Wishing my big brother a happy birthday. We’re two years apart, and as kids, we had lots of joint birthday parties. My parents were saints and somehow managed to wrangle a million little kids at skating rinks, parks, McDonald’s, and all the other places we had our birthday party every year.
We grew up in a small town in the Bay Area in the ’80s, when kids still played outside until the streetlights came on. It was a middle-class neighborhood, with our parents and baby sister in a house at the top of a hill. One year, we got matching skateboards for Christmas and learned how to ride them down this very steep hill; I still have the scars to prove it.
He opened jars for me and killed spiders for me. I was always the smallest in our crowd of kids, and somehow he always made sure that I never got left behind. He was my older brother with the Coke-bottle glasses, and I was the bratty little sister with pigtails. We had a lot of fun when he wasn’t being annoying, and we fought a lot, as little kids do.
As we got older, it became very apparent that he was just different. While I was into clothes and friends and boys, he was alone a lot and always reading. He was obsessed with history, and at the age of 8, he could recite every U.S. president. He excelled at math, science, and history, and he studied constantly but never really connected socially. We both played soccer, and kids on his team would make fun of him for being different.
When he was 17, he slowly disconnected from our family and disappeared. I knew he was still living in town, but he seemed to float away somehow. Before he left, he confided in me that he was struggling with his sexuality — the climate around sexual identity was very different in the 1990s — and he felt that he simply didn’t fit in anywhere. He left our home. And I stopped hearing from him altogether.
Many years later, when I was in my early thirties, I ran into him in Santa Barbara. He told me he was living here. His clothes were clean, and he looked healthy. He’s always had black hair and piercing blue eyes, but now his skin was weathered as if he were outside all the time. He said he wasn’t working and lived in a camp with some friends and that he really enjoyed it. He told me about a food program, a clothing program, and mobile showers. Living that way made sense to him. He couldn’t keep a job, and over the years, he had asked our parents for money, so I knew he wasn’t working.
My brother is homeless, and while that’s not ideal to me, it makes sense to him. His brain works differently than is expected, and that’s okay.
He’s not a political issue to be discussed, and he’s not a problem to be solved. He’s my big brother, and he’s also a son and a friend and a nephew and an uncle. He’s a person. His name is Sean.
You might see him today as a homeless person and make assumptions, but during the infrequent times that I see him, he’s my brother, the one with the skateboard and the books and the big glasses. And I love him very much.
So, if you’re out and about today, and you see a homeless person or anyone who is struggling on the street, be kind. Saying “Good morning” or “Hi” or even waving could make them feel happy and loved for the first time in a long time.
And next time you see someone on the street, just remember that they might have a little sister, just like me, who prays for their safety and happiness every single day. Happy 46th birthday, Sean. I miss you.