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Soul Brothers

Steve Abramowitz

IT WAS PROBABLY THE last time I would see my brother. I’m 78 and ravaged by a chronic but controlled cancer, a stroke warning and a stent. Rich is 74, with a health profile only a little less foreboding. Both of our parents died at 81.

Always cordial but not always close, we’ve worked through his resentment about how I abdicated my role as an older brother and my jealousy about his close relationship with our explosive father. We talk maybe once every few weeks, but—living on opposite coasts—we hadn’t seen each other for seven years.

I sped down Route 80 toward San Francisco, exiting on Route 12 North to Napa Valley, California’s answer to French wineries and countryside. I turned into the driveway of the resort and instantly spotted that long, angular frame waving in front of one of the stand-alone cabins. He was in jeans and wearing a Miami Hurricanes hat. We instinctively rushed toward each other and embraced tightly for a long time before walking arm in arm to the hotel restaurant.

Like most families, ours had to learn some of life’s darkest lessons. We survived my sister’s murder by a serial killer and my own debilitating depression. A tumultuous but tight-knit group, we hunkered down and looked to fly under the radar, determined to make good after centuries of religious discrimination.

Rich and I were raised by the same parents in the same house, but our internal interpretations of our childhood are very different. My brother uses the word “idyllic.” I felt unappreciated and rejected for my soft interests like writing and stamp collecting. The elephant in the room was my father, a Romanian immigrant resolved to avenge his personal experiences with bigotry by building a small real estate empire.

My brother was the loyalist who idealized my father for his exploits and worldly wisdom. I was the renegade who challenged his hegemony by excelling in academic pursuits outside of his realm. Identifying with my father, Rich became a tough-minded medical malpractice attorney and risk-tolerant stock and real estate investor. Shielded by my mother and grandmother, and spurred on by encouraging high school teachers, I became a clinical psychologist so I could figure out myself as much as my patients.

Different scenarios of childhood leave their mark. Emerging from his childhood years feeling safe and confident, Rich has always been into individual stocks, especially technology and small-cap companies. Tentative and insecure, I lumbered in diversified portfolios tilted toward defensive sectors like health care and consumer staples. He thrives on leveraging real estate to maximize capital gains potential. I prefer to own my properties free and clear, so I’m less vulnerable to recessionary downdrafts.

Despite our differences in career and temperament, my brother and I have braved some turbulent waters. He rails against government handouts, whereas I may be married to the only Sacramento landlord who voted for rent control. After a few animated telephone skirmishes, Rich and I agreed to ban political oratory from our conversations.

My mother’s death in 1999 put my financial future in my brother’s hands. He had moved from New York to Florida many years before, in part to help my mother care for my father, who was paralyzed on one side by a stroke. Rich also oversaw their personal finances, managed their remaining income properties in Florida and transported them to their mounting number of medical appointments.

Alienated by their provincialism and seeming minimization of my scholastic success, I abandoned my parents and built a life in California. My mother had always been the moral authority in the family and protected me. But Rich helped her write the will and was executor of her estate. I anticipated disinheritance or, at best, my own personal rendition of the 60-40 allocation.

A few weeks after my mother’s funeral, my brother asked if I wanted to see the will. I was startled and caught off guard. He read my apprehension. “Come on, Stevie, you already know what’s in there. It’s 50-50 all the way.”

Prepared to be devastated and enraged, I instead felt horribly guilty. “Richie, didn’t she give you anything extra for all you did?”

“No, we both thought of it as family. She was proud of you and felt strongly that what she left should be divided equally.”

Proud of me? Who knew? I was flush with gratitude that they stood by me but chagrined by the unfairness to my brother. The reward for his devotion was to be intangible and nonmaterial. My wife suggested I give him my share of our parents’ house, and I didn’t hesitate. When I presented the idea, he was about to respond with the perfunctory “no, that’s not necessary,” but paused and then nodded okay. Life can be so ironic. He was the one who was overlooked, not me.

Several years before their deaths, my parents bought residential-income properties located in both Florida and California. Sharing ownership of each property would have been a logistical and accounting nightmare. I proposed a solution. “Richie, let’s make it simple. You take Florida and I’ll take California.”

He laughed. “Yeah, no appraisals, we’ll just transfer the deeds.”

“Great.”

“I’ll have my office send the paperwork out to you. You’ll just have to sign and date.”

It was our first scheme as a twosome. Two weeks later, a thick manila envelope arrived containing the requisite documents with little red arrows pointing where to sign. I signed them all without looking at the contents.

Last month, before I drove away from the resort, we regaled each other with stories about our father’s most outrageous escapades. That was, I suspect, as much intimacy as we could tolerate—and as much as our limited time would allow.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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