My mother called the other day with my latest instructions.
“Hi, Honey, hope all is well. Today is your brother Matthew’s 40th birthday.”
So call him, she said.
Had this been his 39th, she’d have used “please.” Had it been his 35th, more a milestone than 39, she’d have said “should.”
But 40 belongs to my mother’s ultimate category of landmarks.
As she puts it, “It’s a number.” So I got a “must.”
“You absolutely must call him,” she told me. “Call him today. He’s in the office. He’s your brother.”
Until recently, calls like this annoyed me. C’mon, Mom, I’m not 12 anymore. I’m an adult. Quit reminding me of this stuff.
But I’m not annoyed anymore, and I think I know why.
I used to think mothers who made such calls were busybodies who couldn’t let go, who needed the feeling of being in charge you get from telling your kids to shape up.
But you know what? In most areas of my life, she doesn’t do that anymore. Still, why continue the mother mode about calling Matthew, who in case I’ve forgotten happens to be my brother, and 40 is a number, you know.
The answer became clear to me over the past few months, as we’ve worked to settle our youngest into nursery school. He’s just shy of 4, didn’t want to go and still has bad days.
On those days, we lay out every argument we can think of: Your friends will be there. Your teachers will be there. The classroom bunny will be there. The sand table, the playground, the gym….
Only one thing ultimately works: Your brother and sister will be there.
Let me give some perspective. His brother, 6, and sister, 9, are not saints. They spend half their time pushing each other around and the other half pushing around little 3-year-old Zach.
He, of course, knows this. Even on the way to school, they’ll start in on each other. My wife or I will tell them to stop it - school’s hard enough for the kid without you older ones upsetting him before we get there - but they can’t help it. Picking on each other is a sibling reflex.
Only beneath that, there’s this core. There’s this understanding that in an uncertain world there are a few people you can count on.
Oh yeah, says Zach, I forgot. My brother and sister will be there. If I get sad, can I go to their class to see them?
And he has. And that, more than anything, is what’s made it all right.
On some days, because they know they are needed, they will go to the nursery class to check on him.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t start picking on each other back home. It does mean they already grasp a truth that mothers perhaps see clearest of all: There are a few people you can count on.
And mothers see something else, too: That doesn’t just happen when you share parents. It happens when parents make you share.
More than anything, that’s a mother’s work. My father always says, “Do the right thing.” My mother tells us what that is.
It’s perhaps the noblest of all work - work as important when kids are 40 as when they’re 4 - raising not just a family, but among them, a community.
It’s Matthew’s birthday. Call him. He’s your brother.
I will, Mom. Thanks for reminding me.