She’ll never really know how she changed him because she didn’t know him before. But I did. And I didn’t like him. I loved him, but I didn’t like him.
When we were kids I called him “Doey” because I couldn’t say his name right yet. And it drove him crazy. Of course he got me back a couple years later when “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” came out. He would sing it to me constantly and I’d always yell back, “That song isn’t me! I can be wrong! I can be wrong!”
He was a social butterfly, anywhere we went, even a hotel for one night, and he’d make friends. I preferred to practice handstands in the hotel pool alone, while him and his new friends would splash around with a Nerf football in the other end. But I always knew that I was more special to Joey than all his new friends. Him and I had an impenetrable bond, glued together by years of playing “Ginger Alert!” with our dog outside, rolling down the stairs in the bottom of sleeping bags, or avoiding dad when he was inevitably drunk again.
But then Ryan Dobbs punched Joey in the stomach at the bus stop. And dad started to hit. And mom started to buy us things.
Each trip to the hospital or police station to pick Joey up was a crumble, each police warrant to search our house was another crumble, each highschool that Joey got expelled from was larger chunks, until everything we had was a pile of scraps. Joey himself was a ghost, angry, vengeful, and unrecognizable.
I wanted to build those spare parts back into the Joey I grew up with, but his outgoing nature was rolled up and exploited in a gang. He didn’t have time to play HORSE or build forts anymore. Wrapped up in my Honors classes, there was no tether that could bring us back together.
And so I hated him. I hated that mom cried when he never came home. I hated that he stole the little money she had after her divorce. I hated that he wasn’t strong enough to handle an abusive father. I hated that I had begun to plan for what I would say at his funeral.
I knew my mom’s tone-of-voice when I answered the phone, and I panicked knowing that I went away to college having bid good riddance to whatever scraps remained of him. But it wasn’t a call to tell me that the shell that was Joey had been murdered, as I had feared in her voice. It was a call to tell me that one scrap of him hadn’t been ruined, one scrap of him fought to bring back the Joey I knew as a child. And that piece was a child of his own.
Unwed, without a job, without a highschool degree, with a drinking problem and with a drug problem, Joey was going to be a father. And I still hated him. I told him he should abort it since he would be a deadbeat dad anyway. He hung up on me.
I wasn’t there when he got “beat out” of his gang. I was doing dumpster dives on campus to see how much our school recycled. I wasn’t there when he got a job. I was unwrapping the intricacies of the world’s major religions. And I wasn’t there when she was born. I was discussing the manner in which film represents real life on the quad.
I wasn’t there when every broken shard of Joey coalesced like watching the explosion of a statue on rewind. In all my education, I didn’t consider for a moment that the unlikeliest of people, a baby, would speak grand statements to him about responsibility and love in a way I never could.
He got his GED, he got in a Union, he married, he dropped alcohol, and he dropped drugs. And it was all because of her. He was showing up for life in a way our father never had.
Joey showed up at my college graduation. I had hated him, I had told him to abort his savior, and I had written off his transformation as some disguised manipulation. But he hugged me. His eyes shone when he saw me in my cap and gown. I had lost him, I had thought he was nothing but an empty, degenerated shell. But he wasn’t. He had still been there and he had always been proud of me, always loved me, and never let go of our special connection the way I had. Joey was back.
And that little girl will never know the hateful Joey or the depth of our family shattering. By simply crying her first, she will only know the motivated, caring, and hard-working Joey. My big brother.
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