When our twelve-year-old, Thing1, was about four, he began begging us for a baby brother. He didn’t want more playdates with other boys, and he definitely didn’t want a baby sister. Fortunately, we were able to deliver on his request two year later, and, even though we couldn’t take credit for Thing2’s gender, Thing1 was perfectly happy to go along with our contention that Thing2 was the big present that Christmas.
Thing1 took his big-brother responsibilities very seriously. He read to Thing1and held his hand on the jungle gyms. He made sure that I didn’t pick any outfits or Halloween costumes that violated the boy code of ‘not-too-cute’. It didn’t take Thing2 long to decide that his older brother was a hero. Six years later, Thing1 is learning that no good deed goes unpunished.
The two of them share the same wants these days, and the perfect harmony that characterized their early years together goes off key with increasing frequency. They still share a bunk room, and, for a time, I thought the close proximity was the primary cause of their constantly overlapping material desires. But the other night, as the Big Guy and I orchestrated the circus that is homework hour at our house, it became apparent that it does’t always take the opposing forces that lead to conflict don’t have to be equal in size or determination.
The increased expectations and volume of homework this year drove Thing1 to study at the desk we put in his room two years ago. Thing2, however, still needs more supervision if we want his 20 minutes of homework done before eight o’clock at night, and we’ve designated the kitchen table as his study space. Anything can draw our happily distractible six-year-old away from his studies, and, if we don’t keep a close eye on him, we know we’ll find him in the bunk room pestering his older brother.
Last week I had a chance to watch this ballet once more. This time, however, a different angle made it seem like a completely new production. Thing2 had just been restored to his chair after bouncing around the house, showing us his afternoon artwork. Thing1 had the door to their room closed. Hoping a little music would help Thing2 concentrate, I hit play on If I Fell, one of his favorite Beatles’ songs.
My plan backfired immediately. Thing2 began singing, revealing that he wanted to sing Beatles at the school talent show. The love song ended, but instead of bending his head to his work, Thing2 hopped off the chair and ran to the bunkroom, calling to his brother through the door to let him know about the talent show plans.
“Leave me alone,” Thing1 yelled through the door. “I’m trying to work!” I ordered Thing2 back to his seat and opened the door to let Thing1 know yelling at his brother should be reserved for actual crimes. He came out to defend his reaction and, after we discussed the right tone to use with his parents, Thing1 trudged back to his desk. Thing2, watched the exchange and hopped up again as soon as his brother began his retreat. It was like watching a match chasing a long fuse.
I got up to pull my first-grader back to his homework before a fight broke out, but when I got to the door of the bunk room, Thing2 was hanging on the back of his brother’s chair, arms wrapped tightly around Thing1’s neck, consoling him while revealing his talent show plans. Thing1, still miffed, was trying to write while ignoring the stranglehold, but then I saw him pat his baby brother’s hand. At that moment I knew he also realized that this wasn’t pestering. It was worship. Sometimes it hurts, but even when he’s trying to find breathing space, Thing1 seems to understand that being someone’s hero is not just a responsibility; it’s a gift.