Sometimes, at the oddest moments, your life just suddenly makes sense. Without warning, the answer to a question you hadn’t even realized you’d asked comes to you like a bolt of lightning out of the sky, and suddenly the clouds part. Had that today driving to work.
Right about the time my sister arrived on the scene, I began to realize my parents had certain expectations of me, expectations that weren’t being asked of my brother, but were unique to me. It was never vocalized, my mom and dad never pulled me aside and explained this was how it was going to be; nevertheless, I slowly began to feel the weight: I was the child that was supposed to set the example for his siblings; out of the three of us, I was to be the responsible one.
I’m the eldest, so an argument can be made that it’s expected the first born should shoulder extra responsibility; I was a bright, precocious child, so an argument could also be made that with my extra gifts more should be asked; I personally think it was the fact I was sensitive and far more intuitive than most children my age that brought on the added responsibility – as I said, my parents never said “This is who we want you to be”… but I could tell that is what they were thinking. Whatever the reason, once I knew what was expected of me, I did try to inhabit the role.
I did a piss-poor job. I sucked.
On the surface I did well: well-mannered and polite, I was a hit amongst my grandparents, aunts and uncles; intelligent and articulate, I was a hit amongst my parents’ friends; quick to martyr myself for a cause, I was a hit amongst the Scouting leaders; but I hated the dull monotony of homework and rarely did my overnight assignments; I bristled at having to do chores without compensation and often procrastinated until the wee hours of the night: I balked at needing to watch my siblings, especially Kelly my brother, who was already just as big as I was, preferring to let my kin run amok while I read a book, drew a comic, or watched cartoons. I had no urge for academic excellence, no need to join a sports team, no desire to learn to build houses and follow my dad into the family trade, and no initiative to start my own business to help the clan make ends meet. I was, without a doubt, a suck-ass role model.
What I wanted was to be left alone to embrace and follow my inspirations; what I wanted was to be around people who shared my passions; what I wanted was to exchange ideas and argue their merits with individuals who understood not just the vocabulary I used, but the concepts behind them. What I wanted was to wear black clothes, write poetry, compose songs, draw naked women, and be the bohemian-hippy artist of the family. What I wanted was to be the rebel.
My brother looks like a man with a couple of overnight jail stays in his past: long hair, tattooed arms the size of barrels, black Led Zeppelin t-shirt with the sleeves torn off. He’s rarely seen without a lit cigarette and a Budweiser in his hand, and though laid-back and soft-spoken, he possesses a deep baritone that booms like cannon-fire when his patience is finally at an end. My brother looks like the guy you pray your daughter doesn’t bring home to meet your spouse and your son doesn’t meet all alone in a dark alley.
And yet my outlaw little brother married a single mom and took her daughter to raise as his own without a moment’s hesitation; works weekends and holidays to make sure his children have shoes that fit; donated his time and equipment to help my parents build their dream house in the country without complaint one; and has never gone more than a week without a job so the roof stays over his family’s heads. My hoodlum brother put his own dreams on hold until his fortieth birthday, when he finally borrowed an old practice drum kit and taught himself to play Southern rock, practicing three hours every night after work for two years straight. My working class, blue-collar brother is one of the few people I know who can always be counted on to answer the phone and come rescue your ass day or night without fail.
Looking at the facts, looking at our personalities and how we now live our lives so many years later, it has become very clear to me that Mom and Dad got it wrong, that I got it wrong, and most importantly that the Universe got it wrong: it was my brother, Kelly, who was meant to be the responsible one; it was my brother who was meant to be the role model. I was meant to be the flaky dreamer, the idealist who wouldn’t settle for a job but instead yearned for a calling. I was meant to be the overlooked one; Kelly was meant to be the family’s standard bearer.
Too bad the universe doesn’t do do-overs – I can’t help but wonder who Kelly might have been had the expectation I felt been his to shoulder instead. Would he have been the Army sergeant, medals on his chest and a combat patch on his shoulder? I think so – he’s a born leader, always has been. I can’t help but wonder what I’d been like without the expectation weighing me down. Would I have majored in music? I think so – music is in my soul, always has been. I probably wouldn’t have the knife wound, but then again, Kelly wouldn’t have spent over a year excommunicated from the family.
This isn’t an indictment of my parents – they are wonderful and I think they did a great job raising three very different kids. Had I been them, I’d have picked me to be the role model, too. And no one put a gun to my head and said “The role of Big Brother is yours, you must own it” – I chose the part of my own free will. But it’s a part I was never suited to play, and since it is my choice after all, I turning the role down.
I’m going to try the role of Keith: singer, artist, writer, bohemian and all-around renaissance man. And I think I’ve got a shot at playing that part well.