91946_000_005Born with severe physical problems, Eric got most of the attention. And that left me with a severe attitude problem. Eric hasn’t completely healed, but I have. Here’s how.
The music screamed from the radio, jerking me from my peaceful sleep. “Turn the radio down, Eric!” I bellowed.
I cracked open my eyes and watched my brother dance insanely in front of his dresser. His good left hand was clenched around an imaginary microphone, and his partially crippled right hand flapped as he twisted to the music.
“Eric!” I yelled again, and he turned toward me, gave me his sheepish grin—and turned up the radio. I lunged after him, and he bolted out the bedroom door, laughing as he ran. His straw-colored blond hair flapped as he ran, exhibiting more energy than I could ever match. I shut the door and climbed back in bed.
My brother Eric is a unique individual. He was born seven weeks prematurely and has had health problems his entire life. Two strokes, as a baby and at the age of two, left his right side partially paralyzed and destroyed a third of his brain.
When he was ten, he began having seizures, so we took him to a neurologist. After reviewing his CAT scans, the doctor came into the room expecting to see a drooling, severely retarded child. Instead, he met my brother, the electronics wizard and family clown. The doctor thought someone had accidentally switched scans. That’s because he didn’t know the miracle, my brother.
Eric’s brain damage left him with problems. He had a limited attention span and lacked many of the “normal” behavioral inhibitions. It was not uncommon to see him walk along and suddenly burst into an absurd song and dance. Those who didn’t know him thought, “Who is that?” But those who did know him thought, “That’s Eric.”
Eric was born a year and a half after I was. Our older brother, a headstrong toddler, demanded a lot of attention. Eric’s health problems also required a lot of my parents’ attention. As a result, my parents couldn’t give me as much attention as they, or I, would have liked. For years I resented Eric. “He’s a mistake,” I thought. “I’m really the youngest.” I tormented him and punched him and tried to make him miserable. But Eric always smiled at me and never hit me back.
One night I did something that made Eric cry, and when I did I felt like the lowest and the worst. Eric was watching TV. We had been fighting over something, so I started making fun of his disability. I never had before. I must have felt malicious. I made my hand look like his right hand, curled up and spastic, and I limped around and talked gibberish while I drooled.
The thing I remember most, as Eric started crying, was that he looked down at his crippled hand and hugged it to his chest. At that moment I wished the floor would swallow me, and I think I tasted what hell might be like.
Our relationship changed after that incident. As we grew older I tormented him less, and when I did, he fought back. We basically ignored each other until our family moved to California one summer.
When school started, Eric and I were the only people we knew at school, and we had to rely on each other. Instead of eating lunch by myself, I met Eric and we sat on the stone steps together. As we dug through our brown bags and munched ham sandwiches, I was surprised at the growing number of people who waved at, talked to, and sat down beside Eric. His cheery grin, relaxed attitude, and silly jokes soon had us in the middle of a noisy group of friends. Others saw in Eric what I had kept myself from seeing, and they showed me his strength, his dedication, his strange but hilarious sense of humor, and his amazing ability to shrug off pain.
One lunchtime Eric was a couple of minutes late. He spotted our group and sprinted across the sloping lawn, gripping his brown sack in his good left hand. His backpack bumped against him, his shirttail billowed, and his shoelaces straggled behind him. His weak right ankle tangled with his charging left foot, and he went down in a heap. He tried to catch himself, but his right arm crumpled and he plowed the grass with his face.
A couple of guys and I jumped up and ran to him. By the time we reached him, he was sitting up in the middle of his spilled backpack and smashed lunch. Dirt and grass smeared his nose and forehead, and he had a bloody scrape on his chin. He grinned up at us and said, “I hate it when that happens!”
One of the guys asked him incredulously, “Did you do that on purpose?”
Another example of his determination was when he joined the swim team. I had swum the year before and lettered in water polo. Eric decided he’d like to take a crack at competitive sports. He never missed a practice, even though he never placed higher than last in any meet. Sometimes he ended up in the wrong lane because his left side was so much stronger than his right, and he often worked up such momentum that he crashed into the concrete pool sides. But by the end of the season, he had halved his personal best time for the 50-meter freestyle.
Eric has been an example to me, even when I wouldn’t admit it. He taught me how to be tolerant of other people’s differences, how to overcome and overlook weakness, and how to find strength. He taught me to use what I have and to never give up. He showed me the value of being myself and how to love without condition.