Oh, Brother

December 8, 2010
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He is the epitome of an ideal brother. He holds the crumbling household together when it feels as if a never-ending hurricane is blasting through the once strong bonds of our family. He is my protector, a shield from anything negative, but also my guide, a glowing compass willing to lead me in the right direction, yet let me experience the inevitable mistakes. A friend, he engages me in conversations, avidly asking questions and acting genuinely interested about the events in my life. He hangs out with me even though he always has the option of going out with his friends, and never complains or feels as if I am a burden. He treats me like a little sister, someone meant to be ridiculed and fought with over petty things, but he praises me when I do something remarkable and comforts me when I do not. He is eloquent, strong-minded, caring, dependable, jovial, and hard-working. He emanates happiness and personifies optimism. He is my role model, a responsible and respectful person I can look up to and know that I have the ability to embody.

He unfortunately does not exist. At least not in my world.

Click! Click! The expensive digital camera captures yet another photo for the Pabalan family Christmas card. As my dad hurries back toward the camera to re-adjust the focusing of the lens, my mom moves aside, leaving my brother and me standing in front of the Christmas tree to be photographed. Simultaneously, we recognize that this is going to be one of the cheesy, “my (insert sibling’s name) is the coolest ever!” type photos, and we cringe. Awkwardly, we pose next to each other, unable to grasp how to act as if we love each other. My mom pushes us together, and we groan at her forcefulness.

“Come on, you two. Just this once,” my mother begs, her tone reaching the peak of her patience. My dad starts the countdown: 3—we pose, his arm around my shoulder… 2—we plaster our gleaming, white smiles on our faces, screaming fake happiness every second it is held… 1—the camera clicks. At the sound of the flash, a signal flares for us to return to reality, and like to opposing magnets, we repel.

When Robert and I first began drifting, I do not know. I vaguely recall a sprightly boy, with thick “happy hair” atop his head, eyeglasses stained with fingerprints, and tall, white tube socks stretched up to his knee, contrasting with his dark skin tone. I would follow this boy and copy all that he did because that is what little sisters do: imitate. When he woke up to watch Saturday morning cartoons, I would rise as well and accompany him. When he started playing the computer game Neopets, I begged my parents to set up an account for me. When he began taking piano lessons, I asked my parents if I could learn, too. I strove to be the best little sister possible, because in my eyes, he was already the best brother possible.

Now we can go days without looking each other in the eye, weeks before muttering more than ten words to each other, and months without even thinking about each other. Although we have known each other for the entirety of our lives, it is as if we are perfect strangers, two separate tenants in one home.

The home video starts with a panoramic view of my living room, the camera focusing particularly on my mom putting decorations on the Christmas tree. Nine-year old me sits on the piano bench, practicing my Christmas pieces for the winter piano recital. After I finish playing once, my dad, the camera operator, says, “Very good, Francesca. Try it one more time,” and I begin to play once more. A pre-teen Robert suddenly appears after he is summoned to help decorate the tree, and he looks rough, his hair unruly and his glasses crooked. He stalks over to the tree and grudgingly begins placing decorations on the tree, indifferent to the placement of the ornaments. My mom and Robert continue decorating the tree, and I repeat my piano pieces. No one speaks.

The sudden shift in his attitude was just as noticeable as the lowering in his voice registration. The days he began attending Saint Mary’s Hall marked the days we would no longer be friends, but competitors, struggling to win the attention of our parents. I succeeded academically, receiving higher marks in my classes and joining the academic team. Excitedly, I joined many of the offered extra-curricular activities, things that were unavailable to me at my previous school. I worked hard, and with the praise I received from my parents, I assumed I did well; it never crossed my mind that success could produce negative effects.

Robert, however, succeeded oppositely. He would lash back with a sneering remark when receiving any sort of criticism my parents gave him, a reaction I thought he learned from his new friends. He did not know the luxuries of lake houses and sports cars, and perhaps, feeling as though he was inadequate to his friends who had these extravagances, he had to become like his friends in order to feel as if he was capable of one day earning such a lifestyle. Although his academic pressures were undoubtedly more significant than mine were, it seem as though every aspect of him was unhappy and callous, something that did not go unnoticed by my parents. While I was praised for some seventh grade achievement, he was condemned for his lack of responsibility as a junior. I regretted my success, feeling that if I was continually praised, it would contrast with whatever Robert did and overshadow him. I wanted both of us to be noted for our achievements, but that did not happen. In the end, we were both winners in getting our parents’ attention, but for distinctly different reasons.

It is not as if I regret my existence, thinking that maybe if I were not here then Robert would be better off. Nor do I regret his existence, wishing to be an only child or have a wide age gap between us to serve as an excuse for out dwindling “relationship”. What I regret most is the inconsistency in Robert’s character and how it denies any possibility of ever being close; moreover, he is unwilling to let anyone see what a notable person he can be. He can transform from an irritable and sulky teenager to a remarkable and polished young man; he has the ability to captivate strangers with his booming voice and fairly charming personality, speaking fluently and strongly that it would be almost impossible to disbelieve any of the words that left his lips. His laugh is hearty when he finds something particularly amusing, and his speech quickens when he is most enthused about a subject.

But these are things I rarely get to witness, things my peers rarely get to witness. I have heard many stories about Robert’s reputation in high school, how he was a part of a notorious group called the A-Squad, how he made his Spanish teacher cry, how he overused curse words and was heard throughout the hallways because of his obnoxious, boisterous voice, and how he embarrassed the softball team during a school assembly by greatly exaggerating the score by which they had lost. With each defaming story told to me by different students, I take on the appearance of indifference. But deep down, a part of me shatters, and I break down. Embarrassingly enough, I do not know enough about Robert to determine whether or not the conclusions made about him are true, but to hear mostly negative things about a person who will always be in my life is devastating. Who wants to know she has a relation with someone viewed as a brute? Who wants to have any sort of resemblance to a person who calls to mind only negative words? I question not only because I fear the judgments made about Robert, but also the preconceptions made about me. At any rate, I cut myself off from the root of the problem, choosing to separate myself so I do not burden him and eliminate any possibility of our “likenesses” being compared.

My mother fears for my brother’s and my relationship. Though we both acknowledge that as the years go on, the relationship becomes more transparent, we are either too stubborn or to uncaring to fix it. When I observe my mom’s family and note the relationship she has with her siblings, I admire how she interacts with them ardently and how she always has her many nieces and nephews in mind, something I envy and hope to achieve when Robert and I have our own families. A monthly check-up text message, a semi-annual phone call, a yearly Christmas card—anything will suffice.

The day will be dreary and solemn. Among the sobs and the sniffs, Robert and I will stand silently around the tombstone, our faces distraught and full of confusion. Our eyes clouded with desolation, we will gaze at the lowering of the casket of our parent, and tears will silently spill over our lids and run down our cheeks. As biblical verses are read, we will wonder what we could have done to make our parents life easier, more memorable, more fulfilling…

I have one brother, but sometimes I feel as if I am an only child. I deal with my personal pains alone to the point where it becomes overwhelming, a load that I should not feel when there is someone there to talk to. Nevertheless, my limited options lead me to suffer alone; the thousands of thoughts, troubles, and emotions that whirl in my head daily, settling in the deep banks of my mind, all go unheard. For now, I deal with it.

…Perhaps as our parent looks down on us, the evidence of a blooming relationship will be apparent. With the passing of a parent, we have come together to grieve.

A dramatic finish: is this what it takes for us to coexist?

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