Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

The death of a parent compels attention. Last week I described how my mother’s end allowed me an enduring and touching memory after a difficult history. But I’m not her only son, and my brothers hold different images, early and late. You should know of one I witnessed. To set the stage, I’ll say more about the Stein household we all grew up in, all with our particular vantage points.

Imagine Milton Stein forever working one of his multiple jobs and Jeanette Stein overmatched by raising all of us on her own. Sibling rivalry became inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.

From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the distracted and generic love of a man in motion: about to leave for work, at work, back from work, or worried about making a living. He designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.

Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to supply ballast. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.

The challenge of dad’s early life was exceeded by mom’s catastrophic upbringing. Her father Leo: a charming, alcoholic bon vivant. Her mother Esther: a suspicious, hard of hearing woman who cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at high school lunch. Malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the clan’s economic desperation and social chaos stole any sense of value other than her physical beauty.

Her papa and mine abandoned her, each in their own way. To grandpa, drunken outings grabbed him; for dad the need to work. The turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids left an ill-equipped mother at the helm; exactly where my mother found herself again, this time assigned the role her mom played years before.

The frustration and anger boiled over at us rather than her parents or her husband. Routine comparisons occurred. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and sometimes thought ourselves the least favorite child because we didn’t know the game permitted no winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.

Jealousy grew, each boy short-changed. But our mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I got the best of both of my folks, their adored only child for most of my preschool years.

Maturity was required of me as the oldest. Job #1: take some pressure off my parents and be a protector of Ed and Jack.

Eddie was an active, eager, smart little guy, while Jack as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; more perhaps because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or want to give it. I’m sure my rejection hurt.

Our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner through academia. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.

Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Though I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when the older boy pushed Ed around. I didn’t win, but the point was made. My mother said my opponent now had a hard time combing his hair at the place on the side of his head where I landed my most forceful blow. Later an older kid from the local parochial school harassed Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. I am not in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows of our youth. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve) starred as the handsome, muscular hero who every little boy emulated. He fought for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley behind the house gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.

Eddie showed some particular compassion for me in the alley. I was in the seventh grade. The sport was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right – and slammed into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew the contest was now no game.

Eight-year-old Ed saw me – saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my blood-filling, closing eye – and wept.

When Ed and Jack got older we played in summer softball leagues in Chicago and Evanston. Ed became a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three homers in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.

Not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you to avoid, weren’t helpful. Some of them would later die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd everything is possible. The coin of a life – the heads or tails of it – turned in the air.

Finding your way is rarely easy. Ed managed – through intellect, hard work, and courage – to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.

Somehow, though full-up with sadness, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity my mom never stopped fomenting. Such losses don’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and reconciliation came in its wake.

Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not only brothers, was desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed setting aside. Love, after all, matters more than just about anything. The things binding us – our memories of the folks, the time together growing up, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule – became more important than our differences.

One afternoon in our childhood, while I played in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. When the program ended, he decided the day begged for a solo flight. A white towel mom must have tied around his neck made a makeshift cape. He pushed open the window facing the backyard and got out on a ledge perhaps 12-feet off the ground, preparing for launch.

By the time I noticed him, Ed knees flexed like Superman preparing for take-off. I yelled for him to stop. He hesitated. But how to turn him around and back into the house? Before I could get upstairs Ed might crash.

A sewer manhole cover lay below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not the more forgiving grass. Mom didn’t answer my frenzied shouts.

I got underneath the ledge, braced myself, and asked Ed to jump into my arms. He didn’t take much persuasion. We both survived.

Fast forward now.

My mother lay unconscious in the hospital. She had a living will, with Ed assigned the power of attorney for healthcare. She’d told us she wanted no extraordinary measures. Mom told us all, over and over after the death of our father, she wished to die.

My brothers and I visited the hospital daily. Ed arrived first on the day in question. Mom’s physician entered her room. He wanted to perform an invasive, long shot procedure. No matter what mom might have asked for, the M.D. knew Ed had control. A conversation ensued. The doc tried to persuade Ed, then talked of Ed’s responsibility to the woman who raised him, guilted him and guilted him and guilted him. At last the “healer” ended his assault and threw up his hands, the indictment now delivered, the verdict of “bad, ungrateful son” rendered. The unstated implication was that mom’s money was more important to Eddie than her life.

Eddie walked out of the room. I’d entered the building minutes before and was strolling toward him down the hospital corridor. At a distance he was still my brother Ed; still a handsome, put-together man’s man with a steel core of toughness that could withstand anything. Wrong. He broke down in my arms.

Most of us could have rationalized conceding to the medical man. Jeanette Stein was now silent, the M.D. was not. Ed put her first, not himself.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of courageous people, folks I met in my practice and elsewhere. Still, there are never enough.

When I think about Ed’s story, Ed’s last stand in defense of our dying mother, I recall his effort to be Superman at the backyard window.

I wonder, did I have to break his fall? In the last moment, Ed Stein – the real Superman who sacrificed a piece of himself in a hospital room – might have been able to fly. Yeah, compared to that, flying was easy.


For the most part, the images should be readily identifiable: two of my parents, Ed Stein in a photo I took of him hitting a double in a softball game, a cartoon of Superman, Jack Stein, the entire family around 1960 (with Jack, Gerry, and Ed from left to right), and Ed and the author in our backyard. Unfortunately, you can’t see the area of the intercepted Superman flight, which we are facing. Our garage, behind us, stands between us and the alley separating Talman Avenue from Washtenaw Avenue.

13 thoughts on “Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

  1. Good read. Respect for you and your brothers! I can identify with parts of your story. Being the eldest of 7, I also tried hard to take the pressure of my parents. I don’t think I succeeded though. My father worked hard, was never really there and we were usually just in the way. My mother struggled in life: she yelled, cried and didn’t cope well at all. 25 years down the track I’m starting to understand and let go of the past…..I think. Thankfully my faith in God, who never lets us down, gets me through every day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Suzuki, your story touched my heart. It sounds like you had a rough childhood and upbringing, too, and it also sounds like you had a lot of strength to be able to try and take the pressure off – even though you deserved a childhood and a mother who wasn’t so moody. I have the opposite memories; I’m the eldest of two, my mother was beaten by my father (as was I), my sister and I were both sexually abused (but by different people), and I dissociated, wasn’t there at all for my sister, and never reacted to my parents with the kind of wanting to take the pressure off because all my life I felt inept and afraid of getting beat for doing something wrong – even if my intent was to help. My sister even tried to console me once – only once – but she was younger and I brushed her off. I did pray to God though – since the age of 7, I prayed for God to rescue me, to help us be a more loving family, or for someone to take us away to a better family when I got older. I used to beat myself up for not being the bigger loving sister and protector, but now I know that wasn’t my job, though I lacked the strengths it takes for someone to fulfill a caring or protective role – which is why I see what you guys did as strengths. I lacked strengths to do anything when I was a child. I was helpless, and today, I’m still needy – though I’ve also been independent, too. It’s a strange mix. I’m really touched by your story as well, Suzuki.


    • Thank you, Suzuki. It is worth saying that our folks made sure we were well taken care of in conventional terms and, we’d all agree, wanted the best for us. When you have no idea of what good child rearing is, as my folks did not, you are in the position of a blind man trying to draw an elephant. I should also say that my brothers take on our upbringing is very different from mine. Therefore, the following questions might be raised: is there a single reality? Are there multiple realities? What is truth? This is not only a psychological question, but also a scientific one, now that we know the work of Einstein on “relativity” and the progress of others on quantum physics. But again, thank you, Suzuki. I’m glad your faith sustains you.


      • “When you have no idea of what good child rearing is, as my folks did not, you are in the position of a blind man trying to draw an elephant.”

        Very true, and interestingly, you can flip this statement to the child’s viewpoint in that as a child you have no idea of any other way of living, no preconceived notions of what is a “normal” childhood compared to yours at the time. You assume that every parent does what your parents do. I think this also speaks to why your brothers have a different take on their childhoods than do you. Same parents, same household, treated differently but not enough life experience to know that their perceptions of their life are any different than yours. It comes as a surprise when you hear them retell a story from the past and it’s not at all how you recall it.

        My life has paralleled yours in many ways. The details are different for sure, but the essence and core of it is quite similar. Maybe that’s why you always touch me most deeply when you write essays such as this one, about your own life.


      • You’ve said it very well, Brewdun. I’m pleased that you can relate. I was aware of much of this when I was quite young, living at home and watching it unfold. As you say: the different perceptions and perspectives of experience. And I replied to Suzuki, they may all be true; or all false. Indeed, there probably is no single version that can capture everything.


  2. Your story touched my heart, Dr. S. Your siblings and you all sound like you tried to hold it together, despite some serious adverse childhood conditions. I used to watch that particular black-and-white version of Superman on t.v. growing up. It was my favorite version. But juxtaposed to your life, you all seemed like superheroes in your own right. To think about the strength you needed to endure all that. It sounds like you guys didn’t get the parenting you deserved from both mom and dad. I can hear the strength you and your brothers have shown through all your efforts, even though you deserved to have a fun and love-filled childhood instead. I don’t like it when parents play that “why aren’t you more like ___” game; they need to understand that every child is their own unique person with unique talents and abilities, temperaments and personalities – all of which are worthy to be loved. Sure, parents are human, but so are kids, and all kids deserve the love and respect they need for proper development. It’s hard to go back and make meaning or sense of coherence out of what happened, especially after hearing different vantage points from sibling eye witnesses. Everyone’s point of view will be different – and rightfully so; the ages are different, the memory recall is different, the parental differential treatment for siblings was there, etc. We can understand everyone else’s vantage point – and some can be more easily forgiving than others (or in denial, like my sister, about the abuses we all had endured). But we shouldn’t minimize our pain from what we had or didn’t have – which I’ve done sometimes and then would go back to reality and say in my heart, “I forgive, but I won’t candycoat or forget…” – and while I respect my sister’s autonomy and opinions and vantage points, I still hold true to mine and how I felt. We can’t tell somewhat what they feel or don’t feel, what their perceptions of an experience are based on our own; but we can understand the uniqueness of our different vantage points and personalities, and we can find some meaning in our own lives somehow. I understand my sister on a level of her own pain, and how maybe she might not be ready to face that – and maybe never will. It’s sad that she doesn’t understand mine and instead attacks me, but I’m learning to understand and forgive, though not excuse her behavior. We’re only two years apart, so I guess the sibling rivalry and competing for resources were always there. But she’s family, and I love her. Always will. It sounds like you have a good grasp, Dr. S, on your own story (from the last post) and your siblings’ vantage points as a whole (from this post). It takes tremendous strength to remember all this let alone tell this to others. And boy can you write well! You could totally write a memoir or something with all the stories you have and your awesome writing skills. I love the photos, too! I just can’t get over Superman though – that was a while back.


    • Thank you, PP. I don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t have fun: we all did. It was just mashed up with the rest. Yes, that Superman was long ago, but can still be seen in reruns. Poor acting and weak special effects. No one who has seen more nuanced and up-to-date versions would probably wish to watch, unless to see what others were watching over 50-years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I watch those films from time to time not so much now for entertainment purposes, but rather for looking at cultural differences in the way people communicate and interact with one another, and the ideals of the time (our ideals today have largely changed, but it is interesting to see what hasn’t, also). I’m glad you and your family still had fun in the midst of all that. I still have yet to watch the movie Superman that came out a few years ago, which might spoil me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing Ed’s story. Was it your mother’s decision to give him the power of attorney for her healthcare? If so, she knew well which son would make the hard decision to carry out her wishes.

    As you know better than I do, we bring to parenting our personal traumas, fears, and insecurities. As children, we cope as best as we can; survive; and endure. Our self-awareness as a species comes with a downside. It’s what we do with life’s blows that turn us into a Superman or Superwoman 🙂


  4. Thank you, Rosaliene. Jack and I will never know what we would have done in Ed’s shoes because we didn’t live it. Many people (in my experience) think of themselves as more admirable than they are because they were never faced with certain dilemmas. We hear so many judgements rendered by those without knowledge of who they really are – because they have not been tested. My guess is that all of us would fail some tests and pass others.


  5. Your story shows how complicated families are, and I receive solace in reading about your own complicated family life, Dr. Stein. I also read last weeks’s story too. This horrible shooting in Parkland, FL has upset me, and has me recalling past hurts from my own upbringing, the dysfunctional family I was raised in, and the sadness that with the death of our parents, the sibilings have scattered. For me it is an act of self-preservstion from one who has emotionally abused and controlled me throughout my life, someone who is personality disordered. I am sorry your mother suffered emotionally and my heart goes out to her. My mother suffered also. As much as we loved them being the recipient of wrath, at least for me, was horrible and has caused scars I will never outgrow, but with the help of my wonderful therapist, hopefully I am making tiny increments of change. Blessings to you Dr. Stein.


  6. Thank you, Nancy. Yes, many are reeling after the latest shooting, but unfortunately not the last. I’m glad you continue to push forward.


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