I stood in the kitchen this afternoon tidying up with Eli, our seven-year-old. Mornings are hectic here and we don't always leave it as clean as we should.
Charlie was downstairs 'cleaning his room'. I put that in quotes because I have never really seen any identifiable results of these afternoon cleanings. His room perpetually looks like a Detroit Lions equipment truck crashed into a Crate and Barrel store through the bedding section.
"Eli!" Charlie called from downstairs. "Do you want to come play XBox with me?"
I was intrigued. Charlie is deep in the throws of being 12. As a result he usually likes nobody . . . ever. He has perfected the eye roll and shoulder droop of his pubescent people . . . The grouchy, hormone besot tweens that almost all children become. For awhile now one of the least tolerable people on the planet has been his little brother.
Eli looked at me. He was suspicious . . . "What are we going to play?" He asked.
Charlie answered from downstairs "Whatever you want."
Eli narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "Is this a trap?"
"No!" Charlie answered . . . "Well . . . maybe."
"Ok," Eli answered cheerfully "I'll be right down!"
I wasn't really surprised. The coolest person on Earth, to Eli, is his big brother. Ironically this fact is one of the things that Charlie finds infuriating. One of the problems is Eli rarely says "Hey Charlie, you are the coolest guy ever." Instead he manifests his admiration by emulating and copying everything that Charlie does. This seems to irritate Charlie like a wool jock strap.
Another reason for their friction is that they come at life from different perspectives. Eli is the more intellectual and introspective of the two. I am not saying that Charlie is not sensitive, or somehow less intelligent. Neither of those are even remotely true. I am just saying that Charlie has never overthought anything . . . Ever. Eli could overthink falling down the stairs.
A good example of this difference came up last weekend. We bought the boys new bikes. Charlie got a nice 12 speed mountain bike and Eli got his first real two wheeler with no training wheels. It was time for Eli to learn to ride a bike.
Teaching Charlie how to ride a bike was easy . . . I mean like we didn't have to teach him. When he was about Eli's age we took the training wheels off his bike and gave it to him. He crashed three or four times in the driveway. Forty five minutes later I stepped out on the deck just in time to see him hurtling down the hill on the gravel road in front of our house. He sped down the hill and into the cul-de-sac and crashed into our neighbor's truck. He was lucky. If he missed the truck he would have flown off the end of the road and down the hill into the power line easement.
Charlie lay flat on his back next to the truck. After a few seconds he jumped up and began riding his bike back up the hill. "I'm gonna try using my brakes this time!" He yelled. No regrets and no overthinking.
I knew teaching Eli would be different. I took Eli into the cul-de-sac with his bike. He put on his helmet and mounted up. Charlie rode his new bike around and pretended not to watch. I stood behind Eli and gave him a quick pep talk.
"Are you ready buddy?"
"Should I go pee first?"
"No," I answered. "I don't think so."
"What if I have to go while I am pedaling?"
"I don't think you are going to be pedaling long enough for that to be an issue."
"Never mind. Ready?"
"Are my shoes tied?"
"They are Velcro."
"Ok," he said. "Ready!"
I gave him a push and sent him on his way. I can't run all that well so I jogged a few yards and let him go. He pedaled twice, veered to his right and crashed into the ditch.
I walked over to see if he was ok. He got up and climbed out of the ditch. "Well I can't ride a bike, apparently," he said. "Too bad. Guess I'll have to ride a scooter."
"Seriously, Eli?" I asked.
"Yes," he said earnestly. "I know how to ride a scooter."
"You can't stop after one try," I reasoned. "You have to get back on and try again."
"Why would I want to do that?"
"Because you won't get good at something unless you keep trying."
He looked at his bicycle. "I'm ok with just riding a scooter."
I stared down at him. "Get your bike."
"Fine!" he said as performed a seven-year-old imitation of his big brother's tween slouch walk.
We kept trying for a little while. Soon he was going 10 or 15 feet before he crashed into the ditch. He has this thing that makes him go right all the time. We'll work on that. Charlie watched the whole episode from across the cul-de-sac with a pained expression. He didn't say much except for the occasional sympathetic "Ouch!".
As Eli and I walked back up the driveway towards the house, Charlie joined us. "It's ok, Eli," he said. "It takes a little while to get the hang of it." He put his arm around Eli's tired and battered shoulders. I smiled at him over Eli. Sometimes Charlie snaps out of it long enough to be a pretty decent big brother.
"I'll never get the hang of it," Eli said. "It's hard." I walked behind the boys a little bit as we neared the house. They were having a moment and they didn't need me around to have it.
"It's kinda hard," Charlie agreed, "but you were getting better there towards the end."
"Really?" Eli asked, beaming an appreciative smile up at his brother.
"Really," Charlie answered. "In fact, that second to the last try only sucked a little bit."
Eli smiled broadly. "Thanks, Charlie!"
Charlie smiled down at Eli as the boys walked up to the house. I have two brothers so I know that the language and actions of fraternal love and affection are not always easily decipherable. Brothers speak to each other in terms that outsiders, even their parents, don't understand. I thought a bit and realized that my two younger boys are constantly talking to each other. I just don't always like they way they do it, but they are always talking . . . always together. Sometimes as their Dad I feel like I have to help them figure things out. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes I just get in the way. These two have a relationship that is to be envied in a lot of ways . . . even if it isn't always apparent or understandable. They have it figured out.