By today’s standards I married young. I walked down the aisle with my wife in 1980 at the age of 23. It was a hot day in July, and the small Methodist Church I attended in Hartford, Mich., was without air conditioning.
My grandmother had always talked about the day I got married I would take in my two adolescent brothers. Ages 9 and 10, Mike and Allen were the sons of my stepmother. She had died in a car crash while en route to see my father in the hospital. He died of cancer six months later.
So, following a short honeymoon, I did what was expected of me. My wife and I packed a U-Haul trailer that was attached to a Ford Maverick, and we drove to North Carolina, where jobs awaited us.
The drive was slow. The back end of the car slumped nearly to the ground. At times there was a tug and pull feel, as the car and trailer fought for supremacy. The farther south we drove the hotter it got. All four windows were open, and the heat poured in like something incessant and unavoidable.
The boys were different in stature. Allen was tall and lanky, already a bit pimply-faced. He wore glasses. Michael looked like a little boy, which he was – he had the face of a Botticelli painting, if Botticelli painted young boys, a face that was so bright-eyed and beautiful that perfect strangers were all the time turning their heads to look at him.
We stayed in a hotel that first night, about halfway to Durham. The boys were punch-tired; yet they were difficult to calm down. They had never stayed in a hotel before. They had never eaten in a restaurant. Not once.
Neither of the boys could believe they were moving so far away from their grandparents – the only home they could remember – that they couldn’t drive there in one day. To them, my grandparents were their parents, and moving so far away seemed unfathomable.
I think back to the day they arrived. There was a knock at the door and then they entered; my stepmother’s sister holding Michael in her arms, and Allen clinging closely to her legs. They were 1 ½ and 2 ½. Babies, really. Nothing but scared babies.
“I can’t take care of them,” my stepmother’s sister said. “I know I said I would, but I can’t. It’s too much.”
“What do you mean?” my grandmother asked.
“I mean I’m giving them to you. They were your son’s children, too”
“You can’t leave them with us,” my grandmother said. “We have three children here already.”
But that’s what she did. She put Michael down, and walked out the door.
That first weekend in Durham, as surrogate parents, we took the boys to see “Star Wars.” It was the first movie the boys had ever seen. They sat between us transfixed by what they were seeing on the screen. Yet, within an hour, Michael climbed into my wife’s arms and promptly fell asleep.
It all had been too much: the packing, the long, hot drive, the unpacking, seeing the new place where he would live, and, finally, despite the loud noise coming from the screen, his body shut down. He could take in no more. I put my arm around Allen, and he leaned in, though he didn’t fall asleep.
What can I tell you how it all went? I’d like to say that the boys grew up, became sensitive, kind men. I’d like to tell you how beautiful their lives have become with successful careers, and happy families. But that would be a fiction. I’d love to say that I see them often; my wife and I visiting them in the Northwest or Northeast. Or that one of them – both of them – take plane flights to all corners of the world, and that they come back bearing gifts and treasures from faraway lands. I’d love to tell you all of that, but that would be a lie.
Here’s another version: of only one of the boys. I can’t tell you everything. Not more than a year after moving the boys to North Carolina, their grandmother became sick and died. The weekend of her funeral, Allen was suffering from an ear infection that wouldn’t go away. Back in North Carolina we took him to doctors at Duke Hospital, where he was diagnosed with leukemia. I’d like to say that my wife and I, in our middle-twenties, caring for two young boys that in many ways we hardly knew, pulled together and saved him. But that, too, would be a lie. Allen died at the age of 16.
We have photo albums of the boys. I look at them now and then. I’m looking at them now. Allen once told me: “You know, we all breathe the same air. People everywhere, every place, breathe the same air. We’re that much alike.”
Here’s the truthful part. I feel like I failed them. I did not save them from themselves, or from what life had to offer them. Sometimes I wish I could go back, like in the movies, back in time to the morning when there came a knock on the door. And it was a door-to-door salesman, selling little trinkets or household goods. Vacuum cleaners. The latest toasters. Stupid little things.
Robert Wallace’s most recent fiction can be found in “Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand,” published by Press 53. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org