Written by Eva Strelitz-Block.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
Jude is two years younger than me. According to family lore, the night he was born (literally in the room next door to my bedroom), I slept without waking for the first time ever. Characteristically, his arrival was noisy and chaotic.
He has never once in his life finished a family dinner without getting up to kick his plastic yellow soccer ball against the wall. He still finds it utterly hilarious to throw himself onto my bed with full-force, especially when I am reading peacefully. He is the king of under-the-breath mumbles. And yet—no one can stay mad at him. He cracks very bad jokes that make you smile despite yourself. He will wrap his string-beany arms around you and diffuse any tension with the unassuming skill and precision of a United Nations peacekeeper.
Being a big sister, like a prominent scar or extra digit, has come to define me indelibly. When we were little, I’d introduce us by saying, “I am Eva. Jude’s my little brother!” Together, we have both weathered unexpected and painful spinal injuries, being the only Jewish kid in class, and my mom’s cooking.
For most of my life, we lived in adjoining rooms, our closeness informed by the osmosis of shared family experience. I occupied the room on the right side of the stairs and Jude the one on the left. So, even when we weren’t focused on connecting, and only saw each other in the early mornings before school or in the evenings after our respective sports practices, we still crossed paths daily, if only just to fight about who took longer showers (Jude) or who forgot to put the cap back on the tube of toothpaste (ok, that was me).
I can’t pinpoint precisely when life became less about playing goofy, pretend games or catching tadpoles together in the backyard. It’s hard to say exactly when we became more focused on other people, other places beyond our shared family space than each other.
Yet, I do remember clearly, even as a young teenager, moments when I’d take the measure of our relationship. A week, maybe two, would pass and I’d realize that I didn’t know what was happening in Jude’s world. It would pain me to acknowledge to myself that I hadn’t asked. I’d wonder if we were as close as we should be, if I was being caring enough, if we were doing this whole brother-sister thing right.
The night before I moved into my on-campus dorm to begin my freshman year, a tidal wave of nostalgia washed over me. Jude was unnervingly unfazed by the weight of this imminent and altering milestone. I sobbed in his general direction, admittedly somewhat melodramatically, “We’ll never live together again!”
In March of this year, as Coronavirus cleaved everyones’ world into a relatively benign Before and largely uncertain After, I moved back home unexpectedly (granted just three minutes down North Lamar from Blanton Dormitory).
I found myself installed back in my family home, reestablished in my childhood bedroom, living our unnerving quarantine life across the landing from Jude.
But in between struggling to transition to online learning and our dispiriting lives of separation and isolation, there were moments that made my sister-heart swell with warmth. We partnered seamlessly to annoy our parents. I smiled on the inside hearing Jude call my name from across the house in his unique sing-song style. He bugged me until I paid attention to him and I found I was more delighted than irritated.
I realized that in addition to feeling Covid-related dystopian angst, I also felt grateful.
Quarantine offered up the gift of a bonus chapter with my brother. It created an unanticipated wrinkle in time, an extra pocket for connection with Jude, my sibling, the one person, as my mom has told us both since—ever, who knows me better than anyone else, and on whom I can count, no matter what.
Late this summer as it became clear that Covid-life was our new normal, I found myself walking down the Shoal Creek trail, streaming an episode of the Moth podcast. I listened with a tender sense of recognition to a story about a brother who had been trying to get his sister back for years for tricking him into eating soap. He could never do it. Finally, at the brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner, he exacted his too-long-delayed revenge. He secretly plated her dessert with a soap substitute. She ate it.
I could feel his joyful sense of victory and sibling affection. I sent the link for the podcast to Jude and told him that I wished I had tricked him into eating soap. I meant that with love.
This spring and summer, Coronavirus afforded me more than just canceled plans and a strange, virtual everything. It provided me with one more season to spend with my little brother. It allowed our relationship to mature.
But having weathered a pandemic storm together, we became bonafide friends.
My first act as a big sister was giving Jude space – staying asleep the night he was born was my way of taking care of him that night. Now, we work actively to stay connected. We have weekly Zoom calls together. We laugh and talk uncharitably about our parents. I help him with his Spanish homework. When I come home for dinner occasionally, we chat about UT, the challenges of 11th grade, my angst, his new girlfriend.
For Jude and me, our Coronavirus summer was a time of renewal. It revealed that we can rely on each other to be a ballast in hard times.
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