Composing this essay, which deals with the healing of a tragically fractured family relationship, has confronted me with a dilemma. How much personal information is necessary to disclose in order to tell the story? After anguishing over this question, I have ultimately decided to adopt a minimalist approach.
Most readers, I dare say, have suffered through broken relationships that they wish could be repaired and restored. The specific details of the rift, while perhaps a curiosity, are not of paramount importance. Rather, it is the path to forgiveness and reconciliation that is the “good news.”
So, while what follows is admittedly incomplete, I will try to do my noble topic justice.
My mother glanced warily at the bustling crowd just ahead of us on the platform. “Hold tight to your brother’s hand, Stephen,” she cautioned. “And give me yours too.”
As I followed her into the throng, the inevitable jostling began. Try as I might to fulfill my charge, the bumping and pushing ultimately got the better of me.
“Ma!” I cried out as I felt David’s fingers slipping from my grip. Turning around, with raw panic in my heart, I realized that my little brother was nowhere in sight.
Mercifully, we found David rather quickly that day; and, the relief I felt when his hand was safely back in mine was almost otherworldly. Only much later would I come to see that blessed childhood moment as a harbinger of a far deeper reconciliation awaiting our older selves.
The Bible is rife with tales of conflict between brothers. The “prodigal son” and his resentful older brother are characters in one of Jesus’ best known parables. The birthright struggle between Jacob and Esau, the shocking cruelty visited upon Joseph by his brothers, and the struggle for the throne between Adonijah and Solomon are other notable examples. How deep are these fetid roots? Well, the story of Cain and Abel might lead us to conclude that fraternal strife is as old as humanity itself.
Sadly, David and I fell readily into that familiar destructive pattern.
My brother, who passed away at age 61 in September of last year, lived a life that I understood poorly since it was so very different from my own. We grew up in an alcoholic household and both of us gradually adopted blended roles within our dysfunctional family system. I became the hero/rescuer and David the scapegoat/acting out child. Rivalry proved inevitable.
The dynamic between our parents was a further complication. By the time David and I reached adolescence, our mother had all but given up on her husband exercising a fatherly influence in her sons’ lives. Her solution was for me to become a father figure in David’s life, even though I was less than three years older than my brother and definitely not equipped for the task. I tried to fulfill my mother’s expectations by assuming authority in David’s life, but it only resulted in his deepening resentment and distrust.
In many respects, David seems not to have had a fair chance at life. Our father, who was prone to angry outbursts when intoxicated, once looked his younger son in the eyes and flatly told him: “You were a mistake!”
The damage inflicted by such a declaration, especially when spoken by one’s own father, is incomprehensible. Not surprisingly, David bore the weight of those awful words for the remainder of his life.
At the age of twelve, David was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a condition that made him insulin dependent and left him feeling “different” from his peers. A year or so later, his sense of difference was further magnified by the growing realization that he was gay. Today, at least in some quarters, such an awareness would be met appropriately with love and acceptance, but this was the early 1970s.
My brother suffered for who he was all those years ago, and he coped by retreating into behaviors that put him at heightened risk. I sincerely loved him; however, in my ignorance and immaturity, I kept trying to redirect his life rather than simply being a supportive big brother. The result was alienation that seemed insuperable.
David’s adult years brought further challenges – mental illness, disability, codependency, erratic personal care of his diabetes, and persistent substance abuse. Though my grasp of his struggles matured with time, we eventually reached a point where holding a simple conversation became virtually impossible.
The deathblow came when, with the full support of David’s psychiatric team at a Boston hospital, it became necessary for me to take a tough-love stance with my brother. For the next decade, David embarked on a campaign to harass and publicly discredit me. I wrote about that dismal period in my essay titled “Waiting for God.”
David was by no means an evil person. In fact, he had deep faith and a terrific capacity to love and forgive; but, I was his relational kryptonite.
Part of his brokenness was an inability to distinguish feelings from facts. He often acted out of his emotions, which had been horribly scarred. I see that now. He also seemed to need a villain, someone he could identify as the root of his distress.
Knowing my faith and my long history of involvement in the Church, he dubbed me the “Preacher of Death.” (Enter villain, stage left.)
On the night our mother was actively dying, I summoned my courage and called David to give him an update on her condition. As soon as he heard my voice, he erupted in rage and then hung up. A bit later on, I called him again to let him know that our mother had passed. I quickly conveyed the terrible news so as to be sure that he would hear me. Again, he flew into a tirade before hanging up abruptly. That may have been our lowest point as brothers.
Through the years, I continued to reach out to David, but the result was always the same, utter hostility. I came to dread the sound of his voice while still wishing things could be different between us.
I petitioned God about my brother countless times with no result. Exasperated, and to guard my own sanity, I finally determined to cut myself off entirely from David. I told God as much; but, even as the words left my lips, I could sense the Healer had other intentions. Shortly thereafter, this thought came to me. If our voices are triggers, perhaps we could communicate another way – via texting.
I felt great peace about this plan. I resolved to write to my brother and simply say: “I love you, David, and I wish we could be friends.” If he responded angrily, which I absolutely expected, I would only respond with the same message: “I love you, David, and I wish we could be friends.”
I hit the send button the first time with trepidation. Although frightened by what lay ahead, the volleying had now begun. I don’t recall how many times David responded with anger; but, as I continued to extend my text-based olive branch, his tone slowly softened. When it became apparent that taking our communication to the next step was finally possible, I began folding in small talk, but I always ended our back and forth correspondences with the words: “I love you.”
Then, he began doing the same!
In my opinion, the word “miracle” is tossed around far too easily. Still, even the skeptic in me sees God’s hands (and heart) all over this reconciliation. Further evidence can be found in the timing.
Just a few months after David and I finally began living our vocation as loving brothers, he received the awful news that he would need to have part of his leg amputated due to an aggressive infection in his foot and ankle. Diabetes! We were able to walk through that experience together. And, the former “Preacher of Death” even served as David’s power of attorney and healthcare proxy.
David’s final months were spent in a nursing facility. We spoke frequently, sometimes multiple times a day, and I visited with him at least once a week, usually bringing one of his favorite snacks and/or a cup of Americano coffee.
We often spoke of our childhood, sharing fond memories of events and people and looking through family photographs. It was such a blessing!
One day, mindful that we’d never really had a chance to speak with one another about the loss of our mother, I asked David if he would like me to read him my essay that recounts the events leading to her death. He said that he would like that very much and listened attentively as I read “My Mother’s Hands” aloud. Afterward, with tears in his eyes, he told me that the essay was beautiful. That meant the world to me.
Before closing, I would like to share just a couple of details about David that I believe reveal something about his heart.
Our mother eventually remarried after divorcing our father. Her new husband, Earl, was a very good man, but he and David struggled to get along. Earl’s impatience with David was quite evident; and, since they lived in the same small apartment, the tension between them could be palpable.
Toward the end of his life, Earl was in hospice care at home and was very weak. When he reached the point where he needed help to get from his bed to the bathroom, there was David with his arm around Earl, supporting him all the way.
When David himself was in hospice, he looked forward to visits from the chaplain, a Catholic priest, who always brought David the Eucharist. Once he had received the Sacrament, he would often call me to say: “I just received Holy Communion and want to share the blessing. The peace of the Lord be with you.”
On the eve of David’s death, I was privileged to sit by his bedside, (once again) holding his hand. My little brother was safely in sight, and both of us were at peace.