Your hand, trembling, softens its grip upon the photo. He was a child of intense and serious depth. No more than five years old, his dark eyes matched the deep navy hand knit sweater he was wearing – even at a young age, his stern expression seems to peer into you. You half-heartedly laugh, wiping the tears that have fallen onto the photo.
The two of you were close once, nearly inseparable. The joke was always that your mother planned to have a built-in babysitter, but the truth is, you enjoyed him immensely. He was smart – a philosophical toddler. You remember so many of those firsts. You learned to juggle diapers like a pro. You were the only one who could get him to go to sleep.
Your stomach flips at a terminal velocity as your partner, standing at the front door says, “your brother is here.” It’s been over six months since you last spoke, and well over a year since you had a conversation of any real meaning. Something about the look on his face, standing there in the driveway, snaps you back to when he was only nine years old.
You are sitting alone together at a campground, and he breaks down in tears asking you why he doesn’t see Nana and Papa and Daddy anymore. You’re only nineteen and struggling desperately to not lie to the child, to not tell him more than he can handle. So you say it’s your fault, they are all mad at you. The onslaught of why’s – you should have known they’d follow. Your mind races to get ahead of the situation, and you feel a sinking certainty that you are not equipped to handle this conversation.
“I sent your dad to court.”
“He stole a lot of money from me.”
“I’m not sure buddy, I don’t know if he meant to. But he did it.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Maybe he made a mistake.”
“My dad is a thief?! But why don’t Nana and Papa come at Christmas anymore?”
“I’m so sorry bud; it’s my fault. They are mad at me. They love you very much; they just won’t come cause I’m there.”
“Oh please, please dear brother of mine,” you think to yourself, “this isn’t your fault. You are innocent in this.”
This sweet child cries more intensely than you’ve ever seen. You hold on to him until the sobbing subsides, hiding your tears, and whispering you are sorry. He can’t wrap his mind around the paradox that you were wronged, and they are mad at you, not his father. You nearly collapse under the weight of wondering if you should have lied. Somehow, this hurts so much deeper than knowing the man you called your father stole your college fund from you. This, this stabbing pain – will haunt you for many years to come.
But here you are, standing on the front step, looking into your brother’s powerful eyes, trying to find the words. You try to hide the shock on your face. He’s completely sallow, emaciated, withered. A husk of the potential you know is in there. A face you’ve only ever seen cleanly shaven has grown a scraggly beard, and his beautiful golden curls are all shaved off. He’s filthy, and you can smell that he hasn’t showered in quite some time.
He asks you to take him to get his guitar amps and keyboard that meant so much, so he can pawn them. You tell him supper is on the stove inside, and that you’ll take him if he comes in for a meal and shower afterward. You listen to him talk as carefully as you can while your mind races. You wish there were something you could do to get through to him, and desperately search your soul for the ability to just go back and find a way to save him from this.
He’s been living homeless and destitute, he says. He streams along, barely making sense muttering, “the world would be better off in a state of anarchy if we could merely be living in a communal sense.” He can’t believe people are still willing to help him, after all of the horrible things he’s done. He’s a horrible person he says.
“You aren’t a horrible person, you’ve just made some bad choices. You can make different ones,” you tell him. A few deep breaths and you try to walk through this moment by moment, begging your mind to leave the moment that those eyes stared at you and asked all those why’s. It’s not helping right now. You plead with yourself, with the powers that be – something, anything, make sure you don’t say something that will ruin what might be your only chance to save him.
Your mind darts from corner to corner, turning over all the couch cushions, peeking under all the beds, desperately leafing through every book you’ve ever read. Frantically searching for that thing you can say that might stop this lightspeed downward spiral he is on. There must be a tinder to start the flame for him; surely you can find a way to show him how to climb out of this.
“You can be a good man, and you can do it for your daughter,” you tell him. She’s not even a year old. You’ve only been allowed to see her twice. Most days you don’t know if you are more scared for the tiny baby, or for the child that still lives in him.
At twenty years old, he chose not to tell you and your mother that he was going to have a baby until it was well past the abortion window. He knew you’d try to talk him out of it. You wondered if he feels that way because of the drug use, or something else, but you never dared ask.
This isn’t going to be the moment that saves him, you remind yourself. You know this. There’s probably nothing you can say. You wish there were more you could do, but this is a path you know he has to walk. He has to decide to come out. Your tongue is aching from biting it.
Your heart is ready to implode. All the hope you had for this young man is collapsing upon itself. You aren’t giving up that hope, you never will. But it’s condensing under the weight of the frustration, worry and, most of all, the crippling powerlessness. All you can do is be here, right now.
He agrees to let your mother join you for dinner. You dodge the fact that his old apartment door was kicked in by the police because last week, you were sure he was dead.
You sit through a quiet dinner, pushing your food around. Eating isn’t an option with a whirling hurricane of a stomach. He inhales two servings. You’ve never seen him so polite, so respectful. He talks about his experiences in the soup kitchens with people being rude.
Somehow you find yourself willing your eyes to be dry. He agrees to stay with your mother for a while and get some things figured out. Get some help so he can see his daughter.
That condensed hope sinks a little further, knowing that this won’t be the time. Those eyes told you all you needed to know. He’s not ready. His twenty-mile march hasn’t even begun. You become numb when you realize how unaware of this your mother is, she – she still has that hope. She has to. She needs to believe that this is it, he’s back. Her baby boy is going to be okay.
You watch them pull away in her car, off to slowly come to their conclusions. You’ll wait for them here.
Over many phone calls and messages, and tiny stolen moments, you’ll support her. You help her find the strength to help a broken boy, help her slowly understand that she can’t mend him, even though you wish you both could. The guilt of stepping away from him so your mother can support him, and in turn, you support her – it will tear at you every moment of every day. You have to distance yourself so you might have the strength when it gets worse.
You go to work the next day, steeling yourself through every part of the morning routine. You chant to yourself, “I can do this.” As you pour a cup of coffee, taking a moment of peace from the steam and aroma, you notice co-workers chatting about their children.
One of them turns to you and says, “but you know, you just can’t understand until you have kids.” You flash a half-hearted smile and spin on your heel stepping back outside.
You puff on your cigarette a little more deliberately, letting the smoke creep out of your mouth like a steam engine trucking along towards all the things you don’t understand, while you stare at that photo of the intense-eyed philosopher toddler. You half-heartedly laugh, wiping the tears that have fallen onto the photograph, thinking, “I wish you understood.”
Now the question is… Fact or Fiction? Leave your thoughts in the comments!