Tuesday, September 17, 2013

9/18/13—Being a Man

Today's Draw: Emperor from the Tarot of the Hidden Realm in the Success position from the Deck of 1000 Spreads. What does "being a man" mean to you? How do you define a successful life? Do you have any "atypical" or "unlikely" Emperors in your life?

Yesterday (9/17) was my brother J's 55th birthday. He didn't live to see it. He died a year ago last spring of lung cancer. 

He and I didn't always get always get along. There was a time when we were good buddies. But in the years leading up to his death, I didn't like being around him. His sense of humor could be very biting and hurtful. To me, it was abusive. And I felt a need to be "in a good place" emotionally before I put myself before him. And I was rarely in such a place that I would invite that. I'm a sensitive person. You can call me a lot of names and not pierce my armor. But siblings know each other well enough to know what buttons to push. 

Straight up, this caused tension felt by the whole family. I am someone who radiates a lot of energy and my anxiety about being around my brother spread to others in the family. I'm not the only one who didn't like to be around him. And there are those in the family that were completely unfazed by him. And the person who bore the brunt of the teasing over the years was my brother R, who's gay. J would always have a gay joke ready to tell. And it didn't bother R one bit. They were best friends. R thought it was funny. Different people respond to things differently. 

When someone dies, we rarely ever speak ill of them. But truth is, this is one dimension of who J was. And it was the dimension that shaped my relationship with him for many years. Until he was told he was going to die. The minute we heard "lung cancer", years of hurt fell to the wayside. And J made sure I knew how much he loved me. And I made sure he knew how sorry I was anything that transpired between us. We were, after all, siblings. 

But there's more truth to who my brother was. Many years back he lost his job as a professional. And he was out of work for a long time. He spent that time as a house husband. My brother, the "chauvinist jock", as he was considered in the family, took a back seat to his wife, who was the main bread winner. And while he was a smart guy and capable of so much, that was the role he played in the family...the "traditionally female" role of the one with the lower salary and more time to spend with the kids. 

And you know what? He was the best damned daddy to his four kids—way more attentive and emotionally involved than his own father. He coached his son in sports. He supported his girls in all their activities. Many of his daughters' friends considered him a second father. All his kids are all high achievers, like he was. I would venture to say he never missed an important moment in his kid's lives. There are boxes of photos to prove it. Those kids worship this man. And as it turned out, his entire community lauded him. I've never seen so many people show up for a funeral before. My elderly uncles even showed up, a tribute to all the funerals J attended as the representative of our branch of the family. He was loved, respected and admired more than he ever knew. And his wife...anyone who is still that loved after 25 years is doing something right. 

So one of the things I want to say about this pairing today is that my brother's life was a big success. He manned a very successful family—a wife and four kids who thought he hung the moon. He wasn't the richest or most "corporate" guy on the block. He wasn't always the most sensitive to others' feelings. But when it came to his family and his community, the man left nothing on the table. He went all in and had the love and support to show for it. 

When I first saw this Emperor card, the Shakespearean quote "uneasy is the head that wears the crown" came to mind. And that's what made me think of J. Because the mantle he had to carry on his shoulders those five or six months between learning he had cancer and dying, was quite heavy indeed. He was a lifelong smoker. He was young. His kids were teens. His wife needed him. His one boy (in a house with four females) hadn't yet become a man. And he couldn't stay to help. He had to leave everything he built over 25 years. I can't even imagine how hard the responsibility of that must have been for him to bear. 

And instead of going out angry or bitter, he went out with grace. He made amends. He made sure everyone knew he loved them. He got his ducks in a row. The Emperor is about leadership and responsibility. My brother didn't live in a McMansion. He didn't have a bunch of degrees. His last job was doing security for the school system. I'm guessing he was smarter and better educated than most of his peers, but I'm certain they never felt that way. In his humble way, he stood out as a leader. A beacon for those who knew him and needed him. His job made it so his kids always had a parent to come home to. And when it came time to accept that his life was going to end, he went bravely and gracefully. That's what being a man is.

I lost my parents 30 years ago. I know what it's like to lose someone you love. But I wasn't prepared for what it was to lose a sibling. For 49 years, I was one of six kids. That was an identity for me. Now I'm one of five. Someone I had known and shared a life with for 49 years was gone. I had no idea how much this would hurt and continue to hurt. You expect to lose parents. But you never really thinking about losing your siblings until one is gone. 

A few days before my brother died he had an episode that landed him in the hospital. It was a Monday night and I called R and told him to rush down to me via the subway so we could go see him together. J had mentioned a month earlier that he loved my chocolate chip cookies and my fried chicken. You think you're always going to have time to cook something up, but you never do. So I hurriedly made a batch of cookies while I was waiting for R. It was naive, in a way, because J was too sick to eat. But we got to the hospital and when I saw J, he pulled me to the side and whispered in my ear, "go to the gift shop and see if they have any beer." I laughed and said I doubted they sold beer at the hospital gift shop. He was pretty delirious. But I do think he wanted a beer...haha. 

I knew I would never see him again. Some things you just know. So before I left, I made sure I told him I loved him. And then I told him that he had fought hard and now it was OK to let go. He said he loved me. And that was the last I saw of him. 

A few days later I spoke to my brother M, who drove down that night to see J before he died. M mentioned to me that J had eaten a chocolate chip cookie in front of him, probably the last thing he ever ate. He gave me forgiveness and freedom from all the issues I'd had with him for so many years. Baking cookies was all I could do in return. Because my mother worked, I was the family cook for part of J's life. I think eating that cookie was a final nod to what lay beneath 49 years of history between us. It was his final gift to his baby sister. And it will forever make me smile. 

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