Fuzzy Yellow Housecoats, Teddy Bears and Monsters at the Door

Fuzzy Yellow Housecoats, Teddy Bears and Monsters at the Door

[July 23, 2017]

Stories. We like to tell stories in my family. We have favourites that we tell almost every time that we get together. It doesn’t matter to us that we have heard them all before. We simply rejoice in the ritual of telling them and, by doing so, we re-live old memories and strengthen the ties that bind us together.

While there are many stories that we like to drag out after Sunday dinners, by far the person featured most in our family stories is, unquestionably, my eldest-brother, Ricky. I have never met a man quite like him. The stories that we tell about him always leave us laughing. They are outrageous and unbelievable, endearing and unique. Though I have heard them countless times over the years, I never once tire of watching my family relive them. There is so much joy in the house when we remember Ricky’s many exploits and his capacity to make fun of himself is truly a remarkable gift that he bestows on us all.

One of my favourite stories involving my brother Ricky happened one evening when I was just a baby and my parents went out, leaving me and my two other siblings in his care. In charge for the evening, Ricky rejoiced in being able to order our brother Kevin and sister Cathy around. Things quickly changed, however, when I woke up crying. Tasked with settling me down and getting me back to sleep, Ricky picked me up out of my crib and tried to soothe me. As recalled by my siblings, I was inconsolable that night and, frustrated by this, Ricky had to come up with a plan to settle me down.

At the urging of my sister Cathy, Ricky put on my mother’s housecoat and slippers and doing his best Mom impression tried to convince me that he was her. Snuggling up next to my mother’s fuzzy yellow housecoat, the plan worked and I soon fell back to sleep. My tough brother Ricky, in my mother’s fuzzy yellow housecoat and slippers, however, was apparently quite the sight to see. Kevin and Cathy, seeing a crack in his armour, saw the truth beneath the tough guy façade and ‘til this day have never let him live it down. It is no secret that my brother is a big softy, and I think we love telling this story so much because it illustrates that point so clearly.

Though I don’t remember it, there is another story about my brother Ricky and I that I need to share with you. It is one, surprisingly, that isn’t told very often but it is the story about my brother that I hold most precious. When I was just a toddler, not yet able to walk, my brother spent all of his money on a large teddy bear that he planned to give to me for Christmas. Not wanting to spoil the surprise he hid this bear, which was as big as I was, in his room behind his dresser. One day, just before Christmas, my family lost track of me. Frantically, they searched the house calling my name but I was nowhere to be found. In the end, my brother Ricky found me behind his dresser curled up with the massive teddy bear that he had bought for me. The surprise spoiled, Ricky decided to give me the bear early since there seemed no way to separate me from it. I love this story because when my brother tells it you can still see in his eyes how proud he is that he got something for me that I loved instantly. Something that was bigger than me, bigger than him, as big in fact as the love for his family that he has always carried around with him.

Families, however, are not made up of only happy memories and funny stories. They are made up also of the memories we wish to forget and the stories that we do not jokingly recount after Sunday dinner. Remembering only the good times and omitting the bad does a disservice to my family and since these blogs are all about being honest, in the hopes of helping people deal with their own challenges, I feel that I should share some of the darker chapters of my family’s history.

If you have read my other blogs, you already know my brother Ricky struggled for a large portion of his life with drugs and alcohol addiction. He was a different person when he drank and used drugs; not the self-deprecating, fun-loving, soul that he is today. But he was instead an angry, selfish, sometimes violent person who absolutely terrified me.

Though I never talk about these memories with my family, I hope that they understand that including them is essential to understanding my relationship with my brother. Painful as it may be for them to read, my intention is not to pass judgment on these events, or my brother, but rather share with you an incident in my life that deeply affected me; a memory so vivid that I recall every moment of it as if it were yesterday.

The incident in question happened one night when I was still in elementary school. Home alone with my mother, I heard a knock at the side door. Going to answer it, I found my brother Ricky, standing on the other side covered in blood. When he saw me, he slammed a bloody hand on the door’s window and screamed at me to let him in. He had just cut himself on a beer bottle but I didn’t know that. To me, he looked and sounded like a monster and I ran to the living room and hid behind a chair.

As I tried in vain to feel safe in my hiding place, I heard my mother arguing with my brother, as he continued to violently throw himself against the door. Not gaining access to the house at the side door Ricky raced around to the front of the house to try and get in through the front entrance. I remember my mother running to the front to make sure that it was locked, all the while yelling my name so that I would come to her. Gingerly exiting from my hiding place, I joined my mother at the front door, and she grabbed me by the hand. Luring my brother to the side door, by promising to let him in, we escaped the house from the front door and ran to the neighbors down the street. I have never been more terrified in my life.

After that incident, I spent most of my youth being afraid of Ricky. I was too young at the time to know that it was his addictions that were fueling his violent tendencies, so as a way of protecting myself I began to emotionally distance myself from him. He couldn’t hurt me if I pretended not to care.

During my early adolescence, when Ricky had finally sought help and was in rehabilitation, I spent a lot of time being angry with him. I felt that I had to keep his addictions a secret and, because of that, unfairly blamed him for my inability to make friends at school. I was also a little bit selfish and not entirely convinced that we should be standing by my brother after all that he had put us through. Looking back now, I am grateful that my parents were so devoted to their eldest son; for it taught us all that you do not abandon family when things get tough. For my own sake, in high school, I wrote a play about how living with my brother’s addictions had negatively affected me and used that play as a kind of talk therapy to finally lay all my anger to rest. Though I regret airing our family secrets so publically, I am gratefully that I was able to say all the things that I needed to say in order to heal and—most importantly— forgive my brother.

I realize now that Ricky is the heart of our family. We stood by him when he was in need because that is what families do. Ricky is far more than the comic relief we are so eager to cast him as, for he is the living representation of our strength as a family. There is no one else in my life that has changed his life so completely, given up so many vices, and stood stronger and better for having survived the struggle. I fear that he may not know how proud I am to be his brother and may think that I dwell on his past mistakes. But I look at those darker times as only the path that we had to take in order to get to this brighter future. The selfish teenager in me is gone and I realize that there is no one person responsible for the bad things that happened to me in my life.

So how do I feel about my eldest brother today? Let me just say that when I finally had the courage to tell him that I was gay, he looked me in the eye and said, “I am sorry that I wasn’t the type of brother that you could tell this to.”

In one simple heartfelt sentence, Ricky said everything in that moment that I needed to hear. He acknowledged our past, which has not always been rosy, owned his mistakes by apologizing for not being there, and in the end became everything I have ever needed him to be by loving and accepting me for who I am. I am proud to say that in my adult life my brother Ricky has always been there for me, and though the dark days will always be with us, they are not what I choose to dwell on. Instead, I choose to remember that my brother supported me when I had the courage to come out, he mourned with me when I lost our father, welcomed Stacy with open arms into our family when I got married, and when I was just a toddler bought me the biggest damn teddy bear that he could find.

Let me leave you with one last story. My brother was about to leave the reception hall on my wedding day. Just before he was out the door the D.J. began playing the ABBA song “Dancing Queen”. Without hesitation, my brother rushed back into the hall, half-yelling “I love this song” and danced one last dance with Stacy and me before he left. I was overjoyed to see him with his guard down strutting his stuff to one of the gayest songs in the ABBA catalog. I love you big brother.

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