When a sibling’s death turns the baby of the family into the oldest son, you get an identity crisis filled with anger and confusion.
I’ve written at length about my brother Michael, who died of an asthma attack when I was 13. That experience will test any kid, and I was no exception. The loss infused a deep reservoir of fear and anxiety in me that would bubble up many times over the years.
But something else happened that would make me feel strange and alone for a long time.
I started my life as the youngest of three kids, the proverbial baby of the family. Michael was the oldest, and in the Brenner family much has always been expected of the oldest son.
My father was the middle child of his generation, but he was the only son. My grandfather, who came off a boat from the former Soviet Union with all the typical old-school values, expected the world of my father. As my grandfather descended into old age and illness in the mid-1960s, my father became increasingly responsible for the family business.
Growing up, my older brother became the one my father leaned on the most. Michael was encouraged to chart his own course and was studying to be a plumber, but he was also expected to help out with the family business and do a lot of the grunt work at home.
I was the baby, and a sick and spoiled one at that. By age eight I was in and out of the hospital with dangerous flare-ups of Crohn’s Disease. Because of that, I was coddled a lot.
The result was a lower-than-average maturity level for my age. At age 10 I acted like I was 5 sometimes. I would crawl into bed with my father for snuggles, like a toddler might do.
My maturity level hadn’t changed much by the time I hit 13. I probably regressed even further right after my brother died. But as 1984 dragged on, I was slowly pulled into the role of oldest son.
Everything that was expected of my brother became expected of me, and I wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with it. My brother had a lot of street smarts that I lacked.
As I descended into my confusing and angry teen years, I would be sent on deliveries for the family business. I’d get flustered and lose my sense of direction. One time my father sent me to Chelsea for a package. It was 4:30 and the place I was going to was closing at 5. I got there at 5:10 and had to drive back to Saugus without a package. I felt humiliated and ashamed.
As I entered my 20s, all that immaturity and feeling of inadequacy hardened into an angry, rebellious streak. I gave in to a variety of addictive impulses.
As I got older and worked on myself, the confusion and anger gave way to gratitude. The hard lessons of going from youngest child to oldest son have served me well.
I now have a lot of responsibilities with work and family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For all the rebelling, my experiences gave me a strong work ethic. But like my maturity, it just took longer to emerge.