Family trees are just like the trees in the forest. Some are imposing royal structures with deep winding roots and a full canopy of symmetrical branches and lush green leaves. Others are gnarled and knotty, with scraggly twisted limbs that seem to have no relation to each other at all. Some are sparse, or even barren, others fork or split at the trunk.
But one commonality of every tree is that cluster of leaves at the very end of a branch – the siblings. They hold together in a tight little pack, protecting their seeds until they depart to grow a new generation.
For seven years, the end of my branch was a single leaf. I alone received all the resources from my parents, and I was a proud little flag bearer…the “only”.
Until my branch was encroached upon by a screaming, purply-red little B.O.Y.
When my mom was pregnant, I remember dreaming about sisterly love. About play dates in the sandbox, tea parties, and even sharing my Barbies. About dressing her up, talking her for walks, pushing her on the swings. About pink and purple and baby dolls (in the 80’s, social constructs of gender were #stillathing). My seven-year-old mind didn’t comprehend the fact that I would be a pre-teen or teenager before any of those things would happen.
Back then, women didn’t have ultrasounds to determine the sex of the baby, so I was left in suspense for 9 months.
The day he was born, I was crushed. My grandma even told me later that I cried when my dad came out of the OR and announced the news. B.O.Y. Brother. Man child. Ugh.
I got over it fast, as I learned that babies are generally uninteresting and that hardly any differences exist between genders when the only priorities for the day are eating, sleeping, and pooping.
For those brief, happy years of his early childhood, he *was* my baby doll. I fed him, changed him, put him to sleep, read to him, played with him. We named his G.I. Joes. We built elaborate block forts for his Hot Wheels. I taught him to ride his bike. We planted a garden and hid in the woods and built blanket forts and slid downstairs in sleeping bags and kept secrets from mom and pretended cowboys and Indians and wrestled until he would cry.
And then I had to grow up.
I was 9 when dad left, and he was 2. My dad’s branch of the tree was not one of those neat little parallel diversions where he co-parented and stayed involved. The branch simply cracked and parted ways, loosely hanging from the trunk not quite ready to completely disappear. Since then, the two of us have spent all our lives being abandoned by our parents. Two leaves flapping in the wind, clinging desperately to each other, with little to serve as an anchor. Sounds maudlin, I know, but accurate.
Mom went back to work full time when I was 13 and he was between 5 and 6. Our mom spent the next 25 years of our lives simultaneously sacrificing everything to provide for us, but also emotionally and often physically leaving us to our own devices. As a single mom myself, I can understand the massive effort it must have taken to just keep afloat. She did not have the options or resources I have, so her only choice was to rely on her pre-teen daughter or her elderly mother. She did a fair bit of both.
She was gone from 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. on weekdays, which meant I was “mom” for most of the day. I got him on and off the bus, helped him with homework, did the laundry, washed the dishes, fixed our family’s meals, cleaned the house, and was his sole babysitter every day for the next five years. A weighty responsibility for any 13 year old.
Play time had officially ended. The days of dismantling action figures or sliding down the tiny staircase grade in my bedroom closet were over. I was in charge now, and between the house, the brother, and my own homework, there just wasn’t time to be a kid anymore.
Giggling turned to screaming. We now both laugh wryly when watching Beauty and the Beast, too much pain and self-awareness about past injuries. There’s a scene where Beast is screaming at Belle for entering the West Wing against orders. His body thrust forward, teeth bared, hair on end, roaring to beat the band, “GET OUT!”. This became the analogy for *years* of my relationship with my little brother. My room: the West Wing. Him: a curious, mischievous, if not conniving, 7-year old version of Belle. Me: The Beast, of course.
Slamming doors. Fights that erupted into thrown and broken ceramics. Stomping to the other end of the house. Music turned up to shut out the other. Such a loud, loud, angry house. We would try to put the misery away when mom would arrive home, dead tired after a day at work. But then tattling or backstabbing or sideways glance or toe over the line might ignite total warfare all over again.
We existed like this for years. My mom just drifting between the two of us, never really knowing how to parent two children, let alone two very, very different children. She’d cater to one of us, or be furious at both of us. Ignore one of us, or shut both of us out by retreating to her room.
Until we moved in with my grandparents when I was 16 and he was 9. I was more than happy to give up the task of daily after school care to my grandmother in favor of joining the school theater productions, and my brother was more than happy to give up his witch of a sister in favor of sitting mostly unsupervised in the basement watching unlimited TV.
The two little leaves detached themselves. No longer lovingly nor forcibly bound, we became a bit like strangers. The two equal, yet opposite halves of a maple seed, helicoptering solo through storms ahead.