They say only a fine line separates love from hate, and I’m sure my mom believed that to be true from all the ways I mistreated my little brother growing up. My belief runs a little deeper.
I saw Jimmy as an intruder, a thief who stole Mom’s heart. He had pale white skin that stretched over bony arms and knobby knees, white hair that lit like a halo in the sun, and the longest eyelashes ever on a boy. An adorable toddler, he talked a baby-talk language all his own. “Isn’t that cute?” everyone would say when he called water “wa-wa” or he renamed our older sister Janet “Na-Na.” When I imitated him, Mom told me, “You’re too big for that.”
My jealousy burned. Sometimes it flared out of control. Like that night in the bathtub.
Three-year-old Jimmy sat still in the cooling, cloudy bath water we shared, examining the rounded edges of the used soap bar like it was a previously unknown species of animal. I’d offered him a new way of looking at it. Irish Spring as toothpaste. “If you chew it up real good, you won’t have to brush your teeth,” I said.
The bite he gnawed out of the corner looked like a crescent moon. He chewed and chewed, and it bubbled and expanded – right down his throat. Then it came back up. Violently. Mom rushed in at the sound of his screams, not exactly a relationship-building moment between me and her.
Then there was the doggy donuts escapade. “Good as the real thing!” I told him, shaking the box of rock-hard, multi-colored pet treats. Jimmy hesitated, having been burned before, but I convinced him that I wouldn’t trick him again. Sadly – or fortunately – he was never the wiser. He actually liked doggy donuts.
Maybe I could have gone on like that forever. In some ways, I did. But then along came Tom, the boy-next-door gone wrong. We were both ten. Jimmy was eight. Tom shot him with a BB gun from point-blank range for stepping through the roof of his snow fort.
When Jimmy came home whelping like a harpooned baby seal, I lost my mind. Seriously, I understood from that moment why “temporary insanity” exists as a defense in criminal trials. I discovered my inner Mafia Boss. That’s my brother he’s messin’ with, I thought to myself. And that’s the message I delivered personally to Tom in such a menacing tone, fingers flying, eyes popping, that he did not say a word in return: “NOBODY messes with my brother. NOBODY.”
The same went for the bully who made him cry on the elementary school playground. And the neighbor lady who wrongly accused Jimmy of smashing her Halloween pumpkin, when all he did was bump it from its perch while trying to ring her doorbell.
Once I carried Jimmy all the way home across a wintry golf course – trudging in my snow boots and snowmobile suit – after he hurt himself sledding over an icy ramp on a plastic sled.
Through it all I discovered that I loved my little brother with gusto. I still teased and tortured him on occasion, but when it really mattered I helped him, comforted him, protected him. I loved him more fiercely than I hated him.
Sure, there’s a fine line between love and hate. But this I believe most strongly: Love wins.
I believe love is bigger and broader, more expansive and alive, than any hatred ever could be. Perhaps there’s a fine line between, but there’s a world of difference on either side.
The radio version of This I Believe was revived for a time by National Public Radio in recent years. Now it's a non-profit organization with a regular podcast. To read or hear more, visit the website.