I sat, alone, in the tree house. I no longer tried holding back the tears. The tree house had been Jeremy’s idea. He was ten and I was eight at the time.
“We need a fort,” he’d said one day. The fort idea had gradually grown into the tree house idea, and we’d scoured the neighborhood and empty lots to scrounge building materials. It took us a week to gather what we thought we’d need and another week to cobble together a pretty wobbly tree house. When in it, you had to sit perfectly still or it would begin rocking and you felt that it, and you, would be soon laying on the ground in pieces.
Nevertheless, we were extremely proud of what we had built, and decided, the day we’d finished it, we would sleep out in it that night. We rushed to our homes to ask our mothers’ permissions. Both moms had been watching the progress as the tree house took shape and both said we could, but only after our fathers checked that it was safe.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in my front yard, since my dad would be the first home. When he pulled into the driveway, we were at the car door before he even had a chance to unbuckle his seatbelt. “Dad! We finished our tree house and Mom said we could sleep out there tonight, but only after you and Mr. Palmer said it was safe. So can you go check it out for us?”
“Please, Mr. Taylor? We did a good job on it.”
“Whoa, boys. Slow down. Jeremy, is your dad home yet?”
“No, sir. He won’t be home for about an hour.”
“Okay, guys. How about this? You give me a chance to unwind and, after dinner tonight, Jeremy’s dad and I will check it out with you.”
“Awwww, Dad,” I whined. He gave one of those looks that meant the subject was closed and went in the house. “This sucks!” I complained to Jeremy.
After dinner that evening, Dad called Jeremy’s parents and we all went to check out the tree house. Jeremy and I ran ahead and carefully climbed into the tree house. You had to make sure you were hanging on tightly or it would throw you off, as you walked, from all the movement it had.
We heard gasps from both our moms, when they saw how unsteady it was. “Tony! Jeremy! You boys get down from there immediately!” we heard my mom say. “That thing is going to fall and you’ll break your necks!”
“It won’t fall Mom. We built it good.”
“Never you mind! Just get down from there this instant!”
“Now, Linda,” my dad said, “the thing’s barely five feet off the ground. No one’s going to be hurt, even if the whole thing collapses.”
“You never know.”
Jeremy’s dad was walking around the tree house with a funny smile on his face. He would reach up, touch it and rub it almost like he was petting a dog or cat. If I’d been old enough, at the time, to know what wistful meant, I would have said he had a wistful look about him. “You boys built this all by yourselves?” We nodded. “Impressive!” he said. “Very impressive!”
“Impressive or not, Jeremy will stay out of that thing until it’s made safe,” Jeremy’s mom said.
“We can take care of that.” He walked over to Jeremy and put his arm around him. “When I was about your age, I wanted a tree fort too and your grandfather helped me build a good one. How about Tony’s dad and I help you guys? How about it, Frank?” he said, turning to my dad. “Are you up for a little carpentry work this weekend?”
Dad looked at me and, wrapping his arm around my head, gave me a gentle noogie. “You bet!”
“Can we start now?” I asked.
“I think it’s a little late for getting much done tonight. We can get a good start if we wait until morning.”
“But tomorrow’s Saturday and you guys always play golf on Saturday, and we wanted to sleep here tonight.”
“I think we can miss a golf game for something as important as this,” Jeremy’s dad said. “If you guys really want to get started tonight, why don’t we men sit down and draw up a plan? We could get the materials we need first thing in the morning and get started on the construction.”
“Okay,” Jeremy and I said, the disappointment apparent in our voices.
Our dads walked round and around the tree, pointing up and talking quietly.
We did get the planning done that night and we worked all the next day on the tree house with our dads. We thought things should be going faster, but our dads assured us it would be ready for us by next Friday night. We weren’t so sure of that, but we finally finished it Thursday afternoon.
Jeremy and I made many trips back and forth to the tree house on Friday. We each had things from our rooms that we thought the tree house needed. After we got our stuff all up in there, we just sat in it admiring it. Our dads did most of the work but we did as much as we could and were proud of the results.
Jeremy and his parents were coming over when his dad got home and we were going to all have a picnic down by the tree house. A housewarming party Mom called it. We weren’t sure what a housewarming party was, but parties always had cake and ice cream, so we were all for it. My little sister, Silvy, was in a snit. “It’s not fair!” she complained. Tony gets a party and a playhouse.”
“It’s not a playhouse!” I said, indignantly.
“Looks like a playhouse to me,” she said, sticking her tongue out at me and stalking off.
We helped our moms carry everything down to the tree house for the cookout. Jeremy and I struggled with dragging the heavy picnic table from the patio. We refused all offers of help from our moms, though. We were out to prove we were big kids now...we had a tree fort and were old enough to camp out in it by ourselves. We could do things on our own.
The party wound down shortly before dark, and our dads told us to go over to Jeremy’s house and bring down the two boxes on the kitchen counter. They were two brand new sleeping bags, one for each of us. “We already have blankets and pillows, Dad. We brought them down earlier,” Jeremy said.
“We thought maybe you boys wouldn’t mind if we spent the night with you on your first sleep out.”
“We aren’t afraid. We aren’t babies.”
“Of course not,” my dad said. “But it’s a big point in a dad’s life when he’s able to share his son’s first sleep out. It’s for us men, it’s a dad thing.”
“Okay, since it’s important to you,” Jeremy said, but I think secretly, we were both relieved that our dads would be out there with us.
We men sat up late talking, and Jeremy and I liked hearing our dads talk about things they did when they were our ages. The really good things always started with, “Now don’t you boys tell your mothers we told you this.” When one of our dads said that, our ears pricked up. We knew they were sharing man stuff with us and were treating us as if we were just a couple of other guys. Forbidden fruit is sweet.
After a couple hours, we all slowly wound down. We unzipped the sleeping bags and laid them out on the floor as pads and each father and son shared one and used the blankets as cover. “Are we still up for golf tomorrow?” Jeremy’s dad asked mine.
“If I’m able.” my dad said. “I’d forgotten how hard a floor could be.”
Jeremy’s dad laughed. “I know what you mean. Look at it this way though, we’re learning that a sure cure for nostalgia is to try reliving it.”
“What’s nostalgia?” I asked Jeremy.
“I’m not sure...I think it’s some disease you get when you’re old.”
“Oh,” I said and wondered what our dads were laughing at.
My reverie was broken by the sound of a door shutting. I looked towards my house and saw Jeremy. He’d just came out of the house and was headed for the tree house.
From the day we moved into the house next door to his, Jeremy Palmer had been my idol. I was five, small for my age and had a head way too big for my body. Jeremy was seven, normal sized and looked perfect. I had broken one of mom’s lamps when I slipped while running through the house. I had been warned many times about running in the house, but I was excited about being in our new home and had forgotten. Dad had lectured me and sent me out to sit on the patio to ‘think about what you did.’ God, I hated those words.
I heard a noise and looked up, and this kid was standing in his yard, looking at me and bouncing a soccer ball. “Hi,” he said.
“Did you just move in?”
“My name’s Jeremy. What’s yours?”
“I’m only five.”
“Do you like soccer?” I just shrugged. “Wanna kick the ball around some?”
“I gotta think.”
“What I did.”
“What did you do?”
“I was running in the house and broke mom’s lamp.”
“You shouldn’t run in the house.”
“I know but I forgot.”
He nodded his head. “Yeah, I forget sometimes too. Thinking’s pretty hard isn’t it?”
“You need some help thinking?”
I looked back up at him. He was standing there with a big grin on his face. I nodded and he came over and sat next to me. When my dad came out a little later we were both sitting there on the step with our elbows on our knees and our chins in our hands. “Who’s your friend?” he asked me.
“His name’s Jeremy and he lives next door.”
“Do you think you should have company when you’re being punished?”
“We’re not having fun, Dad. He’s helping me think about what I did.”
“And have you been thinking?”
“Yes, sir. I’m going to try harder to remember not to run in the house.”
“That’s good, son. Remember, lamps and things can be replaced, but you could slip and fall and hurt yourself. We don’t want to see you hurt, okay?”
“You two go play now but stay in the backyard.”
From that day on, we’d become practically inseparable.
I heard the trap door opening behind me. “Hey,” I heard Jeremy say, as he crawled through the hole and up into the tree house.
“Hey,” I answered without turning. I wasn’t ready to face him and I didn’t want him to see me crying. “How did you know where I was?”
“Your dad called me. He said you were really upset and thought I should talk to you. When I got to your house, they said you’d left in tears. This was the logical place to look, since this is where you’ve always gone when you needed to think about things or just to be alone.”
“Good old predictable Tony,” I snorted.
Jeremy ignored my little outburst. “I remember another time we were up here and you were crying. Do you remember that?”
I remembered. It was the day he told me that when school started that fall, he’d be going to the new Junior High School. I was two years behind him in school so, when it was time for me to enter Jr. High, he’d be going on to the High School. It was going to be four years before we were in the same school again. When you’re ten years old, four years is almost half a lifetime and I was devastated. I completely lost it. I was sure it was the end of our friendship.
Jeremy did his best to console me, but I was having none of it. “You’ll find new friends and forget about me!” I wailed.
“How can I forget about you? We live next door to each other. The only difference will be that we won’t see each other at school. We can still see each other every afternoon and on weekends.”
“No, we won’t! You’ll be with kids your own age and will want to be doing things with them and won’t want a little kid hanging around.”
“Hang on,” he said. “I have an idea!” He climbed out of the tree house and ran to his house. Just a few minutes later he came running back. As he climbed back into the tree house, he said, “This will prove I mean it!”
“What?” I asked.
“This.” he said holding up a needle. “Give me your hand.” He quickly pricked one of my fingers and then one of his own. He put our fingers together and squeezed them with his other hand. “Now we’re blood brothers and this is a blood oath. No matter how long or where I live; no matter how many friends I have; I’ll never have another blood brother.”
“Do you mean that?”
“Me too, then.”
Jeremy walked over and stood beside me at the window, looking out over our two back yards. “I still think this is the best view in town.” He placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “I promised you then that your life would go on; that some things would change but some would be the same. That’s still true, Tony. Life is all about change.”
I finally felt I could look at him. “It’s different this time, though, Jeremy.” I said bitterly.
He turned to face me and pulled me into an embrace. He had tears in his eyes as he said, “I know it is, Tony. I know.”
As we held each other, both with tears streaming down our faces, my thoughts returned to the conversation with my parents, not even an hour ago. I was so stunned, only key phrases even registered with me. ‘Rare blood disease; incurable; a matter of months.’ I lost all control and sobbed on Jeremy’s shoulder. “Why, Jeremy? Why you?”
“I don’t know, Tony...I don’t know. Why does it have to be anyone?”
“Maybe they made a mistake? Maybe they mixed up the tests.”
Jeremy caressed my back as he answered, “No, Tony. There’s no mistake. All the tests were redone with the same results.”
“It’s just not fair!” I sobbed. “This really....”
“I know, Tony.” he interrupted. “This really sucks.”
We stood in a tight embrace for a long time, crying for a future that would not be and a future that would be changed in ways unknown. Finally, the outer tears ended. The body and mind will allow only so much outer grieving before they intervene in the interest of self preservation. Grief is a necessary emotion, but uncontrolled, it can remake you into a lost soul. One who is bitter and distrustful. One who hates what it has become but can do nothing to change.
As our grief relaxed, Jeremy released me, sat on the floor with his legs crossed at the ankles and beckoned for me to join him on the floor. I sat down, mimicking his position and with our knees touching. He reached for my hands and, with hands clasped and resting on our knees, he began speaking. “I need your help, Tony. You’re always saying how I’ve been your protector and watched out for you. Maybe I have helped you out a few times, but I want you to know it’s not out of pity for you. It’s because I really like you. You have brought more to our friendship than you know. You’ve been my rock, Tony. I could always depend on you to be there when I needed someone. I need someone now, Tony. I need you.”
“What do you need me to do?”
He looked me in the eye. “I need you to be the Tony I’ve known for eleven years. You called yourself predictable a little while ago, like it was a bad thing. It’s not, Tony. People who are predictable are the glue that hold the world together. I need you to help me hold what’s left of my life together. This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I don’t want to have to face this alone.... I can’t face it alone without falling apart. Don’t abandon me, Bro. I’m scared and need you with me until the end.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Jeremy. We’re brothers and in this, together, all the way.”
Jeremy looked relieved. “Thanks, Tony.”