My Brother's Shadow

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Through my minds eye I see my brother as tall. But he’s not really, five feet eight inches, an average height for a full-grown Caucasian male. But maybe all older brothers seem tall; it must be part of their protective appearance. His hair has been long for a while now, sweeping down to his shoulders from his widows peak. His arms resemble the roots of an old oak tree, long and knotted, each vain and tendon visible.
When I was younger I never listened to my brother play the piano, I watched. He would sit at the piano his long brown hair thrust messily behind his shoulders, his farmers tan visible in the plain white t-shirt that held his thin frame loosely. I watched the tips of his fingers as they gingerly touched the ivory colored keys, I watched the tendons in his arms contort and flex all the way up to his biceps from his wrists. I watched his head, bent in concentration, ear cocked to the side to better catch the sounds he produced. I watched and he would smile at me, a smile that said that he was glad for the company. No matter how strange of company I was.

In all my memories my brother is present, sometimes as a main character, sometimes just a reference point. But he’s always there encouraging, loving, challenging, protecting. My brother is in my earliest memory, a memory that is mostly imagined. For my memory hadn’t developed very far when the moment occurred. So instead the memory is really a combination of the memories of people who were also present and my own imagination.
All parents tell their children about the day they brought them home from the hospital, my parents were no different. My parents allowed my brother to sit next to my car seat in the back seat of the old blue Toyota Land Cruiser, which my parents used to own, on the way home from the hospital. My parents listened as my brother pointed out everything in the car and out it. He attempted to explain the world to a two day old baby all in expanse of one car ride.

I can see my brother, six-years old, wearing his ‘I’m the big-brother’ t-shirt my mom bough him three weeks before I was born. His feet are unable to touch the floor of the car and he’s grasping my baby-self’s fist saying, “That’s a tree, were in a car, my name is Shawn and I’m your big-brother.” I see my baby-self staring blankly back trying to absorb the words he’s saying. My parents smile contently in the front seat.
My family has always loved to read and when I was younger I didn’t feel part of that. Books bored me, so I didn’t bother with them. But Shawn always had a book under his arm. I watched as over the years his two large book shelves filled with books. Shawn tried many times to get me into reading and wasn’t successful for many years.
I remember sitting in a soft green recliner in our living room, a math book and a piece of lined paper sitting unwanted in my eight-year-old self’s lap. Shawn’s fourteen year old self is sitting on the couch smiling contently at me. “Well, you math isn’t going to do itself, so you might as well get started.”
“But it’s so pointless, when am I ever going to use this stuff?” I whined squirming in the too soft chair.
“Look, I’ll make a deal with you. If you do your math homework, we’ll do something special when you’re done.” Though he smiled good-naturedly, my eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Really?”
“Truly,” he nodded. I raised my left eyebrow in conformation. He raised his right and then his left doing the wave with his eyebrows. This forced me into a fit of giggles.
Defeated I picked up my pencil and started to work, but soon I was stuck on a problem. And my mind started to wander, and slowly my mind started to doubt. This is a trick. It has to be. I bet there is no surprise. My doubt was interrupted by the long tapering finger tracing my work.
While lost in my thoughts my brother had risen off the couch and come to stand next to me. “See, sweets, your almost done. What’s the problem with this one?”
My heart fluttered in my chest. Sweets, my mind echoed. All doubt left my mind and with renewed energy I allowed him to help me through the last couple of problems.
When we were done, he stood and led me to his room. My heart fluttered again, it was a great honor to be allowed into his room. He motioned for me to sit on the bed and I did so. I caressed the soft sheets and watched as he picked up a medium sized book off the middle shelf of his oak bookshelves.
Shawn saw my look of reproach as he sat next to me on the bed. “Now don’t give me that look, this isn’t the kind of book you used to.”
“I thought you said we were going to do something fun.” My brother dismissed my disappointment with the wave of his hand.
“This book is full of adventure it keeps you entertained throughout the story. If just give it a chance, you might really like it.” His blue eyes pleaded to me silently, his front teeth bit his lower lip in hope.
“And if I don’t like it?” He let his breath out clearly irritated.
He resumed his composure quickly, continuing on, “Then I promise I will never make you read a book again. And look you don’t even have to read this one alone. We’ll read it together, I’ll read the first chapter and then you read the second, and so on and so forth until we finish the book.”
I eyed him carefully before holding out my hand, he handed me the book eagerly. I studied the cover carefully; a boy riding a broom stick stared back. I had heard the book; it was none other than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I traced the raised letters of the authors name with my small finger, “J-K R-o-w-l-i-n-g,” I whispered the letters as my finger traced them.
The reading started that night and went on for many nights after it. We’d read right after we finished our homework right up to dinner and then again until bed. The Harry Potter series was only the beginning. Over the next six years we would read five more series and three individual books. In his room, the living room, the kitchen, wherever there was a space where we wouldn’t be interrupted. We’d read when we were sick, when it rained, when it was sunny, nearly every day was spent reading. We’d read until our voices were hoarse or until someone would fall asleep. It was how we coped with the outside world, if something bad happened we’d grab the book and nothing mattered as long as there was us and the book.
My brother has always said that between the two of us we know everything. That has always been our connection, our minds. As we both got older we found that if we were simply were together, nothing seemed quite as bad.
When my brother was sixteen his girlfriend found out she was pregnant. I was not let in on the secret until she was seven months pregnant. It seemed that the day he told me that world stopped, for just a second and then started up again. Because nothing was the same after that, nothing ever seemed right. But the day he told me wasn’t a bad day; it was the start of something that got us through a lot.
I had woken up earlier than normal and had gone to the kitchen for a glass of water. On my way back I saw that Shawn had opened his door and was standing in the frame. Even though I hadn’t known what was going I could tell that he was different. He hadn’t been sleeping well and stayed home from school for days at a time. He was even skinnier than normal, his hair hung in unkempt strands. His eyes were red from both lack of sleep and the tears that he sometimes shed.
He beckoned to me and I went to him quickly sliding under his warm arm. I went into his room and sat on the bed. He sat next to me and cupped my cheek in his hand. He sputtered out the words and I’m sure the look of horror on my face would have been funny if the situation had been different. I looked at him for a long time before standing and letting a few of my own tears fall.
He stood a while later taking my hands in his and gently pressed his forehead to mine. We stood there for a while, eyes closed, foreheads touching, hands grasped as though they were the only thing keeping us from falling off the edge of the world.
Everything after that moment is a blur but that piece of time is more important than anything that could have happened afterwards. Because now when anything sad or hard happens we stand facing each other again. Like when we were ten and sixteen, we put our foreheads together, grasp each other’s hands tightly and just let everything else melt away.
In my mind my brother is tall, and maybe he really is. He’s taller than me, does that make someone tall? Maybe it’s all about perspective, what’s tall to one person might not be tall to another. But the person is still tall as long as someone believes them to be. I’ve never understood the choices my brother has made. But I believe that by writing down what I know will help me better understand him and his choices. What I know now after writing this is that all of his choices have benefited me in some way. Even if his methods are strange and there was probably easier ways he could teach me lessons, he still teaches me. My brother is my greatest teacher for through everything he’s loved, encouraged, protected, and challenged me.





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