"Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard. Oh, take me back to the start."
We were nearing the end of one history's most tumultuous decades. Although there was time left in the decade for fads and new crazes to be discovered and forgotten, the 80's were knocking at the door ready to put the decade to pasture. Saturday Night Fever and the disco phenomenon that it created would hang onto the decade with its entire might. Rock music bands like Kiss, Aerosmith, and Peter Frampton were rising to fame. Jimmy Carter's popularity had not drastically declined yet. Although there was only a year and a half left in the decade, the 70s were running a marathon with no finish line and iron lungs. There was no end in sight. The good times seemed like they would last forever.
Like the decade of change, the concept of time had been lost on my friends and me. Every day was a new adventure. Jason Rein, Stan Williams, and I looked forward to each new day. We didn't watch TV, and video games hadn't reached the home market yet. For entertainment, we rode bicycles and used our imaginations to create an imaginary escape a la The Bridge to Terabithia before anyone had even read the book. The ditch that ran underground from Stewart Street to across town was our fortress. Every day we met and played there until our parents got home from work. The days seemed to last forever. We didn't think those days in the summer of 1978 would ever end. We just enjoyed life in the moment without the realization of inevitable change.
As great as life seemed at that moment, the story of how I got there made it even more remarkable. The ditch that we transformed into our kingdom was actually a culvert that ran parallel to our one bedroom apartment. A one bedroom apartment might be nice for a single guy in his early 20's, but not for my 2 brothers, myself and my mother. Although it was small, we somehow made room for all of us. Larry had a bed in the kitchen/dining room next to the kitchen table, and Bruce somehow fit a cot into a compact utility room. I shared the bedroom with my mother.
I didn't know it at the time, but we were definitely poor. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not prejudice in any way, but I had legitimately never been around anyone other than someone of the Caucasian race until we moved to Tennessee. We lived in a very sheltered and pampered neighborhood. I remember the neighbors getting upset when a family of Mexican descent moved into the neighborhood. I heard the comments, but I didn’t know what they meant at the time. Like our Terrabithia getaway, our neighborhood was pretty much an imaginary shelter from the outside world. I had no idea how other cultures existed. I knew nothing of the prejudices and insecurities of the inhabitants of our up-scale neighborhood. I was just a kid.
I would like to say that I handled the transition smoothly, but I was 8 years old. I experienced quite the culture shock. I cried every day at school. Here I was a popular classmate from where I came from and now I was an outcast. Within a few months, however, I assimilated with the rest of my classmates and began making friends. It did take me more than a few years, though, to get used to all of y'alls and coke instead of you guys and pop.
Both Larry and Bruce were quite a few years older than me, so they were able to go to work to earn extra money. Larry went to work at Milan Dairy Queen. There, he worked for a guy named Larry Nicholson. Mr. Nicholson was infamously cheap. Larry one told us of how Mr. Nicholson made him count the pickle slice in a bucket to make sure that the total count was relevant to the amount of burgers sold. Bruce used liquid paper on his birth certificate to change his birth date so he could go to work as well. He used the date on his forged birth certificate for many years until he almost got into trouble when enlisting in the army. With my mother and both of my brothers working most of the time, this left me at home by myself more often than not. I wasn't alone though. I shared our mythical fortress with Stan and Jason. When they weren't around, I used my imagination and ruled the kingdom.
We had moved to Tennessee shortly after my sister's death. I was aware of her sickness throughout my younger years as she often spent weeks in the hospital, or doctors would come visit her at our house. She was sick as long as I knew her, so it just seemed normal for me. Her death didn't shock me at the time as it seemed like it was her next step like graduating from high school or something. I didn't truly understand what had happened. It wasn't until a few days later that it hit me that she was actually gone.
Larry didn't get sick the first year that we lived in Tennessee. He has the same affliction as my sister, but his symptoms were not as severe at the time. I knew that he was sick too, but once again I didn't fully understand the extent of his illness. He was a senior in high school, while I was beginning the third grade when we moved to Tennessee. There's not much fun an 18 year old can have with a 9 year old hanging around all the time, so I was left to my own resorts to keep myself busy. As mentioned earlier, he worked while attending his senior year to help support himself and help out my mother when she needed it. It was probably difficult trying to maintain a sense of belonging with other high school seniors while balancing his illness and working late nights during the school week. It didn't help that he had to acclimatize into an unfamiliar student body after attending school with the same people for 11 years. Nevertheless, he never let his illness top him from achieving his goals.
As the summer of 78 closed, we ended up moving from our little duplex on Stewart Street into a 3 bedroom house that I lived in until I graduated. At the time, I didn't mind leaving my friends and our fortress behind as I knew there would be opportunities to make new friends and find new adventures. Besides, I promised to visit often. There would be new adventures, but nothing would ever come close to the fun that we had at our fortress. It was the best fortress in the world.
Larry and Bruce didn't stay at the new house for long. After Bruce graduated, they rented a duplex together. I began new adventures with new friends. I'd visited Stan and Jason a few times, but never returned to Stewart Street again after the first year of living in our new house. After a few years, Larry moved back in the house with us as Bruce had married and had joined the military to support his family. Larry continued his education and began a career in electronic engineering. His illness had progressed, though, and was beginning to have the same symptoms as my sister.
Much like my sister, he began spending more and more time in the hospital. He probably spent an average of 16-20 weeks in the hospital from the ages of 22-26. Though he was able to stabilize his sickness to a degree afterwards, he still spent significant time in the hospital every year for the remaining years of his life. Even though he was sick, he still managed to maintain his career and build a respectable life for himself. He was ahead of his time in the field of electronics. If he were alive today, he'd probably have made millions developing apps for Apple.
Like my sister. Being sick was the only way that I knew my brother. He was much more fortunate than my sister in that he lived almost twice as long. Although his disease was basically a death sentence from birth, it was just normal for us. I was an adult by the time Larry succumbed to his disease. Unlike when my sister died, I fully understood what had happened. We all knew that it would happen eventually, but I had accepted the normalcy that wasn't normal at all. Although I knew it could happen, I never really accepted that it would happen.
Bruce and I were more fortunate than Debbie and Larry. Somehow, we weren’t born with the lung disease, Cystic Fibrosis, like they were. We lived healthy normal lives. Besides normal rounds of viruses and minor flu-like illnesses, we didn't know what it was like was to struggle to breathe every day. Although we were not as close as I would have liked to have been, we shared a bond as survivors. No matter the distance or differences between us, we shared memories of what our family used to be. We both moved on in our own way, but that bond was always there.
When Bruce got sick with lung cancer, it was a shock to everyone. Here was a guy who was in impeccable shape. He was well respected member of the community, teacher, and father. How in the world could he get sick? It still doesn't make sense to me. When he was given 6 months to live, I didn't accept it either. Much like I had grown accustomed to the normalcy of my other siblings' sickness, I expected everything to stay as it was. I would always have a brother. We would grow old and get together every now and then with each of us achieving success in our own manner. Ironically, the last time I had a good old fashion enjoyable talk with Bruce was after my uncle's funeral. We ate together at the Mexican restaurant and just talked about life in general. We joked and had a good time. Afterwards, we both went back to our separate lives. I envisioned many more of those lunches as we both would get a chance to take a break from everyday life.
Although I want to believe that they are in a better place, the only thing I know for certain is that they are not here. They are not here to enjoy that song on the radio that they haven't heard in years. They'll never get to see their favorite movie again. As much as I want to believe in an afterlife, I can't get past the fact that they are not here. The word death is pretty final after all. It all just doesn't make sense to me. Sometimes, I still get an inclination to call Larry or Bruce for advice on a project before I quickly come to my senses and realize that I can't do that. I also realize that my mother, dad, or wife would think I'd lost my mind if I mentioned anything of the sort.
I still have goals and aspirations that I want to accomplish in this lifetime. Life has been good to me and I have many blessings that I am thankful for. When we drive through Milan by that little duplex apartment on Stewart Street, however, I sometimes am taken back to that time when it seemed like the good times would last forever. For the brief moment that we pass the old apartment, I envision what it was like to be a kid with no worries, a kid with nothing yet had everything, and a world with limitless bounds. I was still the little brother who when he wasn't tagging along, he was ruling an imaginary kingdom with his friends. Sometimes, I wish I could twist the magic Rubik's cube and go back to the start.