I have mentioned perhaps one or six hundred times that I have five brothers. One of my older brothers’ favorite “games” was pig pile. This involved announcing a victim and then having five siblings tackle and pile atop this person. For example the exclamation, “Pig pile on Liz!” was followed by my being tackled and piled on by five brothers, the oldest of whom was nearly 10 years my senior.

Pig piles seemed to be exclaimed on a very frequent basis and as the only girl of six children and the second to youngest it seemed that I was more often than not, the vortex to which the pile was attracted. A Bermuda Triangle of porcine piling, if you will. As the “baby” of the family, my brother James also spent a fair amount of time face planted on the living room floor beneath four sets of sprawling limbs shod in Converse low tops of various sizes.

Although our older brothers would admit to the pig piling, they would disagree with the metaphorical implications. They believed James and me to be spoiled. We avoided the horrors of ruler wielding nuns, whereas they all attended St. Anthony’s School, for example. Our family also had a little more money when I was growing up, not a lot more but just enough to fuel the “you’re spoiled” flames. I maintain that whatever advantages we may have had were more than offset by their mean older brother shenanigans.

James and I are only 18 months apart in age. Our next oldest sibling, John is 3 ½ years older than me and 3 ½ years younger than our next oldest brother, Mike. John was kind of caught between the “big boys” and the “little kids” of the family.

James and I spent a lot of time together. We played together a lot. We mostly got along very well though we could sometimes fight verbally and physically at which time my mom would yell, “I don’t care who started it. I’m finishing it. Go to your respective rooms!”

We played a combination of traditional boy and girl activities. We played with cars, trucks, and climbed trees. We designed obstacle courses in the yard and spent hours upon hours in the woods surrounding our house and neighborhood. We did not, however, play with Barbies or baby dolls. Remember, this was the late 60’s and early 70’s. My mom made us each two sets of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls as well as a bunch of stuffed elephants. Due to her combination of genius and industry, we were able to play dramatic reenactments of family life with more socially acceptable dolls.

James was not really interested in formal music training, but he has an incredible ear and natural musical ability. He is also extremely funny. By the time I got to high school, I was pretty serious in my classical flute playing. He had a plastic slide whistle and would frequently copy whatever piece I was practicing in my room, complete with vibrato and when era appropriate, Baroque runs. When it wasn’t infuriating, it was hilarious.

These days my brother plays more music than me; he taught himself drums and plays with his 17 year-old son’s band. The only music we make together is the occasional game of Rock Band. The thread that carries over the years is that fact that my brother can always, I mean always, make me laugh.

He reminded me of this last Friday. James attended the requiem mass at St. James. I was kind of surprised to see him there since it was a pretty long drive for him and I think he hates to drive even more than I do. We got there an hour early to get a seat. During the time before the mass started, he was cracking me up and my laugh was echoing throughout the cathedral. When we were kids, due to different church rules, we were not allowed to talk before or obviously during mass. So with this as a back drop, his jokes have always been extra hilarious. I’d laugh, he’d say, “Now if any other family is coming tonight, they will be able to find us.” Then I laughed harder than before. Then he started singing family gossip in his version of Gregorian chant. I lost it again. Now here’s the thing about my brother. His antics are not particularly loud. He is actually a fairly introverted person whereas I am loud and gregarious. I believe he very much likes to set me up and watch the loud fireworks of my laughter, knowing that he is the one who lit the fuse.

James and I were successful for decades after our childhood in avoiding the bottom of the pig pile. Then I found out I had breast cancer and it wasn’t my older brothers that piled on top of me, it was the world in which I thought I had lived, that dissolved and crashed down on me. During the acute stage of my breast cancer treatment, there were many ongoing assessments and constant revisions of my treatment plan. When I was recuperating from surgery and bored, meaning prime time for worries to creep in, I called him, “James, I am bored. Tell me something funny.” And he did. And when I was anxious about waiting for the results of oncotype testing, which would determine whether my oncologist would recommend chemotherapy or not, I called my brother, “James, I have 20 minutes until I need to leave for my appointment. Can you tell me funny things and distract me?” And he did.

James does not show affection in traditional ways. I remember once, about ten years ago, his closing a telephone conversation by saying, “It was nice talking to you, Liz.” That was a major outpouring of verbal affection. But I know my brother loves me, thinks about me, and keeps the warmest wishes for my health. And he shows his love to me most consistently by making me laugh about today, laugh about cancer, and laugh about the things we did and experienced as kids.

For these things I will be ever grateful. James, you joined me at the bottom of the cancer pig pile.  I can’t thank you enough for doing that. If you didn’t realize it before, please realize it now that you have helped me tremendously. Thank you for making me laugh at some of my lowest and scariest times. I love you a lot and I know you return that even when it may come in the guise of slide whistled Mozart.

James must have been about 1 1/2 years old to my three years. It looks like we were having much fun in a rare Seattle-area snow.

James must have been about 1 1/2 years old to my three years. It looks like we were having much fun in a rare Seattle-area snow.