Monday, March 28, 2005

Parable Redux: "The Other Brother"

So this is how it went down.

I'm an older brother. It's a tough gig sometimes. You're the responsible one. You're the guilty one. If the kid cries, you're blamed. If the kid messes up, you should have been there to help. You feel like you have to be a third parent sometimes, to fill in the gaps. The folks can't see everything, you know.

Not that it's all bad. I mean, the times when the kid looks up to you, tries to be like you--those are nice. You feel important. Admired.

That feeling didn't last long for me.

The kid and I had a good relationship when we were small. There was the normal squabbling and fighting, but nothing serious. Nothing that changed how we treated each other. He was a whiny little punk, but he was my brother, you know? And if anyone wanted to mess with him, they'd have to get through me.

But when our mom died, something in him changed. I didn't understand it at the time, but I guess he didn't want to be too attached to anyone after that. He really loved our mom, and her death really messed him up for a while. He didn't talk for a week. Barely ate. Dad was worried, but he couldn't really talk to the kid about it. Had his own grief to deal with.

Meanwhile, I kept everything going. That's what happens when you're the older brother. You have to step up.

Finally, both Dad and the kid were able to get back to something approaching normal. Dad worked through his grief, and it softened him a little. He became more forgiving, more generous. The kid, whose grief made him distant, took advantage of this. He got away with more and more. I tried to put an end to it, but he'd have none of it. Dad didn't do anything either. I tried to talk to him about it, but he just said, "I am his father, not you. Let me deal with him."

Except he wouldn't deal with him. And the older the kid got, the more rebellious he got. Finally it came to a head one day. The kid asked Dad for his share of the estate. A total slap in Dad's face. I mean, that's not how it works, you know? You wait until your parents die before you start claiming their stuff. But here was the kid, pretty much saying, "You're dead to me, Pop. Now I want my share."

All I can say is, the kid was lucky I was in the back field planting that day. If I had been in the house, I would have beaten the living hell out of him. The nerve of that guy.

And just like that, he was gone. Didn't say goodbye or leave a note. I got back around dusk, and Dad was just sitting there at the table, crying his eyes out. I freaked out. I mean, he hadn't cried like that since Mom died. I asked if he was okay, or if something happened to the kid. He said, "He's gone. I gave him his share of the estate, and he left." It was all I could do to keep cool until I went outside.

Pure rage was all I felt. I grabbed an axe from the shed and went out and started chopping down the trees along the edge of the wheat field. Just something to let the anger out. The very thought of the kid's actions were almost incomprehensible to me. It wasn't even in the realm of reason. It was like, in his mind, he killed us all off. Just like that. Cold-blooded.

We didn't hear from him for months. I kept the farm going, doing his share of the work on top of mine. It wasn't easy, since our savings were sliced almost in half. Money was tight, and for a few months, I wasn't sure we'd survive. We had to hire a few more guys for the harvest than normal, which wasn't cheap, either. But I wasn't expecting the kid to come back and take his place in the field. As far as I was concerned, he was gone. He was as dead to us as we were to him.

Of course, Dad felt differently. Almost as soon as the kid left, Dad started spending his evenings on the front porch, just staring down the road. I had to bring his supper out to him, because he wouldn't move. I tried to talk him out of it at first, telling him that he shouldn't keep his hopes up. The harder I pressed the angrier I got. Finally, about three weeks after the kid left, I just had enough. "Dad, this is ridiculous. You're tearing yourself up over some ingrate who treats us like strangers. He doesn't deserve this, Dad, and you don't deserve to suffer for his stupidity. Just let him be gone. He's dead. Forget about him."

My father stood, walked over to me, and punched me square in the face. Knocked me clear off the porch. I got up, cupping the blood seeping from my nose, and just stared at him. I couldn't believe it. Apparently, neither could he. "I...I'm sorry, son. I really am. It's just--he's my son! And no matter what he does to me, he will always be my son! I have to believe he'll come back. I can't live any other way. And when he does, he will again be my son. He's not dead, boy. He's just running."

"I'm sorry, pop. I was out of line."

"That's okay, son. Go get cleaned up."

From that day on, I never said a word about it. But the old man's reasoning didn't sit well with me. I mean, I understand, blood is blood. When someone like the kid makes an honest mistake, you forgive them, sure. But this wasn't an honest mistake. This was betrayal. And betrayal costs more to fix than simply saying you're sorry. Dad may not have believed that, but it was true.

We're almost finished with the harvest. There were reports of famines in some neighboring countries, so we have been turning a pretty good profit on the wheat and barley sales to the out-of-town customers. Last week, I told Dad that we're doing so well, we've more than made up what we've lost in the last year. I didn't add "thanks to the kid" to that statement, but I sure was thinking it.

Last night, I was coming back in from the far 40, where we had just finished up the last of the harvesting. I wasn't too far from the house when I heard it. Music. Laughter. Sounds that have been almost foreign to our house since Mom died. I walked closer, and spotted one of the servants drawning water for the barrels. I asked, "What's going on? Some sort of party?"

The servant grinned. "Yes, sir. A 'welcome home' party. Your brother has returned. Your father has ordered the best calf to be slaughtered and cooked for the banquet."

I dropped my tools and stared at him. His smile vanished, and he quickly bowed and rushed back to the house. I sat there by the well for a while, long enough for the sun to go down and the first stars to appear. The party grew louder and more lively. It looked like the house was packed. A while later, another servant came out and asked me to come in and join the celebration. I shook my head, and he left.

There was no way I was going in there. If I did, I was afraid I'd attack the kid. The rage that exploded in me on the day he left was boiling in my gut again, on this day of his return.

My father came out to talk to me. "Son, come inside, Your brother wants to see you."

"I'm not going in."

"But, son--"

I had reached the end of my patience. "Don't you get it, pop? It's the same as always. He does whatever he wants, and still gets treated like royalty. I'll bet he's out of money."

"Yes, he is, but--"

I couldn't help laughing. "See?!? It's the same thing all the time. The kid gets himself in trouble, and then comes crying home for you to bail him out. Well, I'm not buying it. I mean, what's to prevent him from leaving again in a month, with more of the money that we've worked so hard to make back? And besides, where's my party, huh? I have worked and slaved on this land for years. I have been loyal to you, obedient and faithful. Yet you've never thrown a party for me, never given me so much as a goat to roast and share with my friends. Yet this ungrateful, whoremongering wretch has slimed his way up the road, and you pull out all the stops. It's just not fair, Dad!"

"That's enough, son!" my father yelled. He took a deep breath and said, "Look, my boy, I love you dearly. I'm proud of what you've done, and I'm happy that you have proven yourself true to me. Everything I have is yours, and you are always with me. But now is the time to celebrate. Your brother, who was dead to us, is alive again. He was lost, and now he's found. He has come back from the grave. Let's be happy for him. Let's welcome him back. He has asked for forgiveness, which I have granted. He's your brother, son. Show him the mercy of a brother."

I stared out over the field without saying a word. The old man sighed and went back inside.

Here I am, now. Sitting on this stone well as the sun is just starting to rise over the eastern trees. The party is still going on strong, but there's no way I will set foot inside.

It isn't enough that the kid came home. It isn't enough that he said he was sorry. He's gonna have to prove that he's sorry to me. Just because he's my brother doesn't mean I have to forgive him for anything. He turned his back on us. On me. I have every right to hold that against him.

He's a sinner. He's sinned against me, and I have every right to remind him of that for the rest of his life. I have every right to make him feel bad for what he's done. I have every right to refuse to forgive him.

Don't I?

(source: here)

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