I raised a toast to my brother last night, and to my sister-in-law. He had been on my mind most of the day, as he always is on St. Patrick’s Day, ever since a fiery crash ended their lives on that day in 1997.
Their passing changed so much. At the age of 17 and 18, my nieces were left without parents. My mother, who was still recovering from the loss of my father a year and a half before, lost her only son and still struggles to come to grips with the totality of that day. For my sisters and me, we lost our only brother. The sun rose and set on their only son, I liked to joke, and his passing left a gnawing wound it took me years to close.
Growing up, my brother was my idol. Big brother. Protector. Constant thorn in my side. He liked to tease me. He liked to remind me of the importance of our birth order. I was the youngest. He was the only son. There was no question that he knew better. Was the best at everything. I was to heed his advice, follow his path. I was also to give way in the full length mirror that hung in the front hallway of my parents home. That was his territory. His domain. Standing in his way was not allowed.
I used to think it was vanity but I see from the distance of the years between, that it was more likely a case of insecurity. Handsome in a dark and dashing way, he was always worried about how he looked. Did he look too fat. Too thin. Too wide. Too anything? Was his tie crooked. Was that a stain on his shirt? Was his hair combed just right or was it too up. Too down. Too messy? Too tidy?
I never understood his need to be seen as perfect. To be constantly known as the best at whatever he did. It never left much room for mistakes. It never left any space for being real, I’d tell him on those rare occasions when I’d gather up my nerve and challenge him for time in front of the mirror.
Don’t bother looking, he’d say. It’s not going to do you any good. And then he’d rhyme off the litany of my flaws, as only a sibling could, and I’d give way to his right to take up space in front of the mirror.
It was tiring. Exhausting. Numbing. Struggling to hold space in front of the mirror and having to constantly give way.
As we grew older, we grew apart. I was tired of staying silent, and never learned to hold my space with grace where my brother was concerned. There was a time in my twenties when we didn’t speak for over a year. He’d done something I’d found very painful and I didn’t want to forgive him. It was my mother’s constant chiding and her tears that made me give in. He was my only brother and forgiveness was the shortest path to love even in those days when I didn’t particularly feel like love was part of our equation.
At the time, I remember wondering why I even bothered to forgive him. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. It would be many, many years later, long after St. Patrick’s Day 1997, that I realized forgiving him had nothing to do with what he’d done, or even him. Forgiveness was the only way for me to find peace. With the past. The unresolved childhood rivalries that kept us vying for our parent’s attention in the front hall mirror, and kept us seeing each other as foes and not co-conspirators in surviving our childhood, or even friends.
My brother was quixotic. He could go from hot to cold and back again faster than he could change his shirt. And he did that often, and at great speed! He loved music and good Scotch and all things shiny. He loved laughing and talking loud and fast and sharing his opinions and living out loud. He loved to play a few bars of a song and ask, ‘Who’s singing that?’ And then he’d laugh because I didn’t know the answer and tell me who it was anyway before I even had a chance to guess. He loved to cook and entertain and people who met him felt like they’d been his friend forever. He gave to strangers. Helped out neighbours and had time for everyone, except I thought, he didn’t have time for me. The little sister who wanted only to be seen as something other than the mistake he’d long ago quit telling her she was.
And then, he died and I was left trying to understand the unfinished business of our relationship. I was left with my anger and regret and sadness that I’d never, ever found a way to tell him while he was living that it didn’t matter about the mirror. It didn’t matter about the words and the pain and the angst of the past. What mattered most was that we were family. He was my brother and all that really was mattered was and always will be, I love him.
I raised a toast to my brother last night and silently whispered into the night, I love you, George.
I know he heard me.