Here’s what I know about sibling rivalry: my big brother refers to the years before I was born — the years of his life between birth and 4, when he was our parents’ only child — as the best years of his life. The glory days. The Era of No Trouble.
I’m pretty sure he’s kidding.
I’ve never been the only, don’t know what it’s like, can’t imagine it. I’ve always been a little sister, I’ve always had a big brother, and we’ve always been close. Maybe it’s because we happen to be compatible, and not all siblings are. Maybe it’s because of our mother’s persistent reminder:
Be good to each other, you’re all you’ve got.
A sentiment as perplexing as it was comforting. Oh ok cool, we’ve got each other! But, wait. Only each other? You sure? We don’t have you? We don’t have friends? We won’t have spouses?
Our mom was our coach, our biggest fan, our sometimes co-conspirator. She loved us so much she often said that she could barely stand it, and we loved her back just exactly the same. She doled out discipline and encouragement in equal measure. She called us “sweetie” and sometimes “you dummies.” It was the same to us, it was love. She defended us to anyone who dare step to her, regardless of our crime or circumstance. She was remarkable, ferocious, steadfast.
Be good to each other, you’re all you’ve got.
I once witnessed her make my principal cry. She’d been called there because I hit a kid in the head with my flute case. Before the meeting was over, the principal was apologizing to my mom and whole-heartedly agreeing that, yes indeed, teasing me about my bookworm project did probably warrant a knock in the head with whatever band instrument might be available.
Not that we were ever off the hook. Oh, hell no. It would’ve been better to be in trouble with the principal than to face my mother’s wrath. But she showed us what love looks like, what loyalty is, what it means to go through life together, and to have each other’s backs. And so we have, and we do.
I’ve watched my brother kick a wall with his already broken leg because we’re stuck in the stairwell of a parking garage and I can’t stop throwing up. I’ve seen him shotgun several cans of soda, then jump around beating his chest like an angry gorilla trying to belch a full sentence. I have an actual printed photo of me standing in the vegetable garden holding a zucchini like a big, erect penis and smirking. A pic stealthily taken by my bro while our mom gardened, oblivious, next to me. We gave it to her for Mother’s Day.
I’ve also called to tell him our dad poisoned himself with carbon monoxide. On purpose. I’ve listened to him listen to me say those words, arriving in waves across the air, rejected and tossed back. I’ve helped him load up a boat with firewood to row out to our mother, alone and ill in her house, refusing to leave, surrounded by floodwater. I’ve asked him, hundreds of miles away in the middle of the night, if I should leave or stay.
There’s been some stuff. But then, so goes everybody, so goes life.
Throughout the years, our sibling antics have remained the same. It’s been a decades-long attempt to make each other laugh. A dynamic most accurately summarized by our German exchange student who, after a raucous family dinner, jubilantly declared in a thick accent: HAHA!! All thee time vee are laughing!!
Laughing has been the elixir, the medicine, the band-aid, the catharsis.
Yes. All the time we are laughing. Laughing has been the elixir, the medicine, the band-aid, the catharsis. It’s been our shared crutch, second skin, secret weapon. It’s the umbrella, and everything else is underneath.
Our family lived on a university campus in a faculty apartment on the ground floor of a huge dorm. The top floor was the cafeteria, run by a company called SAGA which, given the looming nuclear apocalypse of the 80’s, we assumed was an acronym for: Soviet Attempt to Gag America.
As a toddler, I rolled around the dorm in one of those jumpy-seat saucer contraptions that parents used to love. (Before the were recalled due to various instances of kids rolling out of sight and down the stairs, or out the door and down the street.)
At 3 years old, I was definitely too big for the jumpy-seat saucer, but it was the perfect getaway vehicle for robbing the cafeteria, so we used it anyway. I’d climb into the little death trap and my bro would roll me onto the elevator, sending me up to the cafeteria where, upon arrival, I’d yell-demand: CHEESEBURGERS!
Giving precisely no shits, the work-study short-order cook would walk over, throw a couple char-burgers on my saucer, pat me on the head, and send me back down to my bro.
Few moments in this life have rivaled the deep and satisfying pride I felt upon returning to my big brother, victorious. We were a char-burger duo from the outset, unstoppable in our teamwork — he the mastermind criminal and I, his rolling accomplice.
Never alone. Never hungry.
Those were also the days of “visiting dignitaries” and our dad kept a well-stocked liquor cabinet in his dusty and newspaper-strewn administrative office. It was inevitable that eventually Josh would figure this out.
One night, there he was at the door. A gangly 12 year old boy with tube socks pulled all the way up and a shock of thick blonde hair, cut by my mother into a style best described as “we saved money and just cut heavy bangs that go all the way around.”
Wobbling on his feet and reeking of booze, Josh tried to explain a couple of things to our distinctly unimpressed father: 1) no need for worry because he was “naaaahh thaaht druunk” and 2) hey, FYI guys, whiskey is pretty good!
Our nurse-mom gave him several cups of coffee, wrangled him into the shower while he flailed around like a baby gorilla, and finally got him to bed.
I spent those long hours crying and watching Magnum P.I., scribbling furiously in my diary about how my brother was drunk enough to die and WHAT THEN, GOD?! WHAT?!
The heavy burden of truth was nearly impossible: Josh was a terrible sinner and would certainly rot in hell — which, for the record, is the sum of every single, thing I learned in five years of Catholic school.
I felt betrayed by his drunkenness, excluded from his world. I didn’t understand where my brother had gone, didn’t like the disaster that had showed up in his place, and felt unsure that my real bro would ever be back.
A deep relief washed over me when, from the other side of the wall, I heard him calling:
Auuutuumn? If yer nah’good da booogie maahn will getchuuu.
It was hilariously ridiculous. He was a drunk and apathetic ghost doing some kind of half-assed haunting. He couldn’t hold for 5 seconds before busting out laughing, so I got started laughing and, outside in the living room, I could hear our mom laughing too.
There would be no hell for the sinner, my brother was not gone. Eventually, we’d both just close our eyes and sleep it off.
Years later, in our twenties, we were still at it with the numb-nuts shenanigans.
Josh must have been a couple hundred feet away when he yelled: AUTUMN, LOOK OUT! before chucking a charcoal briquette at me, miraculously nailing me exactly in the middle in the forehead.
I hit the ground, holding my head. The pain was real. But so was my genuine astonishment: how the hell had he managed such an epic throw from so far away? I was mad at him and proud of him at the same time.
He ran toward me laugh-yelling: Oh my GOD did you SEE THAT? Wait, Aut, are you ok? Oh shit, you’re bleeding. BUT DID YOU SEE THAT?
No, I explained, obviously I hadn’t seen it, or I might have ducked. But — dude — that was pretty amazing. How did you do that?!
Josh had tossed a Hail Mary at my head, completely nailed it, and now we needed to hide it from other mother who was just inside the house. It doesn’t matter if you’re two grown-ass adults or you’re 5 years old, when one of you hits the other in the head with a rock, somebody is getting in trouble.
Our brilliant plan was to casually walk inside to casually get some ice to casually put on my face.
What happened? My mother asked, as soon as we opened the door. Come here.
Um. I fell?
Yeah. She fell? On the rocks? My brother added hopefully.
Bullshit. Josh, what’d you do?
We considered our options and then just told her the whole story — not pausing, not editing, no arc, no point, just an endless list of details reported in excited staccato. When we finally finished, breathless, she looked at us — mostly irritated, mildly proud — and said:
Jesus, you guys are dummies. Good shot, though.
So, she was right. And maybe it’s not true that mothers always are. But she was.
No one else shares these memories. No one shares our history, our framework for adulthood, our twisted and zippering DNA. No one else shares the loss of our parents — a loss still and always alive, coursing through our veins, our days, our story. As stardust goes, we’re made of the same.
No one shares any of that. We have spouses, friends, neighbors, co-workers. And somehow we also only have each other. This was our mother’s gift to us, her masterpiece, her swan song — to be damn certain that I’d always have my big brother, and he’d always have his little sister.
Our mom built a legacy of sibling-hood using our experiences, spinning them into memories, then stories, told and retold. Stories of winning, losing, making, and doing. Stories of being babies, and of having babies. Stories of hearts full and broken. Stories of holding on and letting go.
Mostly though — mostly — what our mother built for us was a connection, pulsing through generations. All the time we tormented, argued, advised, compromised. All the time we lost, grieved, remembered. All the time we loved and celebrated.
All the time we are laughing.