On Disappointments & Brotherhood

Parenting is a never-ending exercise in humility. And if the firstborn did not humble you, then the second child surely will.

I remember being in the produce section, Fuji apple in hand, with a brand new baby number two strapped to me kangaroo-style, when a grandmotherly type congratulated me and asked whether this was my first child. I responded from my blissful but sleep-deprived haze that he was my second, and she said, “Oh, then you know all about babies.” To which I replied, “Well, I know all about the first one. And now I’m learning about this one.”

Each boy is so different. Just like brothers should be.

We have four sons now, the youngest a teenager, and in many ways I am still learning who they are. They are, too. Which is all kinds of fun, when it’s not terrifying. And yes, I’m referring to the premiums for their auto insurance. These young men are growing up, finding their way, spreading their wings and eating through an impressive amount of groceries. I’m a little proud.

Thing #3 is graduating from high school, and we are once again riding the roller coaster that is senior year. Achievements and awards, leadership roles, defining moments and bittersweet lasts…. Last homecoming, last music performance, and last playoff game. Looming over the entire last year of high school, of course, is the dreaded college admissions process and the omnipresent question, What are you going to do next year? It is a year full of accomplishments, anticipation and anxiety. It’s hard on the kids, too.

We’ve traveled this path before with our older sons, but it is different every time. All of our sons are smart, funny and devastatingly handsome. Just like every mother’s son in the history of ever. And each in his own way. I have long been a proponent of the theory that there is no perfect school, you just have to find the right fit for your kid. But it’s not necessarily a straightforward undertaking. Sometimes the school finds the kid.

If you’re familiar with the fateful admissions process, then you know that March is the month when many colleges release their decisions. The trepidation surrounding the Ides of March is very much alive and well in the lives of high school seniors all over the country. My husband advises me that if I were a better mother then I would know our son’s password so we could hack in to his portal and access his admissions status ourselves. Instead, we have to wait until he gets out of class for the day. The minutes drag by slowly. He sends a text message with the note “not rejected” and a photograph of the letter from his first choice of schools … waitlisted.

I send a note to my husband and the boys, all of whom are anticipating good news: sad face emoji.

It is a huge disappointment, and the fact that the school is so selective that even a waitlist opportunity is coveted brings no comfort. In that moment, it doesn’t matter that he has already received acceptances and scholarship offers from other schools, because the one he thought he wanted most said Maybe instead of Yes. The boy has no appetite that evening, which would usually be alarming for a teenager, but is appropriate under the circumstances.

His brothers rally their support immediately:

Thing #1 says, “We hate those guys!”

Thing #2 sends a text message, “Screw them!”

We gather around the dinner table, and Thing #4 says, “Hey Mom, you know what sucks?” I’m almost afraid to ask, given his recent impressions of certain inappropriate comedians, many of whom seem to comprise the student body at his all-boys parochial school, but I take the bait anyway. What is it, darling? “[Insert name of offending institution here]!” He glances at his brother, who reluctantly begins to smile.

He has successfully navigated bigger disappointments than this. All the boys have. They’ve each suffered the loss of a parent and endured the blending of a family, including a step-parent and step-brothers. Not one of them would have chosen this path. But we do not always get to choose. Sometimes the universe takes the decision out of our control and points us in a completely different direction. God’s guiding hand can be a real pain in the butt. And sometimes on the unexpected journey, we find love and joy, and brotherhood.

One of the more dismal aspects of being a parent is seeing your child suffer, and we ourselves spend a sleepless night over the discouraging news. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. But with the new day arrives a new letter… My son and I both hear the familiar squeak of the mail truck on the street, and after weeks of greeting the mail carrier and rushing to the mailbox, neither one of us flinches. My husband, the optimist, rushes up a flight of stairs, and asks “Did I hear the mail arrive?” He returns with a fat envelope, Plan B starts to take shape, and we are all getting excited.

At the end of the day, there will be disappointments. Some minor and others staggering, but if you have brothers – biological or otherwise – then there will also be peace, progress, decadent snacks and a healthy dose of irreverent humor.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And brotherhood to support you through life’s disappointments.

Brotherly Love

People often ask me, regarding our blended family, how our collective boys get along together. The short answer is that they get along like brothers.

The long answer is much the same. Like brothers, they quarrel and bicker and jockey for the shotgun seat in the car. They get jealous and snarky. They borrow each other’s jackets and earphones and telephone chargers and forget to return them. They throw jabs and hurl insults (and other blunt objects). They all duck when they sense I’m about to ask somebody to take out the trash.

They fight over who gets the keys to their car and who gets stuck driving the mommy-mobile. They hide the preferred xBox controller from each other. Even though three of them are six feet tall or even taller, they push over each other like puppies, dashing around the house searching for Easter eggs.

They almost always refer to each other as “my brother,” even when they are introducing the brothers with the same name, as in “Hello, I’m Michael, and this is my brother Michael.” None of them even bother to explain this apparent maternal glitch any more.

They protect each other. They all want to know the name of the kid who the youngest brother was playing basketball with when he suffered his concussion. But I won’t tell. Their hearts all sink when they learn of a group project in which one brother’s partner forgot to bring his model, and then they share their own stories of botched group projects, late nights, and strategies for recovery. They go see the Fast & Furious together, and they watch How I Met Your Mother and YouTubes of silly cat commercials.

One of the boys in particular will consistently throw himself in front of the oncoming train that is Crazy-Mom-With-Her-Head-Spinning in an attempt to save his brothers. Another shares his strategy for derailing She-Who-Might-Start-Yelling, “If you make her laugh, she forgets why she’s mad.” They drive each other around, and they all drive me crazy. I am crazy about all of them. I could not be happier.

They admire and emulate each other. They are embarrassed by each other. They tease each other. They amuse each other. They argue about who will be the tallest, or the most successful, or who would make the best priest. They share secrets. They all know where I hide my stash of dark chocolate. They worry about each other. They take pride in each other’s accomplishments. They race. They compete. They shove each other and then pick each other up. They bring out the best — and worst — in each other.

They are each so different. Even the ones who are biologically related. Even the two with the same name. Even the two who share the same birthday. My husband and I are amused by the fact that the two who – at first blush – look most alike are not biologically related. And we marvel at the fact that the boy who is uncannily like Tim is not his biological son. Then again, we cannot quite explain how very much like me the drama king is, when I am not the woman who gave birth to him.

I have modified the following segment of Sunday’s weekly liturgy to suit our daily purposes and taped it to the front of our refrigerator (the refrigerator being the most heavily trafficked location in the house of boys):

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should have blessed me with so many brothers under my roof, but only say the word and our relationship will be healed.” 

~ Revised Queen Charlotte Version

It is nearly six years now since the boys first met each other. Predictably, they were not sure about this whole Brady Bunch business. Nobody wanted to share his surviving parent with more brothers. Understandably, nobody wanted to compromise, or coordinate, or share a bedroom or the remote control. When I think about it, six years seems a relatively short time to reach this place where they love each other like brothers, even if on some days they don’t like each other much.

Brotherly love does not mean they never argue, it means they hear each other out, even when they disagree. Brotherly love does not mean they hold the same opinion, or goals or dreams, but it means understanding each other, or at least trying to. Brotherly love means showing up for graduations, and birthdays, and holidays. The boys do all these things. They share a special bond.

As a mother, I delight in that moment – no matter what has transpired the rest of the week – when the boys embrace each other and wish each other “Peace” at mass on Sundays, even if that looks like giving each other “peace noogies” in the process. It is the highlight of mass for me. That, and the silence.

On a really good day, it’s that moment when one of the boys makes another laugh and snort in church. Just like brothers will do.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And brotherly love.