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I was only six when my father passed away. He had been battling with cancer, an aggressive form of colon cancer, for four long years. Some days he felt strong, other days he seemed to be at death's door. I was not by his side when he left this world, but my mother was. She was emotionally scarred and heartbroken, spending many days afterwards in mourning. It was hard for me too, knowing that the house was one person closer to emptiness. At school, many of the other kids had siblings, some older, some younger. It saddened me to realize that I would never have any of my own, for I was an only child.
Four months after my father's passing, my mother found herself a new boyfriend. He was tall, stubborn and stout, but otherwise seemed friendly enough. He seemed foreign to me, but my mother treated him like her new soulmate, almost in the same fashion that she treated my father when they were young. They began dating; I saw them holding hands and exchanging kisses. Within a year, both of them had a ring on their left ring finger; they had been married.
One morning, my mother woke up vomiting and nauseous. I wasn't sure why; my mother had never been this ill before. A few days later my stepfather came in to my room to deliver the news: my mother was pregnant with another child. It would be my half-sibling, my half-brother if it was a boy, my half-sister if it was a girl. He seemed embarrassed, almost ashamed, to break the news to me. He was nervous and fidgety, like a teenager on his first date. "Fair enough," he said. "I've never been a father before, and you've never been a brother before. We'll see how this one turns out." With that, he left the room.
I was, at first, confused. I didn't know what a half-sibling meant. I thought the term meant someone cut in half. I wasn't too sure about delivery day, but when it came around, I got to see a baby that was relatively in one piece. My mother handed me the child and said, "You have a new half-brother." I asked her what it meant. "It means that he is only half your blood, the other half belonging to your stepfather. He has a different father, but you both have the same mother." She gave me a funny look. "You weren't expecting otherwise, were you?"
I felt embarrassed. "No, ma," I said, but she saw through my mask. "It is okay not to know something at first," she responded. She gestured towards the baby. "Please, treat him like you would a full brother; he is now part of your family."
And I did. Even though he was only my half-brother, I felt like he was my granted wish: to have a sibling. Despite the seven year age gap between us, we got along well enough. I played with him, and he with me. When he started school, I felt confident in walking him to and from his classes. We never told him about the fact that my father was different from his. According to him, he was my brother, and I was his, that his father was my father, and his mother was my mother, and that we were all one happy family, united socially and genetically.
That is, until the accident.
The phone call came one soggy afternoon. My mother answered it and was informed about the grim news: my stepfather had been in a motorcycle accident. He had taken a serious blow to the head and was in critical condition. We went in earnest to the hospital to see him. The doctors were worried that he may not survive. My mother and my half-brother were in tears. I was surprised to find myself with little affection. My stepfather was not my father, after all. I shared no blood with him, and no matter what he did, he couldn't love me like my real father could. My half-brother felt it, for my stepfather was his real father. I wanted to comfort him, but I had nothing to offer. I felt as foreign to the family as an albino would to a beach.
Later that night, my mother and I told him about our old life, about the fact that his father was different from my father, that I was his half-brother and that I was only half of his blood. At the end of it all, he was in tears. I offered him a comforting hug, and he accepted it, but deep down inside I knew he felt distanced from me, after finding out that his closest family member wasn't as close as he originally thought.
My father managed to survive. He spent several more months in the hospital recovering from his ordeal. When he finally came home, he was a completely different man. The doctors said that his personality had been permanently affected from the brain trauma, and he could be in foul or irritable moods at times. For many days, he hardly spoke. His breathing was usually heavy, and he spent most of his time sitting on the living room couch, clutching a pillow in his arms as he stared off into space. My mother brought him his meals, feeding him spoonful by spoonful like a baby, while he remained sullen and silent, his eyeballs never straying from their fixed gaze, like a soldier at attention.
Several weeks passed. Slowly he came to his own senses and got off the couch. He was able to feed, shower, and clothe himself. Soon, he was able to return to work. But one thing didn't come back to him: his former personality. Even though we weren't on the best of terms, before the accident he would at least wave goodbye to me. Now his face was stone cold, stiff and discomforting, as if he had no interest in going to work whatsoever. Off to work he would go, wearing a rigid, expressionless mask that he never took off. He would still be wearing that mask when he came home, ate dinner, and retired to bed.
The medical bills came in. My mother had the burden of dealing with the insurance companies, often leaving her defeated in a flood of tears at her desk. She was driven by her love for and marriage with her husband, who seemed to care less and less with each passing day. He hardly spoke to her, almost at times finding her presence uncomfortable. At the dinner table, he would sit farthest from us, as if we were infected with some sort of contagious disease that he was determined not to catch. My brother — erm, half-brother — would sometimes try to break the ice and talk to his father, who would always respond to his attempts for a lively conversation with a cold stare reserved for foreigners. My mother was a bit more successful in that she was able to get close enough to him for a kiss on the cheek, but he would never return the kiss. I didn't even try; I was about as foreign to my father as an alien from Mars.
My mother was persistent, and she never gave up in trying to cheer her husband up. Despite her long, tedious days, she kept trying to win back his heart. She cooked his favourite meals, served up back massages, and for his birthday, even went so far as to buying him a new car, complete with a bottle of champagne. He didn't crack a smile. The next day, I saw the keys to his new vehicle in the trash as I went to take it out.
I came home late one warm Wednesday evening. I had rugby practice after school on Wednesdays; tonight we went so late, my coach treated the team to dinner. I saw my... half-brother seated on the steps to the porch, hugging his legs and staring straight ahead with a look of uneasiness. As soon as he heard my footsteps approaching, he jumped up and pulled me aside.
"Something awful has happened," he said.
"Huh? What is it?"
He swallowed a lump in his throat. "I heard mom and dad fighting."
I was at first a bit unmoved. "That's not unusual. They fought sometimes even before the accident. We get into fights too."
He shook his head. "This time's different." And he went on to explain. My stepfather had openly complained about my mother, getting tired of being "cuddled and spoiled like a plaything." My mother was practically on her knees. "It's not spoiling! You're so depressed recently; I only wanted to help you recover!"
"Help! I don't need 'help!' You better cancel that appointment with Dr. Singh because I don't need his witty 'help!'"
"He only wants to check up on you! It won't take more than five minutes! All he wanted was to see how you're doing!"
"Ha! Well, tell him I'm f*cking fantastic! And that goes for you too!" He picked up the handset for the phone and whipped it at my mother. "Go! Cancel that bloody appointment!"
"Please... just go! It won't hurt!"
"Do it! Stop treating me like a child!" He grabbed some of the gifts that the three of us got together to buy for him. "And no more Christmas presents!" he declared, ripping them to shreds.
"That costed... hundreds of dollars...!"
"Oh, for f*cks sake, don't belittle me with your lousy 'It's so expensive!' reasoning. I don't want it! Period!"
"And why haven't you cancelled that bleedin' doctors appointment already?! I've asked you thrice to do it!"
My mother grabbed onto my stepfather's legs. "I don't know what's become of you!" she wailed, half-screaming, half-crying. "You're not the same man I married eight years ago, who laughed at every joke, who smiled at every friend, who always told me that he loved me! You've become a man who rejects everything that his family had done to make him smile! I want my old husband back! I want the old you back! I want that cheerful, happy man back! Give him back to me! Give him back!"
That was when he struck her... and when my half-brother, so aghast at the sight, ran out of the house.
"I can't go back in there," my half-brother said. "I can't see what's become of my house."
"Don't be silly," I said. "What, are you going to sleep out here? It gets pretty cold at night."
"Still warmer than what's in there!"
"Hey hey... let's not get our knickers into a twist here. Who knows, maybe they've gone to bed by now."
"I don't know..."
"C'mon," I said. "Let's check." I grabbed his wrist and dragged him back towards the house. He felt like kicking and screaming, as if he didn't want to go home. "You're going in first," he insisted when we got to the door.
"Fine." I depressed the handle and cautiously entered the house. I don't know why but all the hair on my back stood on end. I moved slowly towards the living room and took a peek around the corner. My stepfather was seated on the couch, staring at the TV with his stiff face. This time, though, his eyes were red; I could tell he had been crying. The ruins of the aforementioned gifts had been swept up into a messy pile in the corner. My mother was not there; the fight had ceased, for now at least.
"Everything's calm," I said to my half-brother. He buried his face into his hands and responded, "I hope that was just a dream... A really bad, but temporary, nightmare."
Except it wasn't. The tension stirred up the next morning at breakfast. My stepfather and my mother began fighting again. He grew irate at having his place at the table set up for him, complaining about the toast and the coffee: "No, I want it this way ... I don't like the way it's toasted here ... This isn't how I like my coffee, and that's why I only trust myself to make it!" He didn't eat a bite, only drank a tiny sip of my mother's coffee before dumping it out into the sink. He got up and left the house, slamming the door behind him.
I got up and tended to my mother. She let a few tears escape her grasp before she rushed into the bathroom, closing the door just inches from my nose. I tapped on the door, asking if she was okay. The only response I got was incessant bawling.
Later that evening, my half-brother tried again. He tried to talk to his father — my stepfather — trying to ease the tension between him and what he considered his "patronizing roommates" instead of his family. He started out civil, but as the realization of rejection caught up with him, he became desperate, then emotional. Soon, he was practically on his knees, his face covered in tears. I watched from behind a wall as my stepfather refused his own son compassion and warmth. As soon as I saw my half-brother being pushed over, I broke cover and pulled him out of there. He was still crying, my stepfather almost glad to see him leave: "Yeah, take him outta there! I'm sick of his drama!"
Drama was the right word. There was hardly a waking moment in the house that wasn't full of it. My stepfather seldom spoke to me, and when he did, it was always brief and without emotion. He spoke to my half-brother with an irritated tone, however, and whenever he got to my mother, he'd have to rip himself to shreds to keep from exploding. Almost every evening, I could hear the two fighting downstairs from my bedroom, hollering at each other at the top of their lungs. Occasionally there would be a loud smash or a bang as something was destroyed. There was a TV in my room, so I would often watch it with the volume up, hoping to drown out the misery. My half-brother would often watch it with me, and we spent hours in front of the TV, or as long as it took for his parents to stop fighting. I felt more and more distanced from the family, and I felt bad, especially for my brother. Out of the two of us, he was the most affected, as he had both of his parents in the mixture, while I only had my mother to worry about. It seemed a bit odd for me to call him my brother; if we were brothers, we would've both been equally concerned about both our parents. This issue would've affected us both equally.
Oh, right. He's not my brother, only half of one. I only had one parent in common with him. My own father had his ashes buried peacefully in the cemetery, while his father was bickering with my mother.
I developed a system for avoiding my stepfather. Up at 6, breakfast before the sun rose. Out at school for the entire day. Wednesday afternoons at rugby practice. Fridays at the gym. Once home, go straight to the den to do homework; do it quickly before the two came home to disrupt the peace. Dinner in the living room. Remainder of the evening in my bedroom, door closed, TV on at loud volume, brother seated next to me. Nights alone in bed. Each day I did this, I felt like I was running away from a problem my brother... half-brother, couldn't escape from. It was like we were both trapped in a pit, where I was strong enough to climb out and he wasn't. Instead of staying with him, I took off into the distance, leaving him to fate.
This continued for two years. I spent so much time away from my parents that I was almost foreign to the issues that still prevailed. It was my brother's tenth birthday, normally a joyous occasion to reach double-digits. My mother and even my stepfather — his father — had celebrations planned, but as usual, we knew it would never go the way we wished for it to have gone. Instead, I kept mostly away from them, spending time on my own. After a while, my brother came out to join me; I had a feeling my influence over him was causing him to sever his own family ties.
We sat quietly on the porch together, me in one deck chair, him in the other. The sun was setting, staining the sky with a fiery red and orange flare.
"I'm not your brother," he said suddenly.
I turned my head to look at him. "What?"
"Your brother," he said. "I'm not him."
I laughed, an uneasy, nervous laugh, one I usually did to unsuccessfully calm my nerves. "What... what do you mean? Of course you're my brother."
"I'd be your brother if your dad was my dad." He took a long, deep breath. "It's hard to call ourselves brothers when I don't even know your father. You were his child, his own little boy. The man that lives in our house right now, he's my father. I'm his child, his own little boy, and to you he's nothing more than a stranger your mother married. I'm sure your father never hurt your mother, or abused her, or yelled at her, or went about his way breaking things in his own house. Your father didn't deserve to die in the way he did. He must've been a wonderful man, the way you and your mother — my mother as well — described him. If you wanted a brother, it should've been from him, from your own father. Not mine." He sniffled. "The only thing the two of us have in common is that we both have the same mother. That's it. That's all that connects us. I'm sorry — I'm happier if my father never married your mother, even if it meant that I could not exist. I can't call myself your brother knowing that my father's the reason why your old life is being shattered and smashed to pieces."
He buried his face into his hands, and I could hear his muffled sobs through his fingers as he cried. I was taken aback by his words, but something within me was resolute, and I could not let this misunderstanding continue. "No," I said firmly. "No, don't talk about yourself that way. It is not your fault that your parents — my mother and my stepfather — are fighting. I don't care if we do not have the same fathers. I don't care if you're only half my blood. At this point, I don't even care if my father was alive or not, as much as I dare to say that. I don't care what other people say about us. You're my brother, even if you're only half of one. You're being the little brother that I never had, and I'm grateful for that. The only difference between us and brotherhood is four letters and a hyphen. That's nothing; I won't let that stop us."
He brushed a hand across his eyes, taking away wads of tears with it. "Half-brother or not, we have 'brother' in our names. I really, really loved you as a brother. We're going through a lot together, but that's the key: we're doing it together. I fight for you, you fight for me. I take a bullet for you, you take a bullet for me. I'll be your brother." I paused. "Will you be mine?"
At this, he had no response. He lowered his head and continued to weep. I swallowed and shifted in my chair uncomfortably. I didn't like seeing anybody cry, for any reason. For a long while, I sat there, watching as the sun disappeared below the horizon. When the last sliver of the yellow sun vanished, I said, "Whatever decision you make, know that I'm always listening for your voice." And with that, I rose to leave.
His hand shot out and grabbed my wrist. I stopped and turned around. He opened his mouth to say something. "I..." But it came out as a disfigured sob. He tried again, to no avail, but I could read his body language, could sense it within him. I gave him a big hug, and he hugged me back, still crying, his sobs just inches away from my ears. This wasn't the tenth birthday most ten-year-olds would expect, but despite our parental conflicts, I think it was the best birthday he ever had.
I was glad we had that talk. Only a week later, his parents filed for divorce. I naturally chose to live with my mother, since she really was the only true parent I had left. My half-brother didn't want to disappoint his father, but, perhaps half-reluctantly, he decided to go with me. His decision was a tearful one; when my stepfather asked him why, he said, "It's not the things I can't control that makes my brother a brother, even if he's only a half. He's my brother because he wants to be my brother."
And I did. And although people often questioned our genealogy and commented on how we didn't look alike, or how we shared only half the blood and half the chromosomes and how we were only half of what we referred to each other as, we didn't care. At the end of the day it seems foolish to let society determine who is in your family and who isn't. I chose to be his full brother, not because I rejected our genetic differences, but because I had always known, treated him, and loved him as my brother.
I'm 25 now. My stepfather has since moved on. I went to university overseas for four years, although I kept in touch with my mother and my half-brother over Skype. Whenever I came home to visit, he would always be the first one at the door to greet me, usually with a warm, brotherly hug. At social gatherings, we laughed and chatted with each other, and nobody would have guessed otherwise. When I completed my studies and landed a job near home, he would slip notes of encouragement, or simply dirty jokes, into my lunchbox to make the long hours far more bearable. At his high school graduation ceremony, whenever people asked him about me, he always responded, "He's my brother, my awesome brother." There was never any mention of a half-brother, no mention of our true history. And honestly, at that moment, it wouldn't have mattered.
I was the last person my brother hugged before leaving to study abroad. I wished him the best of luck in his studies, his friends, and his travels. Before he turned around, I said, "Promise that you'll stay connected with us over Skype?"
He smiled warmly. "You know what I am going to say."
I felt proud as he walked away. Part of me felt sad that he was leaving, but on the other hand, I felt like I had almost raised him, like an older brother would, in a way, raise his little brother. Remember when I walked you to school? Remember the prank we played on Mrs. McCumber? Remember the vacation we took to Colorado? Remember the... Remember the...
Of course he remembers. He remembers because he is my brother.
And I am his.
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