On his birthday, I called my brother to say I am glad he was born, and to inform him that he is now older than I am.

“Sister,” Joe said, “I’ll keep having birthdays. And you’ll always be four years older.”

He is smart, my brother. Not easily fooled. He sees things that a lot of us tend to overlook.

He was 6 months old when my mother told me he was blind.

“He can’t be blind,” I said. “He always laughs at my face.”

“He laughs at your voice,” she said. “He’ll never see your face.”

In years to come, I would try to prove her wrong. I’d put a chair in Joe’s path, then hide and wait to see what he’d do.

Never once did he fall for it. He’d come lumbering through the room with his cane, click, click, then stop shy of the chair, cocking his head to listen.

After a bit, he’d grin. “Sister,” he’d say, “I caught you.”

Yes, he caught me like a fish hook in my heart. I’d have done anything to protect him. But in time, he taught me a lesson we often learn from those we long to protect: To love them is to let them go – let them stumble and fall and live their own lives.

Joe boarded at the school for the blind until he was 16, then stayed at home for a few years, forcing our mother to double up on her nerve pills. When he got a job running the concession stand at the courthouse, he moved out to live, as he said, like a grown man on his own.

By then, I was out of college, raising a family in California. I remember the day Joe called to tell me he’d gotten married.

“You did what?” I said.

“I know three weeks isn’t a long time to know a person,” he said, “but I’ve been waiting for Tommie Jean all my life.”

Then he laughed and said, “Sister? Even a blind man can fall in love at first sight.”

My mother swore it wouldn’t last. It lasted 10 years, until he lost Tommie Jean to cancer.

In barely a heartbeat, Joe lost not just his wife, but our mother and our stepfather, who was Joe’s best friend. He also lost his job, a different kind of loss, but a hard blow to overcome for a blind man with cerebral palsy.

He lives alone now, sitting on his porch, listening to the radio, pulling for the Clemson Tigers.

He goes to church most every Sunday, rarely misses a potluck, takes a cab to buy groceries or to eat out on occasion.

Our sister is the rock he leans on. She and her children and our cousins include him for family gatherings, driving 30 miles each way to pick him up and take him home with a week’s worth of leftovers.

I fly to visit him when I can, never often enough. We talk on the phone, if he picks up, or just trade messages. We’re close in a long-distance kind of way.

I often write about him, partly because I think he’s interesting, but mostly because he has been a gift in my life and it seems only fair to share him.

Readers (those I like best, including you) seem to find him interesting, too. A woman from West Virginia sent me a WVU Mountaineers coonskin cap. She said I could keep it or give it to Joe to replace his Clemson hat.

I kept it. When I called him on his birthday, he talked about kindnesses: The friend who gives him rides; the Meals on Wheels driver who brought him cupcakes; and our sister, God bless her, who was taking him out for a birthday dinner.

So I reminded him about the nice woman who had sent the coonskin cap and suddenly he said, “You know, Sister, I’d look good in a coonskin cap.”

“It looks better on me.”

“I think maybe you ought to let me be the judge of that.”

“Fine,” I said. “You can have it on one condition. You have to give me your Clemson hat.”

End of discussion.

“Bye, Sister, love you!”

He is smart, my brother. Not easily fooled. He sees things that a lot of us tend to overlook. But I am keeping that coonskin cap.

Sharon Randall can be reached at P.O. Box 777394 Henderson NV 89077, or on her website:www.sharonrandall.com.