A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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When I was nine years old, I stole my older brother Johnny’s basketball and popped it with a hammer. Though only a year and a half my senior, he was much stronger, and he held me down and branded my knee with our mother’s iron. I cried and screamed for hours while Johnny received a spanking from our mom.
When I was twelve years old, Johnny and I got in a heated argument on the school bus, and he slapped my face in front of our friends. I cried about it to our dad, and Johnny got a whipping. He resented me for snitching.
When I was sixteen years old, after calling and texting him for hours, I found Johnny at a friend’s house at 2 AM on a school night. He was drunk and smoking pot. I was scared because I had never seen him like that. I covered for him the next day, and he thanked me and gave me a hug. That same year we helped our school become state champions in cross-country, crossing the finish line together.
When he was twenty years old, Johnny moved two hours away. Though we rarely showed emotion toward one another, I remember feeling sad every time I passed his empty room.
At twenty-five I came out to my family. I thought they would hate me, but Johnny hugged me and said we were bonded by blood forever and I had his support.
At thirty I was his best man when he married the woman of his dreams. He cried from happiness. I cried as I recalled the history between us.
Buffalo, New York
In 1978 I was just two days into my first real post-college job in Montana when my eighteen-year-old brother, Claude, contracted a case of hepatitis B that evolved into aplastic anemia, a terminal diagnosis at the time. I flew to Seattle the day I got the news.
A bone-marrow transplant was his only hope, and the treatment was still experimental. The hospital required that all family members be assessed as possible donors.
My older brother, Russell, was a match, and Claude got the transplant, becoming only the six-hundredth recipient. The family came together to help: My oldest sister, Harriett, ran the apartment. My sister Donna donated her white blood cells a few times a week, as did Russell. My younger sister, Carolyn, helped all she could but had a young family of her own to tend to. She was never far away. I donated platelets and spent every night in or just outside his room. Mom and Dad were at the cancer center every day.
At first Claude survived minute to minute, then hour to hour, then day to day. He spent a long time on the ragged edge of death, not speaking, just fighting for breath. I would sit by his side and yell at him to cough and spit, so he wouldn’t die, and he’d do it.
Claude never gave up and never let anyone feel sorry for him. After six months he returned home. When he’d recovered enough, he went back to work. He was a sage in a young body, someone who had spent a lot of time grappling with the hardest questions. When Claude spoke, everyone listened.
After his liver failed, I donated a portion of mine. It was supposed to give him five more years. At the five-year anniversary I called to tell him the warranty was up, and he laughed. He squeezed another four years out of that liver.
In 2012, at the age of fifty-three, Claude died due to complications. When my wife told our children and asked what they remembered about “Uncle Goofy,” they said they’d never seen him sad.
When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, my parents asked me if it would be OK for a boy from an orphanage to celebrate Christmas with us. I thought that was fine, and we went to a nearby orphanage and brought home Tommy. He was my age and quiet, like me. We got along well. When the holiday was over, we took him back to the orphanage.
The following Christmas we did this again. I was surprised Tommy was still at the orphanage, but it was nice to be with him. After the holiday we took him back, and a few months later my parents said they were thinking of adopting Tommy, but they would not go through with it without my approval.
I thought about this for a long time. We were a family of modest means, and I knew this was not a prospect that my parents approached lightly. I also knew my mom could not have any more children of her own. All my cousins and friends had brothers and sisters. I had always felt I was missing out and had even dreamed of having a brother. On the other hand, as an only child I didn’t have any competition. I received all my parents’ love and attention — even the dog was mine! What would a brother mean for all of that?
In the end I held tight to what I knew. I chose selfishly.
My parents accepted this without recrimination. Not a word was spoken. We did not go back to the orphanage the next Christmas. I wonder now how my parents felt about this. They never gave me a reason to doubt their love for me.
Years later I tried to find out what had become of Tommy, but the orphanage no longer existed, and there was no information available.
I wish I had chosen differently, and I have kicked myself through the years about it. What a difference it could have made in Tommy’s life, and in ours. The brother I’d dreamed of was right there, and I turned him away. A brother lost.
My sons, ages fourteen and twelve, have chosen to spend Memorial Day — all twenty-four hours of it — inside their treehouse as part of a challenge they learned about on YouTube. It’s our third month into COVID lockdown, and I’m surprised they want to spend even more time together.
The treehouse has barely been touched in three years, a visible reminder that their childhoods are nearing an end. Its tin roof allows just enough protection from the elements for two cots and two sleeping bags. Excited, the boys sweep leaves from its deck.
They prepare their provisions, baking banana bread for breakfast, packing protein bars, and making homemade lemonade. I order them a pizza for dinner. With gear in hand they head for the treehouse, waving goodbye to the comforts of the house.
The first few hours are filled with laughter, sweat, and inside jokes, all recorded on their phones. Every hour or so the back door swings open, and one sprints inside to use the bathroom. (Pissing in the backyard is a no go. We have neighbors, after all.)
When night falls, the pizza is not enough for them; they are hungry and testy as the neighbors begin shooting off fireworks. When I say goodnight and kiss their foreheads, they lie sweating on top of their sleeping bags. I assure them the fireworks will surely stop by midnight.
The next morning, the humor and lightness of the day before is gone. The fireworks continued into the wee hours, they say, and the heat was relentless. Liam lays his long limbs across Ben’s torso — a provocation. Ben takes the bait and pushes him off. They begin to wrestle, until I intervene. There are six more hours to go.
“This is not going to end well,” I say. It’s a phrase uttered often in our house when Liam and Ben plan their next adventure. No Internet challenge can match the age-old struggle between brothers. I remind myself I have only a few years of this bickering left, that soon I’ll miss the sounds of their rivalry.
As the minutes tick down, the boys’ shouts carry to the kitchen. Finally, at noon, they are released from backyard quarantine. They run inside and slam the doors to their separate rooms.
Today they remember those twenty-four hours in the treehouse as fun, the difficult moments glossed over with nostalgia. I don’t forget so quickly, but I wouldn’t trade my memory of it for the world.
My brother was the lucky one: good-looking and tall, with black hair and blue eyes. A favorite of his coaches, he lettered in three sports in high school. When he turned seventeen in 1957, our mom published a notice in the local paper. It said my brother had been born on the seventh day of the seventh month at 7:17 AM and that he’d weighed seven pounds, seven ounces. After graduation he went to college, majored in premed, and became a doctor.
In his early forties he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Thus began a slow decline that ended in a VA hospital almost twenty years later. Nine months before he died, his teenaged daughter committed suicide.
In my eulogy at his funeral I spoke of my admiration for my brother and how he had been my hero. I also spoke about the time we’d spent together during my many nursing-home and hospital visits. After the funeral one of his best friends congratulated me on my speech and said my brother had been a hero to him, too. A family friend told me with tears in her eyes how touched she’d been by what I’d said.
What I hadn’t said was how mean my brother had been. His regular refrain when he came home from football practice was “Hey, squirt, do you want a treat or a treatment?” No matter my response, he would push up my shirtsleeve, grab my arm tight, and twist his hands in opposite directions. “The old Indian burn,” he called it, laughing as I cried out. Under the pretext of showing me the half nelson, he would get my arm behind me and push it up until I cried. Outside on the lawn he would pin my shoulders to the ground while he dribbled spit over my face. I would struggle under his weight, full of anger.
But what hurts the most is that, until he was bedridden in a nursing home, he never wanted me around.
In 1976, after graduating from college with no clue what to do next, I spent a relaxing summer living with two fraternity brothers in a shack behind a bar in East Hampton, Long Island. Jimmy and Dave worked in a bike shop, and I caddied for rich ladies at a golf club. I regularly stole steaks from a grocery store, drank a lot, and hopped the fence to watch drive-in movies. In the aftermath of a hurricane at the end of that summer, we drove around in a pickup and made a fair bit of money cleaning fallen limbs from the grounds of large estates.
I used my share of our earnings to fly with another fraternity brother, Steve, to Luxembourg. We hitched our way south through Italy and Greece to Egypt, where we lingered for a couple of months, spending no money as we were embraced by the locals, who showed us the hospitality of Islam. Next our adventure took us to Jordan, and then Israel, where Steve and I went our separate ways before eventually turning homeward.
In New Haven, Connecticut, I rented an apartment and took the first job that crossed my path. The job was terrible, and I was alone and a tad depressed. Luckily my fraternity brother Ricky lived an hour away, and I spent weekends sleeping on the couch at the house he was renting with a couple of other guys. It made my entry-level existence more bearable.
A couple of decades later a brother named Barry introduced me to my wife, seeing much more clearly than I could that she was the one for me.
Today I am in constant communication with some of those brothers and others like them. We talk about things that annoy us — cancer treatments, birds that make a mess of our decks, how many throw pillows our wives insist on having — and also things that make us grateful.
When I was recruited by the DKE fraternity house in college, I was wary of the whole frat scene but reasoned that joining was the only way I’d get decent food for the next four years; the DKE house had a great Italian chef.
The fraternity system has since been dismantled at my alma mater. The old frat house is now a coed dorm. I do not mourn its passing, but I wonder how well I would have handled my wanderlust, my depression, my screwups, my maturation, my good luck, my everything, without those brothers at my side.
Older brothers are supposed to set an example for their younger siblings.
My oldest brother moved away when I was in grade school. I remember him getting in fistfights with my father, and my sister screaming at them to stop. Him using my comb to clean the crabs from his pubic hair. Him shouting because I couldn’t roll a joint fast enough. Him asking my parents to bail him out of his gambling debts. And, later in life, him swinging a golf club at his son. In our parents’ final years he wrote them a long letter, laying his many failures at their feet.
My other older brother smashed my toys with a hammer when I was little and sent his friends to torment me in my first year of high school. After my parents kicked him out of the house, he threw pebbles against my window each night, begging me to let him indoors. I loaned him money again and again. He enlisted in the Marines but cowered in the closet when the recruitment van came to get him. Once, he texted me that he was going to kill himself, and I sent the police to check on him, which only angered him and ended our relationship.
Despite it all, I owe my brothers a debt of gratitude. Without their example I wouldn’t be where I am today: living a life of self-reliance and self-discipline.
The letter said that the man who had killed my brother would be having a parole hearing in sixty days. He’d been given twenty-five years to life at his sentencing, and this was his first opportunity to show atonement. If the hearing went in his favor, he might get out. As a member of the victim’s family, I was being offered an opportunity to speak at the hearing.
I had spoken in court before. When I was fifteen, I stood before a judge and read my angry words. The man who killed my brother was just eighteen years old then. He swiveled his chair and wouldn’t look at me.
I lived through some dark years, plagued by trauma and survivor’s guilt, before I moved toward healing. Now and again I imagined the man who took my brother from us sitting in prison and wondered what his life was like, but mostly I locked those thoughts away.
When I became a mother, I got some sense of my own mother’s grief over losing a son. I also felt compassion for the murderer’s mother, who had watched her son be locked away.
As the hearing date approached, I woke before dawn almost every morning and sat with my feelings. I meditated on what justice meant to me and how I would feel if this man were free. He’d spent more than half his life behind bars. And that, I decided, was enough. I didn’t want to carry the weight of malice in my heart anymore.
The hearing was held on Zoom because of the pandemic, and I was relieved to be spared the stress of sitting in a hard chair in a soulless courtroom, feeling exposed and vulnerable.
The inmate sat handcuffed and alone in a large boardroom. His demeanor was gentle, peaceful even. After a few loved ones spoke on his behalf, he told the board about his lonely, traumatic life. His own sibling had been stabbed the week before he’d killed my brother. The robbery wasn’t supposed to end in murder, but he’d struck out at my brother with all the rage that was in him. He’d worked hard in prison to be a better person, establishing organizations that help prisoners connect with family. He’d studied religion and worked on a college degree.
When it was my turn, I didn’t forgive him, but I released the weight of him from my soul. I would be free, and I asked that he be free. I told him and the board I wanted no more suffering in my brother’s name.
Two days later we were notified that the inmate was scheduled for release.
At various times in my younger brother’s life, amid his stints of rehab and sobriety, I tried to help him do better. One time I decided to accompany Robert to a company holiday party where there would be an open bar. I thought if I was with him, he would be less likely to drink excessively and could just be the fun-loving guy he always was — without the booze.
It didn’t work. As soon as we arrived, he asked the bartender for two kamikazes, one for each of us. The beaming bartender proudly handed us our drinks. Mine tasted like it was 98 percent vodka. Robert downed his in a few gulps and asked for another.
I’d been so sure I could keep him from drinking that I’d let him drive his car. When I finally coaxed him to leave, I asked for his keys. He waved that idea away, saying, “Are you kidding me? I’ve driven after a lot more booze than I had tonight.”
We lived on the same street, about two and a half miles from the party. It was late, and the main avenue was deserted, thank goodness. Though we made it home unscathed, I feared for our lives the whole way. Robert drove well above the speed limit and ran several red lights, laughing and whooping and seemingly trying to impress me with his antics.
My brother continued going in and out of rehab until he lost his job and his alcoholism escalated. Finally he moved a thousand miles away without telling me or my sisters, and he achieved several years of sobriety. But decades of alcoholism had taken a toll on his body. One night, out for a walk by a waterway, he had a seizure, fell into the canal, and drowned. He was fifty years old.
I didn’t find out Robert had died for several years. I will always resent the hold alcohol had over him, but I’m also glad I have the memory of sitting beside him in the car that night, terrified for both of us as he raced toward home. It was, in some twisted way, truly exhilarating.
Mary Jane Janowski
My brother is eight years older than I am. By the time I was old enough to appreciate having a sibling, he had gone away to college.
Years later, when I gave birth to my daughter, my brother and his wife visited me and lovingly held their niece. I found out later that my sister-in-law had recently suffered a miscarriage, the first of several she would have over the next four years. When I had my second daughter, they remained childless.
Heartbroken for them, I suggested that I be their surrogate. They were adamant that they could never ask that of me. I said they weren’t asking; I was offering. Within the month, their fertility doctor told them a surrogate was their last hope for a biological child.
Our journey began with the doctor transferring two embryos into my womb, one of which resulted in a viable pregnancy. All went well until three months in, when I woke with blood on my sheets. I pleaded with God not to let me lose the baby. I didn’t want to fail my brother and his wife. Later that morning, lying in the ultrasound room, I heard a heartbeat, clear and strong. My prayer had been answered.
I was admitted to the hospital two weeks before my due date: the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, and the doctor wanted to do a C-section. My brother and sister-in-law anxiously accompanied me to the delivery room. As I lay there, looking up at the fluorescent lights, I felt the doctor’s hands inside my abdomen. Then I heard my niece’s cry and her first breath. The doctor handed my brother the baby, and he cradled her in his arms. I had imagined that moment many times, but now I was seeing it come to fruition.
My brother, Kenneth, and I shared a small bedroom. I had the top bunk. When I was nine and he was seven, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sometimes he would scream in agony from the severe headaches it caused.
Although I’ve suppressed most memories of Kenneth’s short life, I have sharp recollections of his death. The most vivid is of my father sitting by the kitchen door, his whole body shaking and tears running down his face. At that moment I promised myself I would be a good son, believing I could ease my father’s pain. In the ensuing years there were many times I wished Kenneth were alive so he could relieve me of this duty.
At his funeral, on the way to the cemetery, I sat dry-eyed in the backseat of the hearse. “It’s OK if you don’t cry,” my mother whispered. “People will still understand that you love your brother.” Filled with shame, I tried to cry, but to no avail. I wondered how I would hide my eyes from my aunts and uncles gathering around the grave site. Then a miracle happened: As the doors of the hearse opened, a bolt of lightning lit the sky, followed by a tremendous boom and a torrent of rain. My entire face was wet.
That Christmas we began a ritual that lasted well into my adult years: Mother, Dad, and I — and later my wife — would gather around the tree, and my mother would carefully open a package. Inside was a faded paper chain, which she would reverently announce had been made by Kenneth. Then she’d drape it on the front of the tree for the rest of us to touch. Also in the box was a recording of my brother and me as we sat on Santa’s lap. Captured by Santa’s “elves” on a vinyl record, it began with me saying, “I want a service station,” followed by Kenneth saying, “I want a road grader.” One year the needle skipped and jumped back to repeat, “I want a road grader.” The record played over and over: “I want a road grader, I want a road grader, I want a road grader. . . .”
Many years later, on his deathbed, my father told me that every night he held Kenneth and me in his prayers. If he woke up and saw me, he’d know he was still on earth. If he saw Kenneth, he would know he had passed.
My father started showing me pictures of a twenty-one-year-old woman one day. She lived out of the country. In his slightly cryptic style, he began to let me know how much he liked her.
I soon saw on social media, accompanied by several happy emojis and hearts, that they were engaged. I would have a stepmother young enough to be my daughter. Aware of my father’s taste for younger women, I was hardly shocked. With practice I have learned to respond to his eccentricities with compassion and acceptance: no one knows the right path for anyone else, and I just want him to be happy.
Uncharacteristically, he told me that he loved me very much. A week later I received an e-mail titled “Your New Brother.” It contained pictures of a baby just slightly younger than my second son.
As we talk about parenting and watch our sons play together, I have gotten to know a side of my father I never knew existed. He continues to teach me about love, surrender, and nonjudgment.
Santa Barbara, California
Belonging was never easy for my brother, Simon. As a child he wandered into the neighbor’s house so frequently my parents had to fence in the backyard. In his teens he was drawn to a band of drunken misfits and gave my mother ulcers from worry. In his twenties Simon moved to Florida, and we remained loosely in touch. But when he refused to attend my wedding because I was marrying a man, the distance between us grew.
A few years later Simon got friendly with a couple of lesbian bikers and told me he’d seen the light. But I was too hurt and stubborn to mend things. I’d also vowed not to call him after 5 PM, because he’d be drunk and would ramble and slur his words. Any love between us had long ago been lost.
One day I got a voice mail from a woman who had looked me up on the Internet. She hoped she had the right person, she said. That’s how I found out my brother was dead. He’d been discovered on his kitchen floor after a postal worker noticed his mail piling up.
My siblings and I met at Simon’s home. His body had been taken away, but a stench still hung in the air. The sheriff estimated he had been dead for ten days. On the kitchen counter was a sweat-stained baseball cap bearing a logo I’d designed for him years before. He had worn it every day, I learned. He must have taken it off just before collapsing to the floor. “Who knew he cared?” I said to my sister.
As we grieved, stories began to emerge. Neighbors, friends, the postman, the sheriff — they all said they had never known a more generous soul. Simon had fixed their cars, hauled their hurricane debris, and shown up when nobody else would, usually with a laugh and a drink. They cried more than I did.
Simon’s connections stretched in directions I couldn’t have imagined. In time I recognized what I could not from a distance: That his love was as different from mine as mine was from his. But it was still love.
When Grandpa Ray died, my father informed the funeral director that my five brothers and I, all born within eight years of each other, would carry the coffin. Afterward we found ourselves in high demand as pallbearers. All our relatives and friends, it seemed, thought we’d done a good job and wanted to enlist the McGrath boys when they suffered a loss.
Funerals were important social events for my family: Polish on my mother’s side, Irish on my father’s. Irish wakes were like parties. Some of us hung out in the smokers’ lounge, memorizing the risqué stories the grown-ups told around a makeshift bar. In the waning hours we could usually score a fiver or even a ten — belated confirmation or graduation gifts — from sentimental, slightly sozzled uncles. Polish wakes had more food than booze. Aunts and cousins brought cabbage rolls, paczki, and cuts of fresh, garlicky Polish sausage smothered in sauerkraut.
Over the next ten years we perfected carrying coffins, stepping in unison at a ceremonial pace. We’d gently set the casket on its stand, then rest our hands on the lid for final prayers. At the funeral director’s signal, we would remove our silk gloves and lay them on top. Sometimes we shared a smile at the arrival of a relative in his velour leisure suit, or a five-year-old’s question about the open casket: “Can I tickle Grandpa?” But we took pride in performing the task well. At home later, I’d carefully hang my suit in the closet to await the next funeral.
Some might think of our duty as depressing, but those journeys to the cemetery brought my brothers and me closer.
Eventually, one by one, we moved away, breaking up our unit, but I still remember our run as pallbearers, especially the times after the service when the bereaved returned to their cars while my brothers and I stood protectively around the casket. I used to imagine that, in that moment, the deceased knew they were being guarded by the McGrath boys.
Port Charlotte, Florida
Eight years ago I attempted suicide and spent ten days in the hospital. Out of shame I didn’t tell my family about it. Finally, when I could no longer tolerate the pain alone, I called my brother.
He took a red-eye from Colorado to New Hampshire. Before he arrived, I made an even more serious attempt at killing myself. My brother was there in the ICU when they removed the tubes that had saved my life, and he persuaded me to be admitted for psychiatric care, promising he would stay by my side until I was well again, however long it took.
Every day he found the right words to get me through to the next. At first the only thing that calmed me was putting my hand on his face and feeling the warmth of his skin.
When I was discharged, my brother asked me to return with him to Colorado, where I could live with him and his wife. I went, and he dedicated himself to me. I was still suicidal, so he arranged to have someone with me at all times. He read books and took classes to learn about mental illness. He waded through endless bureaucracy to get me enrolled in the services I needed. He told me not to worry about finances; he would take care of it all. But he never told me everything would be OK, because he didn’t know that it would.
I improved slowly. After a year I was ready for a part-time job; after another I was ready to live on my own again. I rented an apartment within walking distance. Six years later, healthier than ever, I still live in that apartment. I like being close to my brother.
Grand Junction, Colorado
Before I was born, my brother and sister’s mother died unexpectedly when they were young, and our father wasn’t equipped to deal with it. My brother soon began acting out and became known as the neighborhood troublemaker. The woman next door noticed him lurking alongside her house one day and called out, “What are you doing, devil?” My brother answered, “Sharpening my horns.”
I was born to a different mother when he was twelve. As he got older, his offenses became more serious. He stole a car and broke into the school. I remember him exchanging harsh words with my father, and the sound of my brother’s fist slamming into the kitchen table. The school often called to report his truancies and various infractions. Finally, at sixteen, he dropped out to join the Army. Everyone was relieved when he left to serve in Korea.
Life didn’t get easier for my brother after the Army. By this time he was drinking heavily. He started his own business, lost it all, then started over as a real-estate broker. He married, had a son, got divorced, and fathered three more children out of wedlock. Every night he drank until he passed out. His bank account was overflowing, but he was empty.
Once, a girlfriend left my brother alone with their infant son, J., for a long weekend. Worried he might pass out and be unable to hear J.’s cries, my brother skipped his evening cocktails the first night. The second night, same thing. Third night, same. After the baby’s mother returned, my brother decided to see if he could last until the end of the week without drinking. He could, so he challenged himself to another week, then another. By the end of the fourth week my brother had admitted to himself that he had a drinking problem.
Fifteen years later J. was killed when his friend lost control of a car they’d taken for a joyride. My brother’s tough-guy demeanor splintered, and he isolated himself for months. His friends were concerned he would start drinking again, but he told them not to worry: sobriety was a promise he’d made to J. To go back on it would betray his son’s memory.
After his year of solitude my brother allowed some joy back into his life. He fell in love and got married. He found solace in his faith and became a deacon. True to J.’s memory, he never touched a drop of alcohol again. Now in his eighties, he can still be a curmudgeon. He occasionally sharpens those horns. But he has finally found some peace.
Ruth Susan Kearney
Avila Beach, California
My parents died within five weeks of each other. Shortly after their deaths my cousin Sue called me. “I have something to tell you,” she said, “and I don’t know if it’s my place to say anything.”
Sue had taken a DNA test a few years earlier. She’d matched with a first cousin no one knew about. His name was Rob. When she reached out to him, she learned he’d been adopted in Arizona in 1965. He didn’t know anything about his birth mother except that she was a nurse, she had three kids after him, and her name was Lois.
That was my mom.
My siblings discouraged me from contacting our secret older brother. “He might try to get money,” they said. “Besides, he probably doesn’t even want to know you.”
“That’s for him to decide, not me,” I replied.
Rob and I discovered that we had both lived in the same small town and attended the university there — our houses had been only three minutes apart. We could have met in the coffee shop, the library, or the grocery store. We both made our living in the arts, eschewed religion, and studied the I Ching.
I told my brother and sister that I had met Rob, and he was kind, had a good job, and didn’t want any money. “If you would like to know more about him,” I said, “just ask.” They laughed nervously and quickly changed the subject. Neither of them ever mentioned him again.
My sister has since stopped talking to me. My brother and I carefully skirt politics and religion in our conversations. But Rob and I communicate regularly. I’m grateful for the easy connection I feel with him. The universe took away my mom and dad but gave me a new brother. He is my true kin.
Cerrillos, New Mexico
They call me Chucho, which would have been Jesus’s nickname had he been born in Mexico. When I screw up, my four brothers call me pinche Chucho — “dumbass Chucho.” That’s how they keep me grounded.
As the oldest, I’ve tried to take care of my brothers whenever I can: I helped León process his U.S. birth certificate. I bought Gerardo two chairs so he would have a place to sit after his wife left him and took the furniture. When we were kids, I pulled Cuauhtémoc back to the beach after an enormous wave swallowed him. When Allende was a teen, I taught him about sex so that he wouldn’t be as lost as I had been. But I think my brothers have done more for me than I have for them.
Once, when our father was drinking heavily and getting too rowdy, León challenged him to a drinking contest, hoping to make him pass out. Being the oldest, I should have done this, but I chickened out. After our father finally lost consciousness, León lay in the front yard and vomited, saying he would never drink like that again.
When I got married, the whole family flew to the U.S. from Mexico City, and Gerardo had them all stay in his tiny apartment in Dallas, then rented two cars the next day for all of them to drive to Kansas City, Missouri, to attend my wedding. My father read the map while Gerardo drove, and they ended up in a bad neighborhood before one of my brothers realized Dad was holding the map upside down.
When I got food poisoning from a bad salad in Mexico City, I called Cuauhtémoc, a physician, from the bathroom stall, then ran to the nearest pharmacy to pick up the prescription he wrote for me. I might not have survived that day without his help.
Allende took my daughters and me to visit the monarch-butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán. He loaned me a camera so I could make a video of my son, and when someone stole it, he said it was no big deal. Another time he took me to eat some of the best tacos I’ve ever had, at a tent pitched against a convenience store.
I will be sixty soon; Allende, the youngest, is in his mid-forties. Once in a while we share pictures of our blood-pressure readings. My brothers and I have been through hard times — heart attacks, cancer, a brain tumor, divorces, our parents’ deaths, losing children. When life gets tough, we go on. We fight; we make peace.
Overland Park, Kansas