VANCOUVER — They had been separated for 13 years and by 1,200 kilometres.
But the chasm between Bill Olsen, 60, and his estranged brother, Bruce Sauer, melted away with a boyish bit of teasing on a bench in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside over the weekend.
“Idiot,” chided Sauer as he playfully cuffed his sibling on the back of the head, knocking off his ballcap.
Olsen hadn’t seen Sauer, who is 11 months his junior, since 2001. He didn’t even know if his brother was still alive until he saw a Canadian Press photo feature on the people living in the hard-scrabble neighbourhood last year.
A photo booth was set up for residents to pose for pictures. The project aimed to look beyond the gritty appearances of the people who inhabit the notorious neighbourhood. Some who stopped said they hoped friends and relatives would see the photos and know they were still around.
Olsen recognized the grey-haired man with a beard and a patch over one eye.
Sauer looked much the same Sunday, wearing a fedora and a black T-shirt featuring the rock band Journey.
He reached out to Olsen in February after a Canadian Press story outlined Olsen’s search for his brother.
“After you ran the story, for the next two weeks I had about 200 people asking every day, ’Did you get in touch with your brother?’ and I dealt with it that night. I emailed you and gave you a phone number,” he said, turning to look at Olsen.
Sauer wears an eyepatch because he has Bell’s palsy, a facial nerve condition, and said that’s part of the reason he lost touch with his family.
“For a while when this happened I didn’t want to see anyone,” said Sauer, pointing to his covered his right eye. “I wanted to get my act together and beat it on my own. I even had to miss my mother’s funeral because of it.
“I had to learn to get functional with it. There was no way I could just hide in my room for the rest of my life. I had to get over it.”
Bitter memories of their family life, first in Calgary and later in Edmonton, may have also been part of the problem. In the earlier interview, Olsen had recalled that Sauer and their father — “a very strict and harsh disciplinarian” — didn’t get along.
He recalled a day when his brother was in high school and their father came home tired and testy from a day working on a construction crew.
“Bruce got the worst of it,” Olsen had said. “It wasn’t like he got scolded. Dad was very physical. I think that memory resonated with Bruce a lot because with Dad, if you stepped out of line, you got it.”
Their father died many years ago, leaving their mother to support the family by running a rooming house in Edmonton.
Olsen ended up moving to Nunavut to teach mechanics (and legally changed his last name because he thought it would be tough to handle children with a last name pronounced like “sour”) while his brother moved west in the 1970s to pursue his dream of making it big as a musician because there was more work in Vancouver than anywhere else in Canada.
“But then the music business went to trash, a number of clubs went down so I started carving, which is what our father taught us,” said Sauer, who now ekes out a living selling soapstone pipes.
That’s what he was doing the last time he and Olsen saw each other at Edmonton’s Fringe Theatre Festival in 2002, where he had set up a booth on Whyte Avenue to make a little money.
In the intervening years, Olsen became desperate to reconnect. He still had another brother and a sister in his life, but he had lost touch with a second sister, Sharon, and didn’t learn of her death until she had been buried in a pauper’s grave.
“He could die without a next of kin and he would be buried in a pauper’s grave without anybody at the funeral,” Olsen fretted of his brother in the earlier interview. “It was bad enough having a sister go that way — I don’t want my brother going that way, either.”
But those fears melted away as Sauer gave Olsen a tour of his neighbourhood and the two caught up on family news.
“It was a good day,” said Olsen. “He’s part of the community down here that does look out for each other, but at the same time there was a hole where part of our family’s missing.
“It’s difficult as you get older and start losing family. You want to have family together making sure you look out for each other.”
Their reunion, he said, brought him nothing but joy.
“Bruce and I have always been fairly close. We were born in the same year. His friends were my friends almost all the way up to high school. We started in the same grade but apparently I’m smarter than him,” Olsen said with a mischievous laugh.
“It’s because he’s older. That’s all it is,” Sauer chimed in.
The brothers have agreed to keep in touch with each other on a monthly basis and the two could end up closer together soon.
“I’m moving out to Alberta next year. I’d like to go out there and retire. All of my old school buddies are out there,” Sauer declared.
“I don’t want to die alone. I want to die with my family at hand.”