The Guilt of the Oldest Brother


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The Guilt of the Oldest Brother

I couldn’t protect my brothers from my dad, so what good was I?

For the longest time, my mom had a picture hanging on her fridge. It was taken on my brother Kris' ninth birthday. He, myself, and my two other brothers Chase and Luke had just returned from the movies where we had seen the film adaption of Lynne Reid Banks' undoubtedly racist Indian In The Cupboard. My brothers are all grinning madly in the picture, happy and energized by youth and birthday vibes. I am standing slightly apart from them, arms crossed, displaying an obnoxious and overacted pout. You see, despite it being my brother's birthday, I had been pulling for us to go see Mortal Kombat (an aesthetic choice I still stand behind) and when my request denied I flung into a full-blown, sullen temper tantrum.


The picture haunts because I worry it captures the essence of what kind of oldest brother I am. There's also a home video that exists of my brother and I (four and five years old) in a bathtub. I'm demanding my mom to, "Look at me, look at me!" I had just figured out how to wet my hair by bending over, avoiding the dreaded lying back into the bath and this innovation demanded capturing for posterity's sake. So my mom films me triumphantly wetting my hair in this new way, but on my rise, I accidently smash my soft head on the tub's tap resulting in traumatized waterworks from me and bemused confusion from my brother. In both cases, I see my failings as an older brother. I see a whiny narcissist of a child, self-obsessed, constantly demanding attention to the detriment of my brother's own airtime (parental attention). My brothers and I were all born very close to one another: Myself, in 1986, Kris in 1987, Chase in 88, and Luke bringing up the rear in 90. Our personalities developed off of one another: I am an attention seeker, Kris is cool as a cucumber, a chef and a great musician who likes and is like funk music; Chase is the serious one, quiet, contemplative, a tradesman who works through his emotions with his hands; and Luke is of course the baby, loved and coddled, and perhaps the least fearful of us or at the very least the only one who snowboards.

There is an ideal of a big brother I have in my head that I never measure up to. The ideal is of the magnanimously cooler brother who gets his licence first and sneakily drops his siblings off at parties, introduces them to awesome music and, most importantly, serves as their silent protector, watching over them in the halls of high schools and home. I also picture bandanas being a key part of this dream older brother's wardrobe.


Perhaps because our closeness of age, I never resembled this older brother. I got my licence after Kris, and Chase and was decidedly not cooler. The first time I ever had a taste of alcohol, I had just started high school, and my brother Kris and a friend were sneaking sips from a mickey of rum in our fridge. Suffering from a bout of pre-pubescent FOMO, I wedged my way into the proceedings. Before taking a nip, I remember my brother's friend saying, "I thought you said your brother wouldn't drink." I would have been offended by this assumption of squareness, but I was too busy chugging water to erase all evidence of the demon booze and how bad of a boy I was.

I also wasn't much of a protector, more in need of protection than anything else. The big brother part of our relationship only extends to age, all of my brothers are much larger than me, with muscles and stuff compared to my hollow-boned, scrawny frame. This became clear in my last year at home. My brother Chase and I had gotten into a brotherly tussle. Very quickly it became clear that fighting my brothers was no longer a viable option for me, as Chase threw me to the ground and, howlingly mad, mounted me with the intention to pound me to dust. I was only rescued from the beating by Kris, who swooped in and knocked Chase off me.

Like most siblings, intense fights were not uncommon throughout our childhood. Sometimes though, the violence had a sharper, more unhinged edge to it that hinted at a deeper turmoil. Once Kris had to go to the hospital because Chase had stabbed him right in the ear with an action figure sword (which, as far as kid fights go, is pretty awesome). I remember Luke snapping during a road hockey game, viciously swinging his hockey stick at anybody foolish enough to come near him. I remember, driven by a dark fury, attacking Kris while he slept.


It's weird. I can't remember what slights caused these outbursts. What teasings or mockings led to us losing our temper, just the violent flash of anger is what remains. There is another memory of violence that I think is related. In one of his crazed bids for discipline, my father spanked all of us with a thin piece of wood. The spanking was not the worst part. The worst part was that we had to line up and were struck one at a time. I was at the back of the line and watched it happen to my brothers while I stood compliant, soaked in dread of being hit.

It is here where my feelings of failing my brothers are rooted. I never protected them from dad. My father is a cokehead and parented as such. He would disappear for days, he would deliver manic monologues to us about goals and dreams we should have, such as attempting to motivate us to form an all-brother boy band—which I describe as peak-cocaine daddying. And he would rage at us, randomly bellowing at us for our failings and mistakes.

I never stood up to my father. Instead I remained in that spanking line, compliant, obeying his commands and his madness while silently watching my brothers suffer. And worse than that I left. Physically, I left to university when I was nineteen but even before that I left emotionally. My brothers and I had been close throughout our childhood. Kris and I shared a bedroom and we would hang out with my friends and make comic books together. All of us would play together. Once high school started I withdrew from them and my family all together. Spending all my time with friends and avoiding home as much as I could. I left them to fend for themselves, removing myself into my own anxieties and solipsism.


I've been told that none of this is uncommon. Slightly older friends have told me of similar experiences with their siblings, a separation that is gradually repaired as adolescence drifts further in the rear-view. My therapist tells me I have nothing to be ashamed about in leaving home and forging a new life. And I think these folks are right, my brothers and I chat more now than we have in a decade and the gulfs between us are closing but still a gnawing guilt remains.

I can feel it when we talk to each other, in how difficult and awkward it is when we say 'I love you' to one another. When it is said it is halting, awkward like attempting a complicated handshake that none of us know the moves to. It's not because we don't love one another but it's because that disciplined silence is so entrenched. Our ability to bring up our feelings and what is bothering us was seriously hobbled by the abuse and resulting self-preservation. So we glide on the surface of our feelings with small talk, occasionally breaking through with the help of a few beers to talk about how fucked-up things were for us.

Still we try. Still I try. Kris reminds my unorganized ass to get down to see him and his new boys. Chase and I go to the AGO and haltingly talk about our hopes and fears. And in each of these moments I discover with relief that the trails leading back to one another are not erased, are not lost but merely overgrown and that while clearing them requires work, walking on them, even in silence, is always a worthwhile trip. And on those trips I'm learning that when it comes to family, guilt is a useless emotion. It is the lingering detritus of a past that you had no control over and that as long as we are all breathing being a good big brother is never out of reach.

And so I say to my brothers, Kris, Chase and Luke I love you now and forever.

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Lede image courtesy of author.