My Younger Brother
By Meril Mousoom & Judy Roland
A sister finds her world upside down following an irreplaceable loss. How will she change?
I recycled a ton of my old essays for the new supplementals I just wrote. My mom’s badge of approval was enough to keep me going through the late nights, but I think I would have been just fine without her.
“I’m 26 for God’s sake. Get out of my room.” My younger brother, Mark, spoiled my studying mood.
“Well maybe you shouldn’t be living with your parents at age 26,” that little twerp snickered. I rolled my eyes. Wasn’t I going off to grad school to avoid this awkward affair? I had nothing to say to him, and that was embarrassing. Would I ever measure up to the impossible standards of my younger brother?
Years later, after grad school was over and I enrolled in med school, Mark got into Harvard. He later even enrolled in a Ph.D. program.
“You and your brother are a fantastic bunch!,” my cousin Geeka said, who was always so happy-go-lucky.
Mark went to Harvard undergrad, and Yale grad school. How much more perfect could someone be? Meanwhile, I went to a lousy state school, another public grad school, and finally Tulane med school. Our paths were never the same and never could be. How could no one understand that?
The phrase “my brother got a Nobel Prize” was one that I never anticipated to utter, but somehow I wasn’t surprised.
As everyone clapped for Mark as he received his award, I struggled to hold my breath. It was such a hectic day, with the kids making such a mess this morning and a surprise C-section at the hospital. Lucky Mark, he didn’t have to deal with that.
But maybe his shiny prize would attract many girls to his side, I thought as he walked off the stage with the prize in hand. Likely not. My brother was always so devoted to his studies that it seemed like he would probably win another Nobel Prize before he had a girlfriend. My stomach rumbled. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. Thank God for the restaurant celebration.
“This is such a beautiful restaurant,” my brother’s best friend piped up. I smiled warmly at him. “Please! I come here all the time, feel free to be at home here. I just wanted something family friendly and a little luxurious for my little brother.” Squeezing my whole family and friends into this restaurant was a challenge, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t done it before.
“I’d like the regular. Thank you, Liz.” The waiter nodded.
“So, you really must eat here all the time.”
I chuckled. Carl was still in 20s, experiencing the financial insecurities we all once had. The rest of the meal went swimmingly well, with Carl asking about my travels.
But of course, I had to draw the line somehow. Once I let him know I was married, he only asked more questions. Armed with the knowledge that I wasn’t being romantically pursued, I relented to divulging the secrets of my family life, and my husband’s business as a CEO. Finally Liz delivered the check.
“You can’t seriously be paying for all 30 of us to eat at this fancy restaurant…” Carl started, but I hushed him.
“I’ve paid for the bills of crowds of 100. It’s just what happens at my age. You’ll understand one day.” My Apple Watch buzzed, reminding me that the help would be taking their vacation now, and I inwardly groaned. Maybe I should be ordering some takeout here for the kids.
“Thank you for paying.” Mark stopped my thoughts in my tracks. I smiled. “Anything for you, my baby brother! Congratulations. You are so much better than me, and the least I could do is pay for this dinner.”
“Before we leave, I’d like to make some remarks.” My brother was never the talker in the family, and so I was interested in what he had to say. “I’d like to give a grandiose thank you to my sister, who has been the person cheering me on for a long time. I was an annoying twat, as she liked to call me. But quite honestly, she set a path to greatness, being the first person in our family to go to college and accomplishing more than what we thought was possible. She became a doctor and even became a working mother. She paid for my parents’ mortgage, my medical bills when I got into an accident, and even found time to help me with my homework. If there is anyone in this world that has laid the foundation for my success, it’s her.”
The room astounded me in a burst of applause, and I looked down. Although I was very grateful for his acknowledgement, I didn’t want to relieve those times of hardship my family had gone through, especially when I was applying to college.
But Carl took my hand, sensing something was amiss. When my spell of sadness was over, it seemed that everyone was leaving, or giving my brother a final congratulations.
On the drive home, I found myself sobbing. My brother had told everyone I was the secret recipe to his success. But would there ever be any success for me? Would I ever stop feeling inadequate compared to him?
Work was a doozy, with doctors asking me every waking moment about my brother. As the hospital director, I always found it endearing to be approached by those under me, but not this time. I smiled away all the compliments, all the hurt. Mark had his life, and I had mine.
But my brother would not stand still. He continued his research, publishing books and being in the news constantly. Yet he did relent to our endless pestering about his love life: Mark proposed to Carl. In my older-sister fashion, I insisted on paying for his wedding, fighting over Mark’s objections. It was going to be the best wedding ever, I proclaimed.
“I feel confused.” Carl looked into his wine glass. It was a few days before the wedding. Mark had chosen Hawaii for his destination, and the resort was beautiful. But even the amazing food and luxury couldn’t make me feel settled after Carl’s intimate confession.
“What do you mean? You don’t want to marry my brother?” My fist clenched up.
“No, I love him. But he’s a Nobel Prize winner. I’m a simple social worker. Mark talks to the president. I talk to homeless people. No matter what, I’ll always be stuck in his shadow. He’ll always be the famous one. Everyone is already congratulating me for my ‘lucky catch’ when I’ve always been the one who’s more dedicated to the relationship.” I took his hand.
Despite these tensions, the new couple looked as happy as ever on the wedding day. Carl and I saw each other at family gatherings, but I never heard a peep from him anymore. Admittedly, it was also the time for private school exams for the kids, and being a mother was always the biggest priority. Even then, Mark remained a constant light in our lives.
“My uncle won the Nobel Prize.” Those little rascals of mine had no filters, and the nanny ended up fielding many requests for Mark to present to their classes. Not that he was bothered, for his speaking tour gave him much experience. He spoke at funerals, weddings, and even my hospital (thanks to the endless curiosity by my coworkers). Many times, I attended these talks, watching in wonder as my little brother transformed into a distinguished scientist. Yet I could never ignore the sinking feeling when after the event, I was only referred to by everyone as “sister.”
The phone call comes in the middle of a sunny Saturday, weaving a tale that haunts me for the rest of my life.
Two lovers were driving to the airport. They were in a car crash. Only one survives.
I bump into someone in the parking lot, spilling their iced coffee all over my shirt. I fail to shudder as the liquid seeps into my clothes.
The road rage I hear goes right through me as I force my car to go faster, faster on the highway.
The hospital is where I’m normally a cool, calm and collected director. Today my screams beg to differ.
Receptionists are always slow until you threaten to fire them.
The hospital room opens. Only one.
His face is bandaged heavily, and he’s in a deep sleep. I see a pair of blue eyes. Not black.
And I scream. Scream through the pain, the hurt, the fear.
The wrong one survived.
A life cut short. My younger brother. The one who loved science. The one that loved me. The one I loved back.
My feelings during that time of my life were painful to relive, painful to live through.
I screamed at the servants for not being good enough at cleaning. I screamed at the children for not being good enough at studying.
The only time I was silent was the funeral, where I stood in front of the casket I paid for. Only the best for my brother, of course.
I was alone, my family across the room. Everyone else simply wasn’t good enough.
“You wanted me dead.”
I wish he wasn’t so loud. But Carl looks straight at me.
Mark was six years younger than me, yet he died first. Life is cruel.
“Yes.” I fix my lips into a straight line.
“I don’t blame you.”
I don’t let him let him see my surprise. Mark is dead. Yet why am I here?
A beast starts stirring my insides.
“You want something to eat besides this dreary hospital food?” Guilt. That’s what it is.
It’s a game of poker between us, hiding our emotions as we continuously show our cards for the next few weeks.
“The hospital room is empty.”
“Perks of being a foster kid who aged out of the system,” Carl says.
Carl didn’t have the luxury of living with his parents until he was 26. Because he had none.
I bring him board games, an iPad. His hospital room slowly becomes stuffed with more and more things.
Before long, I start visiting him on my lunch breaks.
Carl’s currency is information.
He lets the first truth slip while we eat on the first day.
“Mark loved knitting.”
The second truth reveals itself after we finish a television show.
“Mark had stage fright.”
I tell myself I come to Carl’s hospital room to know more about my brother, who turns out to be an unsolved puzzle.
But I find myself happy even on the days Carl doesn’t trade.
I’m massaging Carl’s shoulders. Normally I would pay for someone to do it, but it feels right.
“Mark loved how you spent so much time with him.”
Our game of poker is dead. Like Mark.
Tears fall. As Carl meets my eye, I see that he’s crying too.
We chat away as we pack what has been Carl’s entire life since the accident into my car. Moving day.
Would it be selfish of me to say that this year has gone by too fast?
We leave the hospital. I’m on autopilot, driving Carl to his apartment like he’s one of my kids.
After seeing the makeover I’ve done to make his living space accessible to his wheelchair, Carl lights up.
The warmth of his smile pushes away the feeling that someone is missing here. Mark.
Soon the conversation lulls. It’s dark outside, and Carl is looking at me expectantly.
I sigh. It’s time to go.
“So I guess this is it, huh.” I hope he can’t tell I’m bitter.
Carl nods wordlessly.
I turn away and walk back to the car, feeling like I’ve lost something. Again.
But one day, after a long shift of work, Carl’s relaxing on the couch.
“You couldn’t take a week without me, did you?”
“Come on! It wasn’t you I missed, I really just wanted access to your fancy car!”
We begin to laugh.
These small happy moments stretch into years.
The secrets about Mark still reveal themselves, occasionally. But the urgency to capture them all is gone.
My brother died too early, and too soon for me to know all parts of him, but he’s never coming back.
It’s Mark’s birthday. It’s Mark’s deathday. It’s the day Mark made his discovery. It’s the day that Mark won his Nobel Prize.
I’ve realized I won’t ever stop grieving.
Sadness is a monster in its own right. It pushes me deeper and deeper.
Just when I think I’m going to fall off the deep end, there’s someone to catch me. Carl.
The banner reads, “Happy Graduation!”
My twins are probably somewhere backstage, dressed in their cute little gowns that mark their stepping into another stage in this big world.
“Hello!” It’s Deborah, the mom of the kid that bullied my twins for not having a yacht.
“Oh! Long time no see!” she says. The real reason I stopped seeing her was because I was done fundraising for Mark’s memorial fund, but she doesn’t have to know that.
“How are you, Deborah?” Patience is a virtue, I remind myself.
“Well! We are going to celebrate this graduation by going to Cancun. What are your plans?” she smirks.
I decide to let her win for the last time. “Nothing much. I’m probably going to relax after this event with a glass of champagne in celebration of being an empty nester.”
“Oh! I forgot you only have your twins. I’m cursed enough to have a younger kid. Thank God for our team of nannies,” she chuckles. Carl comes back from his bathroom trip to save me from this wretched woman obsessed with her wealth.
“Is this your brother?” Carl opens his mouth to interject, but I get there first.
“Yes he is.” Carl looks at me. Shock. Sadness. And then, understanding.
“Yeah, I am her brother. Nice to meet you.”
I wrote the first draft without any direction. Judy went through my words, working to shape the story into more of a redemption arc and a reflection on relationships.
Meril Mousoom is a high school senior. Their interests include activism, journaling, and dancing. They have a love of op-eds and The New York Times. Outside of politics, Meril also loves to indulge in Korean pop music!
Judy Roland has her own communications firm and works primarily as a ghostwriter for senior business executives and on website creation. In her free time, she enjoys swimming and walking while exploring all our great city has to offer. She lives with her husband and has one son on the left coast and one on the right. Judy dotes on her grand-dog to a ridiculous degree and looks forward to life post-pandemic.