A New Kind of Together

May 25, 2012
By Stephanie_Chen BRONZE, New York, New York
Stephanie_Chen BRONZE, New York, New York
1 article 1 photo 0 comments

One of my earliest memories is of my brother taking me to the playground and pushing me on the swings. He‘s pushing very cautiously as I yell to him, “Higher! Faster!” Unlike most of the siblings I know, Dennis and I are more like only children who have an unusually familial bond, as we’re twelve years apart. My brother only lived at home with us until I was six years old. Whenever I would hear my friends talk about spending weekends with their siblings or watching late night movies together after a board game, I used to be envious. So many of my memories of time spent with Dennis are not even memories; they are images from photographs and videos, even stories told by my parents that have been woven into my mind in imitation of real memories: The time he gave me a sour orange to eat, which I submissively ate even though it made my eyes water. The time he taught me how to use training chopsticks for the very first time at my grandpa’s house in China.. And the time he put me on his shoulders at the Disneyworld parade so I could see over the bobbing heads of all the costumed characters.
If there is a way to characterize the relationship I had with my brother for most of my life, it would be one filled with longing. When Dennis left for college in Massachusetts, I was in kindergarten. We would be newly separated by distance, but we had already been separated by culture. While he had grown up in China until he was ten, the only life I’d ever known was in the United States. He would often call himself the Chinese boy with the American sister, and so around him I was more deferential to my parents, feeling self-consciously aware of Chinese values and customs. Even my parents were different around him. In our home, we typically ate with American utensils– forks, knives, spoons– but when Dennis was present, chopsticks suddenly appeared at the table, even if we were having steak. It was a strange cultural disconnect. My brother needed the chopsticks for comfort; this was his own form of a security blanket padding him from a culture that felt foreign to him, but entirely familiar to me.

Still, by virtue of being the younger sibling, I looked up to Dennis a great deal and wanted nothing more than to be just like him. I admired how persistent and curious he had always been, whether it was in his approach to learning how to play guitar (he’d play the same melodic passages over and over again making small adjustments with his fingers) or trying to fix a headlight on my parents’ new car just to figure out how it worked (he took everything apart and neatly laid all the pieces out so he could put it all back together again). Before he left for college, I asked Dennis to teach me how to dribble and shoot baskets into a three-foot-high hoop. And watching him swim butterfly so gracefully in the pool made me suddenly unafraid of the water. After he went away, I would look out my window wistfully at the tree that had been our favorite— a tall, cherry blossom with limbs so smooth they almost looked human. Admiring the flowers’ vivid pink color, I would think about how great it would be the next time my brother came home so we could kick around a soccer ball together, have conversations in squeaky voices after inhaling helium from balloons, and go eat donuts at Krispy Kreme.

I found myself thinking that life happened when my brother was around and that all the other times simply needed to be gotten through. During my elementary school years I would watch as siblings were dropped off and picked up together and think about how I needed to remember all the good things that happened to me, whether getting an A on a test or making a new friend at recess, so that I could tell Dennis about them when he returned home. I had always assumed that after college he would finally come back. I figured that even if he didn’t live with us, he would at least live near us, and that I would get to see him a lot and finally have the truly close relationship I’d always imagined.

But Dennis didn’t move back. Instead, just a few days after graduating, he left to take a job in Hong Kong. Still, I didn’t worry. In my mind, it was just a matter of time before he figured out that Hong Kong was a pit stop, not a destination. It was just a small detour, I convinced myself, and I continued to long for the day he would return. During middle school, the first thing I would do after winning a field hockey game or a swim meet would be to find out if my parents had gotten the moment on video so that we could show my brother. My happiest moments were when a visit from Dennis would coincide with one of my basketball games, at which he’d invariably take credit for teaching me everything I knew about basketball. In high school, I couldn’t wait for Christmastime as we would always get to see each other. He would come to New York and we would go ice-skating at Wollman Rink, see Knicks games at the Garden, and join the sardine packed crowds in Times Square to watch the crystal ball drop. When I visited Hong Kong, we would go on a “food hunt,” exploring a wide variety of hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving delicious but strange (to my American palate) foods. Our conversations during these brief trips ranged from Carmelo Anthony being traded back to the Knicks to the complications of falling in love, something I had yet to discover. Whatever the conversations were, that feeling of closeness and camaraderie thrilled me. I loved how he would put an arm around me while riding the local subway. And I beamed at how he would drag me through underground Hong Kong where tiny streets winded and unwinded like a never-ending “S” studded with boutiques, fortune tellers and homeopathic pharmacies selling turtle jelly and shark cartilage. We shared in the wonder and surprise of these excursions, one day even discovering a noodle house that had been built around a tree, its branches breaking through the ceiling from within. I took those moments to represent what our “real lives” would look like after my brother and I finally reunited. Then, I imagined, we would have close conversations every day, not just once a year. Then, we would take trips together as a matter of course, not as an exception. That is when I believed our family life would finally resume, seamlessly picking up where it had left off, back when I had been a six year-old girl and Dennis had been a teenager.

It wasn’t until my brother got married to a Chinese woman in Beijing that I finally began to question the degree to which I’d been in denial. My brother, I suddenly realized, was never coming home. The handful of days I got to see him each year were not glimpses of the bigger relationship we would inevitably have. They were the reality of our relationship. To my surprise, I didn’t experience this realization as a huge, crushing blow. Instead, it was as if I spent the next few weeks walking around with an annoying pebble in my shoe that I just couldn’t shake. It was a subtle sense of sadness and loss, but it was also somewhat of a relief as I finally began to let go of the longing I’d had for as long as I could remember. I knew that I would have to re-invent my relationship with my brother in my head— a less fantastical one this time. I would need to figure out a way to love him and be loved by him in a new way that took into account the fact that we so rarely saw one another.

My brother’s first child is now two months old. His name is Lucas. He has a lot of hair, wears my brother’s expression, and doesn’t cry unless he is hungry. While my brother is in Hong Kong, his wife gave birth to Lucas in New Jersey because she wanted her son to be an American citizen. They plan to go back home in a few months, when Lucas is old enough to travel safely. A little while ago, I might have taken Lucas’ birth in the States as a false promise. If my brother and his wife wanted Lucas to be an American boy, I would have imagined, there must be a reason. They must be planning to move back to the States one day. They must be envisioning Hong Kong as a great place to raise a kid, but only for the first few years. Then it’s back to America. Before, this is what I would have convinced myself about the future. But it is of comfort to me that I no longer have the urge to think this way. For the first time in my life, I can hear my brother’s voice on the phone and be grateful for it rather than wishing for more. At this moment, I can think of a time when his children will come visit mine in New York and when my children will go visit his in Hong Kong, rather than imagining our children growing up together. Maybe our kids will even learn something from each other that they wouldn’t have if living just a few blocks apart.

At my parents’ house in New Jersey, I hold Lucas in front of the window to show him the tree that both my brother and I love so much. It has just started to bloom, an explosion of the lightest pink imaginable. I pick up my cell phone and decide to Facetime with Dennis. He accepts the chat and I see his freshly shaven face, nicely trimmed hair, and just a sliver of glare from the sunlight that lights up his entire face. My brother’s face is coming through so crisply I can practically feel his smile. It’s almost as if I knocked on the door to his old room and it opened. Lucas is on my lap and starts giggling for the camera as if on cue. This is a new kind of together for us, but I appreciate it and recognize that it is as real as any togetherness I have ever known. “You know that Lucas has the same laugh as you, right?” I say to my brother who is eight thousand miles away. “I know,” he says. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? This is all so crazy.” He is right. But it is the most beautiful crazy I know.

The author's comments:
This piece started out as an assignment for my English class but ended up forcing me to explore my relationship with my brother to a degree I never had before. I guess I hope what people will get out of it is that even if a relationship -- any relationship -- doesn't end up being exactly what you wanted or hoped it could be, that this doesn't mean it can't be meaningful and fulfilling in a different way. We have control over what we give to a relationship, but we can't control the form that relationship ultimately takes.

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