What’s in a date? If you´re like me, you place significance on certain dates and remember them every year when they come around. I don´t mean Christmas, New Year’s or even birthdays. No, I mean the significant dates that are very personal, that change who we are, and which are most often associated with the people that impact our lives. For example, the date that I met my wife for the first time, on the top of the Arc de Triomphe, or the date I was baptized by my best friend, or the date my parents died. These dates stand as personal memorials that changed me in significant ways. Twice in my life my definition of me was forever altered by two different people, on the same date.
In the summer of 1964, I became a brother. I remember my Dad lifting me up to the hospital window so I could see my baby brother, Roger, for the first time (children weren´t allowed in maternity wards in those days.) I was excited about having a cute baby brother, though I might have been equally excited had he been a puppy. Several decades later, on the same date, I became a first-time grandfather to Martha, who was definitely cuter than a puppy. It is because of Roger and Martha that I was inaugurated into two new states of being: brother and grandfather.
Being a brother is harder than being a grandfather. There is a 5 ½ year age difference between Roger and me. It also took me some time to fully understand that my brother had special needs that would eventually result in my becoming his guardian when both our parents died before I was 30 years old. Despite our difference in age and ability, I have many fond memories of playing games together like office, and cops & robbers, wrestling and laughing and fighting; little brothers can be annoying after all.
Our circumstances have resulted in me having to, or perhaps choosing to, play the role of uber-older brother. At times this is annoying, to both of us. It is as if we are trapped in a time warp from when I was 15 and he was 10, where we keep going around in the same circle and neither of us gets to leave it. While we both fight for our degrees of independence, the very nature of our relationship has heightened my awareness of both my personal faults and my better points. Roger is incredibly optimistic and loyal, when at times I just want to shut the world out and hibernate. At the same time, I recognize that my patience and ability to remain calm have developed in part, as a result of watching out for my little brother.
The timing of my granddaughter Martha’s arrival was perfect to say the least. She was born three weeks early, very quickly in a four-hour labor, and from what I understand, loudly. She arrived just in time to provide me with an emotional high that strengthened me in advance of an unexpected personal trial that unfolded the very next day.
Becoming a grandfather strengthened me on that day-after and beyond as my personal challenge played out and continues to impact my life today. Nothing and no one could have dampened my joy at seeing the future in the face of my newborn granddaughter; the inauguration of the next generation. I was hit simultaneously with a trial to teach me and a beautiful granddaughter to sustain me. In greeting both events I was reminded of the wisdom of Alma when he counsels us to receive everything in our lives as a blessing from God, whether we perceive it as good or bad; "always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive." (Book of Mormon, Alma 7:23)
As my first grandchild, Martha is the one who has had the most impact on my role as a grandfather, forging the way for her siblings and cousins who follow behind. She also teaches me how to be a better person as I witness love of people, her care and concern for younger siblings and her joie de vivre. I’m also inspired by her tenacity in facing her own challenges: frustrated at not being able to read well, Martha was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of six. In addition to the professional help she received, Martha has persisted and worked through this challenge, not only learning to read, but coming to understand that experiencing dyslexia does not define her.
We often celebrate Roger’s and Martha’s birthdays together. At those times and in between I am reminded of how being a brother and a grandfather have permanently changed who I am. The depth and breadth of my understanding of and commitment to family was transformed with their arrivals.
There are many books and articles written on the importance of connection in our lives and how much we need it. What has been less researched is how those interpersonal connections are vital to the formation of our identity. It is because of all my relationships, my brother and granddaughter being two of the more significant ones, that I understand more fully who I am. These relationships serve as a mirror through which I can learn more about myself.
I believe that every time someone of significance comes into our lives, they impact how we see ourselves. This awareness motivates me to deepen existing relationships and develop new ones, seeing them as an opportunity to understand myself better and expand who I am.
My challenge, and the invitation I offer to all who read my story, is to remember and appreciate this perspective in every moment, giving thanks even when we may be frustrated by our relationships. Our relatives, friends and acquaintances are in our lives for a purpose; a purpose for which we are the primary beneficiaries. So, as Alma counsels, let us return thanks unto God for all our relations and for what they teach us about ourselves.
We'd like to thank Alan Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.