Filed under: my brother
I found my brother on the front porch of our house, late one winter night when I was twelve and he was seven. I’d woken up to a racket coming from downstairs, where my brother was pounding on the locked front door.
I jumped out of bed in the room we shared and took the stairs as quietly as possible. Our father was a light sleeper.
Joe was on the screened-in front porch, pounding on the door. I could see through the door’s curtains that he was crying. At that age I was a science-fiction fanatic, and I tended to analogize every structure and vehicle with something from science fiction. If our house was a spacecraft, the front porch was the airlock—enclosed but uninsulated, with an outer screen door and a heavy wooden inner door, the one on which my brother now knocked urgently.
For some reason, rather than open this door and step aside to let Joe in, I went out on the porch to intercept him. It was cold, and I was only wearing pajamas. He was swaddled in the giant winter coat our mother had bought him that year. She’d bought me an identical one, only slightly larger. In those days our jackets, coats, shoes, and some shirts often matched. It made shopping easier for our mother and came a little closer to the science-fiction utopia I envisioned where everyone wore the same futuristic uniform.
In the airlock, I wrapped my arms around his huge coat while he cried. He’d been at a sleepover and had gotten homesick. So he’d snuck out and walked home. I didn’t view his forfeiture as an act of weakness or defeat. It was just a matter of fact. I had retreated from plenty of sleepovers in my single-digit years, so it made perfect sense to me that he’d done the same. To my neurotic preadolescent mind, it made more sense to do this than to suffer in a sleeping bag on the floor of a strange family’s rec room and wake up to another mother’s french toast.
I ushered my brother into our house—the mothership—and upstairs. He didn’t even bother to change out of his clothes, just shed his giant spacesuit and climbed into bed. In those days we shared a bedroom, two twin beds next to each other with a foot of space between. When our mother bid us goodnight at each bedtime, she told us to “tell each other secrets” until we fell asleep. I never quite knew what this meant; it was almost as if she was encouraging us to conspire against her and our father. I suppose she wanted us to build a bond, not necessarily through secrets, but with some kind of shared knowledge. A sibling code, a language that would see us through adolescence and beyond.
At some point my brother and I traded places. Though five years my junior, he became the older one in times of trouble. It first became apparent when our father died suddenly from a heart attack. We were adults by then, and we both traveled home, the hours and miles collapsed telescopically by shock and fatigue: for a few days there, everything happened all at once, and nothing was linear.
A couple nights later, still planning the funeral and watching the slow trickle of relatives and friends into town, we went to a local bar and drank copious amounts of beer—a crucial element of our coping strategy. We walked back to the house we’d grown up in, the same spaceship, and I staggered upstairs, waylaid half by beer, half by grief. I was headed for my bedroom. (I’d moved into my own room at age fourteen, no longer able to deny that sharing a room with one’s little brother was resolutely uncool.)
I didn’t make it all the way to my room, but instead collapsed in the doorway, my legs splayed out into the hall where, until two days ago, my father had padded from the bedroom to his den to the bathroom and back.
My brother found me there on the floor and crouched at my side. I was the more visibly distraught one, establishing a pattern that would continue throughout the viewing, the funeral, the wake, and months or even years into the future. I was the histrionic crier, the render of garments.
My brother knelt beside me to touch my shoulder, my back, to ask me what I was so afraid of. This is a question he has repeated to me occasionally in the intervening years, when the garment-rending gets especially hard to ignore. What are you so afraid of?
My answer is usually some variant on “everything,” and this is where my brother and I—our worldviews, our emotive architecture—diverge. He is now the older, confident one; I am the one crying in the airlock. I am a worrier, taking up our father’s depressive mantle; he is the practical, put-together one, a gift from our shrewd German mother. There’s no reason not to believe we’ll be okay, he said to me on the first Thanksgiving after our father died. We’re still a family.
Now when we gather at home, we board the spacecraft and I find my brother on that same porch, or in the living room, or in the kitchen, in any of the familiar states of repose we’ve perfected from nearly thirty years of inhabiting our little craft, our ship’s crew of four reduced to three.
At some point my brother and I traded places in the airlock, but I still find him there.
Jake Mohan is a Minneapolitan with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Minnesota. He has written for the Utne Reader, City Pages, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Experience Life magazine, and Reveille. When not inviting carpal tunnel syndrome by typing improperly, he does it by playing drums for the infinitely weird Twin Cities band, Run At The Dog.
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