There are moments in a child’s life when we do things to the people around us that seem to have little meaning. Sometimes they are cruel. If we’re fortunate, and pay attention when we’re older, we might also sometimes get the opportunity to atone for them. And that is a magical gift.
A few days ago my younger brother, Steven, opened himself up to me during a quiet minute. He told me about an upcoming trip he has, going on a cruise alone to the Bahamas. Steven is an introverted man, in his early forties, and lives by himself. Often he will go for days without interacting with anyone outside of his work. It’s typical for him to spend weekends with little human contact, watching sports on TV, playing video games, and eating take-out food. Some of that is simply his nature. But much of it is a reflection of a childhood that left him isolated for several years, in a punitive home, with a harsh, shaming step-father reinforcing the insecurities of a small boy.
Words like “sociopath” weren’t accessible to us in those days. And Steven doesn’t have a nurturing partner to tell him daily that he’s worthy of love. So the memories and emotional fissures of that time only get attention 30 or more years after the healing kindness was needed most.
When I asked what it was that he was most looking forward to about the trip, Steven responded at first by saying the food, and maybe finding a single woman to hook up with while at sea. Both were safe responses to confess to your older brother. But with some prodding about his shore activities, Steven told me a little about a beginner’s SCUBA session he’d had on a cruise last year. He said he definitely wanted to go on at least one dive during the trip, maybe more. He described the amazing feeling of being submerged in warm water, and all of the visual wonders of sea life…the quiet peacefulness of floating with no sense of time or the outside world.
He went on to compare it to the sensation of lying in a bathtub with only your nose out of the water, eyes closed. “Everyone loves that feeling, don’t they?” He knows the word “womb”. He’s sufficiently well-read to recognize the metaphor and its importance in our psychology. But taking that leap, at least with me, escapes him.
I know that glorious place too. SCUBA and snorkeling in warm water have always given me that same secure, peaceful feeling. So we talked for a while about the ocean, and animals, and the technical elements of SCUBA.
At some point Steven brought up some fantasy play he used to share with our older sister when he was little. They would pretend they were Jacques Cousteau, and place all of our collective stuffed animals on the couch. He went on to describe the way they would bring the stuffed animals to life in a pretend undersea universe, for hours on end. He couldn’t remember if I participated in these activities. I reminded him that I was never capable of non-competitive activities during that stage of life. By contrast, Steven and our sister were masterful at imaginative play.
Then Steven took the bold step of telling me something I never understood. He said, “Those stuffed animals were my best friends when I was little…they were my whole world.” And it brought me back to the harsh facts of those years. Steven was a quiet, sensitive and gentle boy. And he had the misfortune of receiving the bulk of the wrath from the male role model in our home. He was constantly berated by our step-father. The man was unemployed for a span of seven years, beginning when Steven was only 8. Our mother worked, and struggled with depression. So she deferred completely to the judgment of her husband. And he was not a person equipped with empathy.
Steven’s crimes were innocent enough. He was never able to make it home on time during those rare days when he had permission to play outside. His grades in school were mediocre, from missed assignments and sloppy penmanship. But worst of all, he had a set of facial tics he couldn’t control, that we learned many years later were caused by Tourette’s Syndrome. These tics elevated the alcoholic man’s rage to a point that defies exaggeration. “Stop smirking!” he would shout. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” “You make me sick!” “Get out of my sight…I’m tired of looking at you!” These were the constant refrain of Steven’s childhood. It wasn’t merely a sometimes thing. It was every single day.
Often Steven would be sent away from the table during dinner. There was a period of a few years when his Tourette’s Syndrome caused him to drop his fork on the floor in the middle of every meal. None of us understood it was a harmless tic he couldn’t possibly control. Our stepfather viewed it as an act of defiance, and immediately sent the boy to his room, each time it happened.
The punishment grew to become almost perpetual. Steven would be confined to his room, and required to sit on the edge of his bed, in silence. He wasn’t allowed to play games, talk to anyone, or do anything other than homework. And over the years, the duration of the periods when he was “Grounded!” kept increasing, until they were indefinite. Eventually it became normal, and expected by everyone in our household, that Steven was restricted to the edge of his bed.
People that know me will point out that I’m prone to hyperbole. But it’s a fact that he spent more than 80% of certain years punished in this way. Every so often he would get a reprieve. Spring weather or some other factor would inspire clemency in the angry drunk. So he would remember the little boy upstairs and tell him to go out and play. But each time a new trigger would surface within days. Steven would come home 30 minutes late for supper. Or he would commit some other heinous act. And the cycle would start again.
In the next breath of our conversation, Steven reminded me of something painful and cruel that I had done to him when we were boys. One afternoon, when I was home from school early, and Steven was away, our stepfather instructed me to collect all of my brother’s stuffed animals and dispose of them. The man assured me it was time that Steven “grew up”, and stopped playing with baby toys. He enlisted me in a conspiracy to injure Steven in a way I couldn’t possibly understand. And I felt proud to be helpful. So I did it. I gathered up Steven’s animal friends.
My memory of the sequence of events is limited. I’d completely forgotten that it ever happened until Steven reminded me. But I can now recall going into the closet with a trash bag, and picking up the ragged toys one by one. To ensure the purging wasn’t reversible, our stepfather told me to cut up the stuffed animals, and put the bag at the bottom of the trash can. This was the only way to make sure Steven couldn’t dig through the garbage and bring them back into our room.
His best friends.
The place where he was required to spend the majority of his childhood.
Steven didn’t blame me. He spoke of it as yet another unbelievable act by our stepfather. He knows that I was only a boy, and that my refusing to do it would not have changed things. But when I became aware of how much those stuffed animals meant to Steven I concluded that it is among the worst and most inhumane things I’ve ever done in my life. I was a party to a singular act of cruelty. And I’d done it to a man I love, when he was extremely vulnerable, and deserved only kindness.
After we finished our conversation Steven and I went to see a movie together, then returned to Steven’s apartment where I was staying for the weekend. We went back to our routines, two fat guys in beards with laptop computers, and Sports Center on a flat screen TV. We only talked a little more about the nonsense we endured as kids. But over the next few days I continued to think about what we’d discussed, and worked to give context to the events and how they’d contributed to Steven’s sense of the world around him.
I thought about my own son, and the magical gift that he possessed when he was younger, with imaginary friends and the freedom to play for hours fueled only by his mind and its rich fantasies. I marveled at the fact that so few adults preserve this gift when they grow up. I wondered why grown-ups don’t use imaginative play and stuffed animals. It seems so good and healthy. Why can’t it continue past a person’s adolescence?
Last night I went out to the store to pick up a few things, asking Steven if he cared to join me. He declined, in favor of a Red Wings game and his recliner. As I was walking out the door he said as an afterthought, “Can you get me some ice cream, though…Neapolitan?”
The Walgreen’s store was crowded. I was immediately distracted by the Valentine’s Day displays. The top shelves along the store’s perimeter were lined with large stuffed bears, all holding hearts inscribed with, “I Love You”. The middle aisles of the store were loaded with seasonal impulse items as well. So I listened to the guidance from my conscience, aware of how fortunate I’d been to have my brother share such a personal sentiment with me.
The store did not carry Neapolitan ice cream. So I apologized to Steven for having to find a substitute flavor when I returned to the apartment. After setting all but one of the bags down on the kitchen counter, I hastily walked to the stairs leading to Steven’s room, telling him I needed to put some toilet paper in his bathroom. But that was untrue.
When Steven went to bed last night he found Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, and a stuffed dog that is going to need a name. I love my brother, and am grateful to have the chance to help him heal from so many painful memories. In the past I have always bought him professional sports jerseys and hats for his birthday or Christmas. But I think it’s clear what I need to buy for him from now on. It will take a long time to restore that collection of animals. But I hope he has the courage to play with them, and welcome some new friends into his life. I don’t believe he’s too old or that it’s too late.
– Johnny O.