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19 years older, my brother was more like a cool uncle

mark lazenby The Globe and Mail

'Four quick drinks." That's the advice my buddy gave me. "Whenever you're someplace new, have four quick drinks and you'll feel right at home."

I realize this seems more like an indication of alcoholism than sound advice, but as I sat across the table from my friend, who is also my brother, it sounded about right. My brother is 19 years older than me.

Yep, that's right. We have the same parents, and I've got a younger sister too (four years younger). My parents had an only child until he graduated high school, then instead of getting a divorce – like normal people – my parents had me (the polar opposite of Irish twins). My brother returned the favour by naming me.

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My father wanted to name me Albert, my mom wanted to recover (she was 36), and my brother suggested the name York. Not just York, but York Oliver Underwood, with my initials being Y.O.U. My brother thought this was hilarious, and he explained to me when I was older: "Get it? That way I never have to remember your name. I can just say, 'Hey, Y.O.U.,' and you'll have to answer because that's your name."

There are perks to having an older brother, though. He's been an adult my whole life, so by the time I could form actual memories, he could buy me a Nintendo. This kind of makes me wish I was born a bit later, when video-game consoles really peaked. My mom doesn't share this sentiment.

My brother's childhood became a treasure map for me to follow. Old photos of him with a dirt bike meant, at least to me, that I would get one. His Mickey Mouse ears, pamphlets for Knox Berry Farm and a key chain from Death Valley convinced me I was entitled to a birthright trip (my parents weren't as committed to this prophecy as I was).

I even went to the same high school he did. His photo was in the hallway, in black and white. When I graduated and observed that every award given out came with a trophy except for the Drama Award, I was the only one who knew my brother had never returned it – almost two decades ago.

He had the vibe of a cool uncle, but with the added tension of sibling rivalry. When I was 10, he threw a birthday party for his eldest daughter, my niece, and had helium tanks for filling balloons. He started impressing all of us with his ability to inhale the gas and talk in a funny voice. Not to be outdone, I decided to put my mouth directly on the nozzle of the compressed helium cylinder. I was going to have the funniest voice, and show my brother how to really be impressive.

I regained consciousness with my brother standing over me asking if I could breathe. He told me that cylinders don't care if it's a balloon or lungs, and I'm lucky I didn't kill myself. This sounded to me like the exaggeration of someone who had almost been upstaged at his own daughter's birthday. He might have played the I'm-just-concerned-for-your-well-being card, but I knew he feared my potential greatness.

Going from role model to boss, my brother gave me my first summer job (I was 17). He owns and manages a toxic-waste recycling company, which processes used aerosol containers. This may seem like an awful job description (unless you work at a tattoo parlour or a snowboard shop, the word "toxic" in the title isn't appealing), but you would be surprised by the type of things that use aerosol. I had more Axe body spray than a junior-high locker room, and more spray paint than Banksy. I don't know if it was when I wrecked the tailgate of his truck, or when the shipment of Silly-String was dropped off to be recycled that my brother started reconsidering the cost and benefit of hiring family members.

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Despite the 19-year gap in our ages, the fact that he lived six hours away in a different city, and that he had two children of his own, he still took time to support my various fads and phases. When I wanted to be a rock star, he helped me record my first, and last, solo album titled, HEY YOU (His Early Years York Oliver Underwood). When I changed to the more sensible career path of professional skateboarder, he took my sister and I with his family to Disneyland. We took special "brothers' time" nights out to find skateboard parks for me.

Finally, when I settled for the meagre goal of physicist, he bought me a subscription to a science magazine. Actually, he got a subscription to the magazine, and when he'd finished reading it, he would send it to me. He did this so we would be able to talk about the articles, even though I was in Ontario and he was in Alberta. I didn't always realize how thoughtful he was. I just thought he was being cheap.

My brother has been my idol, my employer, my financier (I will pay you back), and one of my biggest fans. It's true we didn't have the usual brotherly dynamic; he's old enough to be my father. But somehow it's been far greater than anything "usual." I now live in the same city as my brother. I'm on yet another career path, and I'm at a new stage in my relationship with my brother – I get to be his friend. He's a lot more stable than I am. He's a successful entrepreneur, coach and father.

He takes me out for dinner, regularly. And as I sit across the table from him, I wonder if I'll ever be as good a friend to him as he's been to me. I don't need four drinks, but I'll order them anyway. I feel right at home.

York Underwood lives in Edmonton.

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