Welcome to Part Six. In Part Five I shared a very cursory view of a journey down a road from which few recover. With what can fairly be thought of as a new lease on life, I had some ground to make up. The only question for which I had no answer was this: In what direction do I go? One can reasonably assume that my childhood interests might be a useful compass. Did I consult that compass? Don’t I wish! Alas, wishing I had does me no good, though that does not stop me from doing so from time to time. I consulted the reactions of others. To some extent, I have always had an external locus of identity. Part of what drove me to make the decisions I did in my mid and late teens had a lot to do with the fact that they got me noticed. I was cool in the wrong groups who I thought were right and I distanced myself from the right groups who I thought were wrong. Carrying around the shame of the mistakes I made then and the pain they caused those who loved me the most only fortified that locus of identity. I would only love me to the extent others loved me. Regardless of how strongly I believed something to be right for me, I was guided by what I thought would please other people. I felt I had dished out enough disappointment for a lifetime in less than two years and I was not going to disappoint anyone whatsoever ever again. If that meant it was I who would be the least pleased, I could live with that.
The disastrous outcome from this approach is that I was throwing the baby out with the bath water. All that made me who I have been since birth (and before) I completely threw out the window. Making good on second chances is an opportunity too few people are offered – I am among the fortunate ones. I know this and I am grateful. My error was not keeping true to who I was at my core. I am not pig-headed or insolent at the core and never was – even when I was pretending to be exactly that.
Recall that this entire journey of capturing and sharing my story as it unfolds began when I received an email from an older biological half-brother I never knew existed. I grew up as the older brother but not having one. My brother Andrew with whom I grew up often made more rational life decisions during post-adolescence. I am convinced that his front row season tickets to the terror show I orchestrated had some influence on his decision-making about life. At times when a big brother should aid his younger siblings through the winding and trap-filled road of the teen-age years, I abdicated. Well, to call it an abdication is sugarcoating it; what I did was not even that noble. I abandoned my post – pure and simple. My only solace is that I served in some detectable role as teacher for him only by showing him what road not to take. In the more than thirty years since, I have strived to be the best big brother I can be for him.
What I lacked only due to circumstance, and not by fault of anyone, was someone in the role of older brother for me. In every multi-sibling family where the oldest sibling is male, there lacks a big brother for him. Most step up and take on the role graciously and courageously. For reasons that might be of interest to some psychologist or spiritual guru somewhere, I struggled without a big brother. Did knowing I was adopted influence this struggle? Is growing up without older siblings more challenging for adopted children? Or, as strange as it might sound, was there some cosmic or supernatural force, from which my struggles stemmed in part from knowing at a deeply subconscious level that I had siblings out in the world? I am not at the stage of ranking and yanking possibilities based on merit, so any explanation is fair game at this point.
Growing up, there were three older young men to whom I looked as filling the role of big brother – even though at the time neither they nor I had any idea. First there was Kevin. Kevin’s father and my Dad have been friends since my Dad was twenty-four years old – thirteen years before I was born. Kevin was nearly three and a half years older than me. When he and I were introduced to each other, I was two months old. Our two families hung out with each other frequently enough for me to grow to look up to him. In 1980, at the age of sixteen, Kevin was in a freak motorcycle accident and died from his injuries within a few days. I had just turned thirteen a month earlier. When I heard his father tell my Dad the news on the phone I collapsed. Any meaning of life I was developing during those formative years fell to pieces.
Prior to the loss of Kevin, Michael, whose mother has been friends with my Mom since the two were in high school, was staying with us for a while during the summer of my eleventh year while he attended an art program in Philadelphia. (His home was in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.) On the day he was to pack his things to return home, I felt I was losing something, but I did not recognize what. Years later I realized that he was the second young man I saw in a big brother role. The day he left I holed myself in my room and wept.
Years later with the terror years behind me, I found myself on a path that finally had some semblance of normalcy. My employment as the overnight shift clerk at a 24-hour convenience store coincided with (and in part was influenced by) a friendship established with some folks who operated a convenience store in the same chain in an adjacent town. Oddly, their store is walkable from the house in which I was raised while the location where I worked was about 6 miles away. One of these folks in particular, Brian, was a regular night shift employee at this other location and we got to know one another quite well. We are still in touch from time to time and I consider him a dear friend. His brother, Bob, had followed in their father’s footsteps as a carpenter. It was the mid to late 1980s and new home construction was enjoying good health. Brian left the convenience store that employed him to work with his brother. Not long after, Brian asked me if I would want to join his brother’s company with him. For me, it was like a sign from the heavens – an omen. Working a job on the midnight shift was still a little too connected to the very recent past from which I was trying to escape. I needed separation from the job as part of the process. And heck, need I even mention the preferences for being awake and asleep the same times as the vast majority of society.
In Bob, my new boss and owner of the construction company, I found yet a third person to be my pseudo older-brother. What I needed in those years, and he delivered, was someone to dish out the straight skinny on what’s up in real life as an adult and give me some advice I could sink my teeth into in the here and now. My dad certainly contributed here to the best of his ability. However, with thirty-seven years between he and I, there is enough of a generation gap to limit how thoroughly his contributions could be relevant to the nuances of coming of age in the 80s. Peer-bonding demands generational commonality.
Seeing Bob as a big brother model was unique from my earlier bonding with Michael and Kevin which both occurred long before my tumultuous time. While working with Bob I began to finally see myself as someone removed from who I was just a year or two earlier. I began to see myself as a contributing member of society rather than the maladjusted misfit I thought I was.
As a grown man, I now have an older brother in Dan. Does a boy’s need for a big brother role model attenuate as he ages? I don’t know. While it is not a belief held by all, there are plenty of academics and practitioners in psychology who boldly assert that it is complete drivel that by middle age, people are generally baked in their ways. People can evolve and become newer versions of themselves with the right effort applied the right way. I like the ring of that. I look forward to learning from Dan in the future. In both the past and present, I would look to Andrew when I sought support in areas where he was skilled and knowledgeable. Similarly, I look forward to looking to Scott in my lifelong pursuit of learning.
Between my ability to square up my cash register with ease and consistency each morning after my midnight shift at the convenience store and my ability to apply basic geometry and trigonometry to become more efficient in carpentry, I had to admit to myself I wasn’t as dumb as I had allowed myself to believe. Eventually I convinced myself I could return to school in a community college to prepare for what seemed like a good next step – working indoors away from the elements. Swinging a hammer and carrying around construction material and equipment was fun and kept me in shape as a young man. I also thoroughly enjoyed learning new things – especially from someone who was a true mechanic at his skill. Did I see myself doing this for the long haul? Not really. Reconnecting with old friends with whom I had lost touch, hearing about their progression through college and plans beyond, fired up that damn external locus of identity of mine. I needed to go to college if I was to make anything of myself. Question was, what shall I study? I had no idea. I know what I enjoy and have at times believed that was part of answering the question, but I still had no clear path. So still, I focused only on external cues and ignored internal ones.
In Part Seven, we’ll begin the wild ride of my twenties where I will continue to crawl out of the hole into which I dug myself. It starts off with unimaginable heartbreak with the power to change my life in ways that have had a long-lasting impact.
I hope you’ll stick around.