Yup, the photo above is of me and my older brother, Fred, whom I’ve never called Fred, and who was “Kuya” for years before becoming “Bubba.”
The picture is representative of a good chunk of our childhood years. Until our younger sister, Elaine, came along (and cemented our bond further by dint of providing us a common Enemy), it was just me and Bubba. Then even after Elaine came, it was still mostly me and Bubba because Elaine was three years younger, and to children, three years is long enough to constitute a generational difference.
I didn’t make friends by myself all that easily (a trait that persists to this day), so most of my “friends” were actually Bubba’s friends. Unlike other older brothers, he didn’t mind that he had a smaller, paler, gap-toothed shadow who was a bit of a liability actually by dint of being awkward, clumsy, asthmatic and myopic. (Bubba was myopic too, but to a much lesser degree, and he possessed a natural talent for physical activity.)
So when Bubba and his friends went biking around the village, or hunted for “water bombs,” played console games, or played Ghost Busters—or whatever else happened to be in vogue then—I went right along. Because Bubba didn’t treat me differently, none of the other boys treated me differently either. It was an attitude of gender neutrality that was as rare as it was laudable.
(This probably accounts for why I inhabited a distinctly masculine imaginative world growing up. My cultural universe was peopled by characters from Dino-Riders, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, SilverHawks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ThunderCats, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, and so on and so forth. If anyone had asked me about Jem, My Little Pony or Rainbow Brite then, I would have stared at them blankly.)
But if Bubba and I were inseparable then, we wouldn’t have had the words for it. It was “just” how it was and it would take years before I realized the existence of that strange and fierce alchemical bond—an existence I only realized by dint of its subsequent absence.
Because like all siblings do at some point, Bubba and I grew apart, estranged by the chasms engendered by adolescence with its solipsistic concerns and circumscribed horizons. He became a stranger: a tall and skinny young man who scowled at me when my failure to get up on time in the mornings threatened his inveterate punctuality; who excelled at everything he did (academics and sports) effortlessly; who had a girlfriend on top of everything else; who, finally, shattered the confines of my until-then-cozy family life by leaving home for college.
When our lives intersected again, it was in university, when I moved to the dorm adjacent to his. We didn’t chat all that much, but we always had Sunday lunches together, and he was always the one who rescued me in each of the idiotic messes I got myself into (which were almost always vehicular in nature). He wasn’t the silent accomplice I’d had in my pre- and grade school years. He wasn’t the aloof stranger I’d encountered in my high school years either. What he was, what he’d become then, was, well, a real older brother: someone I could rely on completely and utterly given how far away our parents were.
And it’s been that way ever since. Bubba’s my rock: the stolid, steady and silent presence who’s always fished me out of trouble; who’s never refused me anything; who’s always accepted me for who I am; who didn’t bat an eyelash when loaning me all the money he could part with when I decided to take the impossibly reckless plunge of opening a yoga studio; who didn’t doubt (not even for a moment) that I could make it work; who didn’t even bother giving me a deadline for paying him back; and who treated me when times got really tough.
Now, Bubba’s even farther away than our parents were back in our college days. But he’s still there for me, still there for Elaine, and still there for my parents despite the intervening miles.
And I’m really, really glad. Because I’m still awkward, still clumsy, still asthmatic and still myopic (though yoga and laser surgery have reduced the degrees somewhat). In short, I’m still the same smaller and paler younger sister who’s always loved her older brother.
And who always will.
Happy, happy birthday, Bubba. I love you.