“Tell me how…

‘n show me now..

To understand…

What makes a good man?

Tell me now…

Hey walk the line…

Hey understand…

What makes a good man?”

-The Heavy, What Makes A Good Man

It’s different every year. I never know what to expect. Some years it’s a day of celebrating. Some years it’s a day of wiping away the tears. Some years it’s both. This year it feels like a kick in the gut. Today is my brother’s birthday.

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My brother would have been 33 years old today. That’s the number that makes my insides quiver and my throat tighten with emotion. Thirty three years old. That’s an adult. That’s someone quite different from the 18 year old who we lost 14 years ago. Fourteen years that seems like a blink of an eye. I can’t wrap my brain around that. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. I honestly feel like I saw him just last week. I always wonder if that’s my way of coping with the unthinkable. My mind’s way of protecting me from the pain of not seeing him. There is a part of me that operates in a comforting denial. I kind of pretend that I just saw him. I tell myself that I’ll be seeing him again soon.

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Thirty three years old. That is a man. A man who maybe would be married. Maybe with children. A career. Those are things we can only imagine now. But I got glimpses of who he would have been. Getting diagnosed with cancer at the age of 16 makes you mature real quick. My brother went from being a red-blooded good-natured mischevious teenager to being a strong, wise man. In a matter of a few months he evolved. He was still mischievous. He was still hilariously funny. He still had a zest for living and soaked up every bit of life in those 18 months. But he was rudely and abruptly thrust into a harsh reality.

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I saw my brother handle things that would break the strongest person. I saw him handle them with grace and humor. I saw a strength that I think few people possess. I saw the little brother, 8 years younger than me, become protective of me. Protective of my sister. Protective of my parents. He went from being the youngest child who had been adored and doted on by all of us to turning the tables without any of us even realizing it. He took on a role of a man who was looking out for his family. He was concerned about the nurses and the hours they had to work. He advocated for them and wanted to help them get real dinner breaks and reasonable hours. He was concerned and protective of his girlfriend and his friends. He didn’t want them to worry about him. He didn’t want them to see how sick he really was. He didn’t want to shake their carefree teenage world. He was becoming not just a man, but a great man.

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My little brother, who I had joked with, teased and harassed became my trusted friend. He became a sounding board. He became a confidant. I saw the best of both of my parents in him. He had always been sensitive and sweet, but I saw how that would translate to the man he was to become. Like my mom, he would listen, he would offer wise advice. He had learned from her how to be a supportive and tender friend. He and I spent many hours at the hospital talking. He wanted to talk about me, my job, my engagement and upcoming wedding. Just like my mom, he put me and my concerns and my life before whatever he was going through. Just like her, he wanted to be there for me, for others. He was becoming so much like her.

Like my stepfather, he became the care-taker and the protector. He had learned from his father how to take care of the ones he loved. During this time, I called my parents house looking for my step father. I was having car trouble and he was my go-to person for these kind of things. My brother answered the phone and before I could finish explaining what was wrong, he was in his car on his way to help me. He showed up at my apartment with ramps and tools so he could take a look under my car. I protested. I told him I could wait for my step father to get home. He shooed me away and got to work under my car. I stood there and watched with a lump in my throat. My little brother had just changed before my eyes. He was so much like my step father.

This is the most bitter of the most sweet of gifts of the most difficult 18 months. Eighteen months that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But 18 months of the most precious moments.  A time that gave us a glimpse of the man. A time to see the amazing grace of an amazing person. A time to get to know a remarkable man.

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So, these numbers are the numbers that cut right through me. The numbers that snap me out of the foggy denial I willingly and happily operate in. 33… the age my brother would be today.16… the age he was when everything changed. 18… the age he was when we had to say good bye. 14… the years that have somehow passed since. 2… sisters who adore their baby brother.  2…  parents that I know he is looking upon now with pride and joy because they are still living and loving and thriving after so much grief and pain. 1… niece who remembers how he made her laugh and who he loved so much. 1… nephew who looked up to him and who he loved so much. 4… nieces and nephews that he never met but who seem to know their Uncle Todd somehow. 1… sweet boy, caring friend, loving son and brother, doting uncle… one amazing man. Happy Birthday little brother. I love you.

“Remember the times that we used to share…  You got to remember the times that we used to share….  But the only way for you to survive is to open your heart, it will guide.”

-Lenny Kravitz, Sittin’ On Top of the World

I didn’t want a younger sibling.  I wasn’t completely opposed to the idea, it just wasn’t something I had wished for.  What I wanted was a puppy.  The day that my mom and step dad announced they were having a baby I knew the dream of a dog had just died. I acted happy, just kind of went through the motions of how I figured I should feel.  It wasn’t that I was unhappy,  more like indifferent.  I found the subject completely boring and all the talk about the baby for nine months (which to a seven year old feels like about 3 years) got really old and boring.

Then he was here.  My little brother.  Todd.  I was expecting to be unimpressed.  I didn’t expect to really care too much about this little thing that had taken over my family before he was even born.  But I was sucked in.  I had never seen anything so adorable.  I immediately felt love and protectiveness and awe.

My life didn’t change much at first.  Aside from having to tiptoe around our house when he was sleeping, I still went about my business.  I still played with my friends every day.  The only thing that was different was that I rushed home from school to see him before going outside.  There was  a different feeling in our house.  There was a light, an excitement.  He made our little blended family a real family.  We all were madly in love with this little person and we all laughed together at his every coo and grimace.

Eventually the baby became a toddler and no less cute.  He continued to charm us all.  But our roles became clear.  My sister was like a second mother to him.  She was 11 when he was born and had always had a maternal side.  I was his sister.  I doted on him briefly, then I would go do my thing.  As my brother got older, it was clear he and my sister had a very special bond.  He adored her and was very attached to her.  And it was clear that I was his sister.  I was the person he would harass when the urge struck.

I was defenseless against his antics.  I couldn’t respond in kind.  I was 8 years older than him and any retaliation would have resulted in swift punishment.  I couldn’t even really complain or tell on him.  The response would be Really?  He’s 8 years younger than you and you’re tattling on him???   I’m not saying he was ever mean to me.  His stuff was just mischievous little brother shenanigans.  But annoying to an older sister for sure.

One year, his best friend brought him a souvenir from a trip to Asia.  It was a Japanese spinning drum, just like the kind used during the final fight scene of Karate Kid 2.  I was about 15 or 16 years old.  Like any typical teenager, sleep was incredibly important to me.  Not at night, night time is fun.  But in the morning.  All week I would look forward to sleeping in on Saturday morning.  My brother was an early riser at that age.  He would get up early on Saturday mornings with my Stepdad and they would watch He-Man cartoons and eat Cocoa Pebbles together.  At some point, when he got bored with cartoons, he would sneak in to my room with his little drum and get as close to my ear as possible and spin it fast.  I would wake to the sound of this hellish toy, jumping out of bed in a startled flurry.  “Todd!!!” I never really yelled anything else.  Just his name.  What else can you yell at a little mischievous twerp who is so good natured at the very moment that he’s pestering you?  He did this off and on for months.   He would scamper out of my room gleefully.  He wasn’t scared of me at all.  And he was super proud of himself for riling me.

Other times he would sneak on to the phone while I was talking to my friends.  I would only realize he was eavesdropping when we would say something that made him laugh.  I would hear his laughter that sounded like light bouncing around the room.  He didn’t even try to muffle it.  “Todd!!!”  I would yell, then apologize to my friend.

When I went off to college our relationship changed.  I was still his sister and he still enjoyed playing his little jokes on me, but this is the time when we became friends.  He missed me.  Or maybe he missed having someone in the house to harass.  Either way, I had transitioned from his annoying older sister to his cool sister who was in college and did all kinds of cool stuff like go to awesome concerts and parties.  He occasionally would call me at school to ask for my advice about girl problems.  The first time he did this I got off the phone and cried.  My little brother was growing up, he was starting to be in to girls.  And he wanted my advice.  I was honored.

We both loved music.  He leaned more towards hip hop and I was definitely more into rock and alternative, but sometimes our musical tastes melded.  He started liking Bob Marley.  I started liking Biggie.  We both loved Lenny Kravitz.  I would make him cd’s when a new Lenny album came out and he made me cool mix cd’s of rap songs I liked. Even though our relationship had matured beyond sibling rivalry, he still didn’t miss an opportunity to tease me or make a joke at my expense.  Except now his humor had evolved and it always had me laughing hysterically.  I couldn’t stay mad at him.  He could annoy me one second and have me laughing in spite of myself the next.

Then Todd got sick.  Real sick.  He had Stage 4 cancer.  It was bad and we were all devastated.  He was only 16.  Somehow he still managed to be funny.  He took his comic antics to the chemo room with him, to the hospital, everywhere.  No one was safe.  His Doctor, who was brilliant and wonderful was also quite serious.  My brother always found a way to break through his facade and get him to laugh. He had a gift for making you fall for whatever prank he dreamed up.  When the nurses would flush out his i.v. lines, he would act like the saline was burning him.  They would fall for it every time, panicking for a second before realizing he was just having fun with them.  A lot of people laugh in the face of pain, but we were all amazed at his way of coping with things.  He actually was having fun, he was finding little moments, little pockets of time, when he could lighten the situation and have a good laugh and look around at a room full of smiling, laughing faces.

He took to prank calling me at work during this time.  He was missing a lot of school for chemo treatments and I would often meet him and my Mom for lunch near the hospital on my lunch break.  But he couldn’t just call me and tell me where to meet them.  He had to take advantage of these moments and be my little annoying brother once again.  He was a master at using different voices and dialects.  He would call me up, claiming to be one of my customers and would make up crazy stories about his pager and what he “accidentally” did to it, or he would be an angry customer getting me all flustered before revealing his identity with his trademark laugh.  A laugh that was pure joy and glee and self satisfaction.  I was barely able to feel happiness during this time.  Yet somehow he laughed and joked and didn’t let the situation get the best of him.  And in the process he helped all of us get through those days.  I know his intention when he would pull these pranks was not to brighten my day, he was doing what he loved doing.  Finding a situation that no one else would think of laughing about and figuring out how to make it funny.  Every time I would hear the laughter over the phone and realize I’d been had, I always said the same thing, “Todd!!”  I still had no other words of recrimination for him.  Even being the butt of his jokes I had to laugh and aside from the early Saturday mornings, I can’t say I every truly minded.

For 18 months life stood still and moved at breakneck speed all at the same time.  We packed a lot in to a year and a half.  Every Thursday Todd and his girlfriend would come over to the apartment where Joe and I lived and we would go out to eat dinner and go see a movie.  We took them to one of my friends’ Halloween parties with a lot of my college friends.  He later told me it was the best night of his life.  We took him to a Lenny Kravitz concert with us.  We spent a lot of quality time together for those last 18 months.  That time was a gift that I will cherish more than anything the material world could ever have to offer.  I got time with my little brother.  Time to bond as adults.  Time for him to really get to know my husband before we got married.  Time to laugh.  It was by far the most difficult time in my life, yet the most precious.  In spite of the gripping fear I felt every day that I would lose my brother…  in spite of waking up every morning for 18 months and being hit with the realization that it all wasn’t some bad dream…  in spite of everything, I wouldn’t trade those 18 months for anything.  And through those last months, he gave me the greatest gift.  He was still my little mischievous brother.  He still played his pranks, he still made me laugh.  He still annoyed the hell out of me.  I still said my exasperated “Todd!!”  multiple times a week.  He always said he didn’t have time for cancer.  By that, he meant that he wasn’t going to let cancer stop him from living and having fun.  But he also showed me that cancer wasn’t going to change our relationship.  Yes, it evolved, as it would have if he hadn’t gotten sick.  But he still was the little boy, catching me off guard, pulling off his jokes and making me laugh even when I wanted to get mad.

Even now, I revert back to those times.  Sometimes when my husband has teased me or pulled off a prank at my expense.  Or when one of my kids does something mischievous and funny at the same time.  I catch myself blurting out my little brother’s name in mixed joy and frustration.  Those moments, I know they happen out of a conditioned response to certain behaviors, but I also think it’s my brother’s way of telling me to lighten up a little.  There’s always a reason to laugh, always a reason to smile.  And it reminds me of what he and I shared.  Yes, it was sibling rivalry.  But out of sibling rivalry comes the best friendships.  And when I look back on my memories of him, the ones that come to my mind the most- the ones that make me smile- are the ones where he was being my little brother.  Those times when he irritated me and exhausted me and frustrated me, those are the times I cherish the most.  Those memories are the ones I share with my children so they will know who their Uncle Todd was.  Those memories are the ones that I reach for when I’m missing him most.  Those antics that helped me laugh through 18 months of pain and fear, and those are the memories that help me now.  After 14 years I still get caught off guard and overwhelmed with the pain of missing my little brother.  But I always think about those times.  Inevitably they have me shaking my head and smiling… laughing through my tears.

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Once again I have the joy of participating in the “Remember the Time” blog hop.  The subject this week was “Sibling Rivalry”.  I’m so grateful to the hilarious and talented writers of The Waiting and Are You Finished Yet for creating this and allowing me to participate!