How my 'Prodigal Son' brother taught me what family really means | Column

·5 min read

I took my family for granted. My prodigal brother did not.

When my younger brother remarried, I behaved like a pompous jerk. I had such reservations about his previous marriage that I refused to stand by him at his first wedding.

Close on the heels of such a disastrous relationship, he married a recently divorced woman with four children. My brother expected his parents and siblings to treat them as family when we hardly knew them. At the time, I thought he had a lot of nerve. In truth, he was setting an example I needed to follow.

In life and in the biblical Parable of the Prodigal Son, I’m the older brother. My brother Drew is … well, he’s not the father in the story.

In many respects, I envy Drew. Growing up, he did as he pleased, seemed to survive the consequences, and kept on going. I never quite understood how “Drew being Drew” became a serviceable excuse.

On the other hand, I don’t recall a time where I didn’t carry a heavy load on my shoulders. As a young man, I endeavored to reflect positively on our family and community. I excelled academically and athletically because I wanted to make my parents proud. Most of the time, I did what was right because it was expected. As a result, I bore increasing responsibilities and the pressure that builds with them.

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My self-righteous indignation unleashed

After our other brother died, Drew became a roaming cat. He’d drift in and out of our family life. I’ve often joked that cats must have nine lives because Drew let them borrow some of his. I continued to execute my duties, push through the pain, and store my emotions in a box to deal with later if such a time ever materialized.

Ted Jones’s painting, “Prodigal Son & the Forgiving Father,” is on display at the Monthaven Arts & Cultural Center
Ted Jones’s painting, “Prodigal Son & the Forgiving Father,” is on display at the Monthaven Arts & Cultural Center

The prospect of Drew suddenly being responsible for children clashed with my coldly rational orientation.

Four children needed a regular father figure in their lives. That certainly didn’t sound like Drew. He didn’t know the first thing about kids. He was unreliable. He certainly wasn’t the poster child for Christian of the year.

My self-righteous indignation poured forth like venomous rivers from a life-hardened heart.

I needed Drew to know that I’d earned my stripes as a father. I’d gone through the terrible twos three times. I put my personal interests to the side, so I could provide for my family. While he was out living it up, I was working my tail off. He didn’t get to claim the mantle of “father” so easily. I had checked so many of the “right” boxes and followed “correct” channels to get where I was in life.

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My brother thrived as a father and I saw my shortcomings

I conveniently ignored how my work ethic nearly cost me my own family. I didn’t focus on the years when I was traveling so much my sons asked if I’d visit them more often. Too often, I was going through the motions of life to meet expectations which had become largely self-imposed.

I also took my family for granted. Drew did not.

He loves his family so dearly that he shows up every day for four kids with whom he doesn’t share a biological connection. Drew loves them deeply, and they love him just as much. If that weren’t enough, my brother and his wife, Katy, trained to be foster parents. When the call came for them to take three children on a moment’s notice, they didn’t hesitate to welcome the additional children.

In less than two years, my brother went from a carefree single life to living with seven children in his home. More importantly, he thrived. He readily gave up many of his friends, the golf course, and his sports car. He didn’t even blink.

But I did.

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Shared DNA does not make a family

I couldn’t figure out how my brother did so well in a situation that would have overwhelmed lesser men. As is the case with most older brothers, I didn’t want to admit I needed to learn from Drew’s approach to fatherhood and family.

Shared DNA doesn’t make a family. So many of us have learned the painful lesson that reproductive capacity doesn’t make sound fathers and mothers. Sharing the same parents doesn’t magically create loving and supportive brothers and sisters. I’m not a superior father to my brother because I’m genetically related to my children.

Cameron Smith, columnist for The Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network Tennessee
Cameron Smith, columnist for The Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network Tennessee

As Garth Brooks famously sings, “Blood is thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood.” Drew understands the secret to family: A continuously loving presence.

Our families are the people who keep showing up even at a great personal cost.

In our darkest moments, family walks with us. Our pain is their pain. In better times, our joy is their joy. Nobody gets left behind. I’ve been blessed with a family like that my whole life, but it took my brother’s example to help me truly understand it. Drew and I are more alike than I initially realized. As much as we must love our families, we both need the same.

For every biological father, mother, brother, and sister who isn’t there when we need them, there’s so often someone else who shows up when nobody else will. That’s family.

Now Drew is once again making room in the bus that replaced his sports car. Katy is pregnant, and my brother will experience those terrible twos after all. My crew is growing as well by adding a teenage foster son. I’ll be a better father to him because my prodigal brother taught me what family really means.

USA TODAY Network Tennessee Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee, with his particularly patient wife, Justine. Direct outrage or agreement to or @DCameronSmith on Twitter. Agree or disagree? Send a letter to the editor to

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How my 'Prodigal Son' brother taught me what family really means