By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
My daughter Abbey was nearly five years old the day her brother was born. I’d worried about their age difference, which made little sense since my own brother is four years older and we have always been close. But then, sense has no jurisdiction over the emotions that can engulf a woman in pregnancy; they tumble in a stormy mix of hormones, uncertainties, hopes, and fears. One of my biggest fears, which I nursed with private guilt, was that my children’s relationship would somehow mean less because they have different fathers.
It’s a crude thought, but perhaps understandable in those conditioned by a lifetime of rhetoric boosting the superiority of the nuclear family. What meaning are we to derive from terms like “broken home” and “half-sibling” other than that non-traditional families are less authentic? That whatever magical bonds exist between siblings whose parents managed to get everything right the first time are broken in families like mine?
Whether they should or not, words matter.
Yet the first time Abbey met Gabriel, I watched as she stood at her stepfather’s side, leaning carefully over the sleeping baby who lay swaddled in blue. Her brown curls tumbled forward as she looked down at her brother the way I had so often looked up at mine—with starry-eyed devotion. I would soon come to realize that what can be seen as the messy complications of a blended family are, when viewed differently, just more branches on a beautifully tangled family tree.
From that moment nearly nine years ago, Abbey has essentially been parted from Gabriel only during the times she’s also been parted from me—a few weeks in the summer at her father’s house, every other weekend, Wednesday nights. Her memories of the world before Gabriel entered it are few, and she probably couldn’t imagine that world without him. To my daughter, who was born with a strong will and the courage of her convictions, her brother’s relevance is not measured in percentages of shared genes; he is simply her brother—and he is fiercely adored.
Never is this more apparent than in her writing. Throughout the years, Abbey has managed to turn the majority of her personal writing prompts into stories about Gabriel, a fact pointed out by more than one appreciative teacher at conferences. “She’s very talented,” said one, sliding a paper across the desk with a smile. “And it’s so sweet how she dotes on her brother.” The paper was an illustrated essay about then 3-year-old Gabriel’s favorite Christmas present, a blue and red tricycle. Abbey had drawn him with balloon fingers (three for each hand), a striped shirt, and a cap of black hair, standing next to a disproportionately huge three-wheeler with a blue bucket seat and red handgrips. “My brother loves wheels,” this essay announced. “He likes handles too. I know that he loves his tricycle, but he also loves me.”
Several years later Abbey’s writing had taken a darker turn, exploring the isolation and loneliness she often feels when away from her primary home. In 7th grade, she chose this subject for a poetry assignment, admitting that in the moments she feels most alone, it’s Gabriel she thinks of for comfort and strength:
“I remember his laughter
the only thing that can
really lift my heart.
In a way, he gives me wings
to fly to those
One day in February Abbey and I were sitting at the dining room table while Gabriel played next door. She was chatting spiritedly about her middle school’s yearly Drug and Alcohol Awareness Day and poking fun at some of the inquiries on the anonymous questionnaire. “They asked if we ever drink and drive,” she said, throwing her arms up incredulously. “I’m not even old enough to drive! They asked if we’d ever sniffed glue.” She collapsed into a fit of laughter and then looked at me, amazed. “Who does that?”
“You’d be surprised,” I said, wondering if I should be relieved or alarmed that at thirteen years old she’d never heard of such a thing. When her laughter died down she gazed at me disquietly and then said, with rare hesitation, “There was one question I wasn’t really sure how to answer.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh?”
Abbey began fiddling with the corner of her notebook. “At the start of the form, they had us fill out basic information,” she said. “They wanted to know who we lived with and they asked about siblings; the choices were: brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, and half-brother, half-sister.” She paused. “Technically, Gabe’s considered a half-brother, isn’t he? That’s what I was supposed to check.”
“Technically, yeah,” I said, and she stiffened. “Well, I know I should tell them but … I didn’t feel right about it. Gabriel is not a ‘half-brother.’” She cringed at the term. “He’s not half anything. He’s my brother. Period. So that’s what I checked.”
I sat there knowing, like Abbey, that there was a proper response I was supposed to give. Instead I decided this was the time to teach her that some words only have the power we bestow them. I squeezed her hand and told her it was okay, because to Abbey, checking the box next to ‘brother’ was the truth.
Elizabeth Maria Naranjo’s essays have appeared in Brevity Magazine, Literary Mama, Phoenix New Times, Mothers Always Write, Babble, and Brain, Child. She is also an award-winning fiction writer. Links to Elizabeth’s work can be found on her website at elizabethmarianaranjo.com.