I still remember the night when I realized that my brother was not just my little brother, but a person of his own — someone with complex thoughts that went past those necessary to beat the next level of the video games he loved. I was 17 and he was 13, and somehow I was sitting on the floor of his room at three in the morning, tossing a ball back and forth with him.
He told me that he was worried about one of his friends and how controlling the friend’s girlfriend was. He told me that he was worried about another friend who was starting to fall in with the wrong crowd. He told me how the dynamics in his group of friends were already changing in seventh grade, how people weren’t talking to each other the same way they once did. He told me about drugs and how he didn’t get why people did them, but that he knew people who were doing them. He told me about the “weird” kids in his school.
I told him about my own days in middle school and how it had temporarily turned me into someone that I’m not, how I regret a lot of the things I did back then. I told him about how the line between teasing and bullying gets blurry really fast, even for someone who still struggles to deal with and understand past experiences of being bullied. I told him about how easy it is to pick on the “weird” kids because everyone else does it, too.
He thought about that for a moment, bouncing the ball back to me. And then he said that he hadn’t done that, but that he understood that, too.
He told me about things I never knew he even knew about, shared thoughts that I didn’t know could be so complex, and spoke about worries I didn’t know he had. I remember being amazed that this middle school kid, whom I had known his entire life, who was four years younger than me, could be so insightful without meaning to be.
I used to write my brother off really easily. To me, he was just the younger sibling who went to school, played video games, texted his friends, ate, and slept. He didn’t do as well in school as I did, which I knew frustrated our mom all the time (and still does today).
But I’ve paid more attention to my brother since that night we shared three years ago, even if he doesn’t realize it. I’ve learned so much from him. I’ve learned that he approaches life differently than I do. His approach is not better or worse — just different. He prioritizes his friendships, whereas I prioritize school. When I switched schools in high school, I failed to keep in touch with my old friends and didn’t want to make new ones. I even told my parents, “I’ll be out in three years, anyway, so why does it matter?” When my brother was uprooted and moved across state lines from Colorado to California last year, and went to three different high schools in the first semester of his freshman year, he struggled, but still managed to message and FaceTime with his friends every day, just like he always had. He even insisted on going back to Colorado to visit them. He made friends with kids at the school he attended in California for just a few weeks and still keeps up with them today. My brother isn’t the type to write people off easily — like I used to do with him.
He doesn’t spend hours studying and doing homework like I did in high school. He doesn’t get involved in a million extracurricular activities like I did in a wild attempt to be part of nearly every organization and honor society. But he sends me cheesy Hamilton jokes on Instagram at four in the morning and tells me about a great John Oliver segment he watched recently. He spends hours handcrafting a wand to go with his Harry Potter costume for Halloween. He talks with the old lady who lives upstairs and eats the meals she cooks for him. He finds joy in the $1 food deals at the gas station on his way home from school, and tells me about the couple of bucks he gives to the homeless father with a baby girl on the street.
He rolls his eyes at me for the things and people I fall in love with, but I know he’s listening and noticing the things I care about. I’ve trained Taylor Swift lyrics into his mind since he was little, and he’s followed me into Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Ed Sheeran, and Hamilton — half because he likes them and half because I’ve talked about them or played the music so much that he has no other choice. I know he’s listening when I talk about the more serious stuff, like Brock Turner and the importance of consensual sex, or why it’s so important to be an educated voter.
I know he's listening to the rest of the world, too. I know he's listening to marginalized voices by the way he spent the day after the election baking my chocolate chip cookie recipe for a bake sale to raise money for local refugees. I saw it in the pictures he sent me of his carefully wrapped cookies and heard it in his voice, brimming with pride, when he told me his cookies had sold out. I didn't even know that that was something he was involved with until he asked me what to do about the chocolate chips that melted together in the L.A. heat. And I know he's listening to the good in the world when he tells me that despite the years of progress we may lose, “we can get it back.”
He listens in a way that I’ve never quite learned. He’s quiet, whereas I’m loud — probably a result of growing up with an older sister who never shuts up. He takes his time, whereas I am ambitious and feel like I have a clock ticking loudly in my head as the seconds of my life are lost forever. He’s giving, whereas I am selfish, and he takes more time to get really, truly angry, whereas I go off on raging rants on a daily basis. It doesn’t mean he cares any less, though, as I learned that night with the bouncy ball. It just means that he internalizes more.
I don’t call him enough to say hi because, as usual, I’m too wrapped up in my own life. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about him. And, being my brother, he lets me know that he’s thinking about me by sending me weird videos of Mom on Snapchat and texting me the names of singers he thinks I’ll like.
He’s teaching me the value of listening and of prioritizing people and relationships. He’s teaching me the value of having a smaller group of people and things to care about, teaching me that I don’t have to be doing everything. He’s teaching me how I can let people know I’m thinking about them with just a simple text or YouTube video. He’s teaching me the value of moving more slowly, of not racing to check the next box on my list. And sometimes it frustrates me, how different he is from me, how slowly he moves through life, or how little ambition I think he shows.
But he’s also teaching me that different isn’t bad or worse. It’s just different.
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