Monday, November 12, 2007

My Brother's Anger & Old Photos

I keep in my left-hand desk drawer a black and white photo of myself when I was about 6 years old. I'm with my older brother who's holding a handful of cattails. We're somewhere in Cook County Forest Preserves, and behind us is a lake and, more immediately, our father's 1964 Buick (I think). My brother is looking at the camera (without a smile and naturally angry), while I'm happy-seeming, distracted, and pointing toward the ground at something. It looks like I'm saying, "Wow!" or "Look!" I'm sure it was nothing more than a caterpillar or my stunning discovery of the earth.

When I open the drawer to rummage for something like a paperclip, I look at the photo, especially toward my brother, and remember the problems he's been facing lately -- actually his whole life. It's about difficult demons connected to vague things like upbringing, early injury, immigrant funks (born in the village, unlike me), Chicago's South Side, bad friends, and anger that almost controls him. He is the most intelligent of us siblings but is attracted to those "things" that hurt him and, therefore, all of us. After our mother died, we went through a period in which we did not speak to each other for more than a year, although he lives in the north of Chicago. We didn't have a falling out at all. But his phones were out of order, and he never gave me his address . . . he gave it to no one when he divorced (after twenty-five years of marriage) and moved on north. I worry about him a lot, everyday. (It's complicated worry that covers much ground and history.) There was a time when I wasn't sure if he was alive, to be candid. I spoke to him a few days before this past Ramadan, and I now can't reach him for the same reasons. There is such enormous loss of potential in him. He's in his fifties now. He never found his place in life. Cliché, I know. But it's not an abstraction. Human beings really don't live anywhere except in some "place," and if we don't trust it, or can't find it, or if we see it as irrelevant or mismatched, then maladjustment is the only way to be. This is not a criticism, but an honest view.

There are good memories. He's the one who taught me how to fish and how to walk across a muddy creek when I was terrified to do so. All of my friends were already on the other side of the creek, and I was the last one on the near bank still "thinking" about it. My brother walked back across the creek, grabbed my arm, and said, "F-k it! Come with me!" We waded across, and it wasn't so bad after all. (For the record, I was always the youngest of my friends. My blush gone now?)

I will try to connect with him. I have had dreams about stuff that leads me to think that I really have to connect with my brothers with no agenda but brotherhood (including my other older brother). I am not judgmental of them. If anything, maladjustment is not a trauma per se. It could be that they didn't sell out to the fraud of the way things are, especially in suburbia (we moved), nice but pointless. And maybe, as the over-doted kid, I did buy into something back then--Pollyanna, rosy, some holodeck experience.

But I do feel partially responsible for something. When I "rediscovered" my own faith, Islam (in the early 80’s), something in me changed. It's a terrible thing to report, but I imbibed the over-present religious superciliousness and played the role of the one who will rescue his siblings. It was a ridiculous failure. I pushed them away, subtly. Our relationships changed. I was no longer their brother with an interesting story to tell or a joke or someone to confide in or someone who always wants to borrow an album. I became a highhanded missionary, no longer cool nor the guy who loved fishing, baseball, music, and chatting with anyone, a social butterfly who accepted anyone “as is”. Instead, I looked for any angle to slip in a line or two about mission, the pre-modern version of spam "da'wa". They never showed me that they were offended, but it did alter things. I regret it. Badly. But I know also it's not the whole story. My brother struggled from very early on, before I could walk. My parents had a hard time with him. When he was old enough, my brother joined the US Army and was stationed in Munich. This was during the 70's, when Abba ruled and backstage in Germany shared bongs and laughs with American soldiers, my brother one of them.

I hope good things will come. We're aging and time moves ... nothing like an old photo to remind you of the "ride," steady and relentless. Old pictures are amazing things to look at, and if you've lived long enough, they produce a smile taken over almost immediately by melancholy and sadness. The strong emotion is usually about a "time" no longer with us. And if you're of my generation ("Talk'n about my generation," The Who), then it's especially "boss". I look at the black and the white and see the route of time, not "time frozen," but this unstoppable movement, this thing, this plasma, this ferry, this phenomenon, this proof of God. Nothing moves alone and to nowhere.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting how a photo taken at a random moment in time can capture a person's essence.

It is also interesting how younger first generation siblings carry survivor's guilt over their elder siblings. Sometimes i wonder which is worse, going through trauma or watching your loved one suffer through it.

I love that picture of were a cutie, easily distractable but cute. And now, you're still easily distractable ;) ... ok, you're still cute too. Fishee ack-yut minnak!


11/12/2007 3:51 PM  
Blogger Mohammed said...

what you said about pictures: first the smile, then the sadness; I feel the same way. I have this weird aversion for looking at old pictures, and I've wondered if it was only me who felt this way. With the advent of networking sites like pictures are everywhere and people take tons of them, so I've assumed that they must feel differently than I do. Whenever I look at old pictures, I usually feel overcome by melancholy as I'm reminded of how quickly time passes, and in some sense, how much time has been "lost."

11/12/2007 4:05 PM  
Anonymous ribbie/rhubarb said...

dude. you are an awesome writer, masha Allah.

11/13/2007 10:27 PM  
Blogger Saliha said...

a very honest post, quite reflective of my own thoughts. but i'm not sure i agree with your last line. sometimes it seems we are all moving alone to nowhere.

11/14/2007 7:06 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

As for "time," I'm reminded of a lyric: "And all your money won't another minute buy." It was borrowed from Native American poetry, I heard. Thanks.

11/14/2007 8:28 AM  
Anonymous irving said...

Very honest and both sad and heartening post. Inshallah, you and your brother(s) will connect and reconcile. Time has a way of softening old stances and making room for love.

Ya Haqq!

11/18/2007 10:41 AM  
Anonymous Danya said...

Masha'Allah, you ARE a great writer.

It was not until I got older did I really understand the old adage "a picture is worth 1000 words." There are so many things that happen right before, during, and after the picture. Though those events do not appear, they are subtly present for those who seek out the signs.

11/26/2007 12:42 PM  
Blogger Ibrahim said...

Thank you, Danya. Those are generous words. ia

11/26/2007 8:04 PM  

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