When I was six, my brother Jeff was 12. Twice as old as I was. A towering figure, a titan of pre-pubescence. Invincible.
When I turned 10, I realized Jeff was only 1.6 times older than me. I was closing in on him chronologically, and I was very vocal about this. “I’m catching up to you!” I’d shout on each of my early double-digit birthdays. While I still admired Jeff greatly, I no longer viewed him as a god. I was old enough to see that he was human. All too human. More like me than any immortal figure. This realization gave me a sense of both accomplishment and sorrow. We all need our heroes when we’re young, and it’s bittersweet when we outgrow them.
With each passing year, the discrepancy in our ages dwindled. By the time I was 16, Jeff was only 22. Surely he felt the pressure, heard the footsteps of his baby brother hot on his heels. Perhaps it’s why his drinking and drug use increased so much during this period. Maybe he depended on greater and greater amounts of Old Milwaukee and weed to numb the pain stemming from no longer being able to throttle me in ping pong or pool.
By the time I was 21, what scant older brother power and mystique Jeff had managed to maintain was gone. I still loved the guy, but the days of utter idolization and adoration were a distant memory. The difference in our ages was seemingly negligible at this point. In fact, folks who didn’t know us would occasionally guess that I was the senior sibling. It was around this time that Jeff started relying more heavily on hard liquor to get through the workweek — and to forget the workweek entirely on weekends.
As rapidly as I seemed to be narrowing the gap on my big brother in linear time, I never expected to catch up to him.
On New Year’s Day 2007, Jeff died of complications brought on slowly by two decades of moderate to heavy alcohol consumption — and finished off quickly by two weeks of binge drinking following the loss of his job of 20 years. He was 43.
I’ve never fully grasped how my once immortal brother could cease being. And with me turning 43 in just a few weeks, I’m now trying to wrap my head around how he could cease being older than me.
But I guess what I will always grapple with the most is how little I did personally to stop those things from happening so soon.