Some time ago, I was overhearing an argument taking place between my two children. Usually, they get on. They are, indeed, polar opposites of each other. The one’s black is the other’s white. The one’s yay is the other’s nay. They agree on very little but they contrive to get on. They are not biologically related, either to each other, or to me.
But this time it was blistering – the argument. It was brought to a close when the younger one spat at the older these words - he said, “Anyway. You aren’t my real brother!” The words stung his brother. They certainly stung me. I kept silent though. I would wait my time to deal with it.
During the next week, I went searching through my photograph albums. They are substantial in some areas, and exceedingly thin in others. I was looking for, and found some pictures of my two brothers – the one 15 years older than me (and now dead), the other ten years older than me.
I waited a week and then called the family together. I placed the pictures of my brothers on the coffee table and asked the children if they recognised any of the people in them. They examined the old photographs carefully. The one showed a youngish man swinging a cricket bat, the other showed a family of four siblings. It had me as a baby, being held by my sister and with two brothers posing alongside her.
No, they didn’t recognise any of them, besides my sister. These, I said, are my real brothers. These are my blood brothers. Have you met either of them, I asked? They looked again at the pictures. No, they didn’t think they had. In fact, I said, they had met one of them very briefly, at my sister’s funeral last year. Oh, they said, yes, they had.
Had they ever heard these brothers of mine phone me about anything? No, they hadn’t. Did either of them call me on my birthday? No, they didn’t. For Christmas? New Year? For any reason at all? No, they said. They were not aware of any contact.
Did they not think that was strange, I asked? Yes, they did think so. I then went on to elaborate on the relationship. My older brother had been kind to me when I was growing up – but we had lost contact early on and that connection was never re-established. My younger brother seemed to want nothing to do with me from the start – whether it was because I was a rebel, or because he didn’t approve of my lifestyle, or my politics or my views, I did not know the reason.
But the upshot of it all was that my brothers had virtually nothing to do with me throughout my late adolescence, early adulthood and middle age. Nothing! They knew nothing of me. They had made no effort to contact me. When terrible and dramatic things had happened in my life, they were both sublimely uninvolved. I dealt with exile, return, arrest, passport removal, divorce and a suicide entirely without them. My relationships were unknown to them. My triumphs and my tragedies, my joys and my sorrows – all passed them by.
These were my “real” brothers. These were people who share significant elements of my DNA. They are my blood relatives. On the other hand, there is someone with whom I have grown up. A friend – and we have been friends since the first year of High School. We could not be more different. We have very different views on things, very different positions. We argue, when we want to, like hell.
But this man has been present in my life. Every step, every fumble, every fall and every achievement. I asked them if they recognised him? Yes, they said, they did. Does he call me ever? Often, they said. Have you met him? Many times, they said. This man is not related to me in any way. He shares nothing of my DNA. But this man is my real brother. This is the man I can rely on, not to agree with me, but to support me – no matter what. Which of them, I asked my children, would they think I should consider to be my real brother?
My children were staring at me with wide eyes and open mouths. I am sure this is not the last time we will have conversations around this matter – because I believe it is a hugely important one to have. But I think they did get the salient point, that it is not how you are related, biologically, that matters at all. Rather, it is how you behave.