On Brotherly Love, Part 2

(If you haven’t read part 1, here is On Brotherly Love, Part 1.)

Do you know what causes a white pine’s trunk – normally stick straight with branches fanning out like the rays of the sun – to diverge about halfway up the tree? You’ll notice once in a while, especially in the northern regions of the country, that some white pines actually appear to have two tops and a distinct “V” where the two divided.

A white pine, forked at the top.

It’s a porcupine. Porcupines live in dense white pine forests. They scramble like spiny little bears to the tops of the trees and often feast on the soft needles and bark at the terminal bud. When you remove the terminal bud at the very top of a tree while it’s growing, it creates a scar. But the tree finds a way to keep striving upward…just in two separate pieces.

My brother and I have seen our share of porcupines. The first one to gnaw at our bond was our mother.

When I left for college, my brother was about 12 years old. We spent the summer before I left actually getting closer. It seems the space we enjoyed in my late teenage years helped us leave some of the arguments of our childhood behind.

I think this one actually looks nicer.

The other thing that fueled our new appreciation for each other was a car. My first car, when I was almost 18. A blue heap of a 1989 VW Jetta purchased by my dad from my uncles’ VW shop. It leaked oil, mysteriously refused to start on occasion, overheated often, had no air conditioning, and was adorned by peeling, faded Pokemon stickers from the *first* time that Pokemon was a “thing”. But that car was freedom for my brother and I for the next year of my time at home.

I would kidnap him on a Saturday or a day off school. My mom had to work most weekends, so we had our fair share of opportunity to disappear. I’d never tell him it was coming, just wake up and decide we’d go somewhere. We’d go see a movie, usually one he wasn’t really old enough to see. We’d go swimming at the local waterpark and had a trick to bypass the $30 admission fee. Sometimes we’d just drive and talk. One day, I got the crazy idea to drive hours away to the nearest Six Flags. In the days before the internet was in our pockets, I had no idea how much it cost to get in. When we arrived and it was $75 a person, we pulled a U-turn at the entrance gates and drove all the way back. Bitter, but laughing at our stupidity.

On one of my “kidnappings” to the Madison Zoo.

I realize now that this brief moment of spontaneity and camaraderie in our relationship is what made me the mom I am today. I can’t count how many times I’ve plotted something out in my head (a little more prepared now 20 years later), just to surprise my son with an adventure the next day. We make a regular habit of “Never Done It Days” where we try to pack in as many activities we’ve never done or places we’ve never been into a single day or trip. I even surprised him with a week-long vacation to Hawaii on Christmas day. Every simple act can be magic if you #1: Make it that way, and #2: Do it together. This IS who I am as a parent and as a person, and I credit my little brother for sticking with me while I figured it out.

My mom hardly noticed what we were up to around this time. Consumed with a nonprofit job that required all of her attention. Consumed by her father’s stroke and invalid status – the reason we moved in with our grandparents in the first place. Consumed by her tenuous and stressful relationship with her own mother, thrust back into the realities of living with your parents as an adult. Consumed by guilt and grief and depression and a myriad of other unresolved issues from our parents’ divorce from which she never really recovered. Consumed by two children who were growing up and making decisions she could no longer control.

And then I dropped a bomb on our household. I announced that I was giving up my full-ride scholarship to the local private college after only my freshman year. I had earned one of only 4 full scholarships and it meant that the only student loans I would have were $4,000 for the mandatory room and board, though I most often stayed at home than in my tiny dorm room 25 minutes away.

I was going to follow a boyfriend that I had only met 6 months earlier to northern Minnesota. I’d already applied to a private college there, two hours away from the school he was going to, and had all my transfer credits accepted. To the tune of more than $17,000 a year in loans, the paperwork for which I had already signed.

I’d decided.

I was warned, yelled at, cried over, prayed about, cold-shouldered, and lashed verbally and emotionally by my mother for 3 months before I left. Yes, she had every right. Yes, I deserved it. Maybe, just maybe, she was right.

(Funny how, many years later, she would follow that same boy, now a man, into a near-incestuous relationship that would destroy her daughter’s  marriage. I guess she couldn’t blame me entirely for being swept up in the manipulation.)

Unfortunately, my mother was one of those mothers that could not compartmentalize. At all. Ever. About anything. She was ruled by her emotions. As young children, if my brother did something to make her mad, she would be stomping down the warpath at me within minutes. If I challenged her, my brother would also get the silent treatment. If she was stressed at work, both of us shaky little leaves were swirled into the palpable eddy.

As I’ve now learned, she used these strong emotional reactions as a narcissist – the type of narcissist that relies on their victimized status to manipulate others. By always playing the role of the downtrodden, she would get all of the attention in the form of dramatic apologies, silent and sullen compliance, pity and support, and even love and affection. She found power in weakness, until she didn’t know how to be anything but a victim.

So I knew that my little brother now lay in the wake of my *big* decision.

I took solace in the time my brother and I spent together that summer, and was painfully aware that I was leaving him with her. Though we had long since formed our own separate relationships with her, hardly ever acting as a singular family unit, I understood that my brother now had no other direction in which to retreat.

I left for Minnesota for three years, then Washington state for two, then back to Minnesota for another year. By the time I came back to live near home, my brother was 16 and almost ready to start his own life.

During my time away, our mother had played us against each other, the porcupine nibbling at softened xylem, the branches of he and I’s relationship already forking ever outward.

She convinced my brother that the reason they were broke (and that she had to go bankrupt) was because I chose to go to college somewhere expensive.

For the record, I paid for every cent of my college education, room, and board. And my health insurance (before ACA), my car insurance, and my cell phone. Once in a blue moon, she would send a gift card to Walmart for groceries.

She told me that my brother was “so different” from me, failing at school, keeping her at her wit’s end, the reason behind all of her stress and worry.

For the record, my brother and I are so different. But at 29, that “kid” is one of the most successful, grounded, independent twenty-somethings I know. All of his so-called rebellion in his teenage years was an attempt to escape her criticism.

In the same breath, she told my brother that she was glad I was away at college so she could spend her attention solely on him. She would tell me that she and my brother were “so much more alike”, and that she just “connected with him” in a way she could never connect with me.

For the record, this is called triangulation – cutting off the narcissist’s victims’ access to others and placing them in competition with those closest to them.

When I would come home for the summer and my brother would go with my dad, she said she was glad he was gone so she and I would have time together.

For the record, see also, triangulation.

I was always “other” to her.

And later, learned that my brother always felt the same way.

Always her and I. She and him. Him and I. Never us and three.

(The important thing about being a successful narcissist is to keep your victims separated, lest they compare notes.)

So when I arrived back in Illinois after a 7-year hiatus, there was that deep, glaring “V” right in the middle of our branch. Only by now, I had invited another porcupine into our family tree. The boyfriend I had followed. The boyfriend-turned-fiancé, turned husband. The future son-in-law and brother-in-law.

Gnashing teeth, bark flying.

The two leaves at the end of their respective branches. Almost grown. Almost grown apart.


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