When the younger sibling is left behind

By Randi Olin
@randiolin

“Mom, I need you!”

I hadn’t heard these words from my almost 15-year-old son in what seemed like a decade. He hadn’t called for me from his end of the hallway since a bout of bad dreams and restless sleeps a few years back. “What’s up?” I called back, resting the book I’d been reading on my chest, propping my glasses on top of my head.

“I need you,” he repeated, this time a little bit firmer, a little bit louder.

“Can you come here please?”

He sat at the edge of his unmade bed as I entered his room; he was shirtless and wearing gym shorts, with a baseball cap hung low over his eyes. His foot was crossed over his leg. A quick scan of the room revealed a couple of wet towels, and a mess of inside-out clothes on the floor. I cringed before refocusing on the issue at hand—the strange looking item sticking out of his size-12 foot. He was looking down at it, shaking his head, his hair still damp from his shower, sweat beading at the nape of his neck.

“Can you pull this thing outta me?” he said, his man-like hands still gripping his foot. “I think I’m gonna pass out,” his wince coated with a thick layer of drama.

He’d been playing hockey in his room with the new stick we had just given him for Hanukkah. The rubber ball somehow ricocheted off the bulletin board hanging on his wall and struck a thumb tack, one with a neon green clip and a white strip of paper still attached to it. A slight misstep and now the tack, clip and all, was lodged into his foot. But it wasn’t just the length of the tack jutting out of his foot that had my attention—it was the strip of paper. It had “Play With Me Coupon!” written on it in royal blue block letters.

It had been Daniel’s seventh birthday, and his big sister Emily gave him a stack of her homemade coupons, wrapped up in a shoebox filled with blue tissue paper in all different shades. Over the years, he had used them all, or so I thought, presenting strips of paper to her, like tickets to a show, whenever he wanted immediate access to join her fun.

Not many things had been pinned to Daniel’s bulletin board, only his most special and coveted trinkets—a New York Giants Super Bowl pennant, a Derek Jeter picture, and apparently a homemade “Play With Me Coupon!” his sister had given him for his birthday. And he had kept it, the last one, after all these years.

“I’m Mrs. Olin and you are my student,” Emily would say to Daniel, her lopsided pigtails bobbing as she pointed to the purple plastic chair for her little brother to sit in. She would hang geography and math posters on the walls of the playroom, using a pointer to “teach” him. On a different day it was a game of library, she and her friends the librarians, organizing and labeling books, Matt Christopher in one corner, Junie B. Jones and Henry and Mudge in another. Over the years the games changed, but the constant was their togetherness.

But then, one day, it stopped. “Mom, can you tell him to leave us alone,” Emily said, her bedroom door shutting, her make believe games all of a sudden “for members only,” behind closed doors, with her friends. Her brother now stood on the outside, his head and gaze downward, his little shoulders slumped. He was no longer invited.

Growing up, my brother was my childhood playmate. We were superheroes running around the backyard, DJs choosing our radio station’s playlist from our selection of 45s and cassette tapes. What I didn’t know then but am certain of now is that besides our parents, our siblings are the only true witnesses to our childhood, the ones who share the kaleidoscope of family experiences both high and low. If we are lucky, like I have been, our relationships with them are among the deepest and most meaningful relationships we will ever know.

“I’m playing ball with my friends, go find something else to do,” he told me one Saturday afternoon. It felt like he was discarding me along with our days of head-to-head Coleco football, Battleship tournaments and Monopoly marathons.

He was the first to leave for college, my brother. The dinner table felt quiet without his sports talk and our inside jokes, his humor and our banter. Our family square quickly became a triangle and I hadn’t been ready for it. In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.

Had Daniel been holding onto the coupon these past eight years for the right moment to cash it in, or was the strip of paper a silent reminder of the passage of time?

“On the count of three, I’m going to pull it out,” I said, crouched down next to him. “OK, go for it,” he said closing his eyes. “One. Two. Three.” I pulled the tack out quickly, in a single shot. Blood spurted, and he re-opened his eyes as I held a bath towel firmly on his foot, putting pressure on the wound. “You’re going to be fine,” I said. “The pain will stop, eventually.”

Surprisingly, the white “Play With Me Coupon!” was still intact. The paper fell to the floor, without a spot of blood, a crease or a tear. I slipped it into my pocket, not wanting anything to happen to this remnant of my children’s bond.

“It’s done,” I said, our eyes locking a half-second longer.

Without another word, he picked up his hockey stick and found the rubber ball, as if nothing had happened. And I headed back to my room to finish the chapter I had been reading, trying to pretend nothing had yet changed.

Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She still keeps the last remaining “play with me coupon” safely tucked away in her bedside table. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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