Today, my older brother, James Daniel Fox, turns 40. That’s right: 40. Forty! Which means I’m thirty-nine, and that’s plain crazy. Something has gone dreadfully wrong, I know it.
The Fox family–the one I grew up in, that is–is a very male family: a charismatic, fairly commanding, rather patriarchal father, with seven loud and opinionated sons to reflect that view of things back at him. (Come to think of it, my two sisters are pretty opinionated too.) My mother, a quiet and peaceful woman at heart, survived this brood tolerably well, all things considered, but the first three children–born one right after the other, in 1966, 1967, and 1968–were kind of a boot camp for all that she experienced later; we quite possibly caused her more stress and anguish in a few short years than she’s experienced in all the rest of her 40-plus years of parenting. Not my older sister Samatha, of course; the firstborn Fox, she was a responsible, kind, thoughful, obedient child, always a source of peace around the house. But Daniel and I…er, weren’t. For one thing, we were constantly doing damage to each other and the house we lived in. Falling off barn roofs, falling down basement stairs, smashing door windows, getting punctured by rusty nails, punching holes in the wall, and so forth. Daniel, always a confident and ambitious child, nearly hung himself attempting to use his blanket to escape his crib at age two; me, by contrast a preternaturally morose child, terrified my mother with morbid and detailed speculations about suicide by the time I was in second grade.
We were different, and spent much of our youth codifying and elaborating upon the cosmic significance of our differences. Daniel was strategic, disciplined, focused, practical, athletic, graceful, strong, and bad at school; I was abstract, philosophical, sarcastic, logical, clumsy and uncoordinated, the prototypical 98-pound weakling, and good at school. (Mother was worried about this last particular elaboration, and made one of her rare interventions into Daniel’s and my mutually imagined character development; what I was good at, according to her, was reading, whereas Daniel, she impressed upon us, was good at math. In truth, this was based on nothing more than Mom’s desire that her oldest son not grow up thinking he was stupid, but never underestimate the power of a creative mother; despite IQ tests that put me in the near-genius range, I remained convinced that I was bad at math all the way through college, and consequently found ways to avoid it as much as possible, whereas Daniel was content to allow me to read to him until we were teen-agers, and later went on to major in accounting, which has something to do with numbers and money, I think.) We would plot together, developing plans for the future that made use of both our talents simultaneously, as if we were one person split through some horrible genetic accident into two. We went through Cub Scouts, Weblos, and Boy Scouts picking out the awards and merit badges that we each would be responsible for. (Daniel would do Wilderness Survival; I’d do Astronomy.) Through those childhood years during which we were basically inseparable, we perfected this division; always, no matter kind of fantastic nonsense our fantasy games or camping trips or attempts to build tree houses (we had about six over the years) or pioneering expeditions involved, I’d be the brains of the operation, while Daniel was the muscle. All boys plot and scheme and make contingency plans for the unknown and looming future, of course, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Daniel and I, by the time we hit our teens, had made certain we were prepared for anything. (Including the impending invasion of Spokane, Washington, by Soviet forces. Oh yeah, sure, now you think that was all right-wing 1980s paranoia. But back then, we knew better. Daniel and I were pretty much certain the Red Army was going to come right down from Canada, take out Fairchild Air Force Base, probably paratrooping soldiers down along the mountains east of Spokane in order to cut off 1-90 while they’re at it, thus leaving the civilian population of our hometown trapped. You don’t have to thank us; America lucked out, in the end. Just be grateful that back when it really mattered, Daniel and I–along with Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and C. Thomas Howell, of course–were ready to head to the mountains to take up guerilla warfare with the Russians for the sake of saving all your sorry hippie butts.)
Things changed when we hit our teen-age years and high school, but not as much as you might think. That is, the differences became even more pronounced, yet our allegiance to each other remained. As the other brothers entered the picture, our opportunities for fights and arguments and alliances multiplied; yet we were far more likely to turn on them (which we did with unfortunate frequency) than on each other. Just why that is the case is a bit of a mystery. I mean, Daniel went through puberty early; I went through it late. Daniel, who never really liked team sports despite his skill at them, gave up on football and wrestling, and discovered dance, at which he excelled: jazz, tap, ballet, but especially folk (he loved to clog). I, meanwhile, did debate and speech. Daniel had girlfriends, whereas I would sneak away from stake dances so I could get home to watch the McLaughlin Group (back when it was still good, when Jack Germond and Fred Barnes were panelists). Daniel threw himself into business and dealmaking and hard work; I began my long, meandering journey towards becoming our official family
parasite intellectual. Why on earth did we stay close? My father thinks it may have been all those long hours spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, which we played religiously from about age 10 until we both left home (and are busily passing on to the next generation today). True, the other brothers played D&D too, but usually only when Daniel and I would let them, and often we wouldn’t; mostly, it was a two-brother show (me the Dungeon Master, Daniel playing upwards seven different characters at a time). That could be it; or, relatedly, it could be the simple fact that despite our enormous physical and psychological differences, we were both lound-mouthed geeks, complete outsiders from typical American teen-ager social life, and we knew it. And revelled in it, as well. In fact, I bet Daniel and I could probably still identify, describe the plot of, and quote dialogue from any Original Season Star Trek episode after just viewing the first twenty seconds or so; that’s how well we had the show memorized (the key is which remembering in which direction the Enterprise is orbiting the planet in the opening scenes when you hear Kirk reciting his Captain’s Log, as well as the color of the planet itself).
But shared geekhood only takes you so far. Now, when I think about it, and I think about how well all of us brothers get along, I wonder if it even makes sense to ask why we’re all friends. I mean, we are friends, in a simple sense of the word. But not best friends, not really; there is too much we don’t share. Indeed, there is far more that we share with our wives and colleagues and other close friends than we do with each other. Yet the content of what we share almost doesn’t matter; far more important is the context, a context that we really can’t communicate to spouses or compariots of any sort, no matter how hard we try. Growing up and growing old(er) together, moving to new homes and new schools, sharing discoveries and revelations and embarrassments and fights over toys and television programs; however suburban and bourgeois it may be (and despite all my talk of milking cows and bailing hay, Daniel and I ultimately had as ordinary a youth as any couple of white middle-class Mormon boys), that context runs about as deep as anything. You’re family; you are each others’ first place of refuge and last line of defense. Not always, of course; that loyalty and love is often ignored in the real world, and in any case is ideally superceded by a later, more intimate connection. Except superceded isn’t the right word; surpassed, maybe, but not superceded, at least not necessarily, and hopefully never entirely. The poor souls that are so abused, so hurt, so angry, that they want to forget their past and their family, and become entirely new person…well, perhaps that’s the only way they can heal themselves. But what a tragedy to have to conclude that the only route to healing is one that involves a sundering of the self. And that is my self back there, as much as I’ve changed and as distant from Daniel, both literally and symbolically, as I’ve become; more than any of my other siblings, maybe even more than my parents, Daniel was the constant presence as I went through the never entirely pleasant process of becoming a person. I hope I managed–unintentionally, even unknowingly–to provide even just half as much to him as he did to me.
For a while, I didn’t. Things really changed when we left for college, and for missions. Daniel, unsurprisingly given his optimism, his earnestness, his passion for hard work, his clear and simple testimony, had–well, if not a spectacular mission (what does that mean, anyway?), then at least a rewarding and basically happy one; I–doubter, sinner, rulebreaker, murmurer–came home confused and somewhat bitter and filled with not a little self-loathing. Daniel reached out to me in all sorts of ways during the years we at BYU together, and I treated him like crap. (But, I was treating everyone like crap back then.) And when Daniel got enagaged to a woman who turned out, in the end, to be ill, delusional, self-abusive, and borderline psychopathic…I laughed at him (not to his face though, of course; I have some decency). I made things worse. I wasn’t alone in acting that way, but that’s no excuse. He hung on, trying to preserve his marriage and his relationship with his brother at the same time, but I certainly didn’t make it easy for him. In the end, when the former collapsed all around him, he called me, asking me to help pick up the pieces. That call shamed me, as few I have ever received have: this was my older brother, for heaven’s sake, to whom I was bound by years and years of memories, to whom I owed a duty, to whom I had behaved cheaply and self-centeredly, and now he was calling me, asking me if I could maybe take some time out of my life to help someone of my own flesh and blood? I repented, and got in my car as quick as I could.
Daniel bounced back–not immediately, but eventually. He stayed with us on weekends for a while (Melissa and I were married by then), and while I can’t say my post-mission miseries were all healed and gone, it was, I think, nonetheless a good time for him; certainly it was good for me to deal with my brother as an adult, as someone capable of seeing just how far those early experiences and memories reached into the present-day context, giving us something to go on and go from. He married again, to a woman who’s as sharp as a tack and not at all willing to let Daniel’s and my old-boys-network control the future (which, for a while, when Daniel was most at a loss, it seemed like it might). And I moved far away and went through my own trials and suffered my own catastrophes, and Daniel has always been there, with a phone call, and idea, an offer. In most of the ways that actually count, he’s proved himself to be a better man than me, many times over.
We still disagree about the content, now maybe more than ever. He’s a money-maker and a smooth operator; I kind of suspect that the profit-motive is incompatible with Christianity (but I don’t push it). He’s for Mitt, all the way; I’m a Nader-voter. (In fact, I’m practically certain we’ve never voted for the same person for president. Governor, maybe; but definitely not president.) He likes vacations in Las Vegas and Acapulco; I like bed-and-breakfasts (they’re cheaper, after all). I don’t dance; he still does. If it was a question of just being a friend to Daniel, that’d be one, perhaps difficult, thing; but being a brother is both much easier and much harder. Easier because you don’t choose your family; they just happen to you. Harder because the blood tie, the family tie, the sibling connection, the shared context and history and memory, is a powerful thing. It pulls on you, pushes you, weighs you down; puts on you expectations and responsibilities and presumptions that you could just walk away from in the case of mere friends (though of course there are issues of loyalty and love there too), but which, to contemplate doing so in the case of a brother, seems much more onerous. The weight of brotherhood is great, giving force to the decisions one makes (both the good ones, and the ones you need to repent of). As Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee…for we be brethren.” All differences, all interests, all content aside, the brotherly tie appears to be enough to force the issue either way. After all, how many brothers do you have?
Well, I have six others, besides Daniel. But he was the first, and he’s the one turning 40 today, so he’s the one being celebrated here. And besides, despite all my ponderous talk, it’s not like he weighs me down. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.
(Daniel and me on his wedding day, December 15, 1995)