Did you know I had a brother? Me neither. I was fifty-eight when I found out about him, just before my mother died a few years ago. He is five years older than me, and today is his birthday. I woke up this morning and wept with gladness that I have a brother.
“My brother Pete.” I say the words “my brother” now, and realize that never in fifty-eight years have I uttered them together. I have two sisters, and “my sisters” has come out of my mouth more times than I can possibly imagine, but “my brother” has been said by me one hundred and fifty-nine times. I have tracked the number of times since I heard the news. I like that the number can only go up, and each time it does, I feel he has a larger place in my life.
Pete is a gentle giant of a man, but not lacking in manly verve. We look a lot alike. He is a nicer person than me, and somehow, I think he might be what my mom would have been if things had been different.
I attended my niece’s baby shower last fall, and many people came over and said, “You must be Pete’s sister; you look alike.”
“I am,” I said proudly. “I am.” A few of them knew the story, and we chatted briefly about it, but there was one who didn’t. “I wonder that we haven’t met,” she said, confused.
“Well, Pete and I just found out about each other a year ago,” I answered, which is generally a show stopper. She was very kind, and I felt teary and moved on.
The story is not an unusual one for my mom’s generation. It was 1948, and my mom got pregnant just before leaving for her first year at college. She didn’t tell anyone, but her mother who after confronting her during Christmas break about her growing girth, sent her to Philadelphia to live with a doctor and his wife during her last five months. She returned a week or so after giving him up for adoption, and he was never spoken of again. In fact, my aunt, who has now come clean about her part of the secret, told me that although they lived in the same house, she never knew about the pregnancy until my mom told her many years later.
I asked my mom why she never told us. She said she was afraid we would hate her. “Hate you?” I said incredulously, “Do you think so little of us that you believe we would judge you for what you did back then?” She didn’t answer me — or by not answering, I guess she did. But for me, there are two amazing lessons to be learned from this whole thing, and I am determined to learn them and to live them.
My mom was always “not there” in my recollection. We all remember differently, and I’m not saying my sisters would concur. I’m just saying that for me, she always seemed far away. But it never, ever occurred to me that she had a secret. Something that happened long before I came on the scene, something that changed her forever. I know it changed her. We spent a number of afternoons talking about it as she was dying, and the way she told the story, the things that mattered enough to her to recount, told me how much it meant. Her secret, in my opinion, kept a wall between the life she was living and the life she bore and gave away.
She told me that back then, they were not supposed to let you see the baby, or even know its gender. But right after he was born, as they were whisking him away, a kind nurse leaned over and whispered to her, “It’s a boy. He’s perfect. Don’t worry.” She never got to see him. Well, I have seen his baby pictures now, and he looks exactly like my mom did when she was born. Sky-blue eyes. Round, serious face. Mother. Son.
This next part of the story is something I know to be true, although some in my family don’t believe it. Pete lived in Westport, Connecticut growing up. My mom told me that she had taken my younger sister and me to a Fourth of July parade in Westport when I was seven. I sort of remember it. I remember pictures of it in the picture drawer for sure, but they are nowhere to be found now. She said she looked up, and she saw him walking in the parade as part of a Boy Scout troupe. She knew it was him. I asked him if he had marched in a parade, and he said he had. Here is the thing: she never saw him when he was born. She was watching a parade with a zillion people and noises and her two small girls, and she saw him, and she knew it was him. She went home a mess, apparently. She must have loved him a lot. She must have looked for him everywhere her whole life, and the terrible, terrible secret that she kept from everyone — and I mean everyone — made her distant from us all as she lived those two lives.
So, lesson one: Do not assume, Christine, that you know all there is to know about the people you think you know all there is to know about. Do not assume you know why they are the way they are, and if you have a grain of goodness in you, give them just a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, and consider the possibility that if their behavior hurts you, it may have nothing to do with you. What a relief. What a gift. Thank you, Mom. Thank you my brother (#160) Pete.
The second lesson is one that is true for us all. Do not agree to keep secrets. Be the one who says, “Please don’t tell me a secret, because I do not wish to have the burden of keeping it. It separates me and us from others who matter, and I don’t want to do it.” Like many American families, I come from a long history of family secrets. “Don’t tell your father you broke the window.” “Don’t tell mom.” “Don’t tell anyone…” Each and every time I found out about a secret kept from me by those close to me, I have felt betrayed, and — more important — just a little more distanced from the person who did it. I have more secrets than I can even remember. I am the secret maker. I am the secret keeper. And now I want to be the secret slayer.
I wish my brother (#161) had come into my life earlier. I wish I could have seen him enter the Hall of Fame as a off shore power boat racer. Yep, he is brave and steady and sure-footed, I say proudly. I wish I could have called him during my divorces and met for a burger at his famous restaurant under Interstate 95 in Westport. I wish I could have met his kids early enough to matter more to them. I wish I could have been in the pictures I’ve seen of his wedding. I wish his wife and I could have been real friends for the past thirty years instead of Facebook friends now. I wish this weren’t so hard, to find a way to be in all their lives without seeming pushy or ridiculous.
But I am so very, very grateful that I get to wish him a happy sixty-fifth birthday. I sent him a card that is about sisters and brothers, which is not so much true for us presently as it is a wish for our future. I wish him the very best of birthdays, and I will think of my mom on that day sixty-five years ago, and how the nurse leaned down and said, “He’s perfect.” My brother (#162) is perfect.
Happy Birthday, Pete! Love you, Bro.