Standing taller than us in the back corner of my brother’s childhood bedroom was a particle board bookshelf, medium brown like our skin. My brother and dad assembled it themselves from a box; I got to put wood-printed stickers over the exposed screws. He always displayed his latest Lego creation on the middle shelf, just at little sister height. These constructions hinted at his future engineering degree: pulled from big Expert Builder sets he made cars with nubby monster truck wheels, gears, and working motors.
Growing up I adored my older brother. I listened to the music he listened to, I wanted to attend the college he attended (I didn’t get accepted there but it turned out pretty well for me), and I was in awe of his Lego skills.
I loved Legos, too, but the instruction booklets in prepackaged sets frustrated me. I stored my mixed collection of bricks in an industrial tan metal file box and relished the substantial tinkling sound when I sifted through the box for pieces, or the high-pitched crash of pouring the Legos onto the basement rug. I made colorful buildings and boxes, grid-shaped rainbow people and animals. The objects themselves didn’t move, but my eyes did while following the patterns of colors and shapes
The exception to my free-form building was my Lego bathroom set. The white brick bathroom stood on a blue base. White flat pieces topped off the surfaces so that everything was porcelain-smooth. The sink and tub had miniature silver faucets. There was a circular frosted silver sticker for the mirror and tiny bathroom accessories- a cup, hair dryer, jars with lids and even flowers in a cylindrical vase. The set came with a woman, gray hair up in a bun, and a child with red pigtails. First I assembled it according to the directions, proud of myself for doing so. Then I switched around its components, reorganized the bathroom, but still kept its pieces separated from those in my steel box.
Where did I get this set? Our dad was a strict Brahmin and with that came certain rules for the bathroom. The shower was not just for rinsing dirt, but for purification. For example, though we were Hindu, we celebrated Christmas and the worst part about that was that we had to shower before we opened our gifts; in my dad’s mind Christmas was a religious holiday and one’s body must be cleansed before religious activities. The toilet had its own set of rules. Because the right hand was sacred, used for eating and puja, only the impure left hand was for wiping in the bathroom.
(Despite my father’s best efforts my brother was a lefty. I tried to be a lefty, too. I never was able to make that work.)
It is hard to imagine that my father—or my non-Brahmin mother—purchased the bathroom set for me. I don’t even know if it was originally mine; it may have been my brother’s set first as I was only three when it was released.
Down in my basement play space I worked at that bathroom set over and over again while my brother built space stations and working vehicles upstairs in his room. I was desperate for him to see my pretty bathroom, to acknowledge my Lego skills. He was nearly six years older than me, though, and he probably didn’t care.
Eventually we both grew up, moved on from Legos and shiny plastic bathrooms. We lived our lives. I came to terms with the fact that my brother and I are very different people.
Then, when my twin babies were four months old and I had just gone back to work he called me. I let it go to voicemail. His message made it seem like it was something important, but I didn’t have the time to breathe, let alone call him back. After a second message, more urgent than the first, I finally did call.
It turned out he was just diagnosed with colon cancer. He told me to get a colonoscopy.
“Don’t tell mom,” I told him, “but I think I have ulcerative colitis so I need to get scoped soon anyway. It’s bad.”
That moment was the start of our second bathroom connection. We both had colon cancer. We both had surgeries to remove part (him) or all (me) of our colons. We both struggled with loop ileostomies for long months. What would our dad have said about the ileostomy which required both the left and right hands to maneuver? The geneticist I saw thought that my dad, brother and I were connected by three related gastrointestinal cancers though there was no blood test to prove that at the time. But for me and my brother, after our cancer diagnoses we connected over bad tummies and bathrooms.
Now when my brother and I talk it’s often about living with surgically altered anatomy: what we eat (he’s keto, I’m vegetarian); how we stay out of the bathroom at work (he’s an anesthesiologist, I’m an internist and pediatrician); how we stay healthy (he’s 9 years cancer-free, I’m at 8.5). I still look up to my big brother, but now it’s about more than musical tastes and Lego bricks. It’s about cancer and survival and lessons learned from dodging a potentially fatal disease when your children are still young.
Happy birthday, big brother, happy birthday to you…
…And many more…