I was three years and nine months old to the day when my little brother was born, on December 9, 1958. I was furious—I remember that—and (they tell me) murderous, too. According to family lore, our parents left me alone with the baby just once, for no more than a minute, and returned to find that I had climbed up on to the side of his crib and was looming over him with my little red sneaker in my hand.
I knew I was supposed to love my baby brother (everybody said so; everybody said I did), but as I saw it, I had good reason not to. He had nothing to offer me, and much to take away. My mother was very young, and she was very tired. She was sick—"depressed," I learned to say later. Even on the days when she was feeling relatively well, she was flummoxed, then finally defeated, by the demands of her household. My father needed her attention. My grandmother needed her attention even as she filled in, looking after me while my mother rested. I could see for myself that she wanted some acknowledgement of what a great help she was being.
It was outrageous, really, that another, smaller, helpless, at least visibly more needful person than I (although I was convinced there was no one more in need than I) was being added to the mix. What on earth was my mother going to do with this extra, this superfluous creature?
What she did, as nearly all mothers, even the most fragile ones, do, was make room for him in her heart. And I hated him for it. I hated him throughout our childhood.
When I was seven and he was three, he followed me around, trustingly. I yelled at him, slammed doors on him, begged him to leave me alone. When words and gestures didn't work, I sat on him and pounded his head to the floor.
When he was nine and I was thirteen, in the middle of the night, he would drag his pillow and blanket down the hall into my room and settle down to sleep on the floor beside my bed. Then I'd wake up and kick him out.
When we played—which I consented to do, of course, only when none of my friends were available&mdash the games generally ran along these lines: I was Timmy, he was Lassie, and I'd tie one of our grandfather's ties around his neck and drag him, on all fours, through the apartment. It didn't trouble me&mdash and Scott was too young to point out&mdash that the "real" Lassie was never on a leash: the leash was the point of the game. Likewise, the point of playing school was for me to be the teacher who screamed at him, poor student, for misbehaving; the point of reenacting the wrestling matches we watched our TV with our grandfather was for him to take the fall.
And yet he loved me.
Once I became a teenager, instead of mistreating him, I ignored him. He was affable, popular, a jock, an obedient and good-natured son and grandson, gladly working in my father's family's hardware store on weekends, a so-so student who didn't agonize over school, who rarely read a book he wasn't obliged to read. He was always looking "on the bright side"; he was nice. I was a self-consciously grieficken teenage poet, chronically misunderstood, in velvet and feathers and torn lace, driving my parents mad by coming home from concerts at the Fillmore at four AM, shoes and keys abandoned, or not coming home at all but instead going over to my boyfriend's house (a boy no one in my family approved of, because he was unpleasant to them, sullen and swaggering by turns, and treated me badly, which I steadfastly refused to acknowledge). When I was at home, a pair of earphones and a closed door kept the rest of my family at bay, and if anyone tried to "bother" me, I just turned up the music—the Grateful Dead, Laura Nyro, Ten Years After. Scott, a little ways down the shag-carpeted hall, played Harry Chapin on his eight-track and daydreamed about Beth, the pretty, unattainable girl he met when they were twelve, and to whom he remained unswervingly devoted, year after year (and to whom he has now, in middle age, been married for almost twenty-five years).
Scott says, without any rancor that I can discern, that I had so little use for him, and so little kindness toward him, in those years—when he was in junior high and I was in high school, when he was in high school and I was at Brooklyn College, still living at home—that once when he'd broken his leg playing football and we were left alone in the apartment, he asked me to bring him something he needed and I said, "Get it yourself" and left the room.
And yet he loved me.
It was July of 1976, the Bicentennial summer, the summer of the Big Ships, before I forgave my brother for the crime of being born. I had just graduated from Brooklyn College and begun work "in the city" copyediting scientific books; I'd moved out of the family apartment in Flatbush and into exactly the sort of studio apartment in the Village (up a flight of tilting stairs, in a rundown tiny building where I had four eccentric neighbors, including the requisite first-floor recluse with cats and towers of newspapers) I'd been picturing myself in since I was fourteen. I hammered nails into the walls to hang my clothes on (there was no closet); put a castoff desk in the middle of the room, where I tried to write stories, then shoved the typewriter aside to eat my meals; taped my first form-letter rejection slips up in the bathroom (where they would eventually become wallpaper that covered every inch of the walls); and—in one of my first acts as a grownup with her own place—picked up the phone and invited my brother to dinner. It was as if I'd had to put ten miles (or—more to the point when you grow up in the city—nine express stops) between us before I could accept my brother as someone who might be a welcome part of my life, or a part of my life at all. And you'd think he would have said, "No, thanks"; you'd think he would have refused my too-little-too-late offer of friendship, or at least ask why I was offering it now. If he had asked, I wouldn't have been able to answer. But he didn't ask me anything; he just said, "Sure."
It would be years before I'd have my parents to dinner—it was years before I lived anywhere where I had enough space, not to mention a table, to do it properly, or so I told myself. But after that first time, Scott began to come over regularly. I'd make spaghetti, or rice and beans, and we'd sit across my desk from each other and eat, and talk. We got to know each other, slowly.
At first we were polite, pleasant but cautious, with each other. He was patient, I realize now: quietly glad to give me the chance to get to know him and appreciate him. For my part, I was happy to have moved out—moved on, as I saw it—but I felt disconnected, too. My parents had already made over my room, thrown out whatever I hadn't taken with me, turned the room into a "den." My visits home were not successful: those nine subway stops back to Kings Highway felt like travel by time machine, and we'd never sat down to family dinners anyway, so it wasn't as if I could go home "for dinner" the way it seemed to me other people did. There wasn't a good reason for me to go home. I'd stop in for a visit, sit in the living room for a while, then turn around and make the trip back to Manhattan. Having Scott over for dinner felt like something "one did"—not in my family, perhaps, but out in the world. Something other people did. I wanted to be "other people."
Years passed—eight, ten, twelve years. I left New York. I moved from Iowa to Nebraska to Ohio—places I couldn't have picked out on a map in 1976, when Scott first came to dinner. By 1992 he and Beth had three children; I got married that year, and the next one, I had a daughter of my own. By then I had tenure at Ohio State, and was settled in Columbus for good; Scott, after stints working in radio in "the city," then Philadelphia and Chicago, was back in New York. He was enormously successful; he was happy. We talked on the phone often. Whenever I was "home," I tried to make sure I left time to see him.
And then, almost exactly two years ago as I write this, brother collapsed in his office in midtown Manhattan.
I was about to turn fifty, an occasion I was celebrating with what I called "the party I've never had" (having skipped the bat mitzvah, because it never crossed anyone's mind to send me to Hebrew school, the sweet sixteen, because I was too cool, and the wedding—Glen and I "eloped" quietly, in a judge's chambers); my brother's birthday present to me was a huge check toward the cost of the party.
It had been nearly thirty years by then since he and I first sat down to dinner together on Christopher Street to begin to get to know each other. On the night of the party it was too late to cancel, he had emergency surgery. The party itself, in the ballroom of the Greek Orthodox cathedral (the swankest place I could find in Columbus, or any rate the one with the best dance floor), where two hundred people had gathered from all over the country to eat my favorite foods, drink my favorite wines, and dance to my favorite music, I remember in a sort of haze—only partly because of all the C ôtes du Rhô ne I drank. I never did eat any of the lamb or calamari or salted caramel ice cream. My daughter, Grace, made a speech about her Uncle Scott—I remember that. It made everyone cry. And I have a clear picture in my mind of my mother, my literary agent, my best friend from my last years in New York, and my mother's two best friends serenading me with a Karaoke version of the Beatles' "Michelle." If I close my eyes I can see certain other flashes of the party, too: my childhood friends Susan and Nina, who until a few months before I hadn't seen in decades; eleven-year-old Grace in a sea-green gown welcoming our guests; my elementary-school first love, Irwin, and his son Daniel sitting at a table talking to my daughter's favorite teacher, Mrs. Rosenbaum, and her son and husband; my former students from different graduating classes meeting for the first time and later hugging goodbye and exchanging e-mail addresses, phone numbers. My friend Murray Beja, the James Joyce scholar, once chair of my department, who hired me to teach creative writing in 1988, long retired, looking dashing in his tuxedo.
But what I remember best is the waves of clashing emotion, pleasure and terror, the sharpest joy and pride (my beautiful daughter, so grownup looking! My beloved old friends! So many of my students, gathered together!) and the deepest grief and anxiety and dread.
Life provides all of us with such moments, but I had never been inside one before. My mother and I paused frequently over the course of the evening to check in with my father, who was at my brother's bedside. My parents had split their duties, my mother making a terrible sacrifice, I knew, joining me in Columbus for the party, but she didn't want me to have to carry on with it without one of them there.
My brother didn't die. He came close, but he didn't; he recovered. The surgery disclosed something the doctors hadn't bargained for—his lungs, which had collapsed and been reinflated and collapsed again—were full of a staph infection; that explained why he'd been getting sicker and sicker every day, every hour. And even after the surgery, the clearing out of the staph, and the aggressive course of antibiotics that was embarked on afterwards, his recovery was uncertain and took a long time. It was months before he was up and around, able to go back to work.
He'd hardly even begun to get well before he began to talk about how bad he felt about missing my party. "Your one party," he'd say—he who has had, who has made, a lot of parties: his own bar mitzvah, a grand wedding, and two bar and one bat mitzvahs for his children, plus countless large parties in his house and yard, the kind of parties that require a tent, a DJ, a caterer. "But it was good?" he'd ask. "It was everything you wanted it to be?"
"Almost," I'd say.
It was a month short of exactly a year since the party, since he almost died, when he called to say that his youngest, Greg, would be off from school for a week and that he was going to take the week off, too. They'd be on their own: Sean was finishing up his coursework in audio engineering; Jamie, a senior in high school, would be on a class trip to Italy; Beth was going to Florida to see her father. "What if Greg and I came out to see you? We could get there on Sunday, stay all week. I still have those tickets I didn't use last year."
I didn't hesitate; I didn't even think. As soon as I hung up the phone, I picked it up again, and called the DJ I'd used last year. Was she free on the evening Scott and Greg would be arriving? She was. I had spent close to a year planning my birthday party, but Linda—also known as Mrs. DJ—assured me that I could pull this one off in three weeks. "This time you know what you're doing," she said. "Plus, nobody books on a Sunday." And so I called the cathedral; she was right. I booked the ballroom. I wrote an e-mail invitation and hit "send."
And on Scott and Greg's first night in Columbus, Grace and I set out with them, pretending we were going to dinner at a restaurant downtown. When the cathedral's gold dome came into sight—my husband was already there, along with my parents and all our guests—Grace began to beg me to stop, to "show Uncle Scott the beautiful place where we had such a great party last year." I said no, absolutely not, and we argued—Grace so convincingly that her uncle shot me a look of pure sympathy—until finally, heaving a sigh, and a with a look of my own asking for my brother's forbearance—teenagers!—I gave in. "Just for a minute," I said.
And so we surprised my brother.
I even had Mrs. DJ play Harry Chapin for him, and he danced to it with Grace. He taught her to do the fox trot. I didn't even know he knew how.
The next night, my brother and I and our children sat in a booth at my daughter's favorite restaurant, dipping lobster and steak into a pot of bubbling spicy broth, and Scott and I shared a bottle of red wine and told the kids stories about our childhood and our parents. "It's so weird to think of you two as kids," Greg said. "It's so weird to think that one day Grace and I will be looking back and thinking of the old days."
"Now," Grace said. "This, right now—this'll be the old days."
We were all silent, thinking about that.
"How could you not have loved growing up with Uncle Scott?" Grace asked me later. "He is such a great person."
"I was distracted," I told her.
"But he loved you," she said. "Why wasn't he distracted?"
Good question. My brother, in fact, has no memory of our mother's depression—no memories of her spending days in bed, her face turned to the wall; no memories of her crying; no memories of my father exploding at her, demanding that she snap out of it.
For years I puzzled over this. Was she so much better by the time he was old enough to begin storing memories of our childhood that he simply didn't store any impressions of those bleak early years? Or is it just that my memory—a writer's memory, after all-is better than his, and reaches back farther?
Lately, however, another possibility has occurred to me. Maybe his innate ability to emphasize the positive and jettison the rest, to take happiness where it can be found and not concentrate on what he doesn't have but instead on what he does, colored his early experience and also defined it, gave shape to it. Maybe his personality helped to make his childhood what it was (essentially happy—and this despite the presence of a bitter, angry, and possibly at least temporarily homicidal older sister) and allowed him, as the years passed, to see our shared past in a different light—a brighter light.
Maybe he just wasn't born with a constant, gaping need, as I was.
On the last day of my brother and nephew's visit, while my husband was working and Grace was at school, we set out for a day at the mall. There's one in Columbus (there is little but malls in Columbus) designed to mimic a real city, and my brother and nephew loved it. "It's like a movie lot! I love this place!" Scott said, and Greg said, "Let's live here! Do they have a hotel?" They were both still a little loopy from the surprise party, I think, and all three of us were giddy. I'm not used to shopping, but they are, and they marched me efficiently in and out of stores and helped me pick out clothes, and then afterwards, in the car, Scott handed me gift certificates from each of the stores we'd been to, which he had secretly bought while paying for the presents for me that I'd known about, the ones he'd had to talk me into.
My brother was made, I think, to be happy, and to offer happiness to those around them who were willing receive it—just as there are people who find it impossible to be happy, no matter how much goodness is around them, who cannot appreciate or enjoy it or even accept it. Or at least who start out that way, as I did.
It took decades—and I almost lost the chance—before I was able to accept the happiness that my little brother offered to me from the start. Before I was able even to see it as happiness. Before I was able to see it as anything at all.
Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing and Dog, the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life, and The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood. Born and raised in Brooklyn and educated at Brooklyn College and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, she lives now in Columbus, Ohio and teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State. She can be found on the web at www.michelleherman.com.