’I try not to spend too much time regretting the years we were not in touch’

Before You Go: Sheila Morrison, 72, reflects on the years she ignored her younger brother and tells him what he means to her now
Sheila Morrison
my brother, Gordon Burditt, probably around 2008, when he perhaps first visited me in Halifax after many years of not seeing each other. We were visiting my best friend Elizabeth Shaw whose rabbit had just given birth to a bunch of bunnies. Neither Gordon nor I had pets at that point but we both eventually became dog lovers. (I am a poodle-crazy mom.) It was a fun day with lots of love for bunnies and people. (Courtesy of Sheila Morrison)

I am four, jabbing my Peter Rabbit bowl of quivering strawberry Jell-O studded with Del Monte fruit cocktail with my finger. You are bald, four months old, sleeping in the crook of mom’s left arm. As I put a spoonful of Jell-O to my mouth, mom lifts the whistling kettle. I jump as it clatters to the floor. She runs screaming into the hall, down the stairs of our flat and outdoors, clutching you to her breast. My Jell-O has fallen to the floor. My eyes widen and I see that I am alone. Do you still have that scar from the scalding water that fell onto your left arm?

I am seven and missing a tooth. You are three and have rosy red, dimpled cheeks. Mom lies on her beach towel, the hot Nova Scotia sun toasting her Johnson’s baby-oiled skin. Queensland Beach was our summer retreat, a long drive from our home in Quebec City. We use our sticks and shovels to make art in the sand. Your chubby foot presses down onto a shard of glass and a little river runs a bright red. I feel sick, and I shriek for mom.

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I am 15. We’ve left Quebec City and moved north to Kenogami, into a duplex. A handsome young man, Gaston, lives in the other half of the house. He goes to my high school, but he doesn’t talk to me. You must be nine, but I don’t notice you. I like white lipstick. I collect sweaters. I am fascinated by my own hair which I roll, twist and pin into a variety of styles. I buy an olivegreen bathing suit with pink and yellow polka dots. I wish I had a body tiny enough for a bikini, but I can get by with a more modest two-piece. I hope Gaston sees me lying on the grass, but he doesn’t. Our mother is constantly angry with me. I finish high school and leave for Acadia University in Nova Scotia. I do not think to look for you, Gordon, and say goodbye.

I am 20. I have just graduated from university and Im back home for the summer. You are 16. You still live at home, but I hardly see you. My soon-to-be husband will return from his teaching job in Ghana in three weeks. After the wedding, we will travel to West Africa to teach. My head and heart are filled with joyous anticipation. You have a motorcycle and will start college soon. I shop for a wedding dress. Our mother tells me you are sewing a pair of leather cycling pants. I am not interested in you, your sewing project or anyone but myself. I argue with our mother over wedding plans.

I am a young adult living an adventurous life in West Africa. Mom’s letters occasionally contain your news. She is always worried about you—you have bronchitis, you move to British Columbia, you lose a house to a fire, you change girlfriends a lot. In my letters home, I tell her to say hello to you. But in the eight years I’m in Africa, I never ask for your address.

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I am 42, living in Halifax with my husband and three children, working and completing a masters degree. Youre 38 and living in New Brunswick. You have two children and work as a stationary engineer. You brought your family to see me in Halifax once, but I don’t know you. I wish I did. Neither of us has the time or money to travel. I buy a computer for my research and discover the world of email. And you.

I am 50, then 60. We have been emailing, often, for many years now. Our parents are gone. We share stories about our grown-up children who live exciting lives—two artists, a trucker, a filmmaker and a computer genius. Finally, I visit you, now in Calgary, and you come to Nova Scotia, too.

We worry about each other’s health: I worry that your new heart valve will wear out, and you worry that I’m under too much stress. You’re excited about my writing; I’m blown away by your landscaping and home renovations. We share recipes for low-carb meals, while reminiscing about mom’s sponge cake and chocolate sauce.

I am 72, retired in Halifax, and busy with mental-health advocacy. You are 68, still in Calgary with your new partner. I try not to spend too much time regretting the years we were not in touch. It makes me happy that we visit each other on alternate years. Our memories of growing up and our life experiences are different, yet somehow we now have so much in common.

It is easy to love you. Now that we have a relationship, I wish that we could live closer. Senior years are precious, and the connection we have means everything. For me, and I hope for you, the richness of our bond outweighs the years of disconnection. Gordon, I am so proud to call you my brother.

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear brother…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.