I can’t think about my brother William without cringing from guilt. What a terrible childhood he had. None of us loved him or tried to make him part of the family. He was just someone who shared space with us. Which was a tragedy. For him.
I think Dad loved him. Once I caught him in William’s room slowly rocking him back and forth and telling him what a good boy he was. Dad was saying he was sorry William’s mommy didn’t love him but it wasn’t his fault. William, for once, was not screaming or crying but just looking up at Dad with the most serious expression. It makes me want to cry when I remember how few times like that William ever had. And then Dad walked out forever when William was just three years old.
Mom could never forgive William for being a boy. She had wanted a baby girl. A baby girl to replace her baby that died. She fell into a deep depression when she found out she had a boy baby. She never really recovered.
It’s not good for anyone to be a replacement child who doesn’t quite live up to the role he was destined for.
First. He was a boy.
Second. He was a crabby, disagreeable child.
Third. He really didn’t talk much or interact with any of us. No surprise since no one ever tried to interact with him.
Well, that’s not completely true. When he was little, my older sister Ivy and I would sometimes involve him in our games but mostly, I am embarrassed to admit, in a mean way.
We would dress him up as a baby girl and stuff him in a baby carriage and wheel him around calling him Fern, which was the name he would have been given, if he had been the baby girl he was supposed to be.
He would cry and fuss and one day he actually yelled, “My name is Willum not Fwern.” But we just snickered at that, ignoring him. We even told him stories saying he was adopted or we had found him by the side of the road and had been forced to take him in.
Like I said before, if he had grown up to be a complete psychopath it would not have been shocking. And it was no surprise as he grew up he spent most of his time in his room when he wasn’t at school. He didn’t even really have any friends. He mostly stayed in his room listening to music. Alone.
When he was in third grade, mom asked me to pick him up after school one day. He had missed the bus for some reason. I got to the front of the school and he wasn’t there. I was angry because I had to park and go look for him. I looked in the lobby. No William. I walked around the side of the school. Nothing. Then I walked around to the athletic field and saw him standing leaning against the fence. A bunch of boys were playing baseball. He looked so sad.
“William,” I called out, “come on. We’ve got to go.” He turned around and walked to the car with his head down.
“Do you like baseball?” I asked when we got in the car. He shrugged his shoulders.
“Would you like to play?” He shrugged again.
“Looks like fun,” I tried one last time.
“Yeah. Maybe,” he said quietly.
When we got home I went to find Mom. “I think you should sign William up for baseball,” I said.
“Why on earth do you think that?” she replied.
“Well, because I think he would enjoy it and sports are good for kids. You know they say that all the time. Gives them exercise, teaches them teamwork, you know all that good stuff.”
She didn’t look interested. “Someone would have to pick him up every day. I don’t have time.”
I seriously wanted to slap her. I wanted to scream, “You don’t have the time? You have nothing but time. You do nothing.”
But I just shook my head and went up to my room. Poor William. He needed someone who cared. He needed a father.
I often wonder if things would have turned out differently for him if I had somehow managed to convince Mom to sign him up for baseball. But to my everlasting regret, I did nothing. I didn’t even volunteer to pick him up. I burn with shame from the memory.
He was seven when I started high school and we had absolutely nothing in common. We ate dinner together. That was about it. When I left for college he was only ten. When I returned he was on the cusp of adolescence and had gotten shaggier, quieter and more distant.
After I graduated from college, I moved back home to save money. In the two years that I that I was there, William was more like a boarder in the house than a member of the household. Mom and I hardly ever saw him. He got himself up for school and left before Mom was up. He had a part-time job at the local food market and he went there right after school each day and on weekends too. He didn’t come home for dinner. Sometimes the only evidence we had that he had even been home was an empty can of ravioli in the trash the next day.
“How can he eat that crap?” I asked Mom one day.
“It’s all he wants. As long as I don’t run out of canned ravioli, he’s happy.” She laughed. “The only time I hear from him is when we are getting low. Though he usually just leaves a note on the counter. He writes – ravioli. Doesn’t even sign it.”
“Mom, it’s not like you don’t know who’s writing the note,” I said.
“True enough. But he could at least sign his name.”
After I moved out, I only came home once a week for dinner. Sunday night. Mom liked to pretend we were a happy normal family. It was the least I could do and I was happy to do the least.
When William was halfway through his senior year of high school he got arrested for drug possession. It was only marijuana but back in the day marijuana was treated like it was as dangerous as heroin and you could go to jail for years for simple possession.
Mom called me at work. She knew not to call me at work so when the secretary brought me the note I knew it was serious. As soon as I could, I called her.
“Thank God you called, Rose.” She sounded completely hysterical. “Your brother has been arrested!”
“Arrested?” Arrested for what?” William seemed like such a benign person I couldn’t imagine him committing any kind of crime. Drug use did not occur to me, though thinking back, it should have. It went with his personality. Maybe he was trying to fit in or make himself feel better.
“For drugs!” Mom yelled. “Drugs. I will never be able to hold my head up in the neighborhood again when people find out my son is a drug addict.”
I couldn’t believe once again Mom was making this all about her. “Mom, first things first. Where is William right now?”
“In jail. In the local jail. I have a child in jail! This is the most humiliating moment of my life.”
I sighed inwardly and closed my eyes. “Have you gone to see him?” I tried to speak calmly hoping she would calm down.
“No, I haven’t gone to see him. Do you think I want to walk into jail and admit I have a child who is in jail because he is a criminal and a junkie.”
“We have to do something, Mom. Maybe he’s innocent. We need to hear his side of the story.”
“You go. That’s why I called you. You are so much stronger than I am. I can’t deal with this.” And she hung up.
So, I went to the jail since Mom was too worried about what the neighbors might think. I’m sure the neighbors had their own problems and could have cared less. And Mom had no friends that I knew of, so who was she worried about finding out? My grandmother, Meemee, thank goodness, was no longer with us, so we didn’t have to worry about her showing up and telling us once again how bad we all were.
William looked very small and pathetic when they brought him out to see me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I got busted,” he shrugged, looking down at the table.
“I know. But can I get some details?”
He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Jim and I were down by the river, sitting in his car, smoking some weed and suddenly a cop like jumped out of the bushes and was waving his badge and screaming at us. We tried to throw the joints away, but there were a couple in the car. So, we were arrested and now I’m in jail. Plus, they’re claiming we had enough to be charged with dealing. It’s crap.”
I think it was the longest speech William had ever said to me in his life. I hardly even recognized his voice. He must have gone through puberty at some point because his voice had deepened. I had totally missed that.
“Sounds like they got you pretty good. I’ll have to get a lawyer and see what can be done.”
William finally looked up at me. There were tears in his eyes. “Thanks, Rose. Where’s Mom? Is she coming to see me?”
I winced. What could I say? No William. Mom only cares about what the neighbors think not what you are going through.
I reached across the table and took his hand. It was probably the first time I had touched him since he was a toddler. “No William. She’s just so distressed this has happened to you she is afraid she’ll only upset you more if she comes here.”
If you go to Hell for lying, I’m well on my way.
William gave me a weak smile, thanked me, and then was led back to his cell.
I drove to Mom’s house and told her I had seen William and we had to get a lawyer.
“How am I going to afford a lawyer?” She cried. “I am barely making ends meet now!”
“I’ll take care of it, Mom. We have to do something. Do you want him to go to prison?”
“No, of course not. I just don’t know what to do. I’m so glad you can take care of it.”
The next day at work I was talking to my colleagues about what happened and asked if anyone knew a good cheap lawyer.
One of them gave me a name and I called and made an appointment.
I met with the lawyer and told him William’s sad story.
“Has he ever been in trouble before?” he asked.
“No. He’s really a good kid. Goes to school. Has a part-time job.” I was trying to build up the positive.
“Well, since, he hasn’t been in any trouble before, I could probably get the charges tossed if he agrees to join the army.”
“Really? But he’s only seventeen and hasn’t even graduated from high school. Not to mention the fact that there’s a war going on.”
“That’s his choice. Prison or the army.”
What a choice.
And so, that’s how William, at the age of seventeen, quit high school, joined the army and basically disappeared from our lives.
His court appearance was almost comical. The judge kept calling him “boy” and telling him they were offering him a chance to turn his life around. “Boy, no one ever made anything of themselves by using drugs. The army will make a man of you. You should thank the DA for giving you this wonderful opportunity.”
Wonderful opportunity to come home in a casket or maimed, I thought. But I said nothing. It was the old frying pan versus the fire dilemma. Jail or the army? Hard to decide which was worse, except jail would mark him for life. And maybe the judge was right. It wasn’t like William was really going anywhere with his life. What would he do after graduation? Continue to work at the market, live with mom and eat canned ravioli? I convinced myself this might be a good thing.
Mom and I drove him to the recruiting station where all the new recruits were going to be picked up by bus and taken to an army post for basic training. They all looked so pitifully young with pimples and long hair. None of them looked old enough to drive, let alone join the military.
“I guess a lot of these boys ended up here the same way William did,” I said to Mom.
She tut-tutted the idea. She was over the horror and shame of having a drug fiend for a son. Now she was all proud she had a son serving his country.
“They’ll make a man out of him,” she said. “Just like the judge told him. This is such a wonderful opportunity for William. I hope he makes the best of it.”
“Yeah, such a wonderful opportunity. Not like he had a choice – join the army or go to jail,” I replied.
She gave me a dirty look. “You are always so negative, Rose. It’s completely exhausting.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Negative or realistic? I wanted to ask but didn’t bother.
When it was William’s turn to get on the bus, he turned away and started walking without so much as a goodbye.
Mom, of course was acting like the loving devoted mother, so she ran after him and gave him a big hug. It was probably the only time in his life she had ever hugged him.
“My dear boy,” she said through her tears. “I am so proud of you. Don’t forget to write and tell us all about your adventures.”
William, to his credit, hugged Mom back and nodded at me. I waved to him as the bus pulled out of the parking lot. Why didn’t I hug him? Life is full of regrets.
Mom stood there until the bus was out of sight, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “My dear boy,” she kept saying. I wanted to punch her in the face.
We got a couple of cards from William. In his first note, he talked about getting his head shaved and how hard basic training was and how much they yelled at everyone. He did say the food was really good. I guessed he discovered there were other things to eat besides canned ravioli.
No surprise, he ended up getting sent to Vietnam right after basic training. He sent us a postcard with a photo of an elephant and a water buffalo. He wrote “Hot.” Still a man of few words.
After his first tour was over, he reenlisted. I was shocked. Who would want to stay in a war zone? During his second tour, we got a letter saying he had been awarded the Purple Heart. Mom seemed disinterested.
“That means he’s been wounded, Mom. In battle. Like shot?” Mom didn’t respond. It occurred to me that she would probably be happy if William came home in a body bag. Well, happy is not the right word. Content? No. That’s not it either. I just think she would love playing the role of the grieving mother, clutching the folded American flag as his body was slowly lowered into the grave. Mom loved drama. What is more dramatic than a military funeral complete with a 21-gun salute and Taps being played. Then she could put the flag on display and feel sorry for herself. She wouldn’t think about feeling sorry for William.
After two tours in Vietnam, he enlisted again and was sent to Alaska. We only found that out by an official letter the army sent to Mom. There was one postcard from him with grizzly bear on it eating a salmon. On the other side he had written – “Alaska”. He didn’t even sign his name. Reminded me of those single word notes he would leave with just the word “ravioli” on them.
“I guess he’s staying in the army for a while,” I said.
“That’s good. Good place for him. What else was he going to do with his life?” Mom said, sounding frazzled. She was over William.
When William was twenty-five, we got a card saying he had left the army and was staying in Alaska. He liked it up there. It was large and empty of humanity. There was no return address on the card.
He had picked the furthest spot from us he could find in North America. It was the last time we ever heard from him.
Image – Pixabay.com
“Canned Ravioli” is an excerpt from the novel “Please…Tell Me More” which will be available in the Fall of 2020.