It must have been spring or summer, but the seasons didn’t really have too much meaning back then, before I started kindergarten and began living my life by the calendar. Some days we wore jackets; some days we wore shorts. We didn’t dress ourselves back then anyway; we just wore whatever Mom picked out for us.
But as I said, it must have been spring or summer because my younger brother Steve and I were playing in the front yard, and there were bugs and birds and I recall the day being quite bright. We had a lot of energy—two boys who were five and three—and our mother would frequently shoo us out of the house so we could run around and exhaust ourselves without smashing anything inside.
We were taking a break from playing, sitting by the tree near the driveway, when one of the bugs caught my eye. It was on the ground, black and yellow striped, legs flailing in the air helplessly. Years later, when I would read Virginia Woolf, her own moth reminded me of this creature. I think I was aware, even then, that the bug was dying. I thought maybe we could help, though I wasn’t too sure about touching a strange bug myself
“Look,” I said, pointing to the ground. Steve crouched in to get a closer glance. “What is it?” he asked.
“A caterpillar,” I told him.
“What’s he doing on his back?”
“He’s stuck.” I looked at my brother. “Roll him over.”
He reached out and touched the bug, then screamed and began to cry. “It hurts!” he wailed.
My mother was there, lifting him up, faster than could be believed. “What happened?” she asked as she carried him inside and I trailed behind her.
“He touched a bug,” I said. “Then he started crying.”
She sat him on the kitchen counter and examined his fingers. “Okay,” she said to me. “Go across the street—look both ways—and ask Mrs. Zuckerman if she knows what to do when a little boy gets stung by a wasp.”
I didn’t know what a wasp was, of course, but I remembered what my mom said, and Mrs. Zuckerman—my mom’s best friend, our occasional babysitter—walked me back over to our house with a box of baking soda. I assume my mom realized that, most often, wasp stings aren’t fatal. But neither of us had ever been stung before, and perhaps she thought wasp venom might be deadly for someone so small. Or, perhaps, she panicked upon hearing her three-year-old’s agonized screams.
Older siblings often inflict pain on their younger siblings. Sometimes accidentally, other times with more malice. In the years to come, I would make fun of Steve for being held back in the first grade. I would yell at him to stop following my friends and me around. I would go skinny dipping with his girlfriend. I would call him a fag, not realizing—unless I actually did, because I might have—that he was actually gay. I would accuse him of being melodramatic when he expressed his anxiety about coming completely out of the closet. I would date a fundamentalist Christian who he insisted would look at him with revulsion. Well into our twenties, I would refuse to speak to him for months at a time.
I don’t think he has ever told on me, though at times he could have gotten me into well-deserved trouble. He certainly never told my mother why he reached out and touched a wasp, who encouraged him to do such a thing. And though we get along quite well now that we’re in our mid-thirties and can see middle age on the horizon, I can’t help but feel like something of a restless wanderer of the earth, marked by the guilt I feel over having failed to be my brother’s keeper.
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