I have two younger brothers. I only bit one of them. Honest. It was during a heat wave mid-summer. Mother spread a quilt in the yard under the locust tree. I was five, and my baby brother was four months old. I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was the cutest, sweetest, softest thing ever. I wanted to pinch his cheeks. No. An urge came over me. I wanted to bite him. Just like in the Gingerbread Man story. I wanted to eat him up, I loved him so much. And so I took a bite of his little thigh. He wailed. Mother searched for clues. a bee? A diaper pin? I put on my already perfected innocent face, and I got by with it. Good job, me.
For years I secretly believed that this impulse made me abnormal. But it turns out that even regular people barely contain their urge to pinch cheeks or hold cute things a little too close. Or bite them, even. Social scientists have labeled this “cute aggression.” More about that here.
About forty years later, I got word that the same brother was entering end-stage liver failure. I took a red-eye from Oregon to Missouri. When I got there, the doctor said he had about 48 hours to live, so we all went about saying our goodbyes. At first he was non-responsive, and then at one point he asked me to call his friends. He talked to each of them and told them he loved them. His daughters, ages 9 and 11, were in the room with us. I mopped out his mouth with a swab, a palliative care practice that the nurses had suggested. There was a sense of completion.
His eyes popped opened and he looked at me straight on.
What’s going on, Susan?
I decided there was no point in hiding the truth.
You seem to be dying, Mark.
He pointed his finger at me and said,
Seriously? I thought. How did he know? This was spooky. I imagined that his life had flashed in front of him and he had finally seen through me. The gig was up, I thought, after all these years.
I can’t die. I’ve gotta help raise my girls, he said.
I stayed with him as he went in and out of a coma state for three weeks.
During visiting hours I was assigned to the corner space.
Then he’d point at me and say, My sister says I’m dying. But I’m going to be around for my girls.
I was glad to serve as motivation, and he did rally. All grown-up, instead of biting him I gave him lots of shoulder and back rubs. And he was able to get a new liver, thanks to the donor and many angels along the way. It lasted him 16 years.
And he did indeed raise two amazing young women.
But last week it was time to really say goodbye, as organ after organ failed. I will miss him, but I find solace in knowing that he completed his mission. Without biting or being bit again, as far as I know.