My brother John shows his greatness in small ways. Often it’s the unkind word that fails to leave his lips. His patience with our aging parents is immeasurable. Ninety and eighty-four, they cling stubbornly to their illusion of independence. If not for John’s tireless support they would be paying for assisted care. Dad lives with John and his wife Darla, and John shuttles him across town to Mom’s apartment before driving to work.
My marks are not high when given the chance to test my caretaking endurance. Twenty minutes outside the Giant Eagle rest rooms, melting ice cream in the car outside pushed me over the edge last May. The shopping trip had taken an hour and a half longer than planned, the second stop announced after we’d paid for the ice cream at the first, after I thought we were headed home on an eighty degree day. By the time I got my mother back to her apartment, (“It’s alright dear,” she’d said, “I like my ice cream when it’s soft”) I lost control and let fly regrettable words. We’ll see how I do this year.
My brother works with developmentally challenged people, a source of great amusement to him. His clients are unapologetically candid, he says, crude and refreshingly unfiltered. He likes people, it’s as simple as that.
John is deeply talented but has put his creative career aside in favor of enriching our parents’ sunset years. Although his photography should be legendary, he never toots his own horn. He understands light like no one else. His creative eye unerringly homes in on the essence of a scene. He’s done a lot of studio portraits, many of them pro bono and has an uncanny way of teasing out his subject’s inner beauty.
You would never know that John suffers from migraines and back pain. At family events he works the room with tripod and cameras, mining for gold. Looking over photographs from our youngest brother’s wedding, we’re captured in candid enjoyment at round tables laden with food. John is missing. He’s behind the camera and I realize, has been on his feet the entire time. It’s all right, he tells me, it’s the editing not the standing that bothers his back.
John has a gaggle of grandkids and they crawl all over him, loving his attention, stealing his glasses. They call him Grandpa Basil. They make movies together, sophisticated ones with plots and multiple camera angles. The kids are great, flawlessly in character but I know how much behind-the-scenes patience it takes to pull this off. How John does this after a full time job and running our parents around, is beyond me. Surely he must pick the days between headaches, although I can’t imagine they are easily scheduled.
I was a pampered only child, regarded as miracle incarnate by my parents, until their next miracle appeared. Like many first-borns I felt dethroned, but quickly shifted gears after realizing I now owned a real-life doll baby.
We were the perfect two child family for three years. There’s a lovely photo of us, sitting on the stone steps outside our home in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, my mother beaming, my father slightly distracted by the camera timer, Johnny and I unaccustomed to sitting still.
Dad immortalized our relationship in another photograph. Johnny and I are in our Easter best, he in a jaunty sailboat shirt and me clutching my hatbox. I’ve got a firm grip on my little brother with my other hand. My attitude is doting and overbearing, his response unabashedly trusting. Johnny bought into my wisdom until he was old enough to question my authority, after which he was wise enough make it appear he still trusted my judgement.
Once we were playing on ice and it began to break. I watched in horror as Johnny began floating out into Hudson Bay. “Jump!” I shrieked and he stepped off into the knee-deep water without hesitation. Another time we were playing with friends, rolling around on their lawn, when the younger girl picked up a huge rock and dropped it on Johnny’s forehead. Her big sister fetched her mother, and I ran all the way home to tell mine. Mom flew out the door leaving me in charge. Terrified he was dying, I prayed the rosary again and again until she brought him home, alive.
John jokes about the incident, “I think she was trying to impress me.” he says. He is one of those guys who sees the funny in everything. John is a gifted mimic, too easily assuming personas to illustrate a joke. Even his complaints turn into jokes. We talk on the phone after dinner sometimes, laughing until tears flow and my jaw muscles seize up. “Remember that kid,” he’ll begin and I know I’m in for a good one.
In our thirties, John and I visited our grandmother’s home. “Let’s pretend we’re little kids again,” he suggested, picking up my hand. “We would walk like this” he said, taking a tiny little step towards the terrace above the vegetable garden. Off we went, climbing the concrete steps, navigating an enormous world and we small as toddlers. My eyes shone.
Life without John would be boring and burdensome, yet I take his presence for granted. It seems like he’s always been there, shouldering the hard work while making me feel big, picking up the pieces and joking about it. He touches many lives in profound ways without making anyone feel indebted. My little brother is bigger than me and has been for a long time. But don’t let him catch you saying that because he’ll defend his big sister’s honor with unabashed fervor to the end.