If you are sending a child to college this month, you may be feeling a little sensitive about the imminent outsourcing or termination of most of your parental duties. However, you are not the only person in your house to be affected by the upcoming changes. For example, since all four of her half-siblings moved out by the time she was eight, my daughter Jane has been raised as an only child. The darling of the entire family, she will never experience the ruthless machinations of a fully operational sibling regime. Our own began to crumble in 2006 when the children of my family lost their dynastic leader, my older son Hayes.
When Hayes departed for college a few states south, it took two cars to fit all his stuff, so his brother Vince chauffeured me and little Jane in my car and King Hayes followed in his Jeep. Vince was so excited about his learner’s permit. It was exciting for me, too, especially when he did things like darting into the left lane on the DC beltway when traffic was so thick Hayes couldn’t follow us.
“What are you doing, Vince?” I cried, and a few minutes later, when Hayes still hadn’t reappeared, I called him on the cell phone to make sure he knew the name of our exit. He answered me with a stream of recriminations, though he knew I was not driving and what had just happened was out of my control.
Soon afterwards, Vince got annoyed by my direction-giving and began shouting that I was crazy and he would never drive anywhere with me again. Right then, Jane began whining from the backseat that she needed to go the bathroom. “Now! I have to go now!” she insisted.
A gas station appeared on the right and our maddened group swerved into it. The boys got out of their respective cars.
“Dude!” said Vince to his older sibling. “I’m so sorry about what happened back there!”
“Dude,” said Hayes magnanimously, clapping his back, “it’s cool. I wasn’t mad.”
“God, Mom is such a freak!”
“For real! Let’s go in and get some beef jerky.”
In disbelief, I watched them start to head into the gas station. “I’m hungry too!” said Jane. Her main man Hayes turned around and tossed her up on his shoulders. “I’ll get you a snack, babe,” he said.
“Didn’t you have to go to the bathroom?” I called after her. Damn kids.
In the weeks after we left Hayes in his dorm, things were weird and sad. Certainly ganging up on Mom wasn’t the same. A two-man junta, particularly if one of the corps is Cindy Lou Who, is very different than three against one, or five against one if step-sibling reservists are on tap. And the house was just so quiet without the beatings and rough-housing, without Hayes’s famous game, “Which Hurts Worse?”
Meanwhile, I kept staring wistfully at the leftovers piling up in the fridge; I couldn’t seem to adjust the quantities I cooked for dinner, and Hayes was the only one who ate leftovers anyway. Not only did Vince revile anything encased in tinfoil, Saran, or Tupperware, he was always at band practice at dinnertime and favored pretzels dipped in Tabasco sauce when he returned. Jane, on the other hand, ate pasta with butter and cheese. She also ate pasta with butter and cheese.
One day I ran into Vince’s guidance counselor in the high school parking lot. “Vince seems so different this year,” she told me.
“Really?” I said. “Like how?”
She thought a minute. “Well, the other day I saw him in the hall, and he gave me a smile and said, ‘Hello, Mrs. Dzwonczyk.’ He never did that before!”
Wow, I thought. That is hard to believe.
When I reported this conversation to a friend who was in a similar situation, she suggested that some sort of gravitational shift was underway in our families. She had never realized how exclusively her family’s dinner conversation focused on her older son until he left, and they started to talk to the younger one. “Dungeons and Dragons is so interesting, once you understand it,” she gushed, aglow with her new crush.
How far can this go? I wondered as I stared at a plate of homemade sushi rolls leftover in the refrigerator. “Vince,” I said, “isn’t sushi one of your favorite foods?”
He thought a minute. “Yeah,” he said, “give me that,” then settled down beside Jane to watch “The Fairly Oddparents.” Well, well, well. It seemed Vince had begun to notice a few job openings around here: Eater of leftovers, friend of little sisters, greeter of guidance counselors.
So it goes every fall. The parents go around whining about their emptying nests while the little brothers and sisters move up a peg in the pecking order, unable to believe at first that no one’s swatting them down.
“Do you miss Hayes?” I asked Vince one day while we were watching a movie on television. It was exciting for both of us to learn that our television received channels other than ESPN, the official network of the Hayes administration.
“Well,” he said. “He hasn’t been gone that long.”
“But you lived with him every day of your life for sixteen years, and then he just disappeared.”
Vince looked around at the wide open plain of the living room, vacant of rampaging bison and marauding tribal leaders. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I mean.”
These days, the boys live half-way across the country from each other and are together only on holidays and vacations. As a college senior, Vince is four inches taller than his brother, an indignity which Hayes may be subconsciously addressing as he transforms himself into a solid wall of bulging muscle, accomplished by adopting the menus and workout routines of Paleolithic man. (If you have a 23-year-old son you have probably heard of this delightful fad.) When they do get together, they mostly just drink and carouse, old friends rather than ruler and subject, or even rivals. I believe they indulge in an argument or two for old times’ sake, late at night after most of the beer is gone.
They are both much nicer to me than they used to be, though they still answer each other’s phone calls when they won’t answer mine and sometimes I actually have to ask Vince in New Orleans to call Hayes, who lives down the street, or vice versa, to deliver a message.
I keep a black-and-white picture on my dresser of Vince in a swimming pool at about age five, wailing into the camera with scrunched eyes and wide-open mouth. For a long time I didn’t even notice that Hayes was lurking behind him in the background, smirking evilly, until Hayes himself pointed it out, again smirking evilly. When I showed Vince, he seemed filled with nostalgia. He made the same comment Hayes had. “That’s it,” he said, grinning, “that was our childhood.”
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.