One time when I was eight or so I was out in the front yard washing my bike with the hose. I especially liked spraying the pedals and watching them spin out of control. My bikes have been near and dear to me ever since I learned how to ride and I took great pride in washing this one since it was my first main bike.
My oldest brother, who is eight years older, came home during my wash cycle with a carload of his friends. They were all teenagers and way cool in their rock band t-shirts and long hair.
I always wanted to be around them but that never happened much during the Allison Avenue era. I was still playing with my Star Wars guys and they out were out driving around, smoking cigarettes, and whatever. But just having an older brother part of the fight club was good enough to make me feel part of something cool.
While my six foot tall brother was walking up the driveway he said to me and my bike, “you can’t polish a turd.”
I just stood there, unable to retaliate, not even knowing how. Scorn like that is how someone goes from innocently washing their bike to someone who is suspicious by default. Because that’s how you demolish someone.
That brother was often relentless with his taunting and ridicule. Even worse is that he had the real capacity to be charming and loving but then that was always heavily salted with his hellfire and damnation.
He may have just been giving me a hard time as older brothers do. But then again, It was really much more than that. When he was around it was a psychotic war zone. Bombs could drop any minute so I lived on edge during during the times of peace. One minute we’d be laughing it up in front of the tube and then when I wasn’t paying attention he’d snap me with one of them big red rubber bands. I could think up a bunch of horror stories but I don’t want to.
Anyways, time went by as it does and we both grew as people, evolved into more than who we’d always been. We even lived together for a few years in the 90s. Rented a house, being 20 somethings and all, getting on with our lives.
One sunny 90s morning I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom strumming my acoustic while my girlfriend, Kathy, was laying on the bed doing her own thing. And then he came into the bedroom and in one sentence belittled my guitar skills.
I don’t remember exactly what he said because I was instantly pissed. Shaming me in front of my girlfriend had made me so angry I couldn’t even talk. Not to mention that I was a far better guitar player than he was. Of course, he wasn’t really saying that I wasn’t a good musician, he was simply putting me down in order to prop himself up.
And that particular time I don’t think it was simple ribbing, not from his tone and plus it was in front of Kathy. And she was pretty cute. And I wanted to trust him around her but I didn’t. He wasn’t a saint in that arena either.
Pausing and looking back again, trying to see him as a fundamentally good human being, maybe, possibly he was just giving me a hard time. He may have even felt that he took it too far that time based on my reaction. I don’t know.
What I do know is that both of those public shamings are still with me. I remember holding my flattop guitar and holding the garden hose with him looming over me both times, using his words to cut me.
In 2013 Maggie and I saw him for a couple of hours. We were on a weekend getaway and he was living less than an hour from where we were staying. I wanted to put all the past behind us. I wanted Maggie to know the person who I would often share good stories about. And while we were there sitting in the park and Maggie swang he gave me a honorable apology, said that he was never the older brother that he should’ve been. I’ve told that story before.
I hate to be pessimistic but I have a hard time believing people fundamentally change. At the atomic level. I’m not completely sold on this idea but…bad behaviors only seem to go dormant and often will spring back to life on a moment’s notice. I don’t trust a dog who is known to bite not to bite it just because it’s gotten older.
We can forgive and forget but abuse stays with us forever. Sticks and stones will break your bones and words can cut you to your soul. Yeah, we can do our best to let it go and move on but sometimes hurt runs too deep and then you’ll be out mowing your yard and shit like this will bubble to the surface. And before you know it you’ll have a manifesto on why you don’t talk to your brother.
But that’s part of the process. If feelings surface unprovoked it means we’re not finished with them yet. I think sometimes people are too eager to forgive and forget, myself included. Sometimes we don’t fully acknowledge our pain and then try to shuffle it out the front door before we’re through with it. That doesn’t work.
Sara and I were discussing this whole topic not long ago. On a recent podcast she listened to the person talked about “leaning into our pain.” Sometimes we have to weather a storm and it takes years before the sky clears and we’re able to stand in the sunshine. The miserable clouds will part if we’re patient and willing, though.
Embrace the demons that haunt us. But always keep in mind the goal is to set them free, not to give them safe harbor for an eternity.
So then in 2015 my brother called and left a vulgar voicemail, swinging his verbal clubs in a way I hadn’t heard for over a decade. Drunk and disorderly and par for the course when he dials your number.
He was saying something along the lines of how my whole life that I hated him because I wasn’t courageous enough to be him. That I’d only fumbled around my whole life and my music was shit.
No, I hated him at times because he was an asshole.
There’re far too many people in my life who I enjoy being around to deal with his shit anymore. One of my sisters told Maggie one time that we choose who are family is. I also believe that we choose who our family is not.
On an iPhone when you block someone’s number their voicemails go into Deleted Messages in case you really do want to listen to them later. Over the next several months he left me several more voicemails but I never listened to any of them. Sometimes I wonder if there was a heartfelt apology in one of them somewhere.
But then again for the most part I don’t care. Apologies mean nothing if you keep being an asshole. If you continue to build a person up and then rip them down like it’s normal family behavior, normal social interaction.
I get that as a child he was wounded, scarred and battered. It wasn’t his idea to act like a monster, to punch my friends because he himself was fucked up. But being an asshole as an adult because of what happened when you were a kid is bullshit. I couldn’t imagine talking to my siblings (or anyone else for that matter) the way that my brother talked to me.
While Sara and I were talking about feeling our pain, she said that while being a nurse she learned that everybody has a tragedy, everybody’s got a heartbreaking story.
Pro-tip: don’t give people their own.
And then the final part of this story is that I have to be really careful when writing on this subject because being a writer I want to tell a good story. All of my stories are true for sure, but when I get emotional and angry it’s hard not to exaggerate the torment.
Our memories of what really happened don’t always line up with the truth. We remember painful experiences often much more intensely than they really were. It’s just hard to be factual when people hurt our feelings. Because they hurt our feelings.
Not only do we have those traumatic memories but we also have the hours and days with those memories that can warp how we remember things. It’s not just what happened but also that we live with what happened for the rest of our lives.
So just maybe my brother wasn’t the villain I remember him as. I’m inclined to believe that people generally aren’t. There’s only been a handful of times that I’ve set out to be an asshole. And I don’t want to discount the fact that he was a jerk because most people who know him would say that he was. But then also, I need to be careful that my unintentionally bent imagination doesn’t become my version of the truth with how I remember the things he did.
I’m sure when I was younger I would intentionally bloat my stories so people were on my side, so I could justify feeling hurt. In the here-and-now I sometimes do that as well, but never on purpose because really, at the end of the day I just want to be honest. I don’t want to minimize or maximize. There’s a lot to be said for the truth. And my pain only hurts me. I don’t want to lug agony around anymore. I don’t want it to define who I am. I just want to feel my shit and move on. I got other shit to do.
I took a screenshot of the voicemail transcript he left in 2015. Because that’s what you do when you’re me. While proofreading all of this I went back and looked at the voicemail screenshot just to see how accurate my memory was. The transcription didn’t quite line up with what I wrote that he said. I can remember things happening a certain way but that doesn’t mean they really played out as my memory recalls.
So then I rewrote parts of this to bring it in line with the truth.