Growing Up with Big Brother

Posted on March 3, 2011


Joe, the young sailor, with our mother.

When I was four, I was rescued by my older brother during a bizarre incident involving a mechanical bed in our house. Technically, there were two beds. One could be raised to sleeping level or lowered to the floor and rolled under the other, which was stationary. It may be known as a trundle bed, but we called it the high-riser. To me the name sounded futuristic, and just a little scary.

The up-and-down part had a scissor-like contraption operated by a steel bar, which you pulled up and over the bed to raise or lower it. In a moment of incomprehensible carelessness, I somehow found myself lying face-down on top of the scissor bed with my head stuck under the frame of the stationary one. The bar was pressing into my upper back, pinning me to the mattress as if I’d been caught in a giant mousetrap. I still can’t imagine how I got myself into that position; it doesn’t even seem physically possible. But I remember yelling “Help!” in a muffled, pitiful kind of way, and thinking I might spend the rest of my life staring at the bedroom floor. My distress was compounded by the fact that pulling up on the bar would raise the bed still more, essentially decapitating me, while pushing down on it would have snapped my little neck. And then Joe appeared, somehow resisting the urge to do either and freeing me from my predicament with ease, and without a word.

This was the set-up, but with mattresses. (

* * * * *

Sometime later he went into the Navy and was gone for several years. And then he was engaged. According to family legend, Joe had seen Noreen walking by one day and, as if right out of a 1940s Hollywood movie, said to his friend, “Frankie, there’s the girl I’m going to marry.” They did get married, in 1963, had three children, and moved into a house about ten miles from us, where we all gathered frequently for Sunday dinners and birthday parties.

One summer day, when I was fourteen, while Joe was sitting on the deck of the swimming pool in their backyard, I sneaked up behind him and pushed him into the water. I either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that he was fully dressed. As I said, I was fourteen, and boys that age are idiots. It seemed like a funny thing to do at the time. But when he climbed out of the water, he was saying something about his wallet and some important stuff in his pocket. Everything was soaked, including his driver’s license, which in those days was made of paper. I imagine that as he held the mass of soggy pulp in his hands, he would have liked to turn me into something similar, but Joe was thirteen years older than I was, and so had to show restraint. I remember hiding behind the pool for several hours afterward, marveling at my own stupidity, and my brother’s self-control.

* * * * *

Noreen and Joe, Christmas Eve, 1996

Several years later, when I was no longer fourteen, I did something even more idiotic. Joe and Noreen had gotten heavily involved in Marriage Encounter, a series of weekend presentations and couples-based communication exercises. One evening, with nothing better to do, I decided to disguise myself and go to their door pretending to be asking for charitable donations. I put on a long beard, a black coat and hat, and some old eyeglasses I’d found at home. Then, as my younger brother and sister hid in the bushes near the front door, I rang the bell and waited, hoping to fool Joe and Noreen with my disguise. It was difficult to see clearly, partly because it was getting dark, but mostly because I was wearing someone else’s prescription glasses. Everything was pretty much a blur. What I did manage to glimpse, though, was some motion in the living room window. I rang the doorbell again, and then heard the sound of screeching tires. A car that appeared to be the shape of a station wagon parked in front of the house and four large male figures got out and approached me. I pretended to mumble in a foreign language and tried to shuffle away, but they surrounded me and demanded to know what I wanted. Trapped, I removed the beard and glasses and explained who I was, and that I was just playing a joke on my brother.

When my father and mother put on the beards, the incident became an official part of our family history. That's Joe on the right.

As it turned out, Joe and Noreen weren’t home that evening. They were at a Marriage Encounter weekend. In fact, they were hosting the event. Their three kids, ages approximately nine, seven, and four, were with a babysitter, a girl of about twelve. It was she who’d peeked out the living room window. During the time I was reaching for the doorbell the second time, the babysitter was calling her parents just around the corner to tell them a strange man was outside. Now the front door was wide open and the babysitter, sobbing uncontrollably, was pleading to go home. I told her that I would stay with the kids, but they were all crying, too. They were confused, seeming to recognize my face but looking at me as though they couldn’t quite figure out what had happened to the rest of me. Someone called Joe and Noreen at the Marriage Encounter meeting and the next thing I knew, they were on their way home. When they arrived, Joe just looked at me and shook his head, and they all went into the house with hardly a word. My younger brother and sister followed me to the car, which we had parked a block away, and we drove home, also in silence.

The incident wasn’t mentioned again. The following year, Joe and Noreen moved their family to Florida, following the promise of a new job for him. The first time they visited us in New York, they arrived unannounced, with Joe appearing at our door wearing the very same disguise that had backfired on me months earlier. The joke persisted in various forms for several years, with nearly everyone joining in at one time or another. It had come full circle, skillfully taken from annoying inconvenience to another bit of family lore, thanks mostly to my brother’s wisdom and sense of humor.

* * * * *

I’ve always felt Joe’s presence, even when he was in the Navy, and then married and on his own. As a young boy I’d heard countless times how much I looked like him. He was my sponsor on Confirmation day when I was eight. An excellent pool player, he was the one who taught me how to hold the cue, and how to line up a shot. A great cook haunted by perfectionism, he made us pizza and cheesecake, which we all devoured while he bemoaned the sauce that wasn’t quite right or the microscopic crack that had appeared on one side of the dessert. A cannoli connoisseur, he learned to make his own, and mastered the process. He sent us all copies of our family tree, which he’d spent years researching. He is defined by his Christian faith, and by his love for family. Active and adventurous, he and his wife have traveled the globe during the past ten years.

In Sicily, 2005, about to stuff his face with pastry.

Joe has always been my role model in the aging process.

And for the past two months, he has also been defined by the brain tumor that grew quietly inside his skull. It was removed several weeks ago, but the prognosis — if the doctors and their statistics are to be believed — is grim. Now, at the age of sixty-eight, my brother is in a battle for his life. I’m not a believer in prayer, but I hope for his recovery with a fervor that could easily be mistaken for praying. He has too much left to do, too many branches on the family tree to fill in, and far too many pizzas and cheesecakes to make. If there’s time, I’d even like to push him into a swimming pool at least once more.

It’s impossible to know if any of that will happen. This good and loving man who signed up for military service during the Cold War’s most dangerous days has been caught in a giant mousetrap of his own. There’s a metal bar pressing against the back of his neck, and there’s no way for me to rescue him. But just as I don’t believe in prayer, I also don’t believe in statistics. I do believe in the will to live, the body’s innate and mysterious ability to heal itself, and the magic of hope.

If you feel inclined to leave a comment here, I’d like to ask that you use it to send my brother and his wonderful wife a short and encouraging message. I know they would welcome your prayers, but if you prefer to offer simple good wishes, secret cures, mystical spells, breathing techniques, or voodoo incantations, that would be great, too. Whatever the words, I believe it’s the love behind them that makes the difference.

* * * * *

Cancer seems to be everywhere lately. My good friends Cathy and Sarah are facing it now, as are the mothers of my friends Marie and Julia. For all of them, and everyone fighting this wicked disease, I hope for a complete recovery and years of health. And to anyone who has ever lost a sibling, I wish you the same inner peace that your brother or sister would want for you.


Posted in: Family