We are told that birth order is a major influence on the development of our personalities. Firstborn children are the model children; confident, conscientious and controlling. Second borns, like me, are the class clowns with a compelling notion to gain attention by any means available. Firstborns are the good kids. They seem to enjoy behaving, while us seconds are intentionally rebellious and, as I can attest, enjoying every minute of the chaos we incite.
I was content in my role. No one fostered any great expectations for my future. Their primary hope was that I wouldn’t do something outrageously stupid that would result in excessive damages, fines, jail time or premature paternity. But that all changed in the early morning hours on the day after Thanksgiving, 1970.
The phone rang at a time of the day when phones are supposed to be silent, letting us all know in advance that the news was not going to be good. A nurse at the hospital where my older brother had been spending the last days of his life called in those early morning hours to inform my parents that the end had come. My mother, in tears, came into my room to tell me what I had already surmised. She struggled to say his name and in the end could only eek out two words, “He’s gone.”
He was just twenty-six years of age, a husband and father of two and during all of my own frivolous existence had worn the mantle of the good son. In our household that had been a heavy burden to bear. He was born in 1944 when our father was overseas for the duration and was an active child before ever being introduced to someone named Dad. Their first meeting was awkward and set the standard for their relationship for all of his remaining years. In truth sometimes that relationship was brutal, but my brother never gave up the responsibility for being good. If only for the benefit of our mother, he was all of that and more until the phone rang that morning at our home. And in that one telling conversation, everything changed. Family expectations switched their allegiance in the most subtle of traumas I have ever experienced.
“Ye must be born again” is the path to salvation writ large into my earliest of memories. My understanding of the concept was something quite apart from what happened in the days that followed my brother’s funeral. My rebirth was a gradual process in contrast to the sudden spiritual transformation I had witnessed so often from my vantage point in the last pew of our church. There my mother thought we were safe from observation and the silent condemnation from others concerning my incessant, comic behavior. What my mother’s true friends actually told her though, in tones intended to be consoling, was that I was just being “all boy.” It is a statement that today’s access to an array of performance de-enhancing medications has rendered obsolete.
The obligations of becoming the good son and taking on the characteristics of the first born child laid to rest forever that manic, devil-may-care attitude of my childhood. My natural born identity died its own death and was buried without the benefit of a memorial service or a marker to acknowledge its brief existence. In its place emerged the new self. The old had been set aside and the new persona emerged, one which mimicked all of the qualities of the good son, a first born child, though one born out of season.
My career, my role as husband and father, my place in the hierarchy of friendly and family relationships began with the consequences of that phone call. The high school student, who nearly failed to graduate from a fool proof system of advancement, emerged from college with the Latin equivalent of “with honors” stamped on his diploma. The discipline, which had evaded me when attempting to learn to play a musical instrument or to speak a foreign language at an age when other kids (first borns no doubt) excelled at such endeavors, found me a willing acolyte when it came time to learn to care and provide for my own family.
The new me completed a one year accounting program in three months, was hired right out of school to be a field accountant for a multi-national company, used my experience to get a more settled job with a public accounting firm, and served as lead auditor for their various audit engagements, which ultimately led to my being hired by one of their non-profit clients for a senior administrative position. In less than ten years I had transitioned from being a church janitor (while attending the business school where I earned my accounting certificate) to being what I had previously most disdained in life, a businessman in the full-dress uniform of suit, tie and wing-tipped shoes. I attained a respectability I had never anticipated or even desired. But it was only possible by my first becoming the good son to replace the loss of my older brother.
Other career changes followed, all of which chronicled an improvement in my business and social status. All of them came with a nagging doubt, however, that I was in over my head and being deceitful about my display of apparent stability in the midst of solving any crisis confronting my work, family and church commitments. I look back with a sense of wonder of how varied my career path has been. And I do honestly revel in the realization of some incredible and unforeseen accomplishments having taken place under my administrative care. But I am just as bewildered by the quality of these achievements as I am pleased to have them on my resume.
My final act as the first born child was the care of my mother during the last four and a half years of her life. My country home became her safe haven and from her perspective the sorrows she witnessed on the broadcasts of the daily news were events from another planet. She basked in the serenity contained in the farm and woodland scenery surrounding our home. I became her financial planner, events coordinator, tour guide and chauffeur. Doctor appointments were scheduled by me as her minor ailments occurred. Medications were purchased and their intake or application monitored to insure the desired results. The only concession to any appearance of neglect was about food. With her doctor’s permission she was told she could eat anything she wanted. Coffee, sugar, chocolate, anything smothered with copious amounts of gravy, and lemon meringue pie became her five basic food groups. She died just a few months shy of her 97th birthday, her last words to me concerning her profound appreciation for the loving care of her good son.
The writer of the Biblical book of Hebrews told his audience that they were surrounded by a cloud of witnesses comprised of those whose stories of faith were chronicled in the pages we Gentiles refer to as The Old Testament. His intent was to encourage a faithful adherence to that old time religion in the hopes of receiving that same state of grace our spiritual ancestors attained for never deviating from the straight and narrow path.
A cloud of witnesses surrounded me during the time I was responsible for my mother’s care and wellbeing. The presence of my father and brother, my maternal grandmother and other family members who had gone before were ever present with me, evaluating my efforts on my mother’s behalf. It was their praise I desired for being the good and faithful servant inherent in the identity of being a first born son. And the image of one day seeing them in a glorious heavenly realm, where we could be at peace together without any hint of failure on my part for fulfilling my given role, inspired my performance as the current bearer of the family legacy
Now they are all gone; my brother, father and mother. And with them can be laid to rest the guise of the good son I have borne for nearly fifty years. What remains is the task of rolling away the stone that covers the tomb of the second born. “Lazarus, come forth” may be the new life verse for my resurrected self, though it will probably be a persona chastened by its lengthy comatose experience. If the soul does have the capacity for regeneration and the will to live afresh, affirmed and renewed while still on earth, then I hope to find it in the remainder of days allotted to me; a blessing bestowed on one for having been born out of season yet faithful to the call.