How I Became an Only Child

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How I Became an Only Child

By Dawn Clancy 03/06/18

Unlike the usual life events that cause siblings to naturally drift apart, like jobs, marriages and kids, my brothers and I drifted because of events that were far from usual.

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Two boys and a girl smiling, being silly
More than any one event, what I’ve missed the most is the unwritten and unconditional gift of protection that I imagine all big brothers give to their little sisters.

“Dead leg!” was what my older brother Todd would shout as he balled up his right hand into a fist and slammed it down hard on my thigh like a rubber headed hammer. Upon impact I’d scream, sending Todd into a fit of laughter. When he laughed, the outer corner edges of his eyes slipped back towards his ears and his right front tooth, the only crooked one in his mouth, popped out over his bottom lip. 

Tommy, my other older brother, and the oldest of the three of us, was more covert with his teasing. He’d wait until I was asleep in my bed to switch out my Raggedy Ann doll for the pocked necked, yellow rubber chicken he kept on hand for such occasions. He’d wait quietly outside my bedroom door to audibly witness the moment I’d wake up to discover a gangly rubber chicken where my drool-stained Raggedy Ann used to be. 

It randomly occurred to that the last time I lived under the same roof as my brothers I was 4 years old and in June I turned 40. In the almost 36 years that have passed, memories of my brothers’ shenanigans have been replaced with the dark reality of their alcohol and every-drug-you-can-think-of addictions. Thinking about this also made me realize that although I was born with two older brothers, I’ve lived most of my life as an only child.

Unlike the usual life events that cause siblings to naturally drift apart, like jobs, marriages and kids, my brothers and I drifted because of events that were far from usual.

By the time I was born, there wasn’t a judge, police or parole officer in our town that didn’t know my brother Tommy. When he wasn’t serving time in juvenile hall—or “juvy” as he called it—for brawling at school or robbing the neighbors, Tommy was sowing the seeds of recovery in some out-of-state rehab. When he made it back home, clean-shaven and clear-eyed, his promise to my dad was always the same: “I swear, I’m straight for real this time.” But with this time always came a next time and a time after that. I can’t say for sure which of Tommy’s transgressions caused my dad to finally crack, but one day he calmly told me, and my gaggle of stuffed animals, that Tommy no longer lived with us and under no circumstances would he be allowed back home.

With Tommy gone, the only brother I had was Todd, and looking back now there must have been a part of me that sensed our relationship speeding towards its end. Once, when I was 8 years old, I remember eating dinner with my parents at a restaurant in our local mall. In between bites of greasy cheese pizza and slurps of vanilla milkshake I heard a loud “Yo!” come barreling through the front of the restaurant. It was Todd. His hair was long and feathery, much longer than my dad thought it should be. He was just stopping by to say hello and to hit my dad up for some money. Although I knew I’d see him at home later that night, I burst into an inconsolable fit of tears as he turned to leave the restaurant. Over and over again, with my arms stretched out stiff like a pair of skis, my mouth full of half-chewed pizza, I screamed, “Toddyyy don’t leave meee.”

Like Tommy, Todd also sparred with the law, but what eventually drove him out of my life was his drug habit. After my dad caught him using in the house, he made it official: Todd had to go. As he hauled mounds of clothes, bags of wires and stereo parts from his room to his friend’s truck idling in the driveway, I watched from the open garage door. Before he left he stopped to say goodbye.

“Where you going?” I asked.

“Down the Jersey Shore,” he said. “My buddy’s got work for me there.”

I was 11 years old at the time which meant I was too old to react hysterically, but that didn’t stop me from crying quietly. Todd gave me a hug and I got a strong whiff of beer. He was drunk.

“But don’t you worry,” he said as he hurried towards his friend’s truck, “I’ll be back.”

When people ask me if I have siblings I never know how to answer, especially since my relationships with both of my brothers have remained stagnant and strained over the years. Biologically, I can say I have siblings, but in all the ways that matter I see myself as an only child.

As I grew up, my brothers weaving haphazardly in and out of my life, I felt their absence more acutely on certain occasions. They missed the one and only home run I hit in township softball, the rain that beat down during our grandmother’s funeral, and the awkward beehive hairdo I had for my junior prom. But more than any one event, what I’ve missed the most is the unwritten and unconditional gift of protection that I imagine all big brothers give to their little sisters.

Just as I did during the buildup to my wedding six years ago, on my 40th birthday I dreamt up what it would be like to have my brothers around to celebrate. I imagined the three of us sitting at my kitchen table. Todd would be leaning back in his chair with a half-smoked cigarette resting on his lip, and I’d be eating forkfuls of my chocolate birthday cake right out of the pan. Out from under his seat Tommy would pull out an unwrapped shoe box. “Here, this is yours,” he’d say while sliding the box across the table. I’d lift off the lid to discover a yellow rubber chicken crammed inside with bulging cartoon eyes and a bright red beak.

At 40, I would be too old to fear rubber chickens and dead legs. But to both of my brothers, I would always be their baby sister.

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