Thursday, December 07, 2006

When a Brother Becomes A Father...

I have been working on the following post for about a week now, so don't be confused by the gap. I wanted to express my thoughts in just the right way and that required some revision here and there.

You might have noticed that I don't talk about my family over much on the blog. There are a couple of reasons for this, primary among them, is I don't think they would want their lives veted for everyone to see. If they wanted that, they can start their own blogs. Recently, though, an event happened in the family I wanted to share because I think it will be of interest and help to you, the loyal Ragemonkey reader.

My parents divorced when I was very young. I have a handful of memories of my father so when the word "family" comes up, I think of my mom, my two older sisters, and my older brother. (I know, this already explains a lot, but continue on...) As an added issue, the ages between us kids is quite broad. If you think I am going to divulge specifics on this point, you are out of it. Germane to the story is the difference in age between my brother and myself: my brother is seven years my senior. As you could imagine, it meant that I didn't have many friends my age and when it came to my siblings, well, they were around much either. This meant that the nearest sibling with whom I should have had a good relationship was my brother. The attentive reader will note my use of the subjunctive there. It should have been a good relationship. In reality, it wasn't.

I am not referring to the petty childhood battles which boys engage in as they grow up. It was different. My brother and I are opposite sides of the spectrum of possibilities without a single point of harmony. I am studious and academic, my brother pratical and free-willed. My brother was physical, I cerebral. And through the years, this led to distance, perhaps even animosity. My friends and other siblings often commented that my brother wanted to be like me. I was waiting for proof of this in the way he related to me.

About 8 years ago, my brother was diagnosed with MS. I was the first to ask how long he had and what the prognosis might be. My mother didn't appreciate this question as it suggested to her that he was going to die. Without any tact, I reminded her that all of us in that room was going to die, and my brother had just been told what was going to kill him. Over those 8 years, I have tried to broach the subject about his needs -- how they were going to change and the like -- and received no clear responses from anyone. But my distance from my brother meant that I wasn't going to get involved if I didn't have to.

Now, fast forward to the present. Thanksgiving rolls around and for the most part it is a pleasant family gathering. As you can imagine, there is the unspoken issue of the divorce and all its ancillary cousins, so I spend most of my time waiting for the fight to break out and therefore can excuse myself from the situation. This year was different. My oldest sister had informed my that our brother wasn't looking good. I quipped, "Of course he doesn't. He's got a major neurological disease." She responded, "I think he is going to die." For you and I and every other rational being -- spiritual or otherwise -- in the universe, this is an obvious statement. Any member of my family openly acknowledging this fact is an epiphany. I knew that this was getting bad. Then my sister added, "I don't think he had been baptized." Now, I was involved.

Remember when I mentioned that my parents divorced sometime in 1973. Well, I told you that story so that I could tell you this story. It might strike some readers as strange that my older brother wasn't baptized. It happens sometimes. In my family, the two older girls were baptized; the two boys weren't. It was a product of the divorce and other factors. I was baptized in 1991 when I was received into the Catholic Church. The time for my brother's baptism had arrived.

Clearly, my brother's ability to receive any sort of formation was going to be minimal at best. Even watching videos at home or listening to audio CDs wasn't necessarily going to get him to the same place as RCIA or some other programming would accomplish. So I put it to him directly: "Do you want to be baptized and received into the Church?" Though the words were strained due to the MS playing having with both the motor and speech cortices, he said, "Yes, I would."

You can't imagine the relief that washed over me. I know, the sacrament of Baptism is not a magic one-way ticket to Heaven, but it seems to me that it expresses a desire that up until that point had been left unexpressed. I also thought to myself, why did I wait so long to ask. To be fair, I probably had broached these subject with him at other times and I just don't happen to recall them. By saying yes to Baptism he had abandoned a way that might have led to death but now more than ever offered hope for life eternal.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I went to the apartment my mother and brother share and celebrated the sacraments with him. He was baptized, confirmed, and received First Holy Communion. When I walked into his room, he was laying on top of the sheet with the TV on. The spasms which racked him yesterday were still in evidence. Laying on that sheet, the only image which would come to mind is the Greek icon of the Crucifixion called "Extreme Humility." In the icon, the body of the Lord is twisted as though he were writhing in pain on the wood. The only difference in what I saw was the hospital bed subsitituted for the wood of the cross. It was interesting that as each question concerning baptism and confirmation came forth, he labored to respond, but each response was a clear yes. He would even say, "Yes, I am," at certain points in the liturgy.

So, on that Friday morning, I became a father to my brother. Even though I am younger than he, I was able to offer him a gift beyond the calculation of years. I gave him, with his consent, the confirmation name of "Joseph," not the foster father of the Lord, however. I had in mind Joseph the dreamer in the Book of Genesis. Even though strife had divided the family, in some providential way, this was for our good. This division scattered us so that one brother might save another when the hour of distress fell.

I know it is hard but if you have something unresolved in your family or personal life, don't wait. Start working to mend those fences especially if it is a matter of salvation. This day of my brother's reception of the sacraments was prepared for in manifold, unseen ways, but in the end, I needed to ask him that question: "Do you want to be baptized?" Even if it is painful, don't put off the question. Open the door. Also, please pray for my brother that he may perservere in the new found faith.

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