I was 9 years old in the living room of St. Mary’s Park Housing in the South Bronx. My Mom was washing the dishes and asked me, “How would you like a little brother or sister?” It was 1969, all I cared about at the time was man landing on the moon. In my 9-year-old wisdom, I said, “sure.” I was shipped off at one point to my Grandmother’s and while I was away, I was told that Mom had a baby, and her name was “Joy.”
Up until that point, I was an only child. In an instant, I became “a brother” and I also realized that life had changed: I was responsible for someone other than myself. Someone I had to protect (even though I couldn’t protect myself in school), someone who required attention (the most attention I had given anything was the science fiction novels in my bedroom), and someone who would receive the majority of my Mother’s attention (which meant some attention would be deflected from me—as a 10-year-old, by the time Joy was born, that wasn’t a bad thing.)
Through the birth of my sister and the countless interactions watching her grow. I learned:
There is nothing like looking into the innocent eyes of a sibling. They essentially tell you by sight that they expect you to love them, to care for them and to be there because like it or not there is a new Sheriff in town and it’s a tiny person with infectious laughter and dimples (dammit, she was cute and had dimples, so unfair).
Joy was welcomed by everyone in the immediate family and surrounded by love and care. Just by her mere presence, she elicited so much attention and so much warmth out of people that I didn’t know we’re capable of doing so. Her presence taught me the value of sincere, heartfelt love. I remember when my sister gave me a Father’s Day card. It touched me deeply because I knew I was not her Father, nor could I replace him. But she thought enough of my efforts to recognize that I tried to help her not miss him. It’s one of the higher examples of love that I never forgot.
Spending as much time as I did with my sister taught me how to be a nurturer. There were times I just had to listen to her talk as a child, even when it made absolutely no sense. I would always laugh with her, and even when I was in my own world spending time by myself, she would occasionally come in and interrupt and deflect my attention from what I was doing to her, and it was okay with me. I took my sister with me everywhere. If I wanted to go to the park and play sports with my friends, I would essentially get her ready to go and put her in her stroller and we would walk to the park on beautiful sunny days. We would stay out all day long and during that time, I would ensure that she was fed, cleaned and that she also had a good time. there were times I would just take her to the park just to watch her play.
You don’t realize until you’re much older how important these times are that you could never get back but you’re glad you did it because the moments were important not just for you but for her. The one thing I never conquered, however, was how to do her hair. Until this day I can’t do a braid to save my life. I know more about Sesame Street than any adult male should because for a large part of my life, it was just my sister and me in the home while my Mother worked odd hours to support us.
To Be Responsible.
I took the big brother label very seriously. Especially because my Father was absent in the household and I know that little girls need their Father. I knew I could never replace my father in her eyes but I made damn sure that she saw a male figure that would always be there for her. By the time my sister was 8 I was all of 18. I knew of the poverty that we grew up in because when my father abandoned us we were of course left with no money, nor did he pay any child support. but by the time my sister start to grow she had no clue that we were struggling. She got everything she asked for and things she didn’t ask for. Because I was working, my mother was working, and both of us ensured Joy was shielded from the realities of the day-to-day struggle.
I have always been a hard worker especially if it’s something that I enjoy doing and because I had to start working to help my small family at an early age I came to appreciate the responsibilities that go along with raising a family. Many men feel that certain chores around the house are specifically chores for the woman. I cook, I clean, I can sew, I can maintain my home better than some women could. But what it also has done is made me somebody who’s not afraid to help. In these days, both the mother and the father usually work outside the household. We need to pull our weight as men not only outside of the house but inside the house where the second shift should not only belong to the mother but to both parents. This kind of lifestyle will help your daughters understand that the type of man she wants in her home will be someone that values their role outside of the house and inside of the house.
To be Selfless.
When you have somebody you absolutely care for, you think about how your actions may affect that person, especially if you’re lucky enough to have that person look up to you. My sister has always said with pride that I was “her brother” and just that title comes with a certain level of responsibility. I have always had to walk the walk and talk the talk and the circumstances were exacerbated because I was the only male figure in the house. So things that I did, especially as a teenager, had to reflect well on what my sister thought of me. I was by no means perfect but the mistakes I did make did not reflect upon her or call her to see me differently. You never want to see the disappointment in the eyes of your little sister because she had already been disappointed in our lives by our father. The burden I carried with love was not to be the same. So I have made every effort to try and be there for my sister as best I could and also be honest and open with her.
My sister is far funnier than I could ever be. I remember the first time she did her classic Mahalia Jackson impersonation. It is the funniest thing you’ve ever heard or seen. Her quick wit and dark humor like my own is priceless. Both of us have the ability to see the humor in almost anything. The ability to honestly laugh sometimes even at yourself is what my sister has taught me. Sometimes we are our own and funniest form of entertainment.
As both of us have grown older and have lived through the loss of people that we both love—our grandmother, mother, and countless others who have supported us and been there for us—we have come to realize how much we need each other. Not that this is a realization we’ve never had but it’s become more of an appreciation that we have the shared background, the shared struggles, and we’ve turned out to be decent people. I told my sister one day that there was never a moment since her birth that I have ever regretted her presence. She has essentially been the perfect sister, she has never ratted on me and she has always had my back. But if I did something wrong she will be the first one to call me out on it. The lessons I’ve learned from being her brother have been the basis for the relationships that I value in my life. I am not so sure that I would be the person that I am today if it were not for the influence in the lessons that being her brother has taught me.
I see all of the women who have been important to me in my life in parts of my sister’s personality so, even though my mother and grandmother aren’t in the earthly realm, they are certainly in the personality and spirit of my sister who carries the mantle proudly. I count myself truly blessed to have learned the lessons my sister has taught me.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project, please join like-minded individuals in The Good Men Project Premium Community.
We have pioneered the largest worldwide conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Your support of our work is inspiring and invaluable.
Photo credit: the author