You asked the other day, exasperated, “What is the point of brothers? Why can’t I have a sister?” I don’t remember exactly what your brother was doing to exasperate you. Twelve-year-old sisters are an easy mark for 14-year-old brothers to annoy. He was probably telling bad jokes or offering you terrible advice. Or maybe he was just being that shade of irritating he’s perfected.
A brother is an interesting thing. I should know, I grew up with three of them. Four of them, if you count the brother-in-law I’ve known since I was just a little bit younger than you. Five if you count the one I’ve known since I was just a little bit older than you.
These uncles of yours, who float around at family gatherings, sometimes getting banished to the corner of the yard with their smelly cigars, must seem like old men to you, with their gray beards and joint replacement surgeries. But you didn’t see them with their full heads of dark hair, holding the babies.
You roll your eyes at the stories they tell. Don’t get me wrong. Their stories are eye-roll-worthy. But isn’t that what a brother does, no matter if he’s 10 or 64? The little provocations and inside jokes. The memory of getting away with it. The shared past. There’s such genuine affection, which could be hard to spot because it doesn’t look the same as with sisters.
I can see why you would want a sister. I also have three of them. But there’s no mystery as to what my sisters are to me. I see them all the time. I talk to them all the time. One lives far away, but the two who are here are permanent fixtures in my life. In your life, too, because you see your aunts frequently. You shop with them and try to teach them TikTok dances.
I’ve told you, I’m sure, that I grew up idolizing them. I followed them around, tried on their clothes, snuck their makeup, and watched their television shows. I was a kid and they were teenagers, and I wanted to be them.
I’ve elevated sisterhood because it’s been a driving force in shaping my identity. But it’s possible I’ve shortchanged the value of brothers.
I’ve assumed you just knew it. That it was easily observable. But it occurs to me that I need to answer the question: What’s a brother in this world?
A brother can be a companion like no other. Uncle Tony is the brother closest to me in age. The sibling closest to me in age, for that matter. We were born in 1970 and 1974, the last two in the long line. The tailbone of the family. I was the baby, and he was the one we joke was kind of forgotten, because there are scant baby pictures of him. It’s as if he just emerged a pasty-legged 8-year-old with a mop of curly hair.
To say we were best buddies would be an overstatement. It’s more like the rest of the family was busy. The oldest was already married. Everyone had jobs or went to a magical place called High School.
But Tony and I had bikes, and we had the shows The Greatest American Hero and Super Friends. We spent entire summer afternoons trying to activate our Wonder Twins powers.
With my sisters, it was always about wanting to be a grown-up so I could be like them. But with Tony, it was play and imagination and the sense that there was nowhere else I needed to be. Years later, when I was in my thirties and took your grandparents to England, Tony decided to fly to Belgium for a few days (he worked for the airlines) and meet us in London for part of the trip.
I’ve never been happier to see anyone than I was the morning his Eurostar train pulled into the station. My parents had been driving me crazy. I’m sure you can relate.
I needed a partner in this endeavor of escorting elderly people around a foreign country. And there he was, my Wonder Twin. Things aren’t obvious with brothers, but then they show up and you feel like everything is going to be all right.
A brother is the perfect person to argue with. I vaguely remember when your Uncle Herb, the oldest in the family—Old Boy, as you’ve heard us call him—got married in 1981.
That he was gone from our house doesn’t really register with me, because I don’t remember him there. Where did he even sleep in our tiny ranch house?
Uncle Herb and I have very little shared childhood. I know that’s not something you can relate to, because you and your brother are just two years apart. But there’s something I want you to remember: Someday, you and your brother will be adults. And you’ll have to get to know each other as adults, and don’t underestimate how fun that can be.
I got to know Herb through our regular Brother Sister Calls. I think these phone calls started when I was in college, though I remember them more as the stuff of my twenties.
We would catch up for five minutes and then argue politics for two hours. What is more perfect than a good-natured, intelligent political argument just when you’re at the height of developing your ideology?
As a young leftist, I learned things from those arguments. Sure, I came away from each conversation thinking something along the lines of, Herb could not even be more wrong! But that time we spent listening to each other matters.
It helps that your Uncle Old Boy doesn’t take himself too seriously and would rather just make a fart joke. You can always count on him for fart jokes, no matter how old he is. Maybe that’s actually what I’m trying to say.
A brother-in-law can add the things you didn’t know the family needed. What’s the difference between a brother and a brother-in-law when the history is nearly as long? The answer, I’m pretty sure, is that there’s no difference.
I was 9 when your Aunt Laura met Uncle Mike. His extrovert energy was a whole new thing. He was the guy who would go somewhere and know everyone by the time he left; he’s still like that. It’s great to have a brother like that.
Uncle Mike’s own family was very different from ours. He had a teenage mother, a father he never knew, grandparents who practically raised him, and a stepfather he worked hard to build a relationship with. He’s lost them all now. But we’ve claimed him. Who do you think Uncle Herb smokes cigars with?
It was different with your Uncle Manuel. I was in college when Aunt Nancy married him. Remember, in first grade, when you did the project on Costa Rica and interviewed him? You learned that he came to the U.S. for college and decided to stay because he saw the opportunity here.
I learned something that day, too. It may have been the first time I thought about what it would be like to grow up in a place with banana trees and the comfort of your family and then move to a place where you didn’t know anyone and had to speak a language not your own and make a life.
What a gift he’s been to this family so rooted on the hillsides around the Ohio River. You just never know when a brother can make you see the world a little differently.
A brother can die without you ever understanding them. OK, my girl, I can’t avoid talking about the absent brother any longer. You never knew your Uncle Paul. He died the year before you were born, when he was 49, which is the age I’m about to turn.
I’ve learned so much about substance use disorder in the years since he died. I had all the wrong language back then: addict, failure, loser. Listen, Paul was a difficult person from the start, nearly impossible to live with. But if he were a teenager now, he’d have a diagnosis and a therapist and Zoloft and a 504 plan.
Still, you can’t superimpose where we are now with how things used to be. That’s the worst part of it all. We know so much better now. Your generation, if you can make it through this mental health crisis, will be miles ahead in empathy.
Make sure to extend that empathy to the people you love, especially to your brother. Nothing works without empathy. I wish I would have understood that earlier in my life.
I’ve given you this long, complicated answer to the question about what a brother is. But for you, the answer is a bit simpler: Your brother is your only partner in this project of being our kid. I predict that will be important someday, even if you can’t see the shape of that relationship now.
Hold the space for it to form and safeguard it with your shared memories. And, of course, with fart jokes.