I wish you’d known my brother when he was little. He was one of the happiest, kindest little boys I’ve ever known and I fell madly in love with him the moment I laid eyes on him. The day my mother brought him home from the hospital, I was eight years old with three older sisters. They were ten, twelve and fourteen, respectively. Over the course of the next decade, while our older sisters graduated from high school and moved on with their lives, he and I grew very close.
One night, when my brother was ten years old, our parents went out to dinner and I stayed home to babysit. My brother was out playing in the neighborhood – something we’d all done as kids – and was due home by the time the street lights came on. On this particular night, though, he didn’t come home when he was supposed to. In the beginning, I wasn’t really concerned, and just figured he’d gotten involved in something with his friends, so I went looking for him.
After checking for him at all of his friends’ houses, I was starting to get a little worried. This really wasn’t like him to stay out past his curfew. He was just that kind of a kid; he never caused anyone any problems. Anyway, that night I walked everywhere, looking for him and calling his name. I even walked up to the center of town to check the candy and music stores (his usual hang-outs). By the time I got home, I was pretty frantic. Just as I was getting ready to call the police, he came slamming through the back door, all out of breath and with a panicked look on his face. In fact, he looked like he was on the verge of crying.
As this feeling of relief washed over me, I calmly asked him where he’d been, more to try to just relieve his fear than for any other reason, really. But his answer stopped me in my tracks. One thing my brother wasn’t was a liar. He didn’t have to be. I was his confidant and his protector, and he knew it. But, that night, he told me he’d been at one of his friend’s houses; a house I’d just checked when I was out looking for him. They told me they hadn’t seen him. The lie bothered me more than anything else, and I told him so. He wouldn’t change his story and insisted that’s where he’d been, before running upstairs to his room. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and after a few seconds, I ran after him. The sight that greeted me when I threw open his bedroom door still haunts me, after all these years. He’d thrown open his window and was about to jump out, screaming that he just wanted to die.
I think it actually took me a second or two to react, but I threw myself across the room and grabbed his arm as he was leaning out. We both ended up on the floor, sobbing and screaming. He was crying and telling me to just let him go, while I’d wrapped him in my arms and was pleading with him to tell me what was going on. He wouldn’t. He just kept saying he couldn’t tell me and, after calming down a while later, begged me not to say anything to our parents. I stayed with him until he fell asleep that night, then waited up for my parents to come home.
Sadly, my parents reacted as most parents would have, I think. I couldn’t seem to communicate the utter despair I’d witnessed that night, a despair that was so grossly out of character for this little boy whom we all loved more than life itself. Rather, they chalked it up to a little misbehavior on my brother’s part, and a lot of over-reacting on my part. It didn’t help that my brother acted as if I was making a big deal out of nothing, when my parents asked him about it the next morning. He denied trying to jump out the window, or saying that he wanted to die. But something changed that night, and life with him was never the same.
The boy who was always so laid back and happy had disappeared. In his place, an anxious child grew into a troubled teen who became a man battling addictions and demons that threatened to destroy him, until he’d finally had enough. At the age of forty, my brother checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for what turned out to be the first of many visits. It was there that he finally felt safe enough to tell me a story. It was the story of a ten-year old boy who’d gone out to play one day, and ended up being molested by our parish priest; a story that ended two years later, after living through unspeakable horrors he spent the next thirty years trying to erase from his mind.
As I listened to his story, it occurred to me that the little boy we’d lost that day had grown into the bravest man I’d ever known.