He ain't heavy (he's only 11)

He ain't heavy (he's only 11)

Live abroad for long enough and you start to lose touch. The things you took for granted back home - your friends, your family, your Shih Tzu - start to become relics of a faded reality. You are absent for birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases. Your loved ones wrinkle and shrink as they are dragged behind time's insectile scuttle.

You reconcile with these chitinous truths, using as leverage dust-thin superficialities - cheap rent, delicious food, proximity to Unesco World Heritage Sites. To do otherwise would mean to succumb to guilt and dread and prophetic notions of regret.

For yours truly, leaving behind the vast, paved expanse of mundanity that is urban north Texas also meant leaving behind my brother, Gatlin, who is 16 years my junior. Being away from him is perhaps the most onerous aspect of my borderless life, so much so that to think of him sometimes feels as though a rattlesnake has plunged its toxic fangs into my heart.

To my mother, Gatlin was a Vietcong of a pregnancy, a sneak attack from the nebulous jungles of middle age.

To my brother Clay and my stepsister Amanda, Gatlin was a welcome addition to the family. They reacted to the news of his impending arrival the same way one might winning the lottery - with anticipation and excitement and sense of unsettling glee.

To me, it was a burr in foot of the mutant beast that was our family - a stepfather, a stepsister and now a baby half-brother. 

Part of this reaction stemmed from my mother's method of announcement. Whereas many would have chosen to sit their families down for a frank yet congenial discussion, she'd surprised us with delicately wrapped boxes, one for each of her children.

My parents had done something similar the year before, in the form of an impromptu scavenger hunt, the end prize being scuba diving lessons and a trip to the Cayman Islands. You couldn't blame me, then, for expecting something grand - keys to a go-kart, for instance, or a kitten. But a pair of tiny shoes?

Realisation slammed aside fantasies of clean fun with the force of a late cervical contraction. Clay, who had unwrapped a powder-blue bib, and Amanda, clutching a pacifier, squealed with joy. I stormed away. A foetus inside my mother was a personal insult, and I took umbrage with the insolent, humanoid blob. Balance in our family already felt off-kilter - tossing a half-brother in the mix would only serve to increase that instability. How could she, my own mother, have done this to me?

Maybe it was a joke, I told myself, a false alarm, like the fire drills we had in school. "Now you'll know how it will be when I'm really pregnant," my mother would say. "Like that will ever happen!" Oh, how we'd laugh! Then she'd hand over the keys to the go-kart.

Instead, I'd received an appointment with Grim Truth. Last year I'd been blowing bubble rings beneath turquoise seas, rubbing shoulders with eagle rays and nurse sharks, and now here I was, with a shipping notice from the stork.

Gatlin, with his wrinkled, cerise face and wispy tuft of black hair, was beautiful. That's what my family said. I didn't know what they were huffing about, because to me he resembled a waterlogged big toe with a face.

Soon he was talking and toddling around the house. And with Gatlin's growth, I began to feel a sense of brotherly - and oddly parental - duty, which itself apparated into rugged familial love. Gaining momentum and heat as it burned, there was no falling in love with Gatlin - it simply was.

Because his siblings are grown, no one around to curdle his disposition, Gatlin, now 11, is an amalgamation of each family member's best qualities. Time spent with Gatlin is time basked in perpetual sunshine, mutually beneficial to all involved, like therapy, but rather than a bald man with a PhD, we're attended to by a fourth-grader gripping a Nintendo Wii controller.

Gatlin's age allows him, for the time being, to pass with enviable agility beneath the Limbo Bar of Dysfunction on which so many of us bash our heads. He has become the epitome of good, a sickening reminder of what I might be, should I possess a milligram of his purebred kindness, a trait I'd once thought reserved for cartoon bears.

July marks my first visit home in nearly three years. When I disembark from the airplane, there Gatlin will be. Perhaps he will have changed from the person I envision through the crystalline lens of memory. I doubt it. He will almost certainly be as ebullient as ever, not for one moment resentful of my detached physical and emotional presence. He will offer canine-like loyalty and reverence and love that will not - that cannot - die.

He will unwittingly reassure me that I have done nothing wrong; that no matter what, nothing will ever change between us.

Through these relentless acts of clemency, I will recognise my life for the mercenarial barbarian it has become, and am thereby forced to re-examine everything.


Adam Kohut is the sub-editor for Guru magazine.

Adam Kohut

Sub-editor for Guru magazine

Adam Kohut is the sub-editor for Guru magazine of the Bangkok Post.

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