Apartment 53

Apartment 53 was my first apartment in NYC where I lived on my own, and thus, where I really think of my life as a Manhattan woman beginning. I've always been fascinated by NYC apartments. Giant buildings filled with people, each with their own story. Windows everywhere. And I always wonder: what's behind them? What do people see when they look in from the outside? What is the real story of the person who lives behind that glass? This is my blog. A real story from a Manhattan apartment.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Oh, Brother

I once read somewhere that there is no greater impact on a woman’s life than the relationships she has with the men who cross her path. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that mine have not always been positive. My parents split when I was ten in an at first, amicable, and then later, tumultuous divorce – the result being that I have not spoken to my biological father in seventeen years. My mother went on to soon remarry. I was eleven when my mom and step-dad met, and nine months later, the day before my twelfth birthday, they were wed. My step-father took my sister and me in to his home as if we were his own. The typical challenges facing a typical step-family were all there. New house, new rules, new parent, new everything… and very little of the old. Every little thing was a big, giant adjustment. But over time, everything somehow fit together. Eventually, we all forgot what came from my mom’s condo and what was already in my step-dad’s house when we moved in. No one really remembered if that antique desk came from my maternal grandparents or my step-dad’s great aunt. The family photos on the mantle went from looking like two families sharing one house to ones that looked like we all shared a last name. My family was now blended. And while my mother and step-father worked hard to make that a possibility, its ultimate success is entirely attributable to someone else.

My step-father brought with him to his marriage to my mom, a son. My brother, an only child, was just sixteen when his mother died tragically. Not even two years later, just months before he left for college, his father took in a new wife, and two new daughters – one of them (me,) with a little bit of an attitude problem. Brother kicked off the new relationships with undying devotion. He was thrilled to have two little sisters, and probably quietly thrilled that he would not be leaving his father alone in a sad, empty house when he went off to university. He created a term of endearment for my mother (SOM, short for “step-mom,”) and at a time that he could have kicked and screamed with petulance and self-righteousness that he was, after all, not necessarily ready to have a new family, Brother instead invited us in to his home, his life, his heart, with arms open as wide as the sea.

Families are challenging enough, but a blended family is something quite different. It’s nice to think that we could all fit together like “The Brady Bunch,” but everyone in the blended family comes with their own pain and fears and opinions and they must all manage to fit under one small roof. A blended family has to work harder – both as individuals and as a unit. They can not, for one moment, take for granted the very concept of family to which we should all be entitled at birth.

My sister is five years younger than me. I remember the day she was born, changing her diapers, babysitting for her when my mom had to work late, giving her medicine when she was sick, and playing dolls with her when I thought I was too grown up. With Brother, however, childhood memories I have none. We met when he was in his last year of high school and I was in my first year of difficult teenage transition. My sister, the baby, was always cute and usually easy to love. My brother snuggled her on the first day they met. I, on the other hand, thought I was too mature for a new brother’s affection, but Brother knew that I needed it. And Brother gave what I did not know I wanted.

At the time I didn’t appreciate my brother for the sacrifice he might have made in an effort to form a quick, cohesive bond in our family. At the time, I was twelve, and I was dealing with my own issues, my own anger, my own transitions, and everyone else’s came after my own. At twelve, it didn’t occur to me that anyone else could have been experiencing pain or trouble or transitional opposition… And then I grew up.

About a year and a half ago, our father (no longer step-father,) passed away. We entered the funeral home as a family, and we went to the cemetery as a family. We said the mourner’s kaddish as a family, and we sat shiva as a family. Brother, now with his own family made up of a wife and two children, at 36 had lost both of his parents. But he had us. A SOM (now called Mom,) and two sisters whose adoration for Brother was real and genuine and true. And Brother leaned on us, just as we leaned on him. During the painful process of my father’s illness, hospitalization, and slow, painful passing – we all leaned on each other. And it was never in question that any of us were grieving worse than the other. Each one of us dealt with the horror of losing a parent (and my mother, a spouse,) in our own ways. There were moments of anger, moments of intense pain and emotion, and of course (and more than often,) moments of hysterical laughter when we remembered Dad’s stories he told over and over (and over and over and over.)

Brother never pointed out that he was the one who had, more than any of us, the most reason to mourn. Instead he embraced the pain of each of us, and carried it with him, and made it part of his own. Instead of isolating himself from the rest of us as the single son who’d lost both his mother and father at age 36, he supported all of us, quietly, through his own experience and wisdom, through the mourning of our father figure. To Brother, my father had left behind three children, not just one, and while a widower, he had also left behind a wife.

There are moments that I find myself staring across a room at Brother, surrounded by his wife and adoring little girls and I feel a lump in my throat, and a tear in my eye and a heart swollen with love because I know that it is Brother who made this family work. And now, with Dad gone and Mom moving on with her life, and sisters moving on with theirs, Brother stands as the father figure to more girls than just his little ones. He has become the man of my life. Strong, wise, nurturing, and protective: the man against whom I will measure all others.