My brother came to town and stayed with us for eight or nine days. We have never been close. When my parents moved out of Kansas City in 1983, I moved into my own apartment. He left and spent four years in the Coast Guard. Our lives rarely intersected.
When my parents left, I cut myself off from family and old friends and started life completely anew. Behaviors and notions I learned from home plagued me. I found living on my own very difficult. About the only thing I could do well was balance a check book, but even then, dissolution and depravity led me to abandon that.
I spent a lot of time lolling around, drinking and having fun with scads of new acquaintances I picked up in college. Those were days when one could work a minimum-wage job and go to school. Things were spare. I split rent with roommates. The restaurant I worked at provided food to get me by most working days. At the end of a pay period, I parceled out the money according to my priorities and had enough left over for cheap beer, vodka, and cigarettes. I drank a lot of Richards Wild Irish Rose.
I didn’t see my brother for many years. He graduated to civilian life in 1987 and joined my parents in Reno, NV. Not wanting to live with them in their fifth-wheel trailer in the parking lot of the MGM Grand Hotel, he got a job that led to a series of other jobs. He finally landed at an electrical company, where he did an apprenticeship. This brought him to the union and he’s been working for the union for decades.
I received this scant information about my sibling from infrequent calls I received from parents and relatives. My sister reports on him from time to time. For decades, I really didn’t make an effort to get with him and he kept to himself.
As a matter of fact, I can’t really remember the first time I saw him after we left our parents. I think it was at one of the occasional family reunions the Bauers used to have when I saw my brother a full 20 years since we left home. We found each other strangers. Sure, we shared some experiences growing up. But his perceptions of the events of our childhood varied widely from mine. We could find no common ground.
Over the last several years, he’s come to stay with us in Kansas City when he wanted to visit friends. I invite the opportunity. I love having him around, even if we don’t have anything to talk about. I’d rather have him stay with us and have nothing to talk about than having him in town without contact.
On this visit, which I think is the second over the last five or six years, the first thing that struck me was how connected he is, or seems to be, to his high school mates. My high school years were the worst of my life and when I left, I never looked back. There are a couple of people I see occasionally, but for the most part, I don’t have any contact with people from that time.
The second thing I confronted was that his view of our childhood home made it seem as if we lived in two different houses. I took him for a drive and gravitated toward the house we grew up in. I hadn’t planned it, it just happened. We drove up into the old neighborhood. I can’t tell you what he was seeing, but I saw the interminable distances I had to walk to my friends’ houses, sometimes a mile or more. I saw the bullies and mean kids and tried to remember the few summers when I did have a good time with a couple of my pals with whom I built a treehouse. I remembered the eternal boredom of home that screaming fits and physical violence punctuated.
I told him that I couldn’t see how anyone would think that this overly clean and ordered suburb was a good place to raise a kid. The neighborhood we live in now serves our kid well. His friends are across the street. We have a park with a pool not 300 yards from our door. Black kids, Hispanic kids, and Asian kids run the streets, and my kid runs with them. The old neighborhood, I told my brother, was far too white to be good for any kid.
He disagreed. He remembered the neighborhood fondly. He didn’t think our dad spent as much time drunk as I thought he did. He denied that I had such a miserable time growing up and intimated that part of what I was feeling was in my head. He would, he said, move back to Kansas City when the parents pass away.
That’s as close as we came to a conversation. When we arrived back home, we fell into a routine that lasted the rest of his stay. We sat in the living room and watched movies. I asked him about his life in Reno and got cursory or yes-no answers. I asked him about his friends, what he liked to do in his spare time, and what he had for hobbies. I tried to pry through the guarded, defensive front he puts on when he’s around me.
When he wasn’t answering my questions, he talked about himself. It wasn’t conversation, just talking. We oooed-and-awed at what he considered achievements and triumphs. But when it came to anything deeper, he closed up and he might as well have been a statue sitting among the couch pillows.
Here’s the thing: Not once in the times we’ve seen each other over the years has he asked a question about my and my life, what I like, what my friends do, anything. This time around, he didn’t ask my wife anything about her or her life, and he didn’t ask his nephew anything either. You know, except for a card from my mother, I haven’t heard one word from my parents or brother about having earned a doctorate. It’s like it hasn’t happened.
After a week of sitting in a room with my brother and not having conversation, he made ready to go to the airport yesterday morning. He talked about himself some more, what he’d do when he got home, how he was going to fix his house.
As he walked to his car, I kept coming back to a passage I wrote in my book Canoeing the Great Plains:
It was good, for now, to take in this quiet, intense, and beautiful landscape. I watched the sunset and thought of my brother. When we were kids, in the springtime we’d sometimes stand barefoot at the backyard fence, watching the sun set. It seemed to take hold of us and put us into a trance. Unless we heard the screen door slam and mom call us into dinner, the trance wasn’t broken until the last of the sun squeezed in behind the houses on the next street over. It was then we realized our feet were cold and our hands cramped from holding the fence wire. We’d look at each other wondering what we were doing there and wordlessly head toward the backdoor.
We were both little then, and it was probably the only peace we ever knew together. Our home life was difficult and later in life we would be battered about by storms of our own making. When I started drinking I drew away from family until I didn’t know them anymore. He has gone his way, and I mine. When we meet today, we are strangers who want to bridge chasms so dangerous and difficult to cross we don’t dare try. Someday, maybe.
When I think of that sunset today, I see tiny Ulm turning on its lights. The headlights on I-15 move in slow arcs through a landscape that’s turning dark and the sky getting bigger and darker until it’s filmy with stars. I feel the river out there in the dark. It flows without a sound. I see two kids standing barefoot at a fence, sharing wordlessly what they might look a lifetime to find again.
(For those of you who question the wisdom of writing so intimately about my own sibling, I offer that only my sister visits this site. She’s the only one in my family who has read my books. She’s a great champion of mine and one of my most ardent fans. If my brother reads this piece, it may just give us something to talk about. More importantly, this essay may give people reason to examine their sibling relationships. That’s all I can offer as a writer.)