Sunday, March 30, 2014

Brother Love

I have a unique relationship with my brother, Rhett Preston Kirby. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s better than other brothers, or that he does and provides what other brothers do not, though I feel that those things are true. I don’t place much value in comments of the type: “My brother, father, mother, wife, school, country, teacher, cat, chili recipe, etc. is the best that ever was!” Because, could a person  ever really know? It’s meaningless for me to say he’s the best, without offering solid evidence. I’ll pass on the superlatives and just say why he is what he is in my life.

So, what’s so unique about him, anyway? First of all, unique defines his role in my life. Rhett is the only person I’ve ever known who is like him. Sure, you say. So he’s a unique individual. Aren’t we all? Well, it’s deeper than that. And here’s why. My brother and I are about as different as brothers can be. We have different likes, inclinations, personalities, ways of engaging the world. We have different skills and foibles, different things we strive for. We’ve carved out our places in the world using wholly different tools and maps. You could even say that, with all our differences, we inhabit different worlds, and that would be substantially true. What it comes down to is that, without the accident of having been born into the same family at approximately the same time, there’s little chance I’d ever have come to know him. And, it’s why I’ve never really known anyone like him. Which is what makes him so unique to me, as I believe I am to him.

It took me a couple of decades to realize this, and to begin to appreciate Rhett in a very special way. In the sphere of my life, he has perspectives on things completely unlike those of friends, colleagues and partners I’ve attracted over the years. And, because I love him, and he me, I am able to interact with this alien intelligence in ways deep and intimate enough as to instruct, enlighten and inspire me.

Of course, I exaggerate our differences. We come from the same parents, were born in the same city into similar circumstances, and through most of our pre-adult years, our physical and social journeys were parallel. And all these similarities, all that we share, is essential to the love and bond between us.

That bond has always felt absolute and unconditional. We have our disagreements; we used to fight often enough. As adults, we’ve mostly lived far apart, sometimes not seeing one another for years at a time. We’ve hardly ever exchanged Christmas or birthday gifts, and the odd time that something is given, one to the other, it never sets a precedent of creates any kind of expectation.

But emotionally, or, maybe deeper than that, even... on the level of who we are, we are bonded. Maybe it’s on the level of the “story” we believe ourselves to be living, how we situate ourselves and each other in the world of “meaning”. On that level, in that place, we are deeply connected, mirrors of one another, alter egos, each a kind of harmony to the other’s melody, the chorus behind one another’s center stage. We are joined, in simple fact.

He’s been with me from my beginning and populates my earliest memories. In one of them, he’s bent over on the sidewalk in front of our house, retying my shoe lace, teaching me how to do it myself. In another, he’s rescuing me from a tree down the street. With his encouragement, I’d mustered the confidence to climb up it, but wouldn’t come down again. There’s never been any doubt of our connection. And we’ve both noted, as we’ve journeyed through life, our surprise at how few other siblings seem as solid and sure, as quietly passionate about their bond, as we are of our brotherhood.

I came to realize, as I learned to ponder the whys and wherefores of my life, that there were reasons for all of this. Our mutual commitment got serious reinforcement when we moved from Detroit to New York, when I was five and he was seven. For a few weeks or months we were shuttled here and there, sometimes with our father, sometimes both parents, occasionally with strangers, while our parents tried to settle on some place and some way for us to all live together. We changed schools and neighborhoods a few times through the next few years, and so often, we were each the single familiar face in one another’s world. This shifting went on, in one way or another, until we entered our teens. At the height of our life as wanderers, we found ourselves in East Germany, where our mother sang in night clubs and stage shows, on a series on month-long contracts. We stayed in small hotels, and my brother and I would meet the local kids, and learn their games and a few new words. Once we taught a group of boys how to play baseball, in an empty lot in Leipzig, and a small crowd gathered to watch.

Our parents were there with us, but much of the time Rhett and I felt like it was us two against the world. Not ‘against’ in the sense that there was any painful struggle to it. Merely in the sense that everything outside of us was different, and only we knew who we were and where we’d come from. And no one else could ever understand all that. Why even try to explain. We had each other. And it was wonderful! We grew up feeling that, despite any differences, we were sharing one journey, one adventure, one perspective on the big world that lay ahead and all around us. It was one long adventure, and the two of us, the ever successful protagonists in some epic saga.

We moved and moved again, lived with one parent then the other, watched them become disaffected, then divorce, all the while sharing our whispered conversations in our bedroom when the lights were out, our speculations about our fate and what lay ahead. And all the while, Rhett was my protector, my biggest fan, my confidant, my guide.

At one point, we were in a couple of professional stage plays, sharing the same rolls on alternating nights, and bringing our very different energies and personas to the roles. That experience is a great metaphor for how we felt about our connected destinies. However different we were, we knew that we shared a path unique to ourselves, and not translatable to others. Trust, devotion, love. I learned the depths of those emotions from my brother, through those years of growing up.

Eventually, our lives settled. We wound up back in New York, with our father. A few years in the same place led to a renewed sense of home, to new friends who became old friends. We began to develop in our separate and individual ways. Rhett played basketball. I joined the school orchestra. I read books. He caroused with his buddies. So there came a point during our teens when my brother and I didn’t have much to do with each other. We were each too involved in finding and furnishing our niches in life. I remember feeling that he just didn’t fit into mine very well. I went away to school first; he did the same, a year or so later. And that was when one of the differences in us really began to assert itself.

My response to, first, leaving the extended family behind in Detroit, and then, the dissolution of our parents’ marriage, was to try to divorce myself from family altogether. I decided to go it alone, to let relations with family weaken and fall away. But Rhett’s response was to develop a love and commitment to family that’s stronger than in almost anyone I know. He simply didn’t let me drift away. For years, no matter how ‘uppity’ and distant I got, he called, he tracked me down, he visited. He remained “Big Brother” – and friend, fan, supporter, guide. The comforting and mythic reality of “Us against the World” survived everything that might’ve pulled us apart.

I just turned sixty, and in July, Rhett will be sixty-two. And the bond between us remains as it ever was. Rhett Preston Kirby is the deepest expression of love and family that I know. He will forever be the most unique person in all my life. He is my only brother, so of course I have no basis of comparison. Yet and still, the heart has grounds for making claims that no logic or reason can undercut. I assert it because, in this life I have lived, it is true. Rhett is and has been the greatest brother I could ever have had. Without him...well, I just can’t imagine.

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