In the back of my closet, under a mountain of dust bunnies, there’s a packet of letters. Not, as you might imagine, letters from an old lover, or anything so romantic. These are letters that I wrote over 20 years ago to my older brother. I was in middle school, or high school, and he was at college (before the Internet was available to us, can you imagine?).
The thought of this package makes me cry, not so much because of the heartbreaking content- and it’s pretty wrenching for me- but because of the great kindness and love that it created.
I wrote these letters to my brother during one of the first great bad times of my life. I had always been a depressed and anxious kid, but adolescence was really pretty awful. I woke up every day sick and miserable at the thought of having to go to school, where I felt that I never fit in- that I was too ugly, too fat, too literate, too just not cool. I had some friends, of course, and there were always those who were worse-off than me, but I took my share of bullying* and there was no escape- nobody to tell. My friends all knew and their lives weren’t much better. What could I say to my parents- I’m miserable because nobody likes me? Who’s going to admit they’re a total loser? Of course I wouldn’t disappoint and hurt them like that. Instead, I cultivated a sort of evil mantra for myself that sticks with me still, two decades later, in moments of great darkness- I wish I were dead.
Seth, seven years older, had escaped to Pittsburgh for college, and wrote me faithfully. I don’t know why, but he found time in his life to think of his little sister, who had always idolized him and generally been an irritant- but there was some good karma here, and he wrote asking how I was. I found that I was able, in writing, to share the pain I felt. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, I said. I’m so unhappy. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just want to die.
Rural central Pennsylvania is not a place to be different in any way, as my brother had found out 7 years earlier. He’d grown his hair long, and I’m sure he was called names, as I was when I shaved my head a few years later (Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” always makes me think with pride of us both: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can/ All the same old cliches: is it a woman or a man?”). He was a becoming a vegetarian and an animal-rights activist in a time when that could have been a recipe for someone kicking your ass. Like his little sister after him- like so many people in small towns, and everywhere- he was just trying to be himself in a culture that valued conformity deeply. In a bigger city (our town had one red light and two gas stations), neither of us would have been anything out of the ordinary.
But here is the great gift he gave me: having “survived,” so to speak, he remembered the difficulty he experienced, and instead of turning away from it, he let it open his heart. He felt such compassion for me that he continued to send me letters encouraging me. You will make it. I promise it gets better. I know it seems like it won’t, but it all gets better after high school. I love you. I understand. I’m sorry you’re going through this. He told me I was smart and beautiful and interesting and cool, when nobody else** believed it, including myself.
Over the years, Seth has become closer to me than a friend or family ever has to be. In typical Seth & Laura fashion, he sometimes has felt very self-critical of his treatment of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t more there for you. I’m sorry I was mean to you. This too, makes me feel quite bittersweet sad- because I understand regret and shame, but there’s just no need for it anymore. I can’t overemphasize for you the depth of the gratitude and love I feel for him when I think of the depth of his unconditional love. In times of distress, I have always been able to call him and, like a gentler reflection, been shown the situation from his perspective. He understands- he does not judge- and he says, this will end. I understand, I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this. He reminds me that things will change, as they always do, and that I can get through whatever it is.
I’m fortunate to have had this close relationship with someone who has understood me so fundamentally that he can be a light in the darkness- not only because of the help that it’s given me in my own life, but because it has shown me that I can be a light for others. I can be a well of unconditional understanding, compassion, and love for those who are broken-hearted, suicidal, don’t fit in, think the pain will never end. I can listen, and, instead of saying, I wish I were dead, say I understand. I love you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.
For many of us, there are times where we’re not strong enough to endure our own lives without this kind of support. I’ve spent the last five years learning to believe what Seth has always said. I am smart. I’m cool. I’m beautiful. Everything does end, and I can be kind and support myself with love and understanding. As a result, my way of handling pain has shifted a bit. Now, in times of great personal misery (and those will still come, I believe, as long as we’re suffering through this human life), I allow myself to feel the pain, and I ask: May this open my heart. May this pain be of service to others.
So, you might wonder- how did the letters come to be in my closet, if they were the ones I mailed to Seth in Pittsburgh? About seven years ago, Seth called me. He was moving out of state, and cleaning out his own closet. If you could have heard the emotion in his voice, you would know what it is to love someone fully. “I found these letters,” he said. “They’re so, so sad- I can’t just throw them away-” We agreed that he would mail them to me, and I would keep them in my own closet. I’ve never opened them- I don’t need to- but oh, what a reminder they are.
In recounting this story to you, I’ve cried quite a bit. Please understand that it’s not my own pain, grief or sorrow I’m feeling- it’s deeper, broader than that. It’s a thank you, to my brother- to the misery we both suffered- for giving me this love I have for those who need it. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience.
Happy Birthday, big brother.
*Speaking of compassion- the girls that picked on me- well, looking back, their home lives were much worse than mine. No “forgiveness” needed; they were doing the best they could to manage their own unhappiness.
**Mom, I know you and Dad always did. The fault was mine for not telling you how unhappy I was. You’re wonderful and I love you.