I guess I was one of the lucky few who was up early enough on May 8th to watch the ‘Tell Them Anything You Want’ documentary about Maurice Sendak, author of ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ before HBO pulled it off Youtube. I spent the subsequent hour trying to find it elsewhere online but couldn’t—this made me very depressed as there were many points worthy of quoting, including Sendak musing that living to ninety isn’t worth it. He seemed, in the documentary Spike Jonze produced three years ago, ready to live his life straight into his death, without fear or nuance.
In the film, he muses honestly about what it means to conduct one’s life, as well as one’s life’s work, with both candor and purpose. Yet, lingering above it all, is the menacing, inevitable threat of death, and how transitory and impermanent one’s life and work ultimately are. He cites his relationships with his siblings—a brother and sister—as the reason for his belief in his ability to write children’s stories. Sendak’s relationship with his brother molded his life from an early age, particularly his brother’s artistic talent and mentorship.
May 8, the day of Sendak’s death, also happened to be my own brother’s birthday, and I was fortunate enough to spend the day with him as he was visiting me from Singapore.
The funny thing about having only one sibling is that you tend to simultaneously love and hate one another with equal amounts of vigor. Perhaps it all goes back to that evolutionary impulse to be the sole recipient of one’s parents’ resources, but I can nonetheless say that I am deeply grateful to have a sibling—especially knowing several friends who are only children. Even as adults, these only children are the sole recipients of their parents’ affection, but this also comes with its own perils: just imagine being an only child to divorced parents.
That said, my childhood was idyllic (as one’s childhood in New England with a stable family life is likely to be in retrospect). My brother and I spent our summers dragging sand pails to the beach, searching for hermit crabs and building mini-ecosystems at the bottom of our pails, only to find floating, dead creatures on the surfaces the following morning. We once rescued a dying baby mouse from the backyard (little did we know that the mouse had been severely battered by our cat, Smokey). We spent a week nursing it back to health with tiny droppers of warmed milk. Finally, the mouse, who we’d named Harvey (one should teach children not to name rescued animals) succumbed to its injuries—on my brother’s recent visit to Los Angeles, we still blamed my parents for Harvey’s death (we had left the mouse in the care of our parents while we visited a lake for the weekend and returned home to find it dead).
Hiking with my brother on his birthday, I mused that we are the most similar of any two people on earth—that is to say, one’s sibling not only most closely matches one’s genetic makeup, but also shares the experience of a nearly-similar childhood. My brother side-eyed me, partly grimacing, partly grinning, and said ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right. That’s cool. And weird.’ Cool and weird indeed.
A slightly-dated (2006) Time Magazine article on the ‘New Science of Siblings’ highlights this very fact:
From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them. Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys. Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life. “Siblings,” says family sociologist Katherine Conger of the University of California, Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”
Sendak, more than anyone, understood the power of siblings. When he was just six years old, he and his 11-year-old brother Jack wrote a dark story illuminating their love for each other, as well as their sister, that they called ‘They Were Inseparable.’ He illustrated a collection of tales of The Brothers Grimm, including the story ‘Little Brother, Little Sister.’ Now, while I can’t say that my brother, a mere 2 1/2 years my younger, and I were ‘inseparable’ as siblings, I can say that there is something deeply powerful in exploring a childhood alongside someone else. As Sendak said in in the acceptance speech he gave upon receiving the 1964 Caldecott Medal (and as quoted in a Rolling Stone article from 1976):
[There are] games children must conjure up to combat an awful fact of childhood: the fact of their vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration – all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.
I cannot imagine anyone better to act as a conspirator in the mastering of ‘these forces,’ than a sibling. We are lucky that most of our most threatening forces were imaginary—the gypsies my mother and Godmother threatened to sell us to when we were naughty; the pirates lurking off the shores of the Isles of Shoals that our father told us about at bath time; the ghosts wandering the old colonial-era stone walls lining our home’s property. There is something deeply present about childhood, the exploration of worlds beyond worlds, the new experience of places, tastes, smells, and sounds.
For Sendak, he rediscovered an appreciation of the present moment in old age; in his words (as quoted in the below clip from the HBO documentary), I am reminded of my brother, of traipsing together through knee-deep fallen leaves in the forests behind our home, scooping tadpoles into our bare palms in the ponds near the golf course, singing Otis Redding on our walks home from the beach, crabs still eagerly scratching at the plastic walls of pails, still alive, still unaware of tomorrow’s untimely deaths, and yet, if anything, we were still in awe of it all. I’m grateful to my brother for reminding me of this, for re-instilling my faith in the mastering of ‘dangerous forces,’ and for believing, still, that we alone could have saved Harvey, that he’d now be a vibrant, healthy mouse traversing the fields behind a childhood home that is not ours anymore, but some other family’s, some new pair of siblings rescuing mice there and nursing them back to health then setting them free into the world beyond, wishing them the best.
“I’m trying very hard to concentrate on what is here. What I can see. What I can smell. What I can feel. Making that the important business of life…. I’m learning how not to take myself so seriously.” – Maurice Sendak