Who I Read
I've put off writing this entry for a long time, and I'm not sure why. Just now, as I thought to myself "I really ought to write about that", my stomach clenched with anxiety. I felt much the same way when I wrote in more detail about my mother, but this is different somehow. Perhaps because I've gone through nearly my whole life without a mother, but I've always had friends? Perhaps because the loss of this friend signifies more than adolescent sorrow? I'm not sure, and I don't think that thinking about it any harder is going to bring about an answer.
Just now I'm looking through my desk at work for Brad's picture. I used to have it pinned on my cubicle wall - his mother sent it to me at my request, oh, years ago now.
Closing my eyes, I can hear how is voice sounded. High, barely eleven years old. A Maine accent. Maybe a tiny bit of a lisp. I can see his face - freckled - and his teeth, the front two bigger than the rest. Brown eyes, brown hair, and in the summer, brown skin. Jeans, and a blue and white striped shirt. Dirty sneakers. Stocky frame - he's going to be a big man when he grows up.
The Marshalls are my grandmother's next-door-neighbors. They bought their farm from my aunt and uncle, way back when I was tiny. Or maybe I wasn't even born yet. My aunt and uncle had lived there for years, and they split off a parcel of land for my grandparents to build their house on. My uncle developed MS, and they had to sell the farm. So the Marshalls moved in, Beth and Jim, with their kids. Brad, two weeks older than me. Christine, three years older than me. I was four when we all first met.
When my mother was alive, I would stay with my grandmother nearly every weekend. As soon as my sneakers hit her driveway, I was off running down the road to the Marshall's. Brandy, their black lab, would usually spot me first and come wiggling up. I'd go right in the house without knocking, yelling for Brad. He'd come scrambling down the stairs from his room, or run out from the barn, and we'd spend hours and hours playing together.
Their barn is a four-story affair, with the second story designated as a hay-loft. As such, it had a three-quarter floor, with an edge that looked down into the first floor, from which bales of hay could be thrown. A rope swing hung from the rafters of the bottom of the third floor, and it reached down past the hay loft to the first floor. One of us would climb the stairs to the second floor, sit on the edge with our feet dangling over, and reach for the rope swing which was tossed up by the other. Then we'd put our feet on the swing, and grasp up on the rope as far as we could. Then we would scooch off the edge to swing down, out through the barn doors (and we had to make sure they were open!), and back up, the backs of our legs touching on the edge of the floor of the hay loft.
We would spend hours and hours doing this, pretending we were trapeze artists in a circus. The goats, munching in their pen directly below, became the lions, or the elephants, or the trick ponies. Ever-faithful Brandy also did duty as a lion - she was more mobile, and would let us open her mouth and stick our hand in. Bright sunny days and drizzly, stormy, rainy ones - the barn served as the primary house of our imagination.
Directly off of the main floor is a passage that leads to a playhouse, fitted out for the kids by their father, Jim. I think originally it was a feed room or a tack room. It always frustrated me because Brad and Christine could climb up the side of the wall and get up onto the second "story" of the playhouse - made by running plywood across the beams. I never could get the trick of it.
The hay was always stored in such a way as to create a myriad of tunnels and little caves among the stacks. Many hours of hide-and-seek, and Marco-Polo were played. We'd emerge covered in hay, hours later. Dusty and sneezing, hot and sweaty after climbing and burrowing around in the stuffy hay loft.
And then we'd be finding some other game to play. Exploring, poking our noses where they didn't belong (like in the cow's field, or up on the forbidden third and fourth floors of the barn). Beth, Brad's mother, would always be ready to supply us with snacks and drinks. Christine sometimes joined us in our games. But mostly it was Brad and I, picking crabapples, climbing up on the barn roof, building forts in the woods, and generally getting dirty.
The winter saw no lack of activity. To hell with the weather! There were snow forts to build, and sledding to accomplish. There was ice skating to perfect on the nearby pond, and snowball fights to get into. My grandmother has a wonderful picture of myself, Brad, and Christine, red-cheeked after an afternoon of snowplay, thawing out in her living room.
Those weekends were absolutely packed with adventures. Brad and I were practically inseparable, with either of us having dinner at the other's house every night.
A year after my mother passed away, my Grandmother moved me to her home. The only thing that made leaving my mother's home, where I'd lived for the first eight years of my life, bearable, was knowing that I'd be living next door to the Marshalls. The only thing that made changing schools bearable was knowing that Brad would be in my class. The first day of fifth grade was a nervous-making affair. And Brad, being a ten-year-old boy, didn't want to be seen coming to school in his mom's car (she was a substitute teacher, or an aid of some sort, I think) with a *girl*. So I'd scooch down in the front seat while Beth dropped him off at one entrance, and then she'd drop me off at the other entrance. At the time, I agreed with his wishes completely - I took absolutely no insult and thought it was perfectly reasonable. Looking back, I think it's hysterical. He wouldn't pay much attention to me at school, and didn't really acknowledge our friendship. But once school was over, and on the weekends, it was the same as it ever was. Boys and girls are so silly about each other at 10 years old.
We rode the same school bus, and I remember being jealous of Brad for his dog. Brandy would be waiting at the top of the hill for the bus, every single afternoon. She'd come rushing down, tail going furiously, and greet Brad with enthusiasm. To me she'd offer a polite sniff, but it was Brad she was there to see. Then she'd take off ahead of us at a trot, her hind end waggling to the right. Brad loved that dog to pieces. So did I.
As I got older, and as the year wore on, I started hanging out with Christine more. Our age differences became less of a factor, and Brad's behavior toward me at school was making me huffy. We'd spend hours on the lawn "doing" gymnastics, or listening to cassette tapes and singing. I think Brad chafed a little bit that my attention turned more to his sister for "girl" stuff, but he acted all macho about it, like he "didn't care". It was a transition that was inevitable in our friendship, but the underlying factor remained that we were friends, and would always remain so.
Brad was to spend some time at an aunt's house the summer after fifth grade. A few days before he left I remember helping him with the calf that he had been training for 4-H activities. He showed me how he curried her and how he lead her around, and I remember being envious and, now that I'm mature enough to recognize the feeling, proud of him. We hung out, gaining back some of the camaraderie we'd lost during the school year. We made plans to go camping in the woods (if our parents would let us) the week that he got back, and get in a bit more fun before sixth grade started. Then he went to his aunt's, and I went to my own aunt's for a visit.
On the last day of my visit, I was watching The Parent Trap in their living room. My uncle approached me, very solemn, and said we needed to take a ride to my sister Susan's house. I remember being confused, and a little aggravated. I wanted to watch the movie! But he insisted that he needed my help, fixing a lawnmower or some such thing for her. So we left, and he was quiet all the way to my sister's house. When we arrived, Susan met me at the door and drew me into the den. We sat down on the couch.
"I have something very hard I have to tell you," she said to me.
Apprehension immediately set in. "What?"
"It's Brad. He's had an accident."
"Well... is he okay? What happened?" I remember fearing that I knew what she was going to say, but still trying to convince myself that he had broken his leg or some such thing.
Susan started to tear up. "No honey, he's not okay," she said. "I'm so sorry, he died."
She reached for me to hold me tight, and I automatically put my arms around her. It didn't register for a long, long moment. Then, explosively, I started sobbing and hollering "Why? He's just a little boy! Why did he have to die?" It reminded me, horribly, of when I was brought home early from school so my uncle could tell me of my mother's death, just a few years before.
Apparently, while at his aunt's, Brad and his young nephew (the son of a much older half-brother) were playing in a nearby sandpit. Brad's nephew climbed up the sand pile higher than Brad's head, and accidentally pushed the sand down over Brad, burying him. He couldn't get out, and passed away before help could reach him. The emergency people couldn't get ahold of Brad's parents, and so they found my Grandmother recorded as an emergency number in the school's records. They contacted her. I'm not sure if my Grandmother contacted the Marshall's, or if someone else finally located them. Then my Grandmother called my uncle and sister, and they decided to have my sister tell me. Susan consoled me as best she could, but I felt very, very alone. Nobody could understand how I felt about Brad's death. I went back to my uncle's home, and sat woodenly in the living room, watching the end of the movie. They took me home later that afternoon.
When I got back to my grandmother's, I heard the story from her and we consoled each other. Brad, after all, had become like another grandchild to her. I saw a lot of cars parked at the Marshalls, and told my grandmother I needed to visit them. She didn't want to let me go at first, but finally relented.
I walked up the hill to their house in the twilight, alone. I don't remember why my grandmother didn't go with me. Through the window I could see a crowd of people gathered in the kitchen. For the first time in years, I knocked on the front door before I entered. I spotted Beth across the room, and burst into tears again. I kept telling her I was sorry, over and over, and she hugged me fiercely. Looking back on it now, I realize how brittle Beth was right then. Fragile, and looking to any excuse not to have to think about her family's great loss. She fussed over guests, filled and re-filled coffee cups, and didn't sit down for a moment.
I spotted Christine sitting on the windowseat in the kitchen, and went to join her. I was familiar with loss myself, but now found myself unable to offer words of comfort and support. I remembered how useless those words seemed to me when I lost my mother, and how uncomfortable some people's condolences made me feel. So I just sat with her, and hoped that was enough. We watched the people in the kitchen. Friends of the Marshall's - many of them parents of my classmates. At one point a heartless comment was made by one of the women, which Christine and I overheard. "It's better he goes now, rather than when he's grown and with a family." Christine and I stared at each other. "It's better that he doesn't go at all!" she muttered to me, and rushed out of the kitchen.
Brandy was lying on her side by the telephone desk on the far side of the kitchen. I went over and sat on the floor next to her, and she moved to lay her head in my lap. She whined, a soundless shuddering of her body, throughout the evening. She and I sat there for a long time before I finally got up and went back home again.
Brad's funeral was a very private affair, and I was not allowed to go. The next time I go home for a visit, I hope that Beth will make a trip with me to his grave, so I can put some flowers down.
The rest of the summer was hard. I visited the Marshalls often, sitting with Beth in the kitchen, or sitting alone on the swing out in the barn. The devastation the family was feeling was palpable. It was hard for me to be in the places Brad and I frequented together. One place in particular, though, I went to often. The waterfall Brad and his father discovered away back in the woods. Brad showed me one summer afternoon, and after his death I spent many hours there, taking comfort in his memory. And when I went back on one of my visits a few years ago, I showed Calvin and the kids.
One of the hardest moments I remember came on the afternoon of the first day of sixth grade. I got off the school bus, and looked up to see Brandy waiting at the top of the hill. She stood when the bus came, and watched, tail wagging fit to fall off. But I was the only one who descended the steps. She took a few hesitant steps toward me, and whined. She waited for me to approach her, and as I put my hand on her head she gave a sort of groan, and turned to walk with me up the hill. I turned at my house, and she continued her lone way back up to the Marshall's. I cried all afternoon, mourning for that lovely dog who missed her friend so much.
That memory reduces me to tears, even today.
I continued to visit the Marshalls often as I grew up. Beth would come to expect a Saturday morning visit from me, especially after Christine left home. She and I would sit in the kitchen and talk and sip coffee or tea. As the years went by and the pain grew less, we'd talk more and more about Brad. About what might have been. Laughing over memories. Her family set up a scholarship fund called "Brad's Bunch", for the class he would have graduated with. I ended up graduating a year early, but Beth still visited me after the next year's graduation ceremony, and gave me one of the engraved marble awards she'd given to every other person in Brad's class.
My regular visits continued right up until I moved away from Maine. As it is, I still visit them every time I go home. Beth and Jim are still as warm hearted as ever, and I always sit in their kitchen with a deep sense of coming home. Christine has a life of her own, now, and it seems we're always missing each other when I come back to visit. Brandy passed away a few years ago, after living a long, loving, and beloved life.
Among us all there exists a bond - the memory of a little boy who is still vividly remembered and painfully missed. The joy of shared memories is bittersweet, and the mourning of Brad's loss has never ceased. I think about him every day of my life. Every time I pick apples. Every time I hear "Jesus Loves Me", sung lispingly by a little boy. Every time I sit on a swing. Every time I go home.
I think about him every year on my birthday, remembering how he used to rub it in that he was two whole weeks older than me. He would have been 27 at the beginning of this month. He would have been a big man - tall and capable. Perhaps he'd have a family by now, and small children browned by the summer sun. We'd call each other every now and then to stay caught up, and have dinner whenever I came home for a visit. I'd tease him for getting upset at his kids for getting into the very same mischief he and I used to get into. He'd scold me for moving away, reminding me of my vow to "never, ever leave home." We'd both take comfort in our friendship, in the memory of our childhood, and in the strength our friendship had maintained into our adulthood.
Selfishly, I mourn all that I never got to experience. I suffer for the lack of that friend now, as an adult. I wish for the connection to my past, the comfort of my present, and the reliance in my future. That thread, continuing uninterrupted, throughout my life.
I miss you, my friend. We all miss you, and we will never forget.