My Brother Peter

A thing I have long wanted to say


One of my children (we have three, but two of them are twins and they move so fast, I have never been completely sure who is whom) said recently, You hardly ever write about growing up with Unca Peter. So let me redress this problem, and tell you about my brother Peter, who is about six feet twelve inches tall and weighs probably 30 pounds, although you never met a stronger skinny guy in your life—it’s like he’s made out of steel wire, complete with a vast Snidely Whiplash mustache. When he got annoyed as a boy he would extend his pterodactyl arms and pin you to the wall like a poster, and there you would, remain, struggling ineffectually, until his favorite television show came on. This was The Wild Wild West, with Robert Conrad and his sidekick, Ross Martin, and it wasn’t on until just after dinnertime, so I spent many an afternoon tattooed to the wall by a guy taller than a tree with arms as long as the Strait of Hormuz. Sometimes, during those long drowsy hours, during which I used to imagine the novels I would someday write, I had the impression that he was nailing me to the wall with merely two of his long bony spidery fingers, also made out of adamant steel, while he read our Silver Surfer comics with his other hand, but this was before I got spectacles, and discovered that the world was arranged in sharp edges, rather than being the most amazing series of inchoate shapes, some of which were nuns and automobiles and brothers, and one time a surfboard apparently going back upstream to spawn.

As we were only a year apart in age, we were brought up essentially as twins, wearing the same sailor suits and saddle shoes when young, and affecting the same denim jackets and surly attitudes as teenagers, and sentenced to the same crewcuts for our first 12 years because our dad liked the way we looked like walking peaches, but our interests diverged early. I fell headlong into books, and Peter into the wilderness; he grew immensely tall, while I did not; he developed astounding skills with wood, which he understood like a language, while I grew adept only with a typewriter; I adored basketball, while he devoted his thousands of athletic hours to Frisbee, at which he was wonderful; he climbed mountains and strode through forests and kayaked rivers, while I swam in the dim shadowed alleys of cities, coming only as close to a forest as the pages of my books could remember their ancestry. He went west, and I stayed east; he married young, and I waited long for love; he lives in the mountains and I live near the sea.

For many years it seemed to me that there was an edge between us, an edge I did not understand, as for many years I assumed much about my family without peering overmuch beneath the hood; and for many years I winced and bristled at his teasing, rising easily to the bait and wondering afterward at the etiology of my annoyance. Then, slowly, I began to realize that like many men we spoke in codes and ciphers, at oblique angles, in part perhaps because we were shy, in part because love is a muddle, in part because often what seems jest is joust; and I realized too that most of what we wanted to say to each other could not finally be shaped into words.

For any number of reasons we all wear masks of various style and character, and even as pain and humility and mercy and hard wisdom peel them away, some remain, molded forever to the shape of your face; so that when we most want to say, I love you, I love you more than I can say, I love you more than words know yet, we barely manage an awkward squawk through the holes in our masks. Of course, what emerges is not what we intended and is often misunderstood; of course, what was born warm seems cool or cold after its long voyage. How ironic to have to say this, after 50 years of utter absorption in the magic and music of words, but they are weak vessels, easily swamped—which is perhaps the prime reason languages are always changing and morphing and stealing from each other, in a desperate effort to evolve into something that finally fits the twist of our tongues to the depths of our hearts.

But this is speculation for linguists and mystics. I wanted to tell you about my brother Peter, and so I have spoken of his great height and endless arms, the sprawl of his mustache and the welter of his skills, his thirst for high places and open air, but I have not said the thing I most wanted to say to him, unadorned and for once unmasked: I love you, I love you more than I can say, I love you more than words know yet. It may well be that words are weak, and hardly ever do they do more than suggest and intimate that which we wish to sing, to shout; but words are what we have to hand to each other, and this morning those are the words I hand to you, brother.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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