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There’s an anecdote that my mother tells, about my grandfather. I only met him a handful of times, when I was young, when he made the long trip from Calumet City, Illinois to the backwoods of Washington. I was six or seven; my brother was maybe four. The anecdote goes like this: “I remember your grandfather looking at you, Megan, and looking at your brother,” my mother says, “and he said, ‘She is so mean to him. Just so mean.’”
The anecdote torments me. I imagine my late grandfather’s impression of me, and the mark of his disapproval burning indelibly into some cosmic ledger as he weighs my cruel heart. The worst part, though, is that it was true.
To say I was a bully is to undersell my art. I was a connoisseur. I collected tips and tricks; I planned ahead. I honed and refined my craft. It would be impossible to relate all of the tribulations I induced upon my brother, but a highlight reel might include me luring him into an upturned crate and pushing him out into the frigid February creek, where he quickly sank; the myriad ways I convinced him to touch the electric fence of a nearby ranch (“What if you touch it with this blade of grass? What if you stand in this bucket of water while you touch it?”); and the way I called him “Ribsy” for years because of a slightly malformed rib—successfully hiding the fact that I have the same curved rib on my left side.
I spent hours playing a game I invented, “Going to Funland.” I pretended to be a passing train, bound for a land of countless delights. I described it to him in florid detail, then pretended to sell him a ticket. Whooping an imaginary steam whistle, I would run past him, announcing that he had missed the train. I would sell him another ticket, and the Sisyphusian process would begin again. Other times, taxed with all of that running, I would wedge him behind the sofa and leave him there, or blindfold him and make him taste dog food. I spent a whole summer bribing him with an oversized lollipop, a prize from a small-town carnival. The lollipop rested perpetually in the freezer, and when I wanted something, I’d say solemnly, “If you don’t do it, I won’t share the lollipop.” By the end of the summer, I’d streamlined my approach, so that when I wanted something from him, all I needed to do was to intone, “Lolly, Ryan. Lolly.”
When my mother brings the anecdote up, I always say the same thing: “But we loved each other.” And it’s true. I pushed my brother into the neighbor’s buffalo pasture and made him run for his life, but I also knew the particular stump on our property where he went when he was upset. He learned to play the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” on the saxophone for me, and Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” on the guitar. He was the first person I came out to. I was terrible to him, but I also brought him to drink cheap coffee at midnight when he was a self-proclaimed teenage nihilist, driving him in my tin can Geo Metro and wearing slippers with fluffy dogs’ heads mounted on the toes to make him laugh. I lured him back from the crying stump again and again.
The other part of this story is about fear. It is about the persistent, aching fear I have that love is not constant, that it can be revoked at a moment’s notice. That if your personality is complicated, if you are angry, if you say the wrong thing or don’t do what you are asked, you might be left alone in your life. People will disappear, leaving you in the void of your shortcomings.
At the height of my bullying, my parents’ refrain was a low warning: “One day, he’ll be bigger than you. One day, he’ll reap his revenge.” I have tiptoed through most of my life in fear of disappointing the people I love, of driving them away, but for years, I flagrantly tossed the dice with my brother. I gave him every reason to choose against me, to decide that I wasn’t worth his love, that I’d gone too far with the electric fence, or the allowance stealing, or the hours spent barricading him in the hall closet.
Two years ago, after a decade of wandering from city to city across the United States and Europe, I moved back to my home state, where my brother lives. The move was difficult. But for the first time since I was seventeen, Ryan and I live near each other.
We talk every day now, and it’s never about the bullying. It’s about the things we remember, or about our lives now. It happened easily, so I almost didn’t need to think about it: we were just close again. He is one of the very first on the list of the people I love, and I understand that his isn’t keeping a ledger book, or taking stock of how I treated him in our isolated, rural childhood. I gave him my worst, and now I am giving him my best, and we have moved forward.
We’re at a point of our lives now when it’s real, when you start to realize that you’re not going to arrive at your shining future one day, but that it is happening now. And in spite of the past, he is here. It is the deepest comfort, to know that he will be here in all the terrifying dark moments that will make up our lives, all the losses. That he will be there for the greatest joys. And slowly, I’m beginning to carry that knowledge into the other parts of my life. It’s something that I should have known, and should have chosen against exploiting: That love isn’t fragile, but hardy, capable of weathering conflict and abuses of power. That is endures. It endures even through the worst things, the hurt and the false steps. Even through the sorrow of a freezer-burnt lollipop, upturned in the trash at the end of a long, grueling summer.
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