The Greatest Discovery

Elton John was born in Middlesex, England, on March 5, 1947. My brother, Christofer, was born in Waterloo, Iowa, on November 29, 1968. I was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on September 4, 1971.

Some weeks prior to my birth, my very-pregnant mother posed for some photos in a sun-dappled corn field with my father and brother.

Mr. John’s eponymous debut, fueled by hits like “Your Song” and “Take Me To The Pilot,” was still burning up the airwaves that summer. It was in heavy rotation in the Wagner household when I came quietly into the humid, Iowa midnight. One of the lesser-know Taupin/John compositions on the LP is called “The Greatest Discovery.” The song, a sweeping, soaring, piano ballad punctuated by harp and cello, witnesses the birth of a child through the eyes of an older brother.

My father left Iowa City for Waldorf, Maryland, a few days after I was born. The rest of us joined him a few weeks later. (“If this boy ever gives you trouble when he grows up,” my grandmother told my mother, “Remember what an angel he was during this move.”)

Sometime thereafter, friends and family from Cedar Rapids to Cedar Falls received my birth announcement: an 8″ x 17″ silkscreen of the photo in negative alongside Bernie Taupin’s lyrics:

Peering out of tiny eyes
The grubby hands that gripped the rail
Wiped the window clean of frost
As the morning air laid on the latch
A whistle awakened someone there
Next door to the nursery just down the hall
A strange new sound you never heard before
A strange new sound that makes boys explore

Tread neat so small those little feet
Amid the morning his small heart beats
So much excitement yesterday
That must be rewarded must be displayed

Large hands lift him through the air
Excited eyes contain him there
The eyes of those he loves and knows
But what’s this extra bed just here

His puzzled head tipped to one side
Amazement swims in those bright green eyes
Glancing down upon this thing
That make strange sounds, strange sounds that sing

In those silent happy seconds
That surround the sound of this event
A parent smile is made in moments
They have made for you a friend

And all you ever learned from them
Until you grew much older
Did not compare with when they said
This is your brand new brother
This is your brand new brother
This is your brand new brother

My brother is my best friend. During the dark fall of 1980, when my parent’s fighting shook the rafters and drove me into hiding beneath a pile of winter coats in the basement, my brother wrapped his arms around me. That’s my brother and my relationship in one sentence.

I’ve been thinking about, listening to, and contemplating on that song since Edward entered Ethan’s life on that humid, New York afternoon in July. Edward arrived with urgency, enthusiasm, and drama. He was nearly three weeks early. Jen and Ethan delivered him alone in the apartment. Chris and the midwife arrived moments later. Ethan, then barely three-years-old, and suddenly a big brother, let them in. Later, when I arrived, I spent extra time with him before meeting his little brother. I wasn’t sure what he’d seen, or how frightening it was for him. I wanted to know how he felt. I wanted to know that he was all right.

Ethan is an astounding kid, really, at once fiery and independent, then distant and shy. And he loves his little brother, so much so that his parent’s need to remind him that Edward is still a fragile, little baby. “Suave,” they repeat patiently. “Suave.”

For Christmas, I compiled my favorite photos of Ethan and Edward into a hardbound book called, “The Greatest Discovery.” On the inside cover in a vinyl envelope is a new album a limited edition six-song EP, called “Songs In The Key Of Ethan.” I’ve been up well into the wee hours recording it for three nights straight. Still, it’s not quite the collection of lullabies, hymns and standards I would wish for my little buddy. I ran out of time, so couldn’t record everything I wanted to. And I didn’t have the equipment to record it as well as I wanted. I worry that it won’t be good enough, that he won’t like it, get it, or listen to it.

Ethan is suddenly my toughest audience.

“The Greatest Discovery” is a complicated song to sing. It’s right on the upper edge of my range, and loaded with strange key changes. Also, Elton’s performance is emotionally nuanced. He set the bar pretty high. Moreover, though, in the few times I’ve practiced singing and playing the song, I haven’t been able to make it through the last line without choking up.

And so I put off recording it until last thing. I put off the title track, the emotional core, the thesis of the entire project — until well after midnight last night. The sky was dark. The city was sleeping. I was exhausted. My voice was fading. And sure enough, as I approached the final lines — “And all you ever learned from them, until you grew much older did not compare with when they said, ‘This is your brand new brother'” — I felt chills run up my arm, and a lump gather in my throat.

The valence between family members is strong, magical, and mysterious. It is, perhaps, the greatest gift of all. In this season of shiny baubles, colorful paper and bows, it is the gift for which I am most grateful.

Still, I hope Ethan likes what he finds underneath the tree.

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