’t you have been dumb?”), and I was first encouraged, then required to join at least one extracurricular activity (I was overjoyed when I discovered drama in High School and didn’t have to play sports anymore).  But it was in our “specialties” that we truly excelled: I was the Salutatorian the year I graduated from High school, while he was the Athlete of the Year when he did.  Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if it was, at least to some degree, our internal and eternal competition that drove us to such heights.

And while it may sound strange coming from the man with defective lungs, it’s that division that’s shortening my brother’s life.

How?  To put it bluntly, “the extroverted, athletic one” translates pretty directly into “party animal”, especially when you’re a teenager in a town where the bowling alley is the big place to go on Friday nights.  The booze and chawterbacky alone probably whittled a few years away , though he’s thankfully quit the latter and cut way back on the former, but that’s just the beginning.  My brother did his partying with a group of friends whose idea of a good time was a bit rough.  All of their “day after” stories seemed to involve injuries and near-death experiences.  Most caused by the same member of the group (not my brother – let’s call the little troublemaker “Jake”, shall we?).

There was the time three of them managed to bluff fourteen guys into backing down after Jake managed to antagonize half of a party they were attending: “Oh, our asses were already kicked.  But we would’ve kicked at least a few asses in return, and nobody wants to be the guy who got his ass kicked when he was one of fourteen guys fighting three.”

There was the time Jake decided to prove that he could drive just fine if he turned off his headlights going down a winding back road.

Intra-group brawls were common, and bruises weren’t even worth commenting on.  In fact, there were times, like the “Turkey Bowl” (the group’s yearly Thanksgiving football game) where they were actually disappointed if they didn’t have enough bruises to show.

Those boys – even Jake – have grown into men who have proven willing to cross continents and even oceans for the big events in each other’s lives.  They’ve taken it in turns to be each other’s groomsmen, for example.  Maybe I underestimate the bonding value of recreational injuries.

Don’t think, however, that it’s a simple case of a friendly kid who fell in with a rough crowd.  My brother was always looking for the next extreme, and he took many risks to life and limb that involved neither alcohol nor Jake:

There was the summer he spent with our uncle, working at his construction company during the week and taking weekend outings into the hills to harass dangerous reptiles.  Seriously.  We have videotape of them poking at rattlesnakes and snapping turtles with sticks.

There was the summer he and his friends spent “rappelling” off local bridges, not that they had any of the equipment that the term implies.

And his firmly-held belief that if you don’t fall off your skis once in a while, you’re playing it too safe.  If this leads to a few broken bones in the winter or skipping across the water like a well-thrown rock in the summer, so be it.

So what part did I play in this wild, reckless, pushing-the-envelope life?  Mostly, I watched.  I wasn’t gonna spend more than one hundred of my hard-earned dollars to go bungee jumping, or three hundred of them (even if I’d had that many) to buy a stereo system at Service Merchandise that was an unmissable bargain because its cabinet was gouged.  I’ve been known to jump off the occasional bridge if there was sufficiently deep water beneath it, but climbing a few score feet above a dry creek bed doesn’t sound like much fun to me.  And I try hard not to fall off my skis.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we didn’t do things together.  Quite the opposite: we couldn’t avoid it.  That was the problem.  We shared a bedroom, which led to the kind of constant grinding, territorial, every-habit-is-a-personal-affront irritation that only roommates can know.  And thus a few brawls.  Worse, as I said before, he was only one year behind me in school.  And at school, at least among our peers (and who, at that age, cares about anything else?), he was the Keville boy that mattered.

Or so it seemed at the time.  Adolescence and jealousy don’t generally help you see a wider perspective.  His broader popularity didn’t mean that I was friendless, nor even that there weren’t people who preferred my company to his.  Sometimes it just takes you ten years to notice something that obvious.

In any case, there were some few things that we actually did together willingly, some interests that we actually shared or whims that struck us both at the same time.  You know, the kind of things people remember about being siblings years after the fact, once they’ve forgotten about the other 95% of their lives together.

For example, there was the year or two we had an aquarium in our room.  We bought books, we rode our bikes out to the pet store on the edge of town two or three times a week and hung out there for hours, looking at aquarium decorations and occasionally spending our allowances on new fish.  Unfortunately for the fish, our ability didn’t match our interest; the poor things rarely lasted more than a few months (the incidents where we left the heater on all one summer day, or off all one winter night, were particular boons for the pet shop).  That mutual hobby came to an end one day when a friendly brawl broke the tank, finished the remaining fish, and nearly got us both killed by our mother, who was understandably irate when ten gallons of fishwater started coming through the kitchen ceiling.

The aquarium was a shared interest; the mutual whims make for shorter stories.  There was the winter that we built a network of snow forts that covered the entire yard.  Actually, all of the yards, front, back, and side.  Then there were the times we’d hop on our bikes – usually with a few friends – and ride out to the swimming hole at Blakesley Road, which we preferred to nearer swimming spots because it was deeper, and thus permitted the use of a swinging rope.  And speaking of swimming, there was the time in our mid-teens when we were visiting my grandparents’ cottage at Keuka Lake, and decided to swim across.  Let’s just say distances are deceptive over water, and a mile is a much longer way to swim than walk.  The grownups insisted on life jackets and escorting us in a boat.  Fortunately for us.  We made it, but I don’t think I can recall ever being so exhausted.  We definitely needed the ride back.

Hey, I may not seek out the extremes, but that doesn’t mean I’m unadventurous.  We’re both the sons of a man who, this summer, at the age of 57, took a friend’s motorcycle to a local rally because the friend couldn’t make it, but the bike “wanted to go”.

Still, as much as such things tend to grow in memory – objects in the rear view mirror may appear larger than they are – they were really the smaller part of our relationship by far.  The feuding and rivalry was much bigger once, but it faded in importance as we grew up and went our separate – opposite – ways.

I hung around the house, read my books, wrote my books – well, my first attempts – acted in the school plays, sang in the choir, and played Dungeons & Dragons with my geeky friends.  He played sports and partied with his buddies.  There were odd moments of overlap – like when I would cover for him when he snuck out of the house, or when he was on the stage crew for one of the school plays (spending much of the time back stage making out with one of the actresses, causing yet more flares of jealousy).

Time happened, and our paths diverged entirely: I went to college at St. Lawrence University, where I graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa.  I went to Boston, and then to New York, where I work day jobs as I try to make a go of it as a writer.

He, like our father before him, flunked out of Clarkson University and – having paid for his college with a ROTC scholarship – went into the Air Force.  He’s been to Okinawa, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and is currently stationed in Germany.  He intends to stay enlisted for the twenty years it will take to retire with a pension, then open a Bar & Grill somewhere in the South (his love of skiing notwithstanding, he likes the climate better).

Two more different lives can scarce be imagined.  Even our weddings are a study in contrasts: he had a traditional Catholic church wedding, but the wedding party wore sneakers and the reception was held on the lawn of my parents’ lakefront home.  Free rental of the tents was a gift from one of the guests, and they built the dance floor themselves out of plywood.  I gave the blessing at dinner while standing in my swimming trunks, and the evening’s entertainment included fireworks (it was the Fourth of July weekend, after all) and a piñata.  The bachelor party, which (wisely) took place several days before, was in three parts: a round of golf; a barbecue; and the rental of a limobus for a pub crawl, during which one of our uncles made the mistake of trying to keep up while drinking with men twenty years his junior and broke one of the two rules (Don’t Throw Up On The Bus.  Fortunately, they didn’t break anything, which was the other rule).  After the party ended, our father ended up carrying my brother home and two of the above-described buddies got yelled at by our mother for trying to make themselves some eggs in her kitchen at four in the morning (which wouldn’t have been a problem if they hadn’t made a lot of noise and a horrendous mess).  If you’re wondering, his bride had no problem with all of these hijinks, except to threaten the entire male half of the wedding party with grievous injury if they ruined the pictures with any bruises above the neck.  There were none.

My bachelor party was several months before the wedding, when my fiancé and I were visiting my hometown for a bridal shower, and was a small affair: a couple of my buddies decided to see what my reaction to my first-ever contact with strippers and real intoxication – wisely in that order – would be.  I think I did rather well, but then, doesn’t everybody?  At least I didn’t need carrying by the end of the night.

My bride had no problem with these hijinks.  She actually encouraged them.  She worries that I don’t have enough guy friends, and perhaps she’s right: except for my geeky D&D buddies, most of my friends in High School were women.  In college, most of my geeky D&D buddies were women – including my wife-to-be.  As you might suspect, I never really got the hang of the male bonding thing.  Fortunately, all of this had the effect she hoped for, and put me back in touch with those geeky D&D buddies in a lasting way.

My wedding was held at a nondenominational college chapel overlooking Keuka Lake, and we largely wrote the ceremony ourselves.  The reception was a masquerade ball held at an inn and winery that pretty lived up to its name, “Belhurst Castle”.  The tables, rather than being numbered, were given the names of books that hold particular meaning for us.

In the midst of all this contrast, there’s one interesting point of similarity: the fact that both of our brides are first-generation immigrant Latinas.  His Maria is Mexican, while my Liza is Dominican.  But that’s surely coincidence.  After all, they’re as different from each other as I am from him.  And in much the same way…hmmm…

Paradoxically, as our lives have grown farther apart physically, I believe that we ourselves have grown closer.  Perhaps it has something to do with not having to deal with each other all day, every day.  Maybe it’s just that we’re satisfied to be walking our own paths now, instead of racing each other.  At the very least, I now appreciate the fact that he’s the life of the party, instead of finding it annoying.

I think I’m still a little bit jealous of it, though.

And I know it’s something I’m going to miss when the day comes for me to step up to the front of the church and give my eulogy.  It’s definitely going to seem like he should be there.  If there’s anyone who could turn his own funeral into the model of what an Irish wake is supposed to be, it’s my brother.

I’m not sure what I’ll say when that day comes, and it probably doesn’t matter.  I already know the right way to give him a send-off.  I’ll sing the traditional Irish song “The Parting Glass” – second only to “The Soldier’s Song”, the national anthem of Ireland, as the most common song to wrap up a celebration or an evening at the pub:

All the money that ere I had,

I spent it in good company

And all the harm I’ve ever done,

Alas it was to none but me. 

And all I’ve done for want of wit,

‘Til memory now I can’t recall.

So fill to me the parting glass,

Good night and Joy be to you all.

Fill to me the parting glass

And drink a health whate’er befalls

Then gently rise and softly call

Good night and joy be to you all.

 

Of all the comrades that ere I had,

They’re sorry for my going away.

And all the sweethearts that ere I had,

They’d wish me one more day to stay.

But since it fell unto my lot

That I should rise and you should not

Then fill to me the parting glass

Good night and Joy be to you all.

 

But since it fell unto my lot

That I should rise and you should not

I gently rise and softly call

Good night and joy be to you all

So fill to me the parting glass

And drink a health whate’er befalls

Then gently rise and softly call,

Good night and joy be to you all.

9-7-2011 112854 AM

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