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As we all piled onto the aging tweed sofa, my dad struggled to get the fancy new VCR to work while my mom, my brother Jacob, and I continued to stare vacantly at the blank screen. It was Christmas Eve, 2001, and we were settling in to watch a dusty, recently rediscovered home video. The film opened unceremoniously, depicting a common scene among siblings: a young girl, jumping up and down, was desperately attempting to attract the attention of her disinterested older brother. The group laughed. After all, Jacob and I had long since forgotten about that difficult early period; we were good buddies now, and had been for well over a year, ever since I completed the seventh grade. As the video progressed, however, it grew increasingly darker and more uncomfortable. The next scene revealed him viciously propelling my six-year old feather weight frame down the stairs. Then, he stoops, picks up a shoe box, and throws it at me – hard. On film, we see my mother rush to rescue me, all the while chastising Jacob as her daughter resiliently picks herself off the floor, in spite of a bleeding knee. In real time, I note mom and dad shifting nervously on the coach, working hard to conceal their deep frowns. I wonder, “Should I laugh?” Unexpectedly, the video is interrupted by a loud command: “Stop it, guys!” It was Jacob, sounding angry, raw, and exposed. I felt a shiver down my spine as I watched his hazel eyes brim with tears. I will never forget what he said, or how he turned to me. “Jenni,” he whispered hoarsely, in a slow cadence markedly different from his typical hyperactive tempo, “I am so, so sorry for ever hurting you. You must know that I love you.”
When he was in the first grade, my brother Jacob was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He spent his childhood years bouncing off the walls, irritable, bored, and depressed. He was pushed to do well in school, yet, despite being extremely bright, his efforts to learn to read were repeatedly frustrated. Further testing ultimately revealed that he was also suffering from learning disabilities – severe dyslexia, dysgraphia, and motor-sequencing disorder – that adversely affected the important cognitive skills necessary for spelling, phonetically sounding-out words, and blending sounds. Up until I was in eighth grade, Jacob was hostile, aggressive, and manipulative. While some of those behaviors may not be unusual among siblings, unlike all of my friend’s older brothers, Jake didn’t stop with hair pulling. Somehow, though, I always knew that we were still the best of friends. I still remember how, each and every day, I would arrive at home from school half an hour before he did. I took care to set out a snack so that we could get to work immediately on his homework. My favorite was the reading comprehension workbook, filled with stories about the perfect life: bicycles and trips to the zoo, summer thunderstorms and lazy Sundays, gooey chocolate chip cookies and duck-filled lakes. As Jacob danced wildly around the room, I would read aloud, impersonating each character with exaggerated voices and silly gesticulations; sometimes, I even dressed the part, secretly appropriating my mother’s outrageous antique hats. Looking through old family photo albums, it is striking how many snapshots reveal the repeated image of me flailing my arms, attempting to form a hug around Jacob’s tensed neck. The disquieting dichotomy in the pictures is revealed in terms of the contrast between Jacob’s trademark grimace of antagonism, juxtaposed beside my sad but beaming smile. Though I loved my brother more than anything else in the entire world, at the same time, our relationship pained me so much that I could count on the taste of salty tears to usher me to sleep each night, anxious that he didn’t quite love me back.
even today, I remember that December 24th as though it were yesterday. Although Jacob and I shared everything from math problems to crush crises, prior to that night, he had never, with any trace of sincerity, told me that he loved me. When he first said it, my family’s incessant chatter came to a dead halt. My dad paused the tape, creating a tangible silence that screamed in my ears. Was this a dream? A warm tear of joy insisted that it was real. Since that time, Jacob has never repeated those three words to me; it’s still not something he’s entirely comfortable with, and I accept that. But I can reflect on and appreciate not only the sense of tranquility that comes with knowing my feelings are reciprocated, but also, I can better understand the intensity of Jacob’s internal struggle. Who would have guessed that three small syllables could be wrought with such significance?
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