Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My Brother's Keeper

My friend Louie is everyone's brother.

You don't really hear "brother" or "sister" used as a greeting in the United States, or at least not in the parts I've frequented. This probably has to do in part with plain old WASPy emotional awkwardness imported from the Old World - hell, in my family it's hard enough to get us to acknowledge our relationship with the people we're actually related to, let alone adopt strangers from off the street. Brothers? Sisters? People in whom we are supposed to invest a shared sentiment of well-being? Hecks no! We don't do that around here.

The Protestant work ethic is the other part of it, I think. Blood brothers and sisters share our genes. Their biological success is our biological success. So we help them, sometimes to the detriment of our own happiness, because to do so increases the chance of success for the bloodline as a whole. And this nation, to the extent to which it has swallowed Randian capitalism, abhors the thought of helping others to the detriment of our own happiness. We do not name brothers so that we can name opponents, slaves, invaders.

This theory makes my life a little bit easier, because it allows me to blame my initial reaction to Louie on my honkitude rather than my idiocy. Picture it, if you will: me, in my first few weeks of college, full of half-baked theories about my own emotional intelligence, cringing at being called "sister" by the first-floor RA. "I'm not his sister. He doesn't even know my name. Gawwwwwwwd."

But the thing is, as I found out about seven years ago next month, having a brother grows on you pretty quickly. This is especially true when the brother in question greets you every day with a full-arm wave, a hug, and a big grin that pushes his glasses up his nose as he asks "And how are you, Sister Allison?" This is especially true when the brother in question will come into the commons room and talk with you, even when you know he has a paper due that week. This is especially true when you too become an RA, and he takes time to listen as you complain about your job. This is especially true when you are in the middle of a devastating breakup, and he will touch you gently on the shoulder as you pass in the hallway, just to let you know he is there.

This is especially true when he does these things not only for you, but for every other brother and sister he meets. This is especially true when he treats every sister as a sister, and every brother as a brother.

In exchange, I hugged back. In exchange, I allowed him to listen. In exchange, I gave him extra strawberries in his smoothies, because I thought that was what sisters do.


I worked a lot in college. It was convenient for me to do so not only because of the money, but because of all the chances it gave me to make excuses not to do things I was too much of a misanthrope to want to participate in. Being at Trinity three or four nights out of the week seriously cut down on my ability to go to parties, demonstrations, panels, speeches, and various other activities my time would probably have been better spent on. Thus, it was a continuation of a pattern of behavior, not any extraordinary assholery in itself, that led me not to go to watch Louie testify about his life that one night during my freshman year. I had to work. I couldn't not go to work, right?

So it was by word of mouth that I heard that my friend Louie had been politically active as a teenager in Haiti. By word of mouth I heard the words of his mouth, broadcast over the radio after the first ouster of Aristide: "Democracy is a form of government in which everyone has the right to speak out. If we do not know what the word means, then we should not use it". By word of mouth I heard that the army had come for him, that he had run from his home, that he had walked for three days and nights until he couldn't go any further, that he had fallen asleep under some trees and woken up to a man with a machete standing over him. By word of mouth I heard that he had gained political asylum in Florida, that he had washed dishes at a Chili's, that he had gone to college and then divinity school on scholarships. I heard these things by word of mouth because, on the night when I could have been a sister to Louie as he had been a brother to me, I went to work.


Some guy whose last name I happen to share wrote this post today. It's a pretty good one, and it's about Haiti. I thought of Louie while I was reading it. I hadn't thought of him for a while - he graduated two years before I did, and I haven't seen him since. So I Googled him and found this, and in listening, remembered the things he said I did not listen to.

When we lived face-to-face, I was not Louie's sister. But for five minutes today, I hope I was his keeper, as he named me to be.


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