‘My brother spent much of childhood ashamed of me. A lot can change in 30 years’
Laura Kennedy: Our mother would sometimes say ‘I’m afraid that when I die you two won’t take care of each other’. Looking back, we should have felt ashamed
“My brother disliked me right away, reportedly suggesting in a helpful tone that I be thrown out the car window.” Photograph: iStock
As a child, I was unable to digest the idea that some people like their siblings, or have a positive, functioning relationship with them. Fractiousness is apparently more common in two-child families, where siblings are less likely to team up against a common foe (like a third sibling) and more likely to compete for resources, like feral cats in a post-apocalyptic hellscape.
My brother disliked me right away, reportedly suggesting in a helpful tone that I be thrown out the car window. He was three, and, it would seem, inherently psychopathic, but even I have to credit his colourful imagination in retrospect.
I spent the ensuing four to five years following him about while adjusting my underpants in a very obvious and public fashion, a habit which he, at the more sophisticated age of seven, simply couldn’t countenance.
My brother was always taciturn and conscious of how his behaviour would be perceived by others. I was more along the lines of a feral, gobby urchin always clutching two food items (one pinched in each hammy fist) and saying what I thought even, and sometimes particularly, when it was not asked for. I was the sort of child who, too young to emotionally process an intense dislike for one of my aunts in a responsible fashion, said things to her like “I hate your belt”, and “your face looks like a buttered plate”. I believe my brother spent much of our childhood thoroughly ashamed of me.
To take care of her, defend her, and later, to honour her memory, we had to love one another
During our adolescence, he thought I was haughty, self-indulgent, rude, and deliberately tried to set myself apart from others. Most of those were true. It rarely takes anyone long to respond in kind to a perceived dislike. Insensitive to how difficult his adolescence must have been without a father figure, I was not understanding of his anger, thought that he had a stupid haircut (in fact he had a series of stupid haircuts) and was something of an emotionally stunted philistine.
Skip forward 15 years, and much has changed. These days, my brother is just as taciturn, but his silence has more of the gentle feel of a calm lake than a foaming pool of piranhas. My partner describes my brother as looking “always like he’s about to go for a country pub lunch”. He is an architect who buttons his collars up all the way and takes deep and often wordless pleasure in careful, detailed things. He is a person with whom you can be quiet, and this is a rare and wonderful characteristic in an increasingly loud and hubristic world.
So bad was our relationship when we were younger that our mother would sometimes say “I’m afraid that when I die you two won’t take care of each other”. Looking back, we should have felt ashamed to hear her characterise our relationship that way, but we were each too suspicious and resentful of the other to understand the reality of her words, and what that life might look like.
Our mother did die, and the floor fell out of the world. Though my relationship with my brother had been improving consistently up to the point when our mother got sick, her illness was a bleak lesson. To take care of her, defend her, and later, to honour her memory, we had to love one another. In the stark, unkind light of a new world without her, it wasn’t very hard. It no longer seemed difficult to see my brother as the man he is, distinct from the boy he was. During the worst and most insecure time of my life, and of his, he was protective of me, kind to me, reliable. We tried to take care of one another. Not simply because it is what she would have wanted, but because it is what came naturally to both of us – no one understood my shattered heart as he did. We reached for one another through the blackness.
Next week, we go on holiday to West Cork together, along with our partners. I will annoy him for the whole car journey, and he will want to throw me out the window. He won’t though. A lot can change in 30 years.