In many ways, my older brother was a lot like my father: smart, strong, focused, surprisingly sensitive, upsettingly insensitive, short on patience, quick to anger. They were both Leos and both damaged. My brother and I, however, were not much alike. In fact, I’ve always felt unlike all four other members of my family. We all had blue eyes, but that’s where the similarities ended. I felt so unrelated to them that I secretly suspected I must have been adopted…or abandoned on Earth by an extraterrestrial clan that was my original family. Many a night I spent gazing at the stars and planets in the heavens, trying to determine from which galaxy I had come, confident that eventually, I’d spot the spaceship they sent back to whisk me away to the world where I truly belonged.
Over my many years, I’ve shared these outer space suspicions with several others, only to discover, much to my surprise, that they too had similar expectations that rescue rockets would descend from above to right their mismanaged inclusion within family units they weren’t related to. It seems this sense of alienation is more widely shared than we think. Being well-adjusted, sound, well-balanced, average, right-minded, homogeneous, all-there, or compos mentis may be more of an illusion than we’re apt to admit. Taking this idea one step further, it may be some form of mass deception; as a species, we may be more non-compos mentis than we care to confess. An old TV series called The X-Files used to claim that the truth was out there. Could the truth be that we’re all crazy now, mama? That would be insane.
What I do know for sure is that those star cruisers never did come to pick me up, so I either missed my ride or it was never bona fide, to begin with. If by any chance there are star men or star women reading this who plan to return to their homes far, far away— and if they’re down with giving lifts to hitchhikers—I’m still up for the ride, even if it entails the traditional tariff of ass, gas, or grass. Hell, not only are the beers and shots on me when we reach that Star Wars’ Mos Eisley Cantina on the planet Tatooine, but I’ll even tip Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes, the house band if you’re in the mood to request a song (just don’t ask them to play “Mad About Me”). Let’s face it, Uber or Lyft will only get you so far in this world.
So, there I was—and here I still am—marooned on this alien planet, skulking around just like a stranger in a strange land. As with my brother and father, I too am damaged. My father may have been damaged by the early loss of his biological parents, by orphanages and foster parents, and by his struggle with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that I suspect he passed along to both my brother and me. My brother was also damaged by having been born with cryptorchidism or in plain English, a pair of undescended testicles. Go ahead, make jokes about him being a ball-less wonder, or carrying an empty sack or hanging loose. I’m pretty sure a few of his crueler classmates had their peers rolling around the school’s locker room floor in gales of laughter with their cringe-worthy schoolboy jokes—shrieking soprano-pitched insults at him in the shower after sweaty gym classes when the instructor was far from earshot. Why not? The visible presence of a testis or two notwithstanding, boys will be boys, right?
For those unaware, cryptorchidism is a birth defect in which one or both testicles fail to move into the scrotum before birth. While it is not unusual for an infant’s testicles to remain internal at birth, if they have not descended within the first year, the condition is confirmed. The abnormality is more common among premature babies. Our mother was only seventeen when she gave birth to my brother, who was born well before his due date, making his birth defect non-idiopathic. Several complications with his premature birth are noted in our mom’s hospital files. Throughout her pregnancy and my brother’s entrance into this alien world, our father, her new and only husband, was overseas serving in the military.
In many cases of cryptorchidism, the testicles eventually descend on their own, and the issue self-resolves. Therefore, most doctors recommend watchful waiting. If descent does not occur naturally within nine to twelve months, however, an invasive surgery called orchiopexy is required to rectify the abnormality. Without this surgery, affected boys face higher risks of cancer, non-cancerous testicular germ cell tumors, testicular torsion, inguinal hernias, infertility, and other physiological problems.
For reasons that remain a mystery to me, my parents elected to postpone my brother’s surgery until he was seventeen. By then, at least psychologically, it may have been too late. Over the years, his behavior had become increasingly erratic and violent. Not a good thief, he was caught whenever he stole. When he lied or deceived, he was always exposed. Six years my senior, he used to love kicking my butt. When I was four, he broke my right arm while we were carrying on. A day or two after my cast was removed, as we wrestled, he broke it again. At that point, my parents forbade him to wrestle with me. But that didn’t stop him from roughhousing with me in secret, and he was brutal. Though I suffered from asthma, he’d get on top of me to pin my shoulders down with his knees. Then he’d cover my mouth with one hand while pinching my nostrils shut with the other, so I couldn’t breathe. Eventually, I’d pass out from the lack of oxygen. He’d kept me from telling my parents about it by threatening to kill me in my sleep. Before I’d entered my teens, I began running away from home just to get away from him and his beatings. Luckily, that same year, he left for college and rarely returned home after that. When he did visit, however, the persistent pummeling would resume.
My brother could also be nice. Sometimes, we’d sit in his room, smoking cigarettes and listening to music together. In warmer weather, he’d take me to double or triple features at the local drive-in theater and let me drink Chianti straight from a straw-encased bottle he’d snuck in under the car seat. He tried to turn me on to marijuana, but whomever he’d scored it from had burned him by selling him a fat bag of oregano instead. Once, he even stood up for me against some older and bigger kid who was picking on me. My brother was as unpredictable as he was volatile, which meant it was impossible to know when and why his docile Dr. Jekyll would transmogrify into the malicious Mr. Hyde.
Unlike Asperger’s syndrome, undescended testicles are diagnosable through visual inspection. While behavioral observation is required to access Asperger’s, a battery of psychological tests is also utilized. I know the teasing and taunting my brother endured when younger must have paled in comparison to those hurled by his older, sexually active peers. These surely constituted a turn of the screw for my brother. Without going into too much detail, I once slept with one of his girlfriends, who confided during post-coital pillow talk that aside from some make-out sessions and a few feel-ups over the blouse, he’d never made any other moves on her or pressured her for more intimate sexual contact. That may be why she’d made a move on me, though I was only thirteen at the time.
In my early childhood, my brother had been a terror to live with. By the time he reached his mid-teens, he had become my worst nightmare. After I left my parents’ home for good at fifteen, I rarely saw him. My parting with my family was uncomfortable, so it was many years before I had in-person contact with any of them again. At the behest of my mother, I returned for some holiday celebration to introduce my first wife, and my brother was there. I’d grown much taller and had developed a more muscular physique since the last time he’d seen me, and I felt his eyes on me, sizing me up, as soon as my new spouse and I entered the room. He, on the other hand, had packed on the pounds and appeared wan and pallid. Throughout the night, he chain-smoked like a chimney, and a glass of scotch or some other alcoholic beverage was always in his hand. The cigarette held between his nicotine-stained fingers quaked slightly as it repeatedly moved to and from his chapped, dry lips and yellowed teeth. These tremors often caused long tails of ash to fall off the tip of the burning Marlboro, his lifelong brand of choice, onto his lap, the furniture, or the floor. For these transgressions, he earned stern admonishments from my mom, who had been running ragged in an effort to empty the burnt-out butts from the constantly overflowing ashtray at his side.
My brother’s drinking rivaled his smoking. The steady rattling of his drinks’ ice cubes against the glass drew attention to the unhealthy, electrified shivering and shaking of his hands. He was plagued by a chronic smoker’s cough, and the unsavory sound of phlegm being cleared from his throat caused pauses in the evening’s conversations. Frequently, he had to leave the group for pit stops in my parents’ restrooms, sometimes returning with his fly partially zipped. Rumpled, rundown, moldering, moldy, crumpled, crude, unkempt, unclean, and uncouth—choose one or all of those words, and you’ll have an image of my brother at that holiday reunion.
During the next several decades, whenever my brother and I would encounter each other or speak awkwardly over the telephone, the interactions were brief. There was never much to say. Like me, he had married and divorced multiple times. Early in his adulthood, and with my parents’ financial assistance, he and his second wife purchased a house. Every weekday for the last ten months they owned that home, he left for work in the morning and returned in the evening stinking of booze. When his wife called him out about smelling like a distillery, his story was that he stopped for a quick one with co-workers on the way home. However, his wife opened the mail one morning to find a final notice from their bank; their home was being repossessed by the mortgage lender. In another envelope was their monthly bank statement, which not only indicated a zero balance but also included an overdraw notice.
It turned out that my brother had been fired from his job nearly a year earlier. Where he actually went on those weekdays when he claimed to be at the office was never made clear. More than likely, he spent those days sitting in some dark dive bar with the other barflies and boozehounds. In a last-ditch effort to save his house, my brother called me, asking to borrow a large sum of money. I lied, saying that I didn’t have the available funds. He then became belligerent and I told him not to ever call me again. Shortly thereafter, his wife packed her bags and left him.
Respecting my directive, my brother never contacted me thereafter. My sister told me during a phone call in early 2017 that my brother was no longer able to breathe on his own and was hooked up to an oxygen tank. A little later that year, on March 12, she called to report that my brother was dead. He had died on March 6, but almost a week passed before his corpse was discovered. Do I feel remorse that we never mended our fences or that I hadn’t loaned him that money when he needed it? No. He beat all the care for him out of my heart many times and many years ago. Oh, brother, maybe you’re not fully to blame for the way you were, but I’ll always feel the anguish. Because of you, I lost all hope a long, long time ago that my rescue rocket would ever again return to this painful planet to save me.