In My Own Write: Family matters

Family closeness is a decision and an investment of time and effort.

June 4, 2013 21:38
Family support

Family Matters: TuBishvat. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

I just found out that my brother has killed himself. He wasn’t married, no children, both our parents are dead. We hadn’t spoken in around five years, although we used to be quite close. I don’t really know why we fell out, we just stopped talking. Why did he leave me? He could have called me, or something. He was lovely. Now I miss him very badly... I want him back, I want to tell him that I love him – Extract from an emotional support website

One aches for the woman who posted the above cry, mainly because of the regret that emanates from every line and the finality of the situation, from which there is no going back.

Her very much longer post revealed understanding of an elder brother who was neurotic, moody and reclusive, but also “the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, handsome, considerate... kind and thoughtful,” which makes the five-year silence between them and his suicide at age 33 all the more haunting.

FAMILY MATTERS. Deep down, we all know that – even those of us who take our closest blood ties for granted, treat them carelessly, are lax about keeping in contact, and shrug off the importance of family relationships that have atrophied through lack of effort.

Doing research on sibling estrangement – which by definition drags in parents and other family members – is emotionally challenging because of the sexual abuse that characterizes many cases; generally older brothers of younger sisters. Sometimes, also, mental instability in one sibling may be present to the point of a real potential for violence. In such cases, estrangement is understandable.

When the reason for sibling estrangement is money – for example, one sibling feeling another has been favored in a will – it feels like a different kind of tragedy, a cold, hard, unforgiving justification for cutting oneself off from contact with those who have been and ought to continue being closest.

But the reality cannot be avoided: Money has always and forever been an all-encompassing and highly emotive issue, basic to many people’s – and often society’s – perception of their human worth.

I know of more than one case of siblings who haven’t communicated in decades owing to a quarrel over division of a parent’s estate. Parents who fondly hope their children will remain friends after they themselves are gone – and isn’t that most of us? – thus need to exercise considerable care over how their money and possessions are divided after their demise, so no child feels shortchanged or undervalued.

BUT IT is not tragic and extreme situations of sibling estrangement that prompted me to write this column; rather a recent New York Times piece by Frank Bruni entitled “The gift of siblings,” in which he describes himself as “one of four; a band with a bond that defines us,” coming together from various US locations to celebrate the 50th birthday of brother Mark.

Noting that mothers and fathers have special days in the calendar on which they are celebrated, his thoughts turn to siblings, “who don’t have a special day but arguably have an even more special meaning to, and influence on, those of us privileged to have them.”

Quoting Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect, Bruni writes: “Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life.... Your parents leave you too soon and your kids and your spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.”

“The entire arc” of one’s life can, Bruni concedes, be broken by acrimony, geographical distance, or just plain laziness about keeping in touch, pulling brothers and sisters apart to the point where they’re “just onetime housemates with common heritages.” But then he arrives at what he considers the crux of the issue: “I’m convinced that family closeness isn’t a happy accident, a fortuitously smooth blend of personalities. It’s a resolve, a priority made and obeyed.”

In other words: Family closeness is a decision and an investment of time and effort.

I COULDN’T agree more – especially in the case of immigrants to Israel, most of whom aren’t lucky enough to have made aliya together with their entire families. We have to work at remaining close to siblings who are separated from us by thousands of miles and, often, different life-styles.

Brief reciprocal visits once or twice a year don’t really do the job because time is constantly moving ahead and, with it, people’s lives. You might get a broad picture of how your absent siblings are doing, but the fine detail – the ups and downs that shape, color and give “life” to a life – just aren’t there without regular contact.

I know this from experience.

I have always been fairly close to my brother, who is six years younger than me. Family legend has it that as a small child, he would cry when I was disciplined. I, conversely, was protective of him vis-à-vis neighborhood kids and strange dogs.

However, at certain stages of development, a six-year age gap can be immense, and my fledgling adult self saw the presence of this male sibling barely into his teens as largely extraneous to the really important business of life, which was discovering romance and exploring the grown-up world.

At about this time, my mother – who more than once expressed the hope that “the two of you will be there for each other when Dad and I aren’t around” – observed the nonchalant nature of my connection to my only sibling and decided to water the seeds of sibling affinity with a little ego-pandering.

She remarked to me one day, “You know, your brother really looks up to you.”

“Does he?” I replied, astonished. I hadn’t considered our relationship in this light before, and felt flattered.

Perhaps I ought to pay more attention in future to a youngster who showed such good taste.

Much later, I discovered that she had, in parallel, asked my brother: Did he know that I thought he was pretty smart? His reaction was similar to mine.

Those artful mother-initiated exchanges likely brought the two of us closer and, perhaps, helped set a relationship pattern. My brother has, indeed, given me some wise advice over the years.

WHEN OUR mother died, in 1986, I made a point of calling my father in the UK every Friday to wish him Shabbat shalom and catch up on the family news. He passed away in 1998, and after the shiva in London, I suggested to my brother, with whom direct contact had been sporadic: “Let’s carry on with the weekly phone call – you call me one week, and I’ll call you the next.”

We opted for a different evening, and have kept up our “Happy Thursday” tradition pretty well over the years. He isn’t the most effusive of people, particularly over the phone, and sometimes the calls are short, but we both realize their invaluable role in maintaining the flow of the relationship, with each other and with our spouses and children.

HAVE INNOVATIONS such as Skype brought more siblings into contact with each other? My feeling is that where meaningful contact already exists, new technology can make it more colorful and exciting; but where it doesn’t – when the lines of communication have been closed for many years, or broken – they make no difference at all.

A frozen relationship can be as daunting to unthaw as a large slab of meat straight out of the freezer. And yet, with time – and effort – it can happen. With estranged siblings, it seems to me that it’s overwhelmingly worth a try. You can’t change another person; but when you make just a little change in your own behavior, it can have surprising repercussions.

IT’S A truism that you can choose your friends, but not your family; and, as Bruni observes, siblings are “less tailored fits than friends are.” They aren’t people you would necessarily have made an effort to know if you had met them socially, or at work.

And yet, he adds, quoting George Howe Colt, author of Brothers, “a reunion with them thrills him more than a reunion with friends, who don’t make him feel that he’s ‘part of a larger quilt.’” A quilt is sewn out of several layers. It’s colorful and cosy, and you can wrap it around you when you feel chilled.

How’s that as a metaphor for close sibling ties?

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