The other day, I started a series on my siblings. If you are back, thanks for sticking around. If you want to get some back-story, you might want to read this one first.
My palms were sweaty.
My heart was beating so fast I thought it would burst from my chest.
What if I don’t recognize him? I thought.
Or even worse, what if he doesn’t recognize me? The second thought hit me just as suddenly in the gut.
I panicked, brushing my palms against my lavendar corduroy pants that looked so foreign as I stood at the Arrivals gate at the New Delhi airport.
I gave myself a little pep talk. A pep talk delivered both by the confident part of me, that despite years of extensive training (pep talks within pep talks) was generally beat up on regularly by its insecure counterpart, probably well into my twenties.
Heck, who am I kidding?
As long as I have known myself.
The dialog ran through my tired, jet-lagged brain, still so clear in my mind.
Confident me: You can do this! Piece of cake!
Insecure me: Run for the hills! Heck, see if you can climb right back onto that Air India flight and hide under one of the stewardess’s saris.
Confident me: But you have waited this for sooooo long!
Insecure me: But what if you’re nothing like he thinks? What if . . .
Confident me: What if . . . what?
Insecure me: What if you’re not pretty enough, or not smart enough, or just not . . .
Confident me: Just not . . . what?
Insecure me: What, well . . . he expects his sister to be.
Confident me: Oh.
Confident Me had nothing to say. This was not new. Confident Me often got perturbed by the things that Insecure Me said. Cutting down what little self-worth Confident Me often had developed, Insecure Me was always sure to run back in, no matter how busy she was, to knock Confident Me down off of whatever temporary pedestals she (I mean, I) had created for myself.
Usually with no more than one fell swoop of her teeny, but precise, hand.
Aplomb, if you will.
Funny how that happens . . .
My mother unintentionally broke off the now silenced debate inside my head and reached her hand out to me.
“Chalo.” (Come with me).
I stood in the airport, clutching my mother’s hand, tightly. I was aware of the curious looks I was drawing, and would continue to draw when I visited India throughout my youth, as my mother did not give much credence to the term “when in Rome.”
I was packed in a bright orange polyester coat straight off the sales rack of J.C. Penney’s. My thick black eyeglasses rested on my little nose, continually sliding down its slope, despite the obvious bump that should have hindered its path but aided by sweat. My naturally curly hair was brushed to a fine swath of frizz – my mother prescribed to the Marcia Brady approach that 100 brush strokes a night would make my hair beautiful.
Good for Marcia Brady.
Not so good for me, with my naturally spiral curls to rival Shirley Temple’s.
I stood in wonder as I looked upward at the glass panels on the second level where family members and friends stood trying to identify their loved ones who were leaving customs below.
Hundreds of people.
How will I know it’s him? I have only ever seen pictures. The panic returned.
I let go of my mother’s hand and looked up. I turned in circles – feeling somewhat like a little freak show on display – no doubt assisted by the bright orange of my fashion forward J.C. Penney puffy coat. I must have looked like some mini astronaut to most of the people up there.
And then I saw him.
It was like nobody else was there. Everyone else disappeared into the background.
Tall. Same, slightly tilted eyes as my Munni Didi, no doubt hinting of the Nepalese lineage within our family, often evident amongst many of my cousins and siblings.
Handsome. I couldn’t help but notice the looks he was getting from other people, especially the women, standing by him.
I smiled. He smiled back.
I waved. So did he.
Confident me gave Insecure me a big heave ho and told her to take a freaking hike.
I turned to my mother. “Ma, that’s Phoolbhaiya, right?”
She looked up, smiled and waved and said, “Yes.”
The year was 1981. I was 5 years old. My brother was 18 years old.
I was seeing my oldest brother for the first time in my life that I could remember, after he had been sent to India to study when I was just a year old.
I had seen his face in pictures, so many times.
And there it was.
I remember him running to action when he realized it was us and gracefully making his way through the heavy crowds of people. A crowd that suddenly seemed to be so thick, keeping me away from hurling myself into this young man’s arms.
And then, there he was. Standing right in front of me. I remember him holding me in his arms and me snuggling my face in the deepest recesses of his neck, not wanting to ever let go.
Thinking how frail the connection that bound us was in the absence of having those four years of my life, not knowing him, not hugging him, not being able to fight with him or tell him I loved him.
Another part of me realized that no matter the distance, and no matter that we might be apart again – that today I was able to hold my brother.
I will never forget that day. I turned 35 years old the other day, and when I think of major events in my life, I will always remember the first time that I saw my oldest brother, Himanshu, my Phoolbhaiya.
My oldest brother continued to study in India, completing medical school there. He came back to the United States when I was in my teens. While we continued to love each other (and also made up a little for the years we couldn’t fight with each other), I have always felt cheated of the years that I did not have with him.
I don’t know how to always tell him that. There is a generational divide that separates us due to our age, but there is an abyss that lies between us which spans the years we were separated – across continents, across culture and across totally different lives.
He is still far from me geographically – but Florida is a lot better than India if we need to talk distance.
We try to build a bridge across that divide that was dealt us. Dealt to all of my siblings due a complex and hard to explain family situation.
Sometimes we succeed.
Sometimes we don’t.
But we always try.
Because it matters. He will ALWAYS matter to me.
He is a successful doctor in Florida. A lot of people ask me sometimes how my parents were alright with me not going the traditional arranged marriage route after both of my sisters had arranged marriages.
Well, Phoolbhaiya was the “trailblazer” for me there. He married a beautiful Irish Catholic woman whom I am proud to call my Sister in law and they have three beautiful daughters. So beautiful, that sometimes it makes my heart ache.
And I am so happy for them that as siblings, and as nieces whom I love dearly, they will never have to bear the separation that I bore with my own brother.
P.S. The reason for the title of this post, is that the old song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” always reminds me of my bro. On his wedding day, he danced with each of his sisters to this song, so it always brings a smile to my face when I hear it, and makes me remember all the reasons I love him.