The tears caught me by surprise. It was the sorrow of separation. After five weeks of living together at my cabin on the Yellow River in Wisconsin, I recently saw my brother, Tony, off. He was driving home to Victoria on Vancouver Island. During his visit, he recounted attending a Rolling Stones concert last summer. We joked that we now look as weather-beaten as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
This may not be true for everyone, but for me there is no other lifelong bond like that with an only sibling. We have shared seven decades together. In the words of the Grateful Dead (Tony has always been a Deadhead), “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” Given our age and living far apart in different countries, an unspoken question now hovers over our partings: Is this our last rodeo together?
We did the usual stuff, including considerable time reminiscing about our lives. Several times, one brother would recall events that the other could not recollect. Over the weeks, both of us became addicted to binge-watching seasons of TV series like “Fargo” and “Better Call Saul.” He and I devoted endless hours trolling and casting for elusive fish (my bad). We did leave the hermitage a couple of times, for my youngest daughter’s graduation and a Minnesota Twins game. However, those activities were of small consequence. All that mattered was that we were together again.
We began our odyssey in the 1940s, isolated brothers on a small southwestern Minnesota farm in Mennonite country. Today we are facing our twilight years as elderly relics of the Sixties. In between, we celebrated and commiserated much together: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; political protests, spiritual quests and existential angst; marriages, children and grandchildren; vocational callings, social-change commitments and accepting that we, too, are Sisyphus.
Peter and Brigitte Berger, a couple of iconoclastic sociologists, wrote, “One should be very careful how one chooses one’s parents.” Of course, you had no choice as to who your parents were. So what is their point? “If one has been careless in the choice of parents,” they ask tongue-in-cheek, “what are one’s chances of making good this mistake?” By intentionally choosing how to think and behave, we can opt to improve our lives and, in turn, improve the world around us. The Bute brothers have spent their lives rewriting the twist of fate that was their birth.
Nearing the end of the voyage, we recognize that our bodies are but a shell of the youthful athletes we once were and that our memories and mental firepower are fading away into the coming darkness. Despite all those frailties, there is a singular blessing of a long life, well-lived — practical wisdom. Carl Jung once said that the first half of life is about achievement and the last half is preparing for death. In my eighth decade, I now realize how fortunate I was 40 years ago when I discovered a Reinhold Niebuhr prayer.
We usually know this prayer as the popularized rendition used by self-help groups. Few know that an eminent theologian actually wrote the original version. Niebuhr, one of the 20th century’s wisest public figures, intended this counsel as equally applicable to personal and civic life.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Perhaps the most difficult lesson any of us will learn during our sojourn on this earth is “the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Farewell my brother, until we meet again.
Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University.