My Brother’s Keeper

If you were a kid worth your spit in my neighborhood, you had a BMX bike.

There were a couple of exceptions…

A couple of banana-seaters who were still pretty daring on skateboards and sledding hills… and my baby brother.

That kid, with his light brown curly locks and big blue eyes, could follow us anywhere. I’d dash for the door as soon as I was released from my chores or homework, but without fail that little guy would catch my eye on my way out, and simply ask, “Can I come, too?”

And even though Patton insists on memories of being sad because I left him at home, the truth is it was rare that I told him anything but yes, although I may have done my share of age-appropriate moaning and groaning about it from time-to-time.

And as long as he could keep up, NO ONE was sending him home.

The Christmas I got my BMX is seared in my memory.

Most of our childhood Christmases were donated, and I was well aware every year that it was never a given that we would receive much of anything outside of what our extended family gave us, so I was overjoyed to see that most desired of all items under the tree that year.

It was a beaut. A shiny blue Schwinn with spiked pedals and everything.

Kids these days get bikes to ride with helmets up and down the same street with their parents watching the entire time.

So lame.

Kids in my day rode bikes all over the freaking town.

A bike pretty much meant total freedom.

Oh, and that baby brother I mentioned above? He got a little training wheel bike. Bless.

God, he was cute…but that bike was getting him exactly nowhere.

It was okay, though. When he couldn’t keep up on that, he fit just fine on my handlebars.

Our neighborhood was filled with a passel of kids all around the same age, and we tended to move around as a unit, finding ways to stretch the limits of our BMX skills.

We thought we were awesome.

We loved to jump…for height, for distance, for dares… and just for the heck of it.

One afternoon, a neighbor boy brought out a new ramp he’d built for us to take turns jumping. This ramp was special. It was about three feet tall with a long slope leading up to the edge — not necessarily built for acquiring great heights, but, man, if you came at that ramp with some good speed, you could really go the distance.

You know how I know?

That day we decided to measure our jumps.

Keep in mind that these were the days before sidewalk chalk, and none of us were stupid enough to risk our lives by swiping the treasured tape measures out of our dads’ tool boxes.

So we came up with a genius plan.

We decided to use our own bodies to measure the jumps.

Laying our bodies on the pavement, making sure to place the youngest (my baby brother) on the outer edge, we started with a reasonable number – FOUR – and added children from there.

It was thrilling.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the back tire of your BMX just barely clearing the left femur of your five-year old baby brother.

I cleared six kids.

The neighbor boy who built the ramp astonished us all by clearing ELEVEN kids.

And then, as we were setting up for the next jump — where I was going to attempt seven kids (Dear God) — across the street I saw Loyce Ann Frankland, one of the moms, come crashing through her front storm door, all the parts of her body swinging with the rhythm of her frantic dash across the front yard, while screaming, “STAAAAAAAHHHHP!!”

I don’t know that hysteria and verbal thrashing is the best combination for getting a reasonable point across, because even after the massive “talking to” we received that afternoon, I was a grown-ass woman with my own children before I fully realized how serious things could have turned out that day — especially for my little brother.

Honestly, I’m not sure how my brother managed to get through second grade.

Oh, his grades were fine. It’s just that I was the one keeping an eye on him most days, and I think it’s well understood now that children don’t do a great job at taking care of children.

This wasn’t understood then, though. At least not in my house. In fact, I think my brother was considered better off if he was with me. I know I for sure felt that way.

I rarely left him at home. It was either too damn sad, too damn lonely, or worse — too damn scary.

But when I think about it now, and examine some of my behaviors towards him that conflict with the sense of responsibility that I felt for him, I can see that with the sense of responsibility and love I felt came feelings of anger and resentment.

I’m not sure how I didn’t clearly see it before. It’s kind of embarrassing, really.

I mean, the kid would lay on the floor with his giant red blanket, sucking his thumb and minding his own business, when I would walk through the room and, instead of walking around him like a normal person, or at the very least jumping over him like an active kid, I stepped ON him as I moved through the room.

What in the actual hell?

One particular display of rage left its mark on us in different, but definitely troubling ways. When Patton was three, and I was eight, I was on my bed drawing or writing something, and he wanted my attention. I was busy, so his problem-solving resources went into action to try to get my attention. Like any conniving little brat of a three-year old, he proceeded to swipe my pencil, causing me to mess up what I was doing. I asked him to stop, erased the mess and started over. He did it again. This time, I TOLD him to stop, fixed it and started over. HE DID IT AGAIN. Now furious, I did what anyone would do in the same situation…

I stabbed him in the arm with my newly sharpened pencil.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “What? That’s not a big deal.”

No. I mean.. I broke the pencil in my three-year old baby brother’s little arm.


And 40 plus years later, that lead is still there. This is the mark left on Patton.

I just about had the life beaten out of me for that, by the way.

And I 100% believed I deserved that beating. This was the mark left on me.

I still have a hard time explaining to myself that I was a child often looking after a child…and shouldn’t have been. The level of responsibility that I not only felt for my brother’s well-being, but was expected to shoulder as well, was immense. The truth is, there were times when I tried to say no to taking him along with me on my adventures — and guess what? Inevitably, I was told to “look after your brother.”

So, yeah, I felt responsible. And I felt guilty.

If I’m honest with myself, the responsibility I feel for my brother continues to be out of proportion to what is generally expected and acceptable to a typical family. I will at times make statements that cause close friends or family to stop me and remind me that he is an adult human who I am not responsible for…bringing me to tears as I try to wrap my mind around this truth that does not feel true.

So why the cruelty and dismissiveness towards him when I so clearly loved him and desired to keep him safe from whom/what we most feared?

Well, first of all I think I was just a really pissed-off kid. Pissed-off kids sometimes do mean things — especially to those closest to them.

I needed a punching bag. I needed to feel big and strong and in charge, and I was certain to feel that way when I had my baby brother in my control.

But also, I needed to take big risks so I could feel like I was in control of some of the chaos in my life, and since my brother was always with me, there was no separating him from the risk. Not in my mind anyway.

I think when you mix a craving for risk and danger like the one I had and the immaturity of an 8,9, or 10 year old… you’re just for sure creating a recipe for disaster.

Thankfully, disaster never came.

I never even broke a bone. His OR mine. He never needed stitches (I did, of course — several times) in my care, never got stung by a bee in my care… I don’t think the child even got a splinter while he was in my care.

What’s everyone griping about anyway? He’s obviously perfectly fine.

Aside from that pencil lead thing, I mean.

4 thoughts on “My Brother’s Keeper

  1. I didn’t know you at these young ages but I did when you were a teenager. I remember how you adored your little brother and thought he was the cutest thing ever.


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