“Do we find in suffering our shared humanity? Through our wounding do we understand our own limitations and forgive the limitations of others?”

-Joe Wilkins

My brother and I have never been friends.   We simply don’t understand each other. There is a mutual misunderstanding that pulses between us and awakens a primordial need to convince the other that our way is the better, or best, way to conduct oneself.  Neither of us are happy with this kink in our adult lives. But both of us have been powerless to do much about it.

There have been times where we have come close to sharing the warmth of mutual understanding. Watershed experiences mercifully provided the proverbial glass-of-water-in-the-desert relief to our thirst for friendship. Since I am four years my brother’s senior, I walked through these moments first, my baby brother grinning and supporting me, as I would, in turn, do for him.

Attending college granted us peace in our twenties. Our primary and secondary educations lacked the essential connection between academic achievement and nurturing that is prevalent in contemporary education. If we didn’t achieve, if we needed academic help, we weren’t applying ourselves, trying hard enough, or, in my case, simply not smart enough.  Our resulting painful, near-shameful academic insecurities made earning our bachelor’s degrees seem impossible at times. We transferred schools, changed majors, tried to quit, and, as a result, got our asses kicked by our mom who would not let us quit. During these years we connected. There were several conversations about how much a class or college life in general sucks. On the eve of our cousin’s wedding, the family having come together in the south from several points north, my brother and I were so mired in schoolwork, we stayed in our hotel room all day and plowed through piles of papers and books typical of a weekend’s worth of assignments. Family members regarded our absence as rude. And they came to our room to tell us as much. We delighted in their surprise when they saw that the Chiarini kids were doing schoolwork. This was an anomaly. As was being locked down in a hotel room, he struggling with calculus and I agonizing over an essay. That day, we were academic equals. We were suffering on an equal level, in a similar situation, working towards a common goal. We had mutuality in our suffering.

Our weddings were another day where we stood together. There is a picture of my brother and I on my wedding day; he is holding one of the bridesmaid’s bouquets, grinning broadly, his arm thrown over my shoulder.  Another anomaly. He has never been physically affectionate towards me. It’s his nature – he’s an emotional carbon copy of our father. That day, however, he was completely out of his usual reserved shell. He was being silly, so much so that he busted out some slick breakdancing moves at the after party in the hotel lounge. He choreographed photo ops and cracked jokes with my ex-husband’s groomsmen, whom he had just met. My memory of him from that day is one of vibrancy. A vibrancy I hadn’t seen before and have not seen since.  But this was not an easy day for my brother. He knew, really knew, that I was marrying the wrong man. And even more difficult for him, as I would learn a decade later when we sat down for dinner and I told him the marriage was over, was his knowledge that he had to let me make this mistake. He knew that if he opened his mouth, I would have shut him down, as is typical of anyone in a similar situation. What my brother would learn at that dinner was that I, too knew I was marrying the wrong man on my wedding day and was wishing someone would set me straight.  We were equally wounded, aware of our limitations and the limitations of the other.

I’d like to say that becoming parents was a milestone that brought us closer, but, sadly, it caused some fissures in the already tenuous bond. My children are adopted, proudly and by choice. While the medical complications that would have ravaged my body were revealed after the adoptions, I knew, simply, deeply that pregnancy was not the path I was meant to take. This confounded my brother. And while he loves his niece and nephew, and shows no prejudice towards them, when the subject of their biological families, with whom I have close friendships, comes up, his face twists and reveals his still-unresolved perplexity. That face is familiar to me, and I want to slap it off his head when it arrives. Instead, I catch myself, stop talking about them, and fall silent. In my head I am screaming, “you asshole! Why is this such a problem for you?” I can only hope my face doesn’t reveal my anger. I can’t imagine, though, that it doesn’t. And the fissures grow.

I rub his nerves raw, make him defensive, and cause him anger. We have had the same fight again and again. A couple of years ago, I was cleaning out boxes bulging with books and papers from college. In one, I found emails from him chastising me for my personality, for being who I am; painful words that I had heard from him, in varying iterations, many times. I sat heavily on the floor, chewing my lip.

He doesn’t like my personality. It is no different from the guys who dumped me because I wasn’t their type, or from the women who find me exhausting. Some people simply don’t care to be friends with certain people, with me. It’s not my fault; and it’s not my responsibility to convince them that I am worth knowing and liking, which I had, in painful desperation, spent too much of my life doing. What I once took very personally and allowed to gash deep, bloody holes inside me, I have slowly come to learn not to take it personally.  My brother and I share DNA. But if we didn’t, if we had randomly met as people without familial ties do, we probably still wouldn’t get along. While I don’t like this, even wish it could be different, this simple conclusion has brought me peace both in the relationship I have with my brother as well as with others. It’s nothing personal.

This didn’t stop us from clashing. Historically, our fights are furious and uncompromising. They are ugly.  This recent conflict had the potential to be a repeat of history. I saw the patterns emerging. I recognized the futility of the situation. I felt a familiar urge to defend, demean, wound, and attempt to shatter him; my anger bubbled to the brim, acidic and sharp. I didn’t want to let my destructive, primordial urges take control. I knew they would, though; I have since learned my limitations. And, as such, I recognized the limitations of our relationship. It’s nothing personal. So rather than trying to talk it out, which never worked, I walked away. I abruptly collected my children and, equally abruptly, left the restaurant where we clashed. I needed, desperately, not to convince or plead for understanding, which was nothing short of self-torture, but to protect myself and get away.

I sat in the small rental car, breathing deeply, encouraging my heart to stop racing. My children, having heard my brother yell at me, were thankful that we left.  I listened to their chatter, their lack of fear, sadness or confusion and felt a calm, sad certainty that walking away was the only recourse.

Five days later my brother sent me an email. In it, apology was twisted with self-pity and bound around put-downs and insults.

It hurt. And made me angry. And made me sad. For in his angry words, I saw myself, my own words, as I would have spoken them a few years ago. I felt the scars of twenty-year-old wounds throb. I drafted a furious, cold-hearted reply rife with mutual insults and then quickly hit ‘delete.’ The old wounds’ painful throbbing eased. Then I carefully drafted a reply that reflected what I would have needed – words that were sincere, simple, and kind, not defensive or confrontational, devoid of points meant to enlighten or attempts to change opinions. It wasn’t an easy reply to draft, and, two days later, I still haven’t sent it. His email revealed that my brother is struggling with the same pain that very recently knocked me so low as to have me contemplate taking my life. I need to tread lightly, to be supportive. To not fall prey to my familiar, destructive patterns. The past three years have forced me to self-examine and probe some ugly places inside me. I had to acknowledge my limitations and forgive myself. As such, I am able to see past the anger and the insults in his words, to further understand my limitations, and to forgive him his limitations caused by his suffering that might one day bring us to mutuality.

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