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Toasting Joe

At my brother’s 40th birthday party, lots of people made toasts: our parents, our uncle, our friend, our sister – the list goes on and on. But, not me. I wimped out – missing the chance to chat up my big bro in front of some of the most important people in his life. And I can’t stop feeling like I made a big, fat mistake.

Maybe if I would have known ahead of time, I could have prepared something fabulous – something that would have brought everyone to their knees. People would have had sore stomachs from laughing. Tissues would have been passed around, thanks to me. Or not. But at least I could have said something so my brother knows how awesome I think he is.

But, no. I’m such a loser. What’s my excuse? I’m a writer, not a speaker. Blah, blah, blah. How stupid! Looking back, I’m pretty sure I know why I didn’t stand up and speak. I was probably too worried about leaving my boys, 7 and 5, with a new babysitter that night. We’ve had reports of bad behavior in the past so I had cause for concern. Plus, what could I have said that would have been good enough?

My brother was president of our high school’s student council. He played football, ran track, and earned amazing grades. He started dating his wife in high school. We’re talking Mr. Homecoming Court. Get the picture? He was that guy.

And he still is. He went to Notre Dame for undergrad then attended Pitt Law. He got a kickin’ job right out of the gates and he hasn’t stopped rockin’ it as a lawyer ever since. He’s a softie of a tough dad to his beautiful girls – once skipping a day from work so they could stay home and play with all the new Christmas toys. He loves shopping for them and helps name their stuffed animals. He runs races, skis and snowboards, golfs, and makes a mean lasagna. And you’ve never met a guy who loves Disney World the way he does.

Here’s a perfect example of what he’s like: When our families met at the pool this summer to eat dinner and swim, it was already 6:30pm. No one wasted any time jumping into the water, expect my brother. He spent time lotioning with what was probably SPF 200 then waited the recommended number of minutes before getting wet. Rule-follower. Every time. Again, he’s that guy.

But he wasn’t always. And here’s why I really give it to him and love him like nothing else – when he was little, he was a complete and total disaster – a one-kid wrecking ball. His nickname was Tigger because like the Winnie-the-Pooh character, he never stopped bouncing around. Rumor has it that the crib was turned upside down on him so he couldn’t escape (and our parents could enjoy some much-needed peace). The poor kid couldn’t even fish because he’d move around so much that he’d scare away all living things.

He peeled off wallpaper, visited emergency rooms for stitches, and swore in church. My parents got a phone call at the beginning of every school year because he was such a menace. The preschool teacher even told them, “He’s a leader alright, but he’s leading the kids in the wrong direction.” He got kicked off the bus for asking the driver, “How’s it hanging?” He was that kid.

When did he turn it around and how? I lived with him through all of it and I still don’t know for sure. But he definitely went from ‘Oh, no!’ to ‘Oh, wow!’ When he started middle school and insisted we call him ‘Joe’ instead of ‘Tigger’, I think that was the beginning of his metamorphosis. He credits some of his great teachers including Mrs. Cole. And shaking off some of that energy playing sports must have helped. But, I wonder if my parents just counted it as a miracle.

The real reason his transition inspires me, though, is because it gives me loads of hope. When I pick up my boys from camp and the counselor shakes her head, asking me to stay for a ‘talk’, I think of my brother. When I get a phone call from school: “I’m not sure if he can’t listen or he won’t listen”, I think of my brother. And when I yell, “I don’t know why God gave you ears!”, I think of my dad, but that’s because of my brother, too.

Please know how much it would mean if you’d raise your glass (Who cares if it’s a coffee mug?) and join me for a toast: To my brother! Happy, happy birthday to that guy. Thanks for giving wild kids (and their mothers) confidence in the possibility of greatness.

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