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What’s up with Siblings?

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

Caring brother walks little sister to playground.

In essays on relationships, we frequently get a voyeur’s glimpse of how things can go bad, and only an occasional look at how love can be well done. Let me add to the positive side of the discussion with a look at siblings.

I received a request that made me take a fresh look at a relationship.

The question that caused this brother review, came from my daughter. When her daughter was months from birth, she realized her son would be five years older, just as my brother Al was five years older than I was.

My daughter asked, “How did Grandpa and Grandma help create the great big brother you have?”

I realized that I took for granted that big brothers are supportive, protective and encouraging. That is the only kind of brother I have ever known. But once she asked her question, I realized that there was some person-creation going on in those early days.

My oldest brother colored my life and the life of my younger brother, too. Alan was the brother who introduced us to the culture of our time, encouraged us to strike out and explore the world, showed us what he discovered in the world of comedy, music, movies and sports. Along the way, he helped steer our early years and remained our best friend all of his life.

Cowboy herding siblings.

As an adult, my brother, Al, became a social worker for a large hospital in Portland, Oregon. There he helped very sick people and their families access the services they needed in the most desperate time in their lives.

He did this with heart and wit for 30 years. When he died, colleagues and friends filled the community center where he had lived. They told stories about him – a man whose dedication to others they admired. But they also talked about how much fun he was to work with, how he could solve problems and make friends of his clients. They said he cared deeply about his charges at the hospital, and yet, with all their problems, he never seemed to be down-hearted.

Alan once told me that even though he worked with oncology patients and their families, and though that meant sometimes losing people he cared about, he felt he was helping friends, and that it was the best job you could have.

How did he become that person his friends and colleagues wanted to honor?

As kids, my younger brother, Jim and I knew Al was fun and funny. He loved golf and basketball.

Al also was our entertainer, our guide and our protector. What made him become those things?

I realized that our mom and dad had given him small responsibilities when we were little – “help teach Rae to walk, teach Jimmy to roll over, cover up the baby so he won’t be cold.”

As we grew, so did our responsibility to care for each other. Our parents were purposeful in calibrating fun and responsibility as two sides of relationship.

That’s what I remember most about those really early days. Al taught me that he was there for me. Even in the days when I was a pest, he was there.

Dad, Al at eight years old, Mom, Jim a baby, and me at three on the back stoop of our old house in Ashland, Oregon
Our family in Ashland, Oregon on our back stoop.

Of course, he didn’t want to be the care-taker all the time. Mom and Dad made certain that he had time to be his own age and with his own friends. Early in our lives, we moved from Colorado to Ashland, Oregon. When we lived in Ashland, Al wanted occasionally to be without his little responsibilities. He had friends his age, and he liked to run and play without encumbrances.

Larry and Danny McKay were Al’s best buddies. They got up to stuff. Al was an idea guy and occasionally the daringest among them. One day, Al and the McKay brothers decided to fly. They had an umbrella. They had a plan and a landing pad, so all was going to work out.

Al jumped first. He jumped from the attic balcony of the McKay house. On the way down, his umbrella turned inside out. He landed far short of the mattress.

Luckily, he didn’t break, much. But he earned crutches and limped for quite a while. Amazing to me now, is that I remember him willing to tell Jim and me, “That was a dumb thing to do. Don’t be impetuous.”

I also heard him tell Danny and Larry that he should have encouraged them to be first. He was able to joke about his mistakes. Not many of us can do that when we’re young, or when we’re old.

Sepia photo of Al (10 years old) teaching me (5 years) and Jim (3 years) to play Chutes and Ladders. I'm looking miffed that I can't do whatever move I just
I don't want to know the rules, but Al patiently teaches Chutes and Ladders.

When we moved to Portland, Al was a ten-year-old. He always seemed to be the leader of our games, the rule reminder for hide and seek, and the instigator of our neighborhood Olympics. He was the one we counted on to have a cool head in times of crisis and cool ideas for fun.

And he had deep interests. Al and his friends often played basketball in our driveway. I could hear them out my window. Al not only played basketball, he also announced the game. He announced his passes, and the other guy’s missed balls.

“And Big Al dives for the ball, whips it into the air. Ball flies over the garage roof where, now, Melvin will jump the fence to get the ball back.” And, often as not, his friend would laugh and retrieve that ball. His good friends were rarely people who took themselves too seriously to laugh.


Al at fourteen years, dressed in suit and bow tie for eighth grade graduation. Sepia photo.
Al dressed up for eighth grade graduation. Note not quite flat-top hairdo and spiffy bow tie.

Back when there was no light-rail train in Portland, Al included us on various bus rides. “One ticket to the end of the line and back,” he’d tell us. “See the world. Know your city.” And then he would narrate our trip.

“Now crossing the Willamette River over the Broadway Bridge and under a herd of crows. Now slogging forward through piles of bird dung toward the west hills.”

Al also led the way for us into the culture of our time. Our dad was a classical musician, our mother a poet. Al introduced us to Rock and Roll starting in 1954 with his cherished first purchase, Oh Baby Mine, by the Four Knights.

This was the first time we heard a song with such a driving beat, and poetry not by Walt Whitman or Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you’re ancient, you may remember this song:

Pum, Pum, Oh, Baby Mine,

I get so lonely when I, Pum

Dream about you, Pumpum

Can’t live without you, pumpum

That’s why I dream about you.

We heard that one, and many others, until the day Al left for the Army. Dad tried to enjoy these pieces of noise. The Four Knights at least sang in tune. Bill Halley had good rhythm and fun. But Dad had a hard time with the constantly flat notes of Frank Sinatra.

Due to Dad’s high standards, Al’s record collection mostly had to wait until the folks went out. When their car left the driveway, all the neighbors knew it by the beat from our house.

But Mom and Dad were both tickled by Al’s imitations of Jonathon Winters, and later, Robin Williams. Even when Al was recently in the hospital, he did a Jake Johannsen deadpan naive imitation. I still hear Al’s humor in the whole family. And if you ever hear one of us add sound effects to help us as we move a chair, pitch a baseball, open a bottle or wash a squeaky dish, that’s Al, still in our lives.

In high school, Al worked on the school newspaper, and then, while working on his degree at Portland State, he joined the staff of one of the city newspapers, writing headlines for the sports section. He loved to test headlines that gave you more than one mental image. “Oregon Ducks Caught Flat-Footed”, “Beavers Gnawing at Regional Title”.

I’m not sure how many of his headlines ever made it to print, but I do remember when the Oregon Journal staff went on strike. He had to pick up his last check to make a car payment. I was in the car when he made this stop.

“Stay in the car,” he said. “I have to cross a picket line of strikers. They will make some comment about you that will put me into a fight.”

I stayed, worried and watched as he walked through that line. An hour later, when he got back to the car, he said. “The Oregon Journal is going down, and I need a new career idea.”

As kids, it wasn’t all hugs between us, however. Every summer, our family would take a long trip back to aunts and cousins in Colorado or down to Grandpa Williams’s motel in Pismo Beach, California. We were sardined, five to a car, and at night, five to a tent. In the days of plaid seat covers, Al once claimed that guys needed twice the number plaid stripes as girls, because girls should sit with their knees together. I noticed that brother Jim didn’t argue with him on that claim.

This encroachment policy of Al’s was one of the many ways that he taught me to stick up for myself. In the night, he discovered his air mattress didn’t seem to hold much air. When he complained the next morning, I said, “Maybe some guys are just too big for their mattresses.”

That day, I claimed my fair third of the back seat. But Al got back at me. He leaned hard as we rounded corners.

To Jim and me, Al was Mr. Cool. But he didn’t see himself that way at all. He often referred to himself as a character from the cartoon advertisements for Charles Atlas Bodybuilding method. Al called himself Mr. Before.

One day, Mr. Before came home from eighth grade with a black eye and a bloody nose. It turned out we lived only blocks from the class bully. That night, our dad taught him to defend himself. By the end of the evening, Al sounded like Howard Cossell announcing a heavy-weight championship bout.

Boxing lessons and weight lifting were Dad’s part of the solution. Mom’s part was a soft-voiced talk about the several ways you can put a bully off balance and help him stop bullying by ignoring his jibes, and treating him right. “Make him a friend,” she said.

Months later, the neighborhood kids were playing baseball in the street when the class bully came by on his bicycle. The saddle bags on his bike were filled with the evening Oregonian that he should have been delivering. He called Al names. Al ignored and merely said, “Jimmy, batter up.” The bicycle kid wandered his bike around the outfield, grunting and huffing.

Jimmy came up to bat. Al pitched the ball. Jim swung. In right field, our friend, Art, started to catch Jim’s fly ball. The kid rammed his bicycle into Art. Al was over there in a moment. He pulled the bike out from under the kid, and yelled at the rest of us to check on Art. Then Al popped the kid in the stomach.

I don’t remember much else about the following moments, except that Art said he was alright. Newspapers were everywhere.

Al, who also had a morning newspaper route said, “We’ll help you pick these up. But the next time you come over, you come to play ball with us, understood?”

The kid nodded his head. We helped re-stuff his news bags and he took off. He didn’t come back for a ball game as far as I know, but I never again heard about him bullying kids at school.

Until that day, I never thought Al could follow both the pacifist precepts of our mother and the boxing lessons of our dad all in the space of three or four minutes.

That altercation and the accompanying invitation was a revelation in human interaction.

When he was eighteen, th draft sent Al into armed service. In the army, Al made one very good friend – a friend who made sure he got food when he was very sick, and who jollied him back to health when the sergeant thought Al was malingering. The two friends took care of each other through the grueling feats of basic training and service.

They would have been friends through life, I think. But after they had spent their allotted terms in service, Al came home to visit because our dad had been very sick. His friend and several other close colleagues went off to a motel near the east coast for a weekend at the beach. The gas in the motel leaked. Al’s friend and the others all died. The friend’s mother wrote to Al because she knew they had planned to meet later.

I have never seen the depths of grief that veterans have for each other as clearly as during that time. That loss colored his life, his ability to enjoy others without fear of losing them.

After the Armed Service, Al went back to school to earn his Masters in Social Work. His first social work job was as a parole officer for the state. He once told me about taking a boy back to McLaren, the jail for juveniles.

"I had put the mandatory straight jacket on him."

The boy was so scared that as Al drove, the boy wrenched open the car’s back door and rolled out into a ditch. As Al pulled over, he saw that boy hop up from the mud. Still wearing the straight jacket, he jumped a fence to run across a field. Al was able to catch him and get him back to the car, but later he told me, “That’s it. That boy cried the whole rest of the trip. I’m not taking anymore boys back to a place that scares them that much.”

So, Al got the job of running a halfway house for boys coming out of McLaren. It was called Morehouse near St. Thomas More Catholic Church. He wanted to help those kids grow in understanding, and never return to McLaren. That was very hard and heartbreaking work. Some boys stayed out, but others had to return. Either way, losing ‘brothers’ was very hard on the children of Al’s first family. That family struggled and then dissolved.

Al applied for a job as social worker at Providence Hospital.

I remember when Al met his long-time wife. He was so giddy to have found someone to love, someone positive and dedicated to doing good things in the world. They had a daughter, and were the happiest of people. Family and patients were the focus of all his best moments.

As an adult, he played basketball with fellows from all parts of the hospital. At first, they played in the hospital, but one of the Sisters at the hospital complained that their games were ruining the rug in the hospital’s recreation room.

“Cutting a rug, not allowed in hospital,” Al announced. So, they moved to a nearby church with a gym-like sanctuary.

Even in those games, Al continued to use his radio voice to announce the play by play. When I visited their game once, I heard him announcing, “Fellows, the stained-glass windows are out of bounds” and later I heard, “Short guys should always pass under tall guys, not over them.”

When Al began showing the effects of his Parkinsons', and then his cancer, his wife tried very hard to keep that guy going, the guy with the humor and the care for others. But though Parkinson's can be slowed, we don’t yet know enough to stop its progress and she had cut out a huge job for herself.

His friends kept playing basketball with him. “I stand in one place and make pretty fair passes to guys who can still make baskets,” he told Jim and me, “but I can’t move my feet much, so I guard whoever is too flat-footed to move better than I do.”

Ten adult friends who play basketball together showoff their trophy.  Al is kneeling on left side.
The hospital basketball team won a trophy in 1978. Al is kneeling at left.

After a long time and a lot of work on her part, his wife was forced to take Al to a hospital and then help him make the move to Skilled Nursing. She put an enormous effort into making certain Al had every chance to be strong for as long as possible.

Brother Jim often came to visit Al at the hospital and at the nursing facility during breakfast. I came for lunch time and afternoon. His wife came for dinner.

When I arrived, I could tell that Al enjoyed having his brother to talk to. They loved each other, and had lots of conversations about the world, and life. Ever since they were both adults, I knew Al and Jim admired each other and deeply enjoyed being together. Seven years age difference is nothing once you are thirty. It was the shared Mom and Dad, the shared music and the poetry of teaching, the shared competition and shared laughter, helping others and caring for family. All of that created their friendship and ours as a threesome.

We will miss Al, but he is still with us, in his humor, his values, his wife and daughter, and all those friends who worked to care for him. He is still here in our shared memories of the brother who helped raise us. We are thankful to him. May all people have such brothers, such friends and such family.

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