My brother can be difficult to stay mad at.
Earlier today, I found myself wondering about his choice of friends. Growing up, it was a sticking point between him and our parents. He always chose, in our parents' words, "the most undesirable of company." Truth be told, they weren't entirely wrong - I recall him once confiding in me that he actively sought out friends he knew our parents wouldn't approve of.
My thoughts turned to the present day, and it seemed very little had changed. He still has a knack for befriending "undesirables." In fact, I found myself wondering if there was a single member of his social circle that our parents would approve of. Genuinely curious, I began going over his friends one by one and assessing their "desirability." Although I didn't find a counter-example, I did notice an interesting trend.
Before I had a chance to think about it any further, an identifiably steady, rhythmic knocking derailed my train of thought. As if he perceived himself among my thoughts and took that for an invitation, Joseph had apparently decided to pay me a visit.
I opened the door, and sure enough, there was my brother. He froze a little more than halfway to knocking on the thin air between us, eyes wide on having turned their attention back to earth and spotted me. Were his face not recognizable enough, his absent-mindedness would be more than identifiable.
Admittedly, I was hard-pressed not to laugh. After five seconds of us staring at one another, however, I couldn't help but crack a smile. No doubt that's what snapped him out of his startle and invited him to break the silence.
"Oh, there you are," he said. If I didn't know better, I'd have believed it genuinely took him the entirety of that awkward pause to notice me standing right in front of him. This shtick of his - and, in fact, many things distinctly characteristic of him - always gives off a certain "warmth," a comforting familiarity that invites me to relax and be open with him. However, I had no intention of giving in. With a breath in the guise of a sigh, I recomposed myself.
"What are you doing here?"
"Oh, I uh... had some errands to run in this side of town, and I thought I'd stop by your place on the way home."
"Joseph, I don't like it when people show up at my front door unannounced. Would you please ask first?"
"Sorry... Yeah, I probably should've given you a heads-up first."
Over the course of the exchange, his smile faded, his ears drooped, and his gaze lowered. I had hoped it would feel no different from rejecting the approach of a coworker or neighbor, but despite it all, I could still feel that warmth. In the end, I stood aside and gestured him in. As he passed through the door, that warmth filled my home.
As I closed the door behind him, I went over a mental checklist of preparations for visitors. Thankfully, all was in order - there were no "toys" left out, nor anything questionable on any screens, nor any of my chemistry projects left out in the open, nor any other trace of the more unconventional side to my life. Granted, I'm not in the habit of leaving my home in disarray, but I prefer safe to sorry.
Satisfied, I led my brother to the living room, and we watched TV and caught up with each other's lives over the past week or so. It wasn't long before he mentioned a new acquaintance, and my thoughts immediately went back to that trend. At that moment, I decided to conduct an experiment - I'd let him talk, taking care not to steer the conversation in any particular direction, and wait to see if that trend held true here.
As if in response, Joseph immediately veered the conversation towards this individual's struggle with depression. At that moment, I was through with his telepathic intrusions. "Joseph, where do you keep finding these people?" I demanded.
With all the certainty I knew he didn't have and an abrupt escalation in tone to match mine, he accused me of "knowing exactly where." I asked him if he even knew what I was talking about. After a moment's thought, he put forward his guess: "People mom and dad wouldn't like?" He blinked at what he just said and shot me a glare. "Wait, what the hell, Nathan?"
Admittedly, he managed to make me chuckle with that. Mind, we had reached the border of his self-parody - the issue our parents took with his friends is a genuine sore spot, and as tongue-in-cheek as his manner was, he no doubt took offense to me voicing those issues in our parents' stead.
Either way, while it appeared that my brother was, in fact, not a telepath, he certainly appeared to have a trend of attracting people with psychological baggage. I clarified this to be the subject of my question. "Oh, that," he said with the nonchalant tone of someone who wasn't at all oblivious to this trend.
"You know, I don't get it either. It's like... with every one of my friends, it turns out they're dealing with something. Sometimes I think it's all in my head. Nobody's got a perfect life, right? I mean... even you've got things you're dealing with, don't you?"
"Other times, though..." He drew in a breath. "It kinda weirds me out. Don't get me wrong - if someone's dealing with something, I want to be there for them, but like... I'm worried that's the thing - I want to be there for them. It's like I'm subconsciously seeking them out or something."
To be honest, I was caught off-guard. What I was hearing didn't sound like the Joseph I remember. As much as I felt the need to say something, I was at a loss for words. And so he continued.
"It's like... sometimes I worry I'm preying on these people or something. Like I'm getting something out of 'helping' them. Except... Maybe I'm not really helping them. I mean... I think I am, but maybe I'm just enabling them?"
The word "enable" prompted a recollection from my childhood. By most accounts, I was a well-behaved child, but there were a few instances of me going on what our parents termed "adventures." In the scolding following one of these "adventures" - to which, as was often the case, Joseph was an accomplice - our parents suggested that Joseph was enabling my misbehavior.
At the time, I disagreed, but in hindsight, it seemed they were right. He enabled me to explore the condemned building we had been caught exploring earlier that day. He enabled me to seek out excitement of that sort when perfectionism in academics and chores grew dull. He enabled me to pursue that perfectionism when I saw fit, in one instance going so far as to stand up to a resident mischief-maker he befriended, allured by tales of my "adventures" only to be vocally disappointed when I turned down his invitation for a night of troublemaking in favor of studying. Regardless of what my parents, teachers, peers, or whoever else would think of me, he enabled me to be authentic.
After looking back, it made a bit more sense why he attracted the sort of people he did. That said, I still struggled to be as open with him. I was still angry with him, after all.
"Joseph, stop." He gave me a sheepish stare. "We lived under the same roof for the first 14 years of my life. Granted, you disappeared for the following 6, but I'd like to think I know the sort of bat you are, and that doesn't sound at all like you."
After a startled pause, he offered a soft smile. "Yeah... you're right. Guess I got myself a little worked up." I had been too firm.
I continued. "I'm going to be blunt - sometimes the way you help people isn't the answer. In fact, I'm sure it amounts to enabling in some cases. However, sometimes it is the answer."
"Yeah... guess it's never really black and white, huh?" He seemed less intimidated and more genuinely reassured, but I still worried he wasn't entirely convinced.
"Maybe not, but I can say with confidence that everyone needs a source of unconditional acceptance." I took a deep breath. "This comes from personal experience."
I thought I had been subtle enough that he'd need a moment before the implication dawned on him. Instead, he threw his arms and wings around me with startling immediacy. Under any other circumstances, I'd admonish him against being so abrupt and affectionate, but at that moment, I was just happy to feel his warmth and know he was reassured of its value. I hugged him back, and for a moment it felt like we were kids again.
It felt wonderful to forget what had happened since then and welcome his warmth back into my life. However, it could only last for so long. I'd love for us to be as open and close as we were growing up. One day, I hope we will be and that I'll be able to share with him the side of my life I keep hidden from so many. If only abandonment were so easy to forgive.