Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cheese and Little Cheese

My brother’s friends called him Cheese and they called me Little Cheese (because of our last name). When they used to come to our house for Big Time Wrestling on TV, I was afraid to enter the living room because, invariably, one of them would grab me like a battering ram and slam me into the turnbuckle, that is, the back of the couch. My brother Ken did nothing to protect me. But then, how could I expect any help from the guy who thought it was funny to pick me up by the head and lift me to the ceiling? For most of my childhood, the only words I remember him saying to me were, “What’s it to ya, punk?” It sounds like child abuse, doesn’t it? Well, with six years between us, it was just a typical brother/sister relationship.

A year ago at Christmastime, I made the trek to Cincinnati to spend time with my brother and his family. Our sister Wendy and her husband were flying in from Massachusetts so we could all be together, but a snowstorm kept them away. So, for the first time ever, I found myself alone with my brother. Every day when his wife left for work, it was just the two of us. At first I wasn’t sure how to deal with it; I felt trapped. But what a gift this was! We talked for hours on end. We laughed, and we cried. We compared notes from childhood about things we had never shared with one another before, particularly from the time when our father died. I was 6 and Ken was 12 when the event occurred that forever changed us. After our dad died, Ken was a mess. The only thing that saved him was this girl he met in a bowling league back when he was in junior high. He and Judy are still together. And in many ways, she’s still saving his life.

Last week I went back to Cincinnati and I stayed at Ken and Judy’s place. In the morning, they were both gone, so I was in their home alone. I walked from room to room, looking at the framed photos, thinking about how my brother has built his life around his family. His three children all have families of their own now, and they live nearby, so he continues to be a big part of their lives. As someone who grew up with a father who disappeared, Ken has been everything his father couldn’t be. He’s provided a stable, abiding presence in the lives of his children. I have such admiration for him. It’s hard to believe that the big brother who tormented me when I was little has grown into the man I now see in the pictures on his mantle. He’s the kind of man anyone would want for a dad, or a husband… or a brother.

Several years ago, they found a tumor in Ken’s brain. It's cancerous. Since then, he’s been doing everything he can to fight against it so he can buy himself more time with the people he loves. For a long while he held the tumor at bay, but lately it’s been advancing. This presents him with some extra challenges. He has lost the use of his left arm, and his ankles and toes conspire against him so that walking is difficult. Two of the things that are as strong as ever, though, are his mind and his sense of humor.

There are some obvious parallels with our father, who died of ALS. Once Ken told me how it bothered him that so many people only remember our dad being sick and he worried that his grandchildren would one day think of him like that. There is so much more to him than his illness. Yes, dealing with the cancer has become a big part of his life. But it is by no means the center of his life. That center continues to be his family and the people he cares about. I hope his grandchildren will always remember that about him.

It’s hard for me to know quite what to do with all this. My family has never been mushy-gushy. We were never huggers growing up, and we didn’t say things like “I love you” to one another. Fortunately, we’re learning to express such things as older adults. Still, I wish there was a way I could tell my brother how proud I am to be his sister and how blessed I have been to have him in my life. A parting hug and “I love you” seem so inadequate. But if I know my brother at all, he gets that. He has developed a deep empathy over the past few years; although his body may be fading, his sense of compassion is in full bloom. So I have to trust that he knows how much he means to me.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

What an exquisite tribute to your brother! He is a remarkable person who is loved by three remarkable women. Thanks for posting this essay and the picture.