The next few weeks were a pretty strange experience for all of us. Mom and Dad had always been busy trying to keep the family afloat financially, and us kids never really had much in common, so we all pretty much did our own thing. But now we were united in a common goal.
At first I was just going through the motions. "Uh, huh. Yes sir," I just did as I was told. But it kind of grew on me, and I could see everyone was getting pretty excited about this. We all started to believe that this thing really could work. It could really make us rich, and then we'd be able to do things with our lives. Gosh, it was great having a goal!
Every once in a while I'd lean back and see how this project was really changing all of us. Sleep had always been the most precious thing I could think of, and I know it was real important for Suzie and Davey, too. But no one got much sleep anymore. We seemed to be filled with fire and energy. We'd wake up with our minds bubbling with ideas and plans, and an eagerness I know I hadn't had in years. I had felt the same way once about painting, but for the last year or so that fire was all but gone. It was good to feel alive again.
Even though the Names books, as we had grown to call our project, were on our minds almost all the time, each of us seemed to be able to make time for other things too -- like being a family. What a unique concept!
First thing in the morning Mike would lead us in yoga exercises and light meditation. And then we'd all eat breakfast together, while we went over our agenda for the day.
Dad, of course, would lay out the revised schedule of exactly how everything should proceed for the day, the next week, and the rest of our lives. Naturally, it was a different scenario each day. Dad loves scenarios and time tables. Fortunately he had plenty of spare calendars to mark up when the scribbles became too illegible every couple of days.
Mike turned out to be a great organizer. Dad may have been in charge of the long term planning, but Mike took care of the actual day-to-day nuts and bolts. He kept the master list of sources we'd gone through searching for material on Johns, and he'd give us daily assignments. It was nice having an older brother again.
We'd spend the better part of the day at the library, poring through books, taking copious notes, and making tons of xeroxes. Then we'd sit around at night in the living room, throwing out ideas for the book, sharing some of the information we'd found at the library, and figuring out where we had to direct our attentions next.
But we also seemed to find some time each day just for ourselves, too. Even though Mom and Dad were worked to the bone while they tried to keep up with their jobs as much as they could and still give the project their all, they seemed to be growing a little closer. Each day they took a walk together, and they laughed more than I'd heard them laugh in all the years growing up.
(Unfortunately for Mom, the walks weren't totally enjoyable. Not only did Dad have the exact number of steps over the route calculated, but he also insisted that each day they increase the pace. "We have to keep pushing it to the limit so that we can get the most out of it," he'd say as he clicked the stopwatch, and off they'd go.)
Davey was practicing a couple hours a day. And Suzie got a new guitar and a manual and she was starting to sound a little better. I was even starting to do some sketching again, and for the first time in over a year I stretched out a canvas and did some painting.
Before this Names project we'd all been floating aimlessly, wishing for things, but not doing anything about it. Now, suddenly, when we didn't have a spare minute, we were making time for the things that mattered to us.
After a few weeks, Mike started handing out the writing assignments. He'd give us a pack of xeroxes and notes and say, "All right, give me a half-page on so-and-so."
It was hard trying to write, at first. But Mom worked with us. She'd go over what we'd attempted, give us some pointers, and after a while we were all turning out pretty good stuff.
We were getting to be a darn good team, and you know, it was almost fun, sometimes. The best part was when one of us would find something interesting and it would suddenly develop into a great idea for a new chapter, and we'd all get really excited, and we'd feel this weird closeness. For the first time in my life I felt like we were really a family. If only John were there to share it with us, then it would have been perfect.
We started to really get to know each other. It was almost overwhelming at times, but overall it was neat.
Mike told us how a friend of his at college had been killed, and he had become obsessed with trying to figure out all the answers to life and reality and what it's all about. He had a nervous breakdown and quit his teaching position and checked himself into a clinic for a few months to try to sort things out.
We never knew before what had happened with Mike. All we knew was that he was living with someone in Ann Arbor, teaching at the University there, and then he was home, but not all there. His way of coping with the pain was to block the world out and make up his own world in his head.
Then suddenly it all clicked for him that day he mumbled those fateful words that changed our lives. In his mind he saw us all working together as a family and suddenly the questions didn't mean that much. "The key to living is to just live," he told us with a knowing smile.
Suzie, Davey and I were growing particularly close. We'd drive together to the library in her VW bug and sometimes we'd get really deep and philosophical and personal.
I have to admit, I had sort of liked not knowing them that intimately before -- I mean you could just have this sort-of-nice feeling about them, just because they were your brother and sister. But when they started telling me some of the secrets they kept inside, well, I was a little uncomfortable. But it did explain a lot of things, and I think it made us closer afterwards. Still, sometimes when they poured out their hearts I almost wished they hadn't.
Davey, for example, just burst out one morning that he might be gay. Now I'm a little more open about that particular subject than most people -- in high school my best friend Frank had confided in me that he was gay and that he "cared for me." I was shocked and confused at first, and I smiled and was really nice about it and tried to accept it, but inside I was pretty uncomfortable around him. And I guess later there were times in my life when I almost found myself questioning my own sexuality. But I had finally reached a point where I could honestly say, "It's fine for other people, but it's not for me and I'm not afraid of it." And of course, being in the art world, a lot of my friends are gay.
But now, we were talking about my little brother here. Somehow it seemed a whole lot more complicated all over again, and I had a hard time choking out any reply at all.
"What do you mean you 'think' you might be gay?" Suzie asked. "Are you in love with another guy?"
"Well, no..." Davey sighed. "I just...well..." he sighed again. "You know...well, people at school have always teased me for years, because I dance -- and you know, all male dancers are supposed to be gay. I never let it bother me before. But now my friends are always talking about having sex, and I'm...well, I'm still a virgin. They know it and they keep saying it proves I'm gay. But I just don't feel like I want to have sex with any girl right now, that's all. But maybe...well, maybe that means I really am gay..."
"It doesn't mean anything, honey," Suzie sighed. "Don't let them pressure you, Davey... It's okay not to have sex until you're ready. It..." she swallowed, "it's not really a good idea to have sex for the wrong reasons. Believe me, I know. When you really love someone, then it'll feel right."
"Right!" I agreed. It's not fair that sixteen-year-old kids should have to feel pressured about things like this.
Of course we added that if and when he did have sex he had to be really careful. AIDS was a real danger for everyone, not just for gay people. You know the whole wise older brother and sister explaining about the birds and the bees routine.
Davey felt a lot better, but the emotion-packed morning was only just beginning. Suzie was sniffling and when I looked over I saw tears running down her cheeks.
"What's the matter?" I whispered.
"I don't know. I feel all crazy inside," she sobbed. "For the first time now, it's like we're a family. We actually spend time with each other...and Mom and Dad."
She explained how she had so much hurt and pain built up inside because they had always been too busy to be with us while we were growing up. All the special occasions at school they missed, all the achievements in our lives that we couldn't share with them. It was their lack of attention in her life that made her feel so insecure inside, and it really screwed up her life.
"We all feel that way, Suzie," I assured her. "I mean, look at John. I'm sure that was one of the main reasons he and Dad never got along. He had so much resentment, he'd snap at Dad over anything. And then it was just a vicious cycle. Dad would snap back, and little things just got blown all out of proportion. Remember why he left?"
"Wasn't it some stupid argument about eating, or something?"
"Yeah. That's when Dad read somewhere that having 3 big meals a day was really bad for the body, and he had us eating tiny meals every half hour."
"Oh, yeah," Davey laughed. "I remember that. We ate 37 meals a day, every one at different times. The refrigerator door was always open and all the food was always spoiled."
"Yes," I laughed remembering. "But John said, 'NO WAY!' and they got into an argument, and John blew up and told Dad that he and Mom were too busy to be a part of our lives, but they still always had to run them."
"Yeah, I remember," Suzie sighed.
"Well, they have been really busy all our lives. But they were working hard to make our lives better. They did what they thought they had to do. When you really think about it, everyone's got complaints about their family. No matter what parents do, their kids are going to feel they screwed them up. Too much attention, too little attention..."
Suzie let out a long sigh. "Hey, I suppose you're right. We are like a family now, so I should just put it all out of my head... but it's so hard...I don't know, I've just been so messed up the last few years. Ever since Ray broke off our engagement...I've, well...I know I've really been using sex for the wrong reasons. I just...well...I just wanted someone to pay attention to me...I just didn't feel like anyone really loved me." The tears were running down her cheeks and I hoped she could see enough to drive!
It was kind of hard for me -- it wasn't something I was used to doing very much -- but I was all choked up and I whispered, "I love you, Suz." Davey chimed in agreement, and after a lot of sniffling and some hugs that nearly sent us over the divider, we drove the rest of the way in a really peaceful silence.
It was nice to get to know my parents as people. We'd always known they were hard workers, but it was good to find out they were pretty nice people, too. I always knew Mom felt sad about not being able to fulfill her passion to be a writer, but I never realized that Dad had dreams that he had put aside, too.
Dad had really loved designing rockets and doing research, and he really missed it sometimes. But once upon a time he had dreamed even bigger dreams. He once thought he could make a real difference in the world. As a rocket scientist he knew a lot about research and progress and he knew that it wasn't all good. But science could really help mankind and make our world a much better place if only all the energy was directed in the right places. He once dreamed that he'd be the spokesman for a new Good Science Age, an era where engineers worked on how to make life better rather than how to make a car a little more aerodynamically appealing.
Now his job as an insurance salesman was certainly a far cry from his dream, but he plodded through it each day, because he was a man of responsibility.
One thing I learned about my dad, though, was never to drive with him.
Davey and Suzie had left for the library early one morning and I had to bum a ride with Dad. He still made insurance calls on his biggest clients each week and I sort of got to see him in action.
First off, his car is, well, an interesting experience. As you can guess, the dashboard has got several clocks in it. But that's not the weird part. You see, my dad used to smoke a long time ago, and he chewed gum to kick the habit. Well, apparently he got hooked on gum instead. Now, I know, you're thinking there are a lot worse habits out there. But, as you may already have noticed, Dad kind of goes a little overboard with things.
When you open the door to
Dad's car it kind of knocks your socks off. Well, more precisely, it
definitely clears your sinuses. It stinks like mint and cherry and double-fruity
and every flavor of gum you can imagine, all chewed at once. The entire
back seat is filled with empty gum wrappers.
Why would someone keep the wrappers to every stick of gum they've chewed, you might wonder. Dad had read somewhere that just the smell of gum can keep your brain sharp and active, and you won't have to worry about falling asleep at the wheel. When you drive as much as he does, and get as little sleep as he does, I guess gum wrappers on your back seat isn't that bad an idea...right?
I hesitated a moment before I took a leap of faith and sat down on the passenger side atop the spill-over of thousands of wrappers.
"Are you coming?" Dad called as he started the car.
"I guess so," I stammered. It just seemed so gross, somehow. I knew it was just empty wrappers -- I wouldn't find any sticky surprises. ABC gum is much too valuable to Dad for him to let a piece slip by. He saves every piece and sticks it in the trunk after he chews it.
Apparently he had also read about putting sandbags in the back of your car to give it better traction. He decided building gum bricks was a more exciting alternative, and a great way to practice conservation and recycling. At last measurement the gum brick back there was three feet wide by two and a half feet high, and it weighed more than two hundred pounds.
As I sank into paper and foil, Dad put the car in reverse, leaned over, and tapped the time chronometer. "Okay. Starting out at exactly 9:41 and 34 seconds, check." (One of the ways Dad likes to amuse himself while spending so much time on the road is to clock and time the mileage between stops. He logs them carefully into a journal, but I have no idea what he does with all those measurements of time and distance. Maybe he's making a map? Maybe a time machine? Who knows with Dad.)
Dad leaned back, whipped out a pack of gum and ripped it open. He gingerly pulled out a stick, popped the piece into his mouth and tossed the wapper in the back. "Let's see, that's 12 million, 362 thousand, 452. Want one?" he asked, aiming the pack my way as he pulled out of the driveway.
"Uh, no thanks," I moaned, trying not to breathe any more than I had to.
As Dad raced down the street he leaned forward and turned a knob on what I assumed was the radio. However, all it did was turn up the volume on the dozen or so clocks on the dashboard. "Tick, tick, tick," echoed out of the quadraphonic speakers buried under tons of gum wrappers.
Thank goodness this ten-minute ride to the library couldn't get any worse. Or at least that's what I thought.
I did mention that Dad designs greeting cards, didn't I? Maybe not. (Anyway, it's the second of his three jobs. We never have figured out what the third job is, but he always claims he holds down three.) I suppose it isn't that uncommon for a creative person to let his mind wander while driving to come up with ideas. Since Dad spends a lot of time on the road traveling between clients, it makes sense he would do some of his creative thinking while driving. But apparently Dad doesn't just think up his ideas while he drives. Oh, no. I found that out!
"Rick, hand me that pad, will you please. I just had a doozy of an idea for a Get Well card. Oh, this is great..."
"You want me to write it down..." I stammered as I reached cautiously into the pile of wrappers at my feet, and pulled out the pad.
"Huh? Oh, no thanks, son. I've just got to get this down while it's clear in my head."
I handed him the pad and he pulled a pencil out of his pocket and started drawing. I couldn't help shaking uncontrollably, and I realized to my horror that my seatbelt wasn't attached. I flailed helplessly through gum wrappers searching for it. Even after it was safely in place, I clamped my eyes closed and prayed we'd be at the library already.
All I could hear was his pencil furiously scratching the page, as he drove along, chomping his gum, whistling away to the sound of "Tick, tick, tick, tick..."
It was only five more minutes, but it was the longest five minutes of my life. We finally ran up on the curb next to the library and practically hit the book drop-off box.
"Huh?" Dad finally said as he looked up from his pad. "Oh, I guess we're here."
I was really shaking, and it took me several tries to get the door open.
"Should I pick you up later?" Dad asked.
"Uh, no thanks, Dad. I'll get a ride!" I assured him. I'd crawl home before I ever rode with him again. "Uh, thanks a lot, Dad."
"Sure son. Good luck with the research."
I watched him swerve down the road, and I got down and kissed the sidewalk.