He was just a little boy – nearly six years old – when he came to live with my family. Lyle’s age now.
First his father died, in June, and then his mother, about six months later. There was no one in the family who could take in both boys during this traumatic period of grieving the loss of one parent and visiting the other in the hospital, so when his aunt and uncle took in his 2-year old brother after his father’s death, Ray came to us.
It was 1985 and I was fourteen — a time when life revolves around friends and school, and attention to family is maybe not at an all-time low, but on its way down fast. I have memories of this time when Ray lived with us, but they’re vague. I know there was sadness and confusion about how not one but two parents could fall ill within such a short period of time, how a family – brothers – could be torn apart. Memories of reading to him in his room, going to his soccer games, riding with him facing backward in the station wagon on the way to Cape Cod, him singing “We Are the World” over and over and over. Ray did a mean Stevie Wonder impression. I remember his birthday party with us, soon after he arrived, and I remember driving to New Haven so that he could see his little brother, Jason. Every night when my dad got home from work, Ray hollered, “Beat me up, Bob!” and they had a terrific wrestling session. I remember my father pretending to “beat him up” and telling him it was for all the things he didn’t catch him doing that day. The boy screamed with delight. In retrospect that kind of bonding was probably what got the child through this period intact.
I clearly recall reading and rereading a blurb in the neighborhood newsletter that referred to Ray as my “brother” — in quotes, but still a shock. I recall a phone call with an 8th grade friend where Ray got on the line and droned, “Helloooooo…hellooooo…helloooo…” over and over until I lost my mind. I remember my brother being happy there was a younger kid in the house who danced all over the fragile Christmas ornaments and got into trouble more often than he did. For a little while, we did have a pesky, adorable younger brother. There were visits my parents made to his teacher at school, and counseling appointments I was only barely aware of. Looking back I can only imagine how much my parents did for him; I certainly wasn’t paying attention to that at the time.
I remember Ray’s parents pretty well. His mother Yvonne worked in my father’s office back when I was very young. She had a huge smile and chocolate covered peppermint sticks in a clear plastic container on her desk. She was fun, generous and full of life. Beautiful. His father, George, was quieter, I think. A good, kind man. He and my dad worked together later on. They moved to our town, so we saw them once in a while before they fell ill. After they died, the boys’ grandmother moved into our neighborhood and raised the boys together, getting them through high school and into college. My parents remained involved for years and continue to be in touch with them sporadically from across the country. I haven’t been in touch with them in years.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned Ray’s parents had suffered from AIDS. In 1985 our town’s small hospital didn’t seem to recognize it for a while. It was early. One died of kidney failure and the other of pneumonia, I believe. Hearing this for the first time in college, I took in the information as a more reasonable explanation than anything I had come up with, but because I hadn’t known it at the time of their deaths, I don’t tend to connect the loss of these wonderful people with AIDS in a strong way.
But this evening I read Kristen Spina’s gorgeous post remembering her father, who also died of this disease far too young. Something in the incredible way she wrote about her loss connected me to my own memories, and impressed upon me the loss those boys suffered when they were too young to grab hold of enough memories of their own parents before they were gone.
December 1st, tomorrow, is World AIDS Day. I will remember Yvonne and George’s beautiful spirits, because I can, in honor of their children.