I don’t know too many people who didn’t hate their sibling. Hate them with the kind of deliberate intensity of a chemical burn. Who didn’t dream fondly of their sibling’s annihilation, preferably under circumstances in which the remaining child could be cast as some kind of brave, forlorn hero, treated to a sympathetic over-supply of ice-cream by misty-eyed adults who might also forget about maths homework for awhile. This is perfectly natural. Honestly, what kind of idiot would stand for the peculiar torture of having a pre-verbal arranged-marriage foisted upon them? And not just any arranged marriage, but a kind of polygamist, fundamentalist LDS culty mash-up in which you are forced to love this stranger in the same household with the actual Biggest Love of Your Life? (Yes, that’s Mum or Dad, but you’re young, you don’t get out much).
So who could blame you for fixing a laser-gaze on this little love rival and trying to straighten out the requirement – to feign undying devotion to your beloved’s younger mistress? Seriously? Or to their bogan, layabout bit on the side? And not just love this person, but share all your meagre possessions with them; your friends, your lolly-stash, your treasured pets, perhaps even your own goddamned bed? You are encouraged to swear oaths of protection to them, to present them with humiliating gifts chosen by your true love on your behalf at the certain times of year when these odious pricks are feted, and to spend more time with them – these usurpers, these rat bastards – than anyone else you might choose to know. Love them? You’d have to be particularly stupid to accept this preposterous attempt at physcological reprogramming. But you aren’t stupid. You’re in love with their protector – and that’s all that’s standing between them and a good drowning.
So what to do? You learn fast that resistance is futile. Reports of various outrages, lies, hurts and wrongdoings are never met with justice only punishment to your own person for ‘dobbing’. The whole situation is Orwellian in its operational language, Stalinist in its acts of bleak suppression and Dancing With The Starist in its hopeless duration. Other – wiser – mammals know this. When the one-too-many polar bear cub turns from runt to popsicle his siblings don’t wail with grief. They don’t even look backwards as they head off down the tundra behind Mum with some added spring in their fluffy little footfalls. In the battle for the love and resources of a parent, they know the bleeding obvious – that less is more.
Did I hate my brother? I can’t remember it, but I must have. Why? Because I was a clever child and adored both my parents. Added to that he had already committed the twin sins of being both younger (therefore severely developmentally delayed to my reading of the situation) and a boy. You know, a boy? Has a weird, rude hose for a front bottom? Likes dumb toys? No dresses of his own? That kind of shit. Love this creature? The best you can hope for in these situations is probably what we achieved. A kind of passive-aggressive emotional cocktail of Stockholm Syndrome blended with a highly dysfunctional workplace relationship. It’s not exactly a nurturing foundation, but it’ll prevent someone from getting shot.
My sibling developed type 1 diabetes when he was four. This disease has all kinds of implications, but the only parts of meaningful concern to a child is that they are going to have to deal with the single most hideous scourge of the youngster – needles, injections, syringes – on a twice daily basis (this kind of horror has no adult equivalent, I’m not even going to reach for one), as well as the absolute denial of what for children is the direct adult equivalent of the best top-shelf porn, booze, cocaine, live music and hot sex experience you’ll ever have rolled into one neon-pulsing kernel of desire – candy. Gone overnight. Verboten. The Dutch have an expression which translates roughly to ‘the devil always shits in the same pile’ and I’d say the evidence in the case of infant acquired diabetes bears it out. Punished enough for me, do you think? My love rival? Was the usurper fittingly crushed? Nay, the tale darkens.
With anything he might ever actually want to snack on off the menu entirely, from cake or grilled cheese to a bag of lollies or a humble breakfast pancake at McDonalds, treats for my brother were now pretty much restricted to pickles. Yup. Pickled cucumbers. Zero calories yet naughtily salty with a somewhat exciting crunch. Here you are, poor bruised, pale pin-cushion of a darling boy, eat as many pickles as you like! There’s more where that came from! And tiny soldier that he was, my brother even learned to like them. Hell, even I like pickles. Love them in fact. But did that stop me from using my two and a half year head start in linguistics and court politics to turn his one safe snack into a source of derision and contempt? Did it prevent me from carefully scribing the crude missive ‘Pikel Breth’ and pinning it to his door so that yea, all men who pass this house shall know that he who inhabits it is unclean and has the odour of dill and brine upon his toddler-sized tongue? No. No it did not. I did this thing and many others that, with the help of wine and sedatives I can’t remember, because he was my sibling and so I had no choice.
And now? Well, sonny, pull up a chair. Funny thing happened on the way to adulthood. We became adults. And an adult, if you’re lucky (and if you didn’t kill them before you knew they’d be so useful), can have no greater, longer, truer love in life than their sibling. The day came many years ago when I hailed Pikel Breth and kneeled before his mightiness. When I raised a glass to this superior human being and was struck dumb by the realisation that I had once shared a womb with such an utterly magnificent person, and it was as magical a moment as finding out that David Attenborough, Johnny Depp, Bill Bryson and Ira Glass all put you as number one on their ‘people you’d most like to get stuck next to on a plane ‘ list. (Note: this did not happen, but thanks to earning the love of my brother, I know what it would feel like).
Because it’s when shit goes truly, terribly wrong and you realise you’re dialling your own personal Pikel Breth first – despite the resources of say, two amazing parents, a trusted step-parent, some highly skilled BFFs and one incredible super-lover such as the Boy – that no one else on your version of Earth can handle that kind of call without some kind of damage or blowback to themselves. Some kind of judgement. Some kind of this-will-haunt-you-forever, some kind of ‘where did I/we go wrong? What could we have done? What should I have noticed? Did I do this? How can I fix this into the future? Is it me? Is it us?’ devolving into a Joss Whedon ‘Where do we go from here?’ Buffy medly.
Your sibling – ironically after being told they’re responsible for you for their entire childhood – understands they aren’t fucking responsible for you. They alone have this version of love for you. They continue to love you with that same perfect, molecular certainty that used to be hatred. If you screwed up, if you want to die, if you caused someone else to screw up or want to die – hey, they get it, they love you, they’ll fix it, but they know they didn’t make it. And that these calls will probably keep coming for the rest of their lives. So they’ll deal with it and roll over. Call you next week to ask for a recipe or how to best remove cat poo from something odd. Your adult sibling is just like the Ghostbusters, yes, all of them, rolled into one. They understand that ghosts are just…there. Needing containment. Slime eradication. Possibly a secure vault. Whatever, but the Ghostbusters aren’t losing sleep on how the ghosts got in or what this might mean. They’re just here to help. Why? Because it’s what they do. They were made for it. Turns out so were you.
And so if my fellow cub should falter and slow in the snow, I’d hunker down beside him and wait to freeze too. No hesitation*.
*I should point out that I just flew him to Bali to hang out with me instead – it’s less noble but also much warmer.