All week, I’ve been looking forward to this Saturday’s visit to Manhattan for K-State’s homecoming. Sure, it’s a huge game for the Wildcats, but it’s the annual gathering of my fellow Phi Kappa Theta brothers that excites me the most. Many of my personal views and habits were formed in the halls and rooms of that fraternity house. I went from boy to man over the course of those four years. But this Saturday is overshadowing another day—the following day—that I know truly means more to me than Saturday’s reunion.
That day is October 28. It’s this day more than three decades ago that my older brother, Tony, was born. He’s the second of what would be three generations of Tonys.
Tony is quintessential Italian-American. He was born with a chip on his shoulder but with a heart of gold. He can make me piss my pants with laughter and piss my pants with fear in the same day. He and I grew up without younger brothers for a third of our childhood. We were children of the ’80s and teenagers of the ’90s.
When our family reminisces on holidays or birthdays, we usually bring up stories of how I once chased Tony to the bus stop with a fireplace poker because he drove me to near insanity. Or how he would find creative ways to torture me (wet willies, feeding me dog food). It’s all true.
But it’s also true that when he saw I might be left behind while he went out with friends in the neighborhood, he took me along. It’s also true that he taught me to not let others walk all over me. It’s true that he taught me to not be such a wuss (although I’m still working on that). And it’s true that when he asks “So, how you feeling?” that it’s not just routine. He cares.
When I found out in 6th grade that he was smoking cigarettes, I was devastated. But I kept the secret. And when I found out that he was going to be a father at an age that seemed scandalous at the time, I was crushed. But I kept the secret.
I was devastated and crushed because he—one of the most important people in my life—was moving in a direction in his life that didn’t include me. When he left for the Navy near the height of my high school years, I felt an obvious emptiness.
Over the years, though, he proved to me that no matter what shenanigans he got himself into over the next decade, he always found a way to come out the other end as an improved version of himself. He seemed invincible. I’ve often wondered if he thinks so too.
15 years later, he’s a successful father. He is fiercely loyal to his children and our extended family. His relationship with my parents is worthy of scientific study. One of my parents once called him stubborn, but that’s not how I would characterize him. He might cause them occasional frustration, but you can see their admiration, appreciation, and ceaseless love for him every time they’re together. He was the first. He was their first test at being parents. And when he calls or visits them nearly every day, they can see where they succeeded. They have a son who humbles himself to his family and will do what it takes to preserve that relationship. Call it stubborn. I call it loyalty.
My relationship with him is one of birthday parties, holidays, occasional family events, and the periodic text message conversation. The relationship is a shadow of what it once was. But it’s no less important to me. Much of my memory as a child includes him. And while those four college years transformed me from a boy to a man, it was my brother Tony who transformed me from a silly child to a human being with a greater perspective and appreciation toward life. I learned the value of hard work. I learned how to just laugh at it all. I learned to never let anyone walk all over me. I learned that a small chip on the shoulder can work to my advantage. I learned that when all is said and done, it’s showing compassion and love to those who matter most that will make a difference.
I placed a photo of me and my three brothers on the TV console in my living room. I placed it there, and not in a spare bedroom, to remind me of where I came from and that this generation of Restivo’s all started with one person. My big brother.