Never mess up an
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More Than One Way to Live a Life

A big sister takes 30 years to appreciate the kindness, intelligence and true nature of her littlest (or should I say youngest) sibling.
First appeared in Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion in October 2008

Six years my junior, the youngest of four kids, my little brother John was like the dot over the letter “i.” He was there, but not central to the dynamic of the ruling triumvirate formed by my sister, myself, and my first brother. John was there, handy if we needed something to roll down the back hill, but not really part of the action. The three of us elders, on the other hand, were each eighteen months apart, and years older than John.

John grew into a cute enough kid, but spoiled, unfocused, according to those of us in the know. He really didn’t hold up the family standard. He lacked the discipline and drive we other three had. The way I remember it, we three did all our homework before we went out to play, we ate all our vegetables, and never stayed out late.

John, on the other hand, would eat bowls of Cap’n Crunch® in front of the television. He joined a football team and then quit after my mom bought him all the equipment. Ditto with clarinet and soccer. As he got older, he’d go out carousing till all hours. I heard tales — I was out of the house by then — of bar fights. I would just roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders and return to my own tidy life.

All along, the thing that used to bug me the most about John is that he had more potential in his little finger than the rest of us had in our entire, over-achieving, over-exercised bodies. That was true, not only for sports, but also for intellectual pursuits. I once read one of his college term papers and I was floored by the cogent analysis, thoughtful writing style, and the sheer substance.

But then, the next time I looked, John had grown up. He started dating a really smart woman. He created his own business. He married his really smart girlfriend and now they have two beautiful daughters. And the thing is, despite (or because of?) all those years of debauchery, he is one of the best husbands and dads I know.

What happened to that guy who went through girlfriends like a runny nose goes through tissue? Was this responsible, mature man always there but I just never noticed? I think the answer is yes and no. Partly, perhaps, I never gave him the chance to show this side of him; but partly he can be these things because he was the other things.

It’s a family joke that I can never call John the right name. No matter when I’m talking to him, I call him Doug (my son’s name) and I call my son, Doug, John. It’s no coincidence that I do this; there is much in Doug that reminds me of John. I only hope that I can use my new perspective to appreciate Doug sooner than I appreciated John. There is more than one way to skin a cat, or live a life. That’s what John has showed me. I hope I can bear that in mind as my own darling son’s life unfolds.

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