Ducks in a Row

This personal essay was performed at “Oral Fixation – An Obsession With True Life Tales” at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas’ AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Have you ever wanted to understand someone so badly, even though every time you’re around them they find a way to piss you off?

I have a little brother. His name is Ben and he’s two-and-a-half years younger than me – an age gap large enough for me to view myself as a wise mentor, and small enough for him to view me as slightly taller.

We’re different people. I was a rule-following conformist before I was old enough to know how unsexy that is. I hated disappointing my parents. I was rarely grounded as a kid – not because I never messed up, but because a minor scolding made me want to go to my room think about what I’d done.

Ben, on the other hand, was never burdened by such insignificant things as disappointing people. When my parents grounded him for sneaking downstairs to use the phone after bedtime, we thought he took it really well. After the phone bill came, we realized he’d run a separate wire through the ceiling and continued making calls from the quiet comfort of his bedroom.

My father is a third-generation farmer who encouraged us to follow our passions. He hoped it would lead to emotional reward and spare us the physical wear and tear he has endured in a life of farming. The expectation was that education, specifically college, would be our ticket off the family farm in rural Iowa.

Seemed reasonable to me. Ben? Not so much. He started drumming in a garage band in high school, and stopped considering college. If the University of Iowa didn’t offer a Badass Rockstar major, what the hell good was it?

Audacious as it may have seemed to people in our tiny Mayberry-esque hometown, Ben was never afraid to share his dream. I admired that. Like the rest of my family, I worried about some of his choices, but I believed in him, and I believed in my ability to guide him as a big brother.

I was in college, pursuing my ticket to anywhere – a Communications degree. That’s when I first heard rumors of Ben’s alleged drug use. People don’t do coke in Mayberry, so this was concerning. His apartment was full of people with tattoos and glassy eyes. One could imagine this group doing drugs, but Ben assured me these were small town rumors started by people with nothing better to do. It was the first time he’d lied to my face.

Shortly after that the bottom fell out. Ben was pulled over at 2am and arrested for DUI, possession of a controlled substance, and hit-and-run. He didn’t have a license to give the police because they had revoked it on a previous stop. So instead, what he gave them was my name and address, so he was charged AS ME. The next morning, Ben’s girlfriend bailed him out of jail, and I started receiving phone calls from people who read about “my” arrest in the newspaper.

The very definition of “up shit creek” could be: stealing one’s identity after having burned so many bridges you have only that person to ask for money. And he did! He asked me to help pay fines he got stuck with trying to stick me with a DUI.

I wasn’t feeling particularly helpful. But I wasn’t pissed either. I was disappointed. The kind of disappointed I always feared making other people feel. And for the first time I could remember, Ben seemed genuinely affected by someone’s disappointment in him. He apologized, copped to the selfishness of his actions and promised to make it right if I gave him one more chance. I pulled $3,000 out of my savings and wrote him a check. He promptly disappeared to LA with his band.

I didn’t tell my family about the money I loaned him right away – mostly to spare myself from looking like the sucker I clearly was. Then, my stepmother confided in me that she too was frustrated by Ben’s abrupt departure because she had just paid off his outstanding legal fines – nearly $3,000 in total.

Now I was pissed.

It was a devastating blow. I cut Ben out of my life, but it wasn’t about the money. Despite the differences in our personalities and the direction of our ambitions, he knew I would always be there for him, and he manipulated that loyalty to fund his move to LA and never looked back. At that point, I was not his big brother; I was just another body in his wake. And that hurt like hell.

Ben is still a musician in LA. He’s crafted a persona complete with a stage name based on his haircut. He now pounds away at the drums under the moniker Tye Mohawk.

People from our hometown occasionally tell me about this Tye character appearing on some MTV reality show or as a tattooed party boy on an episode of The Bad Girls Club. I once received an email with a link to a delightful website called “Hot Chicks with Douche Bags.”

While Ben has pursued the rockstar life with varying degrees of success, I have gone on to lead the happy little life he rejected for more grandiose dreams – college, slow and steady career path, and a beautiful wife and family. But even with all this good in my life, I stayed angry and accepted the idea I may never again see my brother outside reality TV or the Internet.

That changed when I became a father.

The day my son was born, I received a Facebook message from Tye Mohawk. After nearly a decade with almost no contact, I’d never been less qualified to analyze his motives. Maybe he hoped to rectify past mistakes. Maybe he just thought the birth of my son was worthy of acknowledgment. Either way, I was going to Los Angeles for a work function later that month. I would only be in town for 24 hours, but I suggested we meet up and attempt to reconcile our differences once and for all.

He agreed to meet me for a drink at the hotel or somewhere nearby. As my plane took off, the nervous energy I felt for the reunion had awkward dude-hug written all over it. Ten years of anger was eroding and I was excited to see my little brother again. I realized I wasn’t still angry, I was just used to being angry. It was a default emotion and I felt motivated to change that.

I sent Ben a text when I arrived at the hotel and walked outside to the pool. Dozens of beautiful people were drinking cocktails, laughing, and laying out at 3pm on a Thursday. I tried to fit in, but if my pasty legs and cargo shorts didn’t give away my Midwest roots, ordering a Bud Light at the trendy bar certainly did.

After nursing two beers and checking my phone with embarrassing frequency, there was no sign of Ben. I went back to my room and got ready for the event. I was sent there to network on behalf of my employer. Instead I drank and tried to serve my own agenda by texting Ben yet again.

After last call, I went back to the hotel. Our 24-hour window closed without so much as a single response or explanation.

I’d come to LA ready to repair a strained relationship, believing it would somehow make me a better father. I’d be able to teach my son, without an ounce of hypocrisy, that grudges occupy space in your heart better filled with forgiveness. I left LA with a decision to make – hold onto a grudge or forgive someone who has given no indication he is sorry.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is focus your energy inward. The failed reconciliation forced me to address the real issue. I didn’t need to forgive Ben for his betrayal, I needed to forgive myself for giving up on our relationship. I can’t make up for ten years, but I can do right by the rest of them.

Since LA, I have invited Ben to two grandfathers’ 80th birthdays and my wife’s graduation from nursing school. Throw in holidays, and I’ve created a pretty hefty list of things for him not to do.

And I’ll continue to provide these opportunities. Because for this husband, father, and big brother, having my ducks in a row is all about letting go of the hurt and disappointment, and making sure my little brother knows I’m here if needs me.

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