Little Bro Crosses Over

John through the ages.

John through the ages.

When your youngest child is born long after the others, he or she often spends an inordinate amount of time being “the baby.” These bumper crop kids are fussed over, cooed at and petted far longer than the others. When the adult siblings visit, the youngest often enjoys a short time playing piggyback or Mario Kart, then goes back to the safe spot under mom or dad’s wing while the adult kids talk about music, relationships and Breaking Bad.

But at some point, and sometimes it’s hard to pin down, the relationship changes. The youngest goes from being a pet to a peer, and for their parents this transition is bittersweet. We watch with love, pride and a little regret as the bonds strengthen between our little one and our older ones; as their universe of shared interests grows larger; as the conversations between them become more easygoing and filled with cultural references that we don’t understand.

Our son John recently celebrated his 16th birthday. As our youngest child – with a full 10-year point spread from our second youngest – John was the baby for far too long. We fretted over him, protected him, did far too much for him at times. He looked to us constantly for reassurance. But little by little something happened, and we can’t pinpoint exactly when it began, no more than we could have predicted the onset of adolescence through the gradual emergence of downy facial hair. He quietly migrated from our orbit to his siblings’.

Aiding that process is John’s maturing personality, which is delightful. Not that it wasn’t wonderful before now, but it is less childlike and more adult-like and appealing to older people every day. He has a wry way of looking at the world, an ability to detect subtle humor, a keen appreciation of rock and roll from all eras, and a fascination with fast cars (also from all eras). He appreciates Pawn Stars, Pokemon and Monty Python. He sets the table without being asked and clears the table cheerfully. While he once clung to us, he is also far more at ease going off on his own with people closer to his own age.

John marked his 16th birthday relaxing by the pool with some of his closest guy friends. Bob and I could not be there for the entire party so his 27-year-old brother Ben served as “the chaperone” until we got home. But as I watched the guys banter, talk and play video games, I realized that the relationship was more peer than parent. It doesn’t seem a whole 16 years ago that Ben and our other four children were in the hospital delivery room, only 15 minutes after John was born. They held their infant brother carefully, like a piece of crystal that they were afraid they would break. A few months later, during a beautiful fall afternoon at a local country fair, our son Jesse, then the age John is now, asked if he could carry around his baby brother because he would be a “chick magnet,” a hunch that proved correct.

John, often in his car seat, was a frequent fixture at my daughter Rachel’s hockey and softball games. When John was 3, Ben would carry him around on his back and pantomime his favorite TV wrestlers’ best moves. John would squeal with delight when Ben pretended to “finish” him through such medieval-sounding moves as the “tomb stone pile driver” or the “suplex.” We have videos from that time, trapped on mini cassette tapes from a broken video cam and now unplayable on DVD, Blu-ray or any of our other devices.

Over the past few months I’ve had to realize that John is growing up and I need to begin bowing out. I have hung back and let him have his private time with his siblings. I stayed out of earshot and watched John deep in conversation with his brother Ryan and Ryan’s friend David, both visiting from England. I stayed in the kitchen while John watched the latest wrestling pay-per-view with Ben and his friend Tom, when they talked animatedly and knowledgebly about the wrestlers’ colorful backstories and signature moves. The former “chick magnet” now enjoys talking about cars with fellow motor-head Jesse. A few months ago, when we visited Bob’s family and Rachel in California, I hung back while Rachel took John to the beach for surfing lessons and on a tour of Los Angeles, Venice Beach and Hollywood. He came back sunburnt but happy, proud that he finally stood up on a surfboard and filled with memories of special times with his sister.

Parents make a child’s earliest memories, and if we have done our job right the good times will burn more brightly than our inevitable mistakes. But at some point children begin making their own memories, and we are no longer the director or the lead characters. A key breakout for kids like John is transitioning from the role of “little brother” to simply “brother.” For a parent, it is beautiful as well as difficult to watch.

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How do we manage the end game?

Talked to my mom this morning, our usual Sunday morning ritual, and she shared a story that is troubling to any of us in middle age and worried about our aging parents. I’ll tell it here without any judgment and let you think for yourself.

Mom volunteers at a local school, and was going through her yearly orientation meeting when she a teacher whom I will call Anne. At 56, Anne is dealing with a series of interrelated tragedies, which she recounted to Mom. She has been caring for her mother-in-law, stricken with Alzheimer’s. Her father-in-law’s health also recently took a turn for the worse. Along with caring for her ailing in-laws, Anne also is dealing with severe storm damage to her home – including a flooded basement and uprooted trees — which her homeowners insurance will not cover.

Overwhelmed by these pressures, Anne and her husband Jack asked her sister-in-law Janine, an unmarried teacher in her 40s, to step in and take over the parents’ care. With no husband or family of her own, Janine had given her heart and soul to her career and to generations of students, and she loved teaching. Taking care of her ailing parents became a fulltime job, and Janine had to abandon the career that she loved. Depressed, she killed herself.

This story raises a lot of questions. Couldn’t the parents have gone into a nursing home? Didn’t they have a house that could have been sold to finance that? Couldn’t Jack and Janine contributed towards paying for someone else to step in and care for the aging couple at home? Would a more resilient person than Janine have toughed it out? If insurance had paid to fix the overwhelming problems in Ann and Jack’s home, would the couple have had more strength to be caretakers?

We always hope that we won’t have to face tragic circumstances like these, but the fact remains that many of us will as our parents age. I know of several middle-aged friends facing the anguish of watching a parent transformed by dementia or Alzheimer’s, and making difficult choices as to whether to care for them at home or institutionalize them. Some are empty nesters; others are still raising kids – including good friends of ours who are taking care of their three children and a woman with advanced Altzheimer’s in a very small home. Some are families with money; others are struggling. The choice doesn’t seem to be any easier.

In my family we tend to dance around the question of “what if?” My mom tells us to “Call in Dr. Kevorkian” if she ever gets that bad; never mind that he’s dead and we’d never think of doing it anyway. My mother-in-law, who is in robust health, has long-term care insurance; my father-in-law, whose health is worse, does not.

It’s easy to question why Anne’s family tragedy happened and offer suggestions on how it could have been prevented. It’s harder though to see your way clearly when it happens to you. Maybe we boomers need to spend more time planning for the end game, even if it means asking tough questions.