My friends and I laughed as the desperate screams danced in our ears. It was just what we wanted to hear coming from the little toy cabinet in my family room. Had my little brother kept quiet in that dark, claustrophobic cage it would have been no fun. But we knew when he tried to open the doors to get out he would panic. They were locked. We had grabbed a nearby hammer and stuck it through the handles. The kicks of his skinny legs and the screams of his little lungs would get him nowhere.
Spencer is almost four years younger than me, and at least six years younger than those friends. Still, everywhere we went he followed. Everything I did, he wanted to do. And, if there was a chance that he could impress my friends and me he would embrace it wholeheartedly.
Enter toy cabinet.
Probably two feet deep and three feet wide, the wooden cabinet was the perfect size to use on Spencer. “Hey Spence,” I said.
“What?” He responded with those innocent bright blue eyes full of a desire to please.
“I bet you couldn’t fit your whole body in this cabinet,” I challenged him.
“Yes, I can!” he retorted, screwing his face up in determination and bounding up to the cabinet.
We were all more than happy to help him. He laid his frail torso down on the cabinet floor and then carefully pulled his bony knees up to his chest as he scooted himself as far back as he could. He was so happy to be able to show off to his older brother. He fit perfectly. “Alright, but let’s see if you still fit when we close the doors,” I said as innocently as possible. Something in Spencer changed and you could see that he was nervous. I didn’t wait for his response. In one swift motion the doors were shut and that old hammer with the splintery wooden handle shoved into place. So the entertainment began.
It’s hardly uncommon for a sibling to delight in the cruel harassment of a little brother or sister. I vividly recall my oldest sister and I playing hide and seek. I hid under a pile of dirty clothing and watched through what I thought was a small break in the heap to see if she was coming. My heart skipped a beat when I spotted her entering the room.
Slowly crossing the distance between the door and my hiding place, she said aloud, “I wonder where Alan is?” Trying desperately to keep my fidgety body still, I gritted my teeth and held my breath as she inched closer and closer to the pile of dirty garments. She stepped so close I could see the stitching on her bleached white jeans, but then, to my relief, she turned around. Surely I had fooled her, and she would now make her way out of the room to fruitlessly search elsewhere. No sooner had I begun to celebrate my victory than my sister stopped. Like Spencer just before the cabinet doors closed, even in my naïve innocence I knew that something bad was about to happen. From my secure spot in the clothing I could see the back of my sister’s knees begin to bend. As if in slow motion, her entire body began to fall backward toward my clothing mound.
First the light disappeared, and then I felt an overwhelming weight close in around me. My nose was shoved into old t-shirts, my mouth into dirty socks, and I felt as though my head would be crushed by the body on top of the pile. Fear set in. I screamed and kicked with all the fury a four-year-old could muster. In answer to my crazed cries came the jovial laugh of my older sister sitting triumphantly atop a throne of talking clothes. I am sure the entire ordeal lasted a matter of seconds, but the horror of that moment is singed into my mind forever: the sense of hopelessness, the anger of betrayal, the fear of consuming darkness, the knee-jerk need for air. I hated every moment of that experience except for the few seconds when I thought my older sister actually wanted to play with me.
The difference between Spencer and me is that I spent a few seconds under that pile of clothing; Spencer spent a few years. Whether I was born a sadist or learned it from experience I can’t say. But I took torturing my brother to a degree that my sister would never have done to me. Spencer followed my friends and me like a shadow. This tender child with the big droopy eyes, the milky white skin, and the shock of blonde hair was too young to hang out with his own friends so he looked to us for companionship. The nice thing would have been to send him away. To tell him to go play with Mom or to watch TV, but we were never that kind. The truth is that we did want Spencer around. He was our failsafe in case no one wanted to play Mortal Combat, or go dig holes, or throw the football. Spencer was always there, waiting in the background like a little ghost wishing someone could see him.
It was in these times of indecision and boredom that Spencer got all the attention he never once deserved. It was in these times that we tried to get him to eat dog crap off a stick. It was in these times that we locked him in the pitch-black bathroom so he would overcome his fear of the dark. It was in these times that we would make him red with anger by accusing him of being in love with his best friend, the neighbor girl. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to tell Spencer sorry. And when Spencer began school, it certainly never occurred to me that his being bullied was my fault.
But of course, I had taught him how to be a victim. With every joke I made of him; with every prank I pulled on him; with every blow I made against him, I taught him that he was worthless. When other big brothers were teaching their siblings how to play ball, I was teaching Spencer how to get played.
Spencer eventually got pulled out of school and started seeing a psychiatrist about anxiety issues. Rather than move Spencer to a new school or private institution, Mom decided it best to join a group of local home schoolers. Homeschooling turned out to be a good experience for Spencer. He got to spend time with kids from other families in the neighborhood. These were kids who didn’t think he was weird or somehow unworthy of them. So, after years of being made to feel inadequate, he finally found himself an equal.
I, on the other hand, found myself in the midst of that veritable hell called middle school. The popularity I had experienced in elementary school was gone. The clear skin I had enjoyed in my youth was replaced by a visage of pimples, which, according to my mother, looked “like hamburger meat.” I was no longer one of the fastest kids in school. I was no longer the smartest kid in school. And none of the eighth graders gave a damn who I was before—all they saw was a kid with a rolly backpack waiting to get cut down to size.
What it meant to be picked on, or viewed as entertainment, became more real to me in those three years than at any other point in my life. Perhaps that is why things changed between Spencer and me.
It started late one weekday night. I had followed my usual evening ritual of stealing my sister’s Proactiv and scrubbing away at the volcanoes erupting all over my forehead; brushing my teeth; and then stripping down to naught but my boxers before hopping into bed. I curled up silently in the top bunk of our bed and secretly listened as Mom read Harry Potter to Spencer in the animated way she always did. When finished she gently told us goodnight before hitting the lights and closing the door all but a crack.
As I lay there in the darkness, listening to Spencer breath beneath me, I was overcome by a growing sense that I had something I needed to say. Something Spencer needed to know. The more I thought about it the more my heart pounded, as though I were about to step out in front of a crowd, naked.
“Hey Spence,” I said, having mustered up my courage.
“What?” he whispered back.
“I love you,” I replied with no hint of irony or deception.
“I love you too,” came the answer without hesitation.
For perhaps the first time in my life I was consciously aware of what my little brother meant to me. It was a realization born out of the empathy following suffering. That sweet moment which took place in a dark room with no fanfare, no long embrace, no tears, was nevertheless the rising of the sun on a new chapter of my relationship with Spencer.
The relationship between Spencer and me did not change in a moment. In some ways the fact that we were growing closer sometimes made the hurt even more personal when we fought. Too often I would feel my heart drop into my stomach as I watched Spencer break down into tears at something inconsiderate and hateful I had said. Those moments shattered me in a way his screaming and kicking had never done when we were little children. But such moments of intense anger and sadness became the exception.
Many summer days were spent dripping with sweat as we chased each other in our back yard with air-soft pistols. Occasionally we would play a pickup game of football. The bruises, bumps, and blood accompanying each of these excursions were physical manifestations of a growing bond of friendship.
As the years passed, I finally clawed my way out of my awkward stage: the pimples became less prevalent, my face almost seemed to grow to fit my nose, and my voice stopped cracking every time I opened my mouth. I started working through high school and into a world of greater confidence and acceptance. And, despite losing some of that humility that had brought us together, the inertia of my bond with Spencer kept us moving forward. I was actually very much in need of the confidence with which high school imbued me, because I was not anticipating what would happen next.
Just as I graduated high school Spencer entered, already having nearly caught up to me in height. Like me, he joined the cross-country team (though I had been running years prior to high school and he had never been a distance runner). Unlike me, however, he proved to be quite a talented runner.
Standing under the shade of a large gnarly cottonwood tree in the middle of a golf course, I watched in awe as he came screaming to the finish line of his first major race. His bright white legs shone from under his fluttering, skimpy yellow shorts as he furiously made the final sprint. He finished strong and did well; maybe too well. He had run it in as good a time as I ever ran, better even. He had been running for two months; I had been running for eight years.
Sitting despondently on the lush grass around the race course, I began to recognize that I was not going to be the brother who was better at everything. As the cool summer breeze played on my skin I felt fragile. I had never in my life liked being second best at something, but it seemed that this was not a matter of like or want. I had poured my soul into running. I had sweat and bled for years trying to get to where Spencer was in that one day. He had talent and no amount of willpower could give me that.
Soon after that experience, I left home to serve as a missionary for my church. My new endeavor took me across the globe to Italy, a nation full of people who didn’t speak my language and weren’t interested in my religion. To them I was a callow American kid blabbering about how Jesus’ church had been restored to the earth. The real difficulty, however, didn’t come from being chased out of palazzi by old men, or harassed by punk kids, or working weeks with nothing to show for it. The hardest part was something I had never expected, and it nearly destroyed me.
In the first months of my service, I began to feel what Spencer had dealt with as a little child: anxiety. My mind became a torture chamber—a dark claustrophobic place from which no amount of kicking or screaming could free me. I awoke every morning and the intense fear surged over me like a wave of acid eating away at my sanity. Some days it felt as though anxiety were a constant whispering in my ears telling me I would do terrible things if I had the chance. Other days it manifested as intense guilt for small mistakes made long before. Mostly, I became fixated on every disturbing image or thought conceivable. Like a scratch in a record, these thoughts would play over and over, torturing me until I was certain I was losing my mind. There were times it was so bad I would look over the railing of my third floor balcony and wonder if it wouldn’t be better to end all the fear in one instant.
While I struggled with my new-found psychosis, I still led the daily life of a missionary. Once a week I found myself sitting in a dingy, dimly lit internet café in the backcountry of Italy where I would devour news from home as I read my email. One of the constant sentiments conveyed to me was that I would not recognize Spencer when I got home: he was now on the football team, had grown about a foot, and had packed on twenty pounds of muscle to boot. I was proud of my little brother. His occasional letters were so full of hope and vivacity. Still, I found it a little ironic even then that while I fought the darkness within me, he seemed to shine like a supernova after years in the inky blackness of space.
With time, some counseling, and a little medication, the anxiety subsided, and for the last year in Italy I actually felt like myself again. My personal fears diminished and I was truly able to enjoy the beauties of the dolce vita.
When my two years of service were over I took a series of flights from Milan to Frankfurt to L.A. and then finally home to Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I made my way down the nearly vacant walkways of the airport I saw a crowd of loving faces staring at me behind a wall of Plexiglas and rotating doors.
No sooner had I made my way through those doors than a tall, slim, but extremely muscular young man ran across the lobby and grabbed me tightly in his arms, lifting me slightly into the air. My family had been wrong—I did recognize Spencer (but just barely). Two years of little more exercise than walking and ravenously devouring bowels of pasta hadn’t done my masculinity any particular favors. Nowhere was this more obvious than when I stood within a football field of Spencer’s burgeoning biceps and chiseled chest. With all his newfound power Spencer was in a position to make me pay. Physically, he could have pounded me until I was nothing more than an oil smear on the pavement. Emotionally, he had the chance to shove his superiority in my face: make me feel like a pansy who could barely handle a mission and definitely couldn’t handle him. Spencer had different plans for me. The agony he put me through in the next few months was at times nearly unbearable.
“Come on,” he would chant. “A few more seconds!”
“I don’t know, man,” I would heave before collapsing after one pushup too many. Drenched in sweat and lying in a heap on my parents’ living room floor, I stared at Spencer’s surprisingly slender ankles.
“All right buddy,” he said cheerily to the corpse at his feet, “Let’s work your legs now.”
Maybe the circumference of my chest made him sad, or maybe he knew how badly I wanted to be like him. I don’t know why Spencer wanted me to work out with him—why he still urges me to workout. All I know is that every few weeks I found myself watching Spencer in awe as he lifted. The veins in his neck and his forehead would bulge out as each sinew of muscle bunched up and hardened beneath a thin veneer of that still milky white skin. The giant plates of iron I couldn’t even imagine lifting seemingly floated off the ground under his touch. Respect collided with envy only to be replaced by embarrassment as my turn came to try a set.
Physically, the progress I made by occasionally working out with Spencer was minimal. My biceps are still slender and the pigeon chest remains. But with each trip to the gym, each set of curls, each drop of sweat, and each word of encouragement we were building something stronger than muscle. Spencer spoke to me about the girl he was falling in love with, seeking advice. I told him about what it would mean to leave on a mission for two years. We talked movies and music. He broadened my horizons and I finally gave him my undivided attention. We shared our regrets; we planned bright futures.
This was the subtle way in which we navigated a new reality. A reality in which people would ask me, “Hey, aren’t you Spencer’s little brother?” and I would smile and reply,
“Only in size.” A reality in which I found myself looking to Spencer for tips on how to be cool. A reality in which Spencer could approach me with the most personal of questions without the fear of mockery. A reality in which older brother and little brother found themselves equals.
Thinking back on it now, it’s clear that Spencer was always ready to be my best friend. From the little waif that followed me wherever I went, to the UNM rugby player I admire today, he has always been anxious to bond with his older brother. That bond, however, could only be forged in the fires of affliction. Whether it was the painfully awkward stage of middle school or that terrifying period of my mission, I needed experiences that would humble me—force me to recognize that I was not the best and to recognize that, in many ways, my little brother is my superior. Only when I had been brought low could I appreciate how incredible my little brother truly is. And once I had done that—once I found myself looking at my brother the way he had looked at me—that’s when the bond was fixed between us: a bond of love and mutual admiration that has been twenty years in the making.