An Open Letter to My Brother on His 40th Birthday
Today is your birthday. You’re forty.
I’m not gonna lie, James — it’s tough to wrap my mind around that fact. You’re forty. I would say it again, just to make you cringe a bit more, but that would border on the verge of sadistic. Also, you’re forty.
It’s always unsettling for me when I talk to someone that I’ve known for years who hears me tell yet another story involving you, and they say something like, “I’ve never met your brother. I’d like to meet him one day.” I stare blankly at them before realizing that you haven’t lived in Bossier City for years. Maybe they have only seen you from afar. A few of them have only seen your pictures that I’ve posted on Facebook or Instagram.
I guess what’s strange is that these people often don’t realize that you’re not just my brother; you’re a constant figure that has been involved in pretty much every facet of my life. When people talk to me, there’s probably some sort of joke, or expression, or quality that has your fingerprints on it. Sure, when we talk about our family members, we admire Dad’s sincerity, Mom’s commitment, and Charidy’s spirit, but I relied on something different from my older brother.
I know you’re a busy guy, and today is a work day, but I want to remind you of three occasions in my life where you were present, and each time you made all the difference in the world.
1 - THE TIME YOU TOLD OFF THE NEIGHBOR KID
When we lived in Carriage Oaks, not long after moving to Bossier City, there was this kid that lived next door. I don’t know if you remember much about him, but he might have been possessed. He was that second-grader that somehow already loved horror movies, violence, and everything unpleasant. He's probably in jail. Or maybe he's a politician. #dadjoke
One day I was riding bikes with him in our driveway. You happened to be walking to your car when the spawn-of-Satan neigbhor kid fell of his bike and unleashed a stream of expletives that would make a Hell’s Angel throw up his hands and say, “Whoa, kid...that’s a bit much!”
I was only six-years-old, so I had no idea what those words meant, so I stood there with that goofy smile on my face, acting like I was in on the joke. I was also more than a little terrified. About that time, you came flying over to us, leaned over, put your finger in his face, and said, “You see that boy right there? That’s my little brother! Don’t ever use language like that in front of him again, do you hear me?" I knew it wasn't just about the language — it was about building some kind of big-brother force field around me.
I can recall many similar instances in my life where you burst onto a scene to shield me from something, but that was the first time I realized that you were trying to put up some kind of wall around my life. You protected me. You seemed far more worried about me (and our sister) than you were about yourself. Being the guardian seems to be job number one for a big brother, and you always did that.
Shoot, you still do it.
2 - THE TIME YOU WOULDN’T LET ME QUIT
Jim, do you remember the day about ten years ago when I sat in your house and cried? I had only been student pastoring for two years or so, but I felt like I was in far above my head. I didn’t feel like I was worthy of it. I hated myself for not being better at the job. I wanted to quit.
The details of that day’s conversation will forever remain between the two of us, but I remember you stood at your counter and said, “Look at me! Ryan, look at me. Don’t quit. Don’t give this up. You’re gonna pick yourself up and God’s going to help you. You’re not quitting. You can't.”
You’ve never given yourself enough credit. You often preface your advice with self-deprecating remarks that make it seem like your words don’t (or shouldn’t) carry weight, but they always have for me. The words you spoke that day were simple, but they were only part of what gave me pause. It was the look on your face. Quitting wasn’t an option after seeing it.
See, Jeff, there’s something about the way you see your family. You encourage and embolden me because of your belief in us. For some crazy reason, when you try to encourage me, it actually works. Even when I see through your delusional, ridiculously high regard for what I can offer, something about the way you say it makes me almost, sort of believe it. It’s ridiculous, but it works.
You’ve picked me up on many dark days. You’ve given me an endless stream of advice, and even if the issue isn’t resolved when we hang up the phone, it somehow feels like much less of a life-ending event. You brag on all of us so much, and even though you might be slightly delusional in that regard, it works.
3 - THE TIME YOU SHOWED UP
Jorge, do you remember two years ago when you lived in Denver, and we had the phone conversation where you were saying you were sorry that you weren’t going to be able to be at the 30th birthday party that Shari was planning for me? I assured you that it wasn’t even a little bit of a big deal. To be honest, I knew that if you came, I would mostly just feel guilty that you had to fly in and miss work for a silly party.
I was sitting in my office at the church when Mom and Dad walked in and tried to strike up an awkwardly normal conversation. It was all a set-up. I remember a split-second before the door closed, a familiar voice in the hallway simply said, “Hi, Thomas.”
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit to this, but after the confusion turned to shock, and the shock turned to happiness, I couldn’t even stand up from my chair because I dropped my head and got choked up. I didn’t expect you to be there, and the surprise was genuine, but then again it wasn’t all that surprising, because you’ve always been there. You threw down everything in your life, and showed up.
(Side note: this is why I feel especially guilty that I’m going to be a few days late to celebrate with you.)
When I needed that protector, you were there to shield me. When I needed encouragement, advice, or someone to whom I could vent, you were there to speak to me. When I was 15-years-old and shy, you dragged me around with your cool friends and drew me out of my shell. When I was depressed and suicidal, you told me, "If you even think of harming yourself, you better realize that you'd be making it two, because I wouldn't want to live if you checked out on us," (again, somehow that bizarre statement helped me get better). When I wanted to give up my calling, you were there to drag me back onto my feet.
Simply: you’re always there.
“A man who has friends must himself be friendly,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
I don’t quite understand that verse, because I have to grade it on a curve. In a way, I feel bad for the writer — I guess he just didn’t have a big brother like mine.
I love you, bub. Happy 40th Birthday.