Dear Father,

You’ll remember how often I’ve said that being an older brother is the hardest thing I’ve done (and will likely remain so until I become a parent!). With seven years’ difference between the two of us—I in college and he just about to begin middle school—the relationship can take on a paternal aspect. And, indeed, my parents down here often expect me to fill that role in certain ways! Those first few times (years ago now!) they left me in charge of Ian, I was admittedly a bit power-drunk, but I’ve learned what You have known for millennia now: giving discipline is a heart-wrenching, undesirable duty. Selfishly, I try to leave it to our parents these days. I am, after all, just his brother. So laser tag and cartoons and jokes are my main offering now—“Play is a child’s work!”

But it’s not the same as with my older siblings. We are all around the same age; our natural relationship to each other was as playmates. Sure, my sister loved to play school and any other game that inevitably made her a teacher or some other form of instructor; but even then, she only ever doled out mock-instruction. With Ian, I can’t escape some parental instinct. At its worst, I become a vindictive legalist, a fraternal Javert. At its most usual, I am an incessant preacher, constantly carting my pulpit, ready to deliver correction at a moment’s notice. And at its best?

I am learning to pray for remarkably little things. In the past I concerned myself with matters awesome and great: Why should a man of faith pray for a cold when salvation is at stake? It was that faithful servant of yours, Lewis, who taught me otherwise.1 Bless him. And so, when it comes to Ian, I try to pray for all the little things that make up boyhood—and now I’m remembering how important they are! One of these prayers, in fact, is my main purpose in writing.

I had sent You multiple prayers concerning his friendships. Truth be told (as there’s no sense lying to You), they were rather platitudinous, and a touch judgmental—what would I do without grace? My prayers bent over what I considered a necessary moral alteration, his character flaws in friendship, etc. Anyway, I thought You might want to hear how he’s doing.

As You know, it’s been harder to get together with friends this summer, especially ones who don’t live too close. And with the rest of the family busy with online classes or work, Ian was pretty pressed to find things to do. I’m not sure how exactly it happened, but he ended up playing with some classmates (outside his usual friend group, I think) one neighborhood over. Well, they introduced him to airsoft, and it was like Paris meeting Helen. The undersized Greeks and Trojans spent the rest of the summer tearing through backyards firing volleys at each other.

Meanwhile, they became fast friends. A lot of kids joined in the airsoft games, but it was a group of three of them who grew closest: Ian, Zach, and Ryan. Sleepovers ensued, inside jokes were made—the stuff of lasting friendships. It made you smile one of those deep smiles to see it, the kind that doesn’t show your teeth because it lasts too long.

But why is it that the greatest forge of love is loss? Is there no other way to temper that most precious of metals?

Ryan had to move. His dad had gotten a new job in another state—needless to say, too far to get together under any circumstances. Ian knew this all summer, but why would that make the last day any easier?

And so I was walking past the bathroom door today, and beneath the sound of the running shower, I thought I heard a slight sob. A small cry—the tears probably not even hitting the ground before they were washed away—but full, coming up out of an eleven-year-old’s eternal soul.

“Do you know why he was crying?” I asked my mom. Of course. It was Tuesday. Ryan left today.

Where would we be if You took our prayers just as we said them? You reached through a tangle of vice and picked out an older brother’s heart for his sibling. Remembering how my prayer had nitpicked at his character, I stood humbled by the tears of my brother who understood friendship at its purest. For all the knowledge of friendship I possessed when I sent you that prayer, I will never surpass those tears. I had written a polemic on moral failings in friendship; You wrote love.

God, bless my brother.

Thank You (what more can I say?),

Your son Joseph

Joseph McDonough ’23 is a sophomore in Kirkland House.

References   [ + ]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 12.