My brothers and sisters all hated me 'cause I was an only child." — "Weird Al" Yankovic, "Generic Blues"

The first-born, assuming it's a single and not a multiple birth, is inevitably an only child for the duration. In my case, it was one week short of two years; I had no opinion on the matter, because I was really too young to have an opinion, being not quite two years old. As I grew older, got around a bit, and read more, I heard about the delights and/or travails of being an only child; by the time I came close to understanding any of this, there were four of us. There would eventually be a fifth. And never was heard a discouraging word, because back then having multiple children was considered some sort of blessing instead of an insult to long-suffering Mother Gaia or some other contemporary, and contemptible, assertion. (I know a couple who are expecting their tenth; you try that line of thought on them and they will mock you unmercifully.)

And now, with both parents and all four siblings gone, I have to try to make some sense of being an only child, sort of, for the first time in sixty-odd years.

Brenda (1955-1978)
The usual teenage-girl idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, she tended to be quiet by nsture. She caught far too much flak, I think, for her lack of academic prowess, while I was being undeservedly lionized for my dubious scholarly accomplishments. Give her something to care about, though, and you'd see her determination in action: I remember seeing her laboriously typing out all the words, including all the syllables in the outro that didn't quite make up words, to the Eagles' "One of These Nights." What she wanted was a new home, a family of her own, and she would have it come hell or high water. (Determination, remember?) A young soldier took her far away, and while high water was not forthcoming, hell visited her twice: she bore two children, and neither of them lived more than a few days. Determination evaporated; and when pneumonia came calling, she wanted no more of this life.

Paul (1957-2010)
The big guy — over 240 pounds while still in high school — dealt with conflicting desires early on: he gave off the impression that he wanted to be a younger, but more tractable, version of me, but there was no glory to be had while so doing, while being on the offensive line would win him plaudits from his peers. So he embraced his jockdom, carried it with him into the life of a sailor, and came back as a loud, boisterous chap with a capacity for alcohol I couldn't come close to approaching, and a conservatism that would have appalled genteel types like William F. Buckley, Jr. He married late, adopted her daughter, and gradually fell into failing health. His liver eventually failed him and was replaced with a new one, but he continued to deteriorate, albeit more slowly. Eventually the culprit was identified as alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder discovered only in 1963 and which had apparently already claimed several cousins at varying degrees of removedness. His weight ballooned to 350. ("Did he tell you that?" asked his widow. "He was up around 525 a year ago.") And he went out with a grand, if futile, gesture because of course he did.

Joni (1962-2003)
It occurs to me that had she been born a boy, nobody would have paid much attention to Joni's obstreperousness; but being a girl, and a short girl at that, society expected her to be, well, sort of girly. It wasn't that there was any physical confusion involved — if you knew her for any length of time, you almost certainly saw her naked at least once — but she was every bit as loud as brother Paul, drove fast and furiously, and could outdrink him without working up a sweat. ("In musical terms, she was Johnny Rotten while I was Jackson Browne.") And she might have continued to outdrink him had she not one night attempted to drive up a telephone pole at high speed; a puncture wound disabled part of her liver, and the rest of it took its sweet time to disintegrate. (Her two boys came out of it in much better shape.) I was on a World Tour when she died; the family chose not to tell me until I got home. I'm still not sure what I think about that.

James (1967-2018)
If he resented being the youngest of the family, he never said so. He did, however, develop a knack for finding business opportunities where by rights there shouldn't have been any. To pull this off, he occasionally had to play fast and loose with what everyone else assumed to be the truth; at various times, most members of the family threw shade at him. (Stepmother basically disowned him about 15 years ago.) Eventually he settled down, bought a convenience store in the Texas hill country, and straightened out his life. More recently, I suspect that he became aware he wasn't long for this world; he sold the store, mended fences with old friends, and became very nearly pious. It took me entirely too long to figure out that it wasn't the sort of self-serving deal he'd have attempted back in the 1990s. And if you're planning on repentance, doing it while you're still alive is always to be preferred.

The Vent

  8 April 2018

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