The Teamwork of Sweet-and-Sour Siblings

I FOUND 11-year-old Matt at the kitchen stove making hot chocolate in a frying pan.

``What are you doing?'' I asked.

I know he doesn't drink hot chocolate, but his sister, Abigail, loves it.

``I'm gonna take it up to Ab,'' he said, as though he and his sister hadn't been engaged only two hours before in a lively mutual character assassination.

Exulting in the torrents that were washing through the fields with the thaw, the two of them had suited up and gone exploring. Abby had accidentally taken a header into an icy freshet.

``Her lips were blue. I thought she needed something hot,'' Matt continued. ``She's in the tub. I'm gonna take this up when it's ready.''

This is the same brother who calls his sister ``goofball'' until she shrieks with frustration, who torments her with his plans for what he will do to her room in her absence. But it is also the same brother who sat her down last summer and said: ``Third grade is a big jump from second grade, Abs. There's a lot more work and it's much harder. But don't let it scare you. I know you can do it, no problem.''

As I watched, I thought of my own brother, Chris, and the relationship we had both enjoyed and abused over 40-odd years. We are as different from each other as are Matt and Abby. And when we were younger, we were as volatile as those differences.

Although we fought bitterly, it seemed impossible that we would one day grow apart. A sibling is a fact of life, immutable. We didn't realize then that a relationship is a fragile thing.

I can't remember my first reaction to a baby brother. I was not quite 2 when Chris was born. But in pictures, I am hovering over him, grabbing him to make sure he was smiling just right for the camera, almost smothering in my protectiveness.

I have watched my own children for clues to those first years.

Abby was two weeks old when two-year-old Matt came stumbling into the room one morning, trailing both blankies. He stared hard at the sleeping bundle that was his new sister, then stuffed one blankie around her tiny feet.

``Ab needs Pink Blankie like I need Yellow Blankie,'' he announced.

He was right. From the time she was tiny, Abby clung to Pink Blankie, the token of Matt's promise of protection and constancy. From the beginning, when they fought, I held onto the memory of that generous gift, and the hope for their future friendship.

And, despite their fights, I have witnessed times of inspiring collaboration between them.

One day when they were 2 and 4, I came in from mowing the lawn to get a drink. Since I believed them to be safely napping, I was horrified to find the kitchen awash in milk, a glass broken on the floor, and to hear noises coming from the bathroom. Water trickled out the door onto the dining-room carpet. I heard Matt thud down the stairs.

``Hang onto Mickey, Ab!'' he shouted as he raced across the dining room and into the bath. ``I got something to get him unstuck!''

I quickly leapt the lake in the kitchen to find Abby standing over the toilet, hanging onto her stuffed Mickey Mouse's left foot. Only his yellow feet and hindquarters were visible. The rest of him had disappeared down the void. Matt was leaning over the toilet bowl, prying at Mickey's rump with a plastic rifle.

Once we extracted Mickey, Matt explained.

``Ab was hungry, so she called me and I got her out of her crib and we came looking for a snack, but the milk spilled all over Mickey, so we decided to wash him off, and when Ab flushed, he started to go down the toilet and the water came all out and she had to hang on while I got him out!''

Oh. Of course.

They remind me often of Chris and me as kids. Our lives were filled with adventures fraught with possibilities for disaster. But we were a team.

The two of us together could always take on the bad guys and win. If at times our anger at each other was fierce, we shared a home, and so we were forced to forgive. Then suddenly, there were separate lives, separate homes - and choices. The relationship was no longer a given. The terms on which it was once established had altered.

We grew apart when we married. Except for annual birthday phone calls, we hardly spoke. Even with the silence between us, though, I always knew that if I called for help, Chris would come. I never once doubted that. I would have done the same for him. The love remained, but the trust had crumbled.

It was during Dad's illness and after his death that we began, brick by brick, to rebuild our relationship. This time, instead of letting our differences divide us, we leaned on our different strengths. This time, unlike the bond forged so casually in our childhood, the effort was conscious.

Last Christmas, Chris's family and mine shared Christmas dinner. Now, he and I are the older generation. With our parents gone, it is up to us to carry on tradition. Although our kids exchange presents, Chris and I had stopped giving gifts to each other some years ago. This year, he handed me a shoe box wrapped in newspaper and tied with a red ribbon. Inside was his half of our mother's silver. A piece of his birthright.

It was a gift not only of love but of trust, a new foundation.

As my son Matt stood over the stove, stirring, I wondered what lies ahead for him and his sister. For now, Matt makes his little sister hot chocolate. It is of such things that love is made.

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