Many stories begin with a simple lesson learned, and our family's story is no exception. For brevity's sake, I'll summarize.
In the beginning, we children were conceived. And the lesson learned-at least according to my Catholic mother- goes like this:
"Always remember," she told me, "that no matter what the church tells you, the rhythm method doesn't work."
I looked up at her, twelve years old at the time. "You mean to say that we were all accidents?"
"Yep. Each and every one of you." "But good accidents, right?"
She smiled. "The very best kind." Still, after hearing this story, I wasn't sure quite what to think. On one hand, it was obvious that my mom didn't regret having us. On the other hand, it wasn't good for my ego to think of myself as an accident, or to wonder whether my sudden appearance in the world came about because of one too many glasses of champagne. Still, it did serve to clear things up for me, for I'd always wondered why our parents hadn't waited before having children. They certainly weren't ready for us, but then, I'm not exactly sure they'd been ready for marriage either.
Both my parents were born in 1942, and with World War II in its early stages, both my grandfathers served in the military. My paternal grandfather was a career officer; my dad, Patrick Michael Sparks, spent his childhood moving from one military base to the next, and growing up largely in the care of his mother. He was the oldest of five siblings, highly intelligent, and attended boarding school in England before his acceptance at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. It was there that he met my mom, Jill Emma Marie Thoene.
Like my dad, my mom was the oldest child in her family. She had three younger brothers and sisters, and was mostly raised in Nebraska where she developed a lifelong love of horses. Her father was an entrepreneur who ran a number of different businesses in the course of his life. When my mom was a teenager, he owned a movie theater in Lyons, a tiny town of a few hundred people nestled just off the highway in the midst of farmland. According to my mom, the theater was part of the reason she'd attended boarding school as well.
Supposedly, she'd been sent away because she'd been caught kissing a boy, though when I asked about it, my grandmother adamantly denied it. "Your mother always was a storyteller," my grandmother informed me. "She used to make up the darnedest things, just to get a reaction from you kids."
"So why did you ship her off to boarding school?" "Because of all the murders," my grandmother said. "Lots of young girls were getting killed in Lyons back then." I see.
Anyway, after boarding school, my mother headed off to Creighton University just like my dad, and I suppose it was the similarities between my parents' lives that first sparked their interest in each other. Whatever the reason, they began dating as sophomores, and gradually fell in love. They courted for a little more than a year, and were both twenty-one when they married on August 31, 1963, prior to the beginning of their senior year in college.
A few months later, the rhythm method failed and my mom learned the first of her three lessons. Micah was born on December 1, 1964. By spring, she was pregnant again, and I followed on December 31, 1965. By the following spring, she was pregnant with my sister, Dana, and decided that from that point on, she would take birth control matters into her own hands.
After graduation, my dad chose to pursue a master's degree in business at the University of Minnesota and the family moved near Watertown in the autumn of 1966. My sister, Dana, was born, like me, on December 31, and my mother stayed home to raise us while my father went to school during the day and tended bar at night.
Because my parents couldn't afford much in the way of rent, we lived miles from town in an old farmhouse that my mother swore was haunted. Years later, she told me that she used to see and hear things late at night-crying, laughing, and whispered conversations-but as soon as she would get up to check on us, the noises would fade away.
A likelier explanation was that she was hallucinating. Not because she was crazy-my mom was probably the most stable person I've ever known-but because she must have spent those first few years in a foggy world of utter exhaustion.
And I don't mean the kind of exhaustion easily remedied by a couple of days of sleeping in late. I mean the kind of unending physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that makes a person look like they've been swirled around in circles by their earlobes for hours before being plunked down at the kitchen table in front of you. Her life must have been absolute hell. Beginning at age twenty-five, with three babies in cloth diapers-with the exception of those times when her mother came to visit-she was completely isolated for the next two years. There was no family nearby to lend support, we were poor as dirt, and we lived in the middle of nowhere.
Nor could my mom so much as venture into the nearest town, for my father took the car with him to both school and work. Throw in a couple of Minnesota winters where snow literally reached the roof, subtract my always busy dad from the equation, throw in the unending whining and crying of babies and toddlers, and even then I'm not sure it's possible to imagine how miserable she must have been. Nor was my father much help-at that point in his life, he simply couldn't. I've often wondered why he didn't get a regular job, but he didn't, and it was all he could do to work and study and attend his classes. He would leave first thing in the morning and return long after everyone else had gone to bed.
So with the exception of three little kids, my mother had absolutely no one to talk to. She must have gone days or even weeks without having a single adult conversation.
Because he was the oldest, my mom saddled Micah with responsibilities far beyond his years-certainly with more responsibility than I'd ever trust my kids with. My mom was notorious for drumming old-fashioned, midwestern values into our heads and my brother's command soon became, "It's your job to take care of your brother and sister, no matter what." Even at three, he did. He helped feed me and my sister, bathed us, entertained us, watched us as we toddled around the yard. There are pictures in our family albums of Micah rocking my sister to sleep while feeding her a bottle, despite the fact that he wasn't all that much bigger than she was. I've come to understand that it was good for him, because a person has to learn a sense of responsibility. It doesn't magically appear one day, simply because you suddenly need it. But I think that because Micah was frequently treated as an adult, he actually believed he was an adult, and that certain rights were owed him. I suppose that's what led to an almost adult sense of stubborn entitlement long before he started school.
My earliest memory, in fact, is about my brother. I was two and a half-Micah a year older-on a late-summer weekend, and the grass was about a foot high. My dad was getting ready to mow the lawn and had pulled the lawn mower out from the shed. Now Micah loved the lawn mower, and I vaguely remember my brother pleading with my father to let him mow the lawn, despite the fact that he wasn't even strong enough to push it. My dad said no, of course, but my brother-all thirty pounds of him-couldn't see the logic of the situation. Nor, he told me later, was he going to put up with such nonsense.
In his own words, "I decided to run away." Now, I know what you're thinking. He's three and a half years old-how far could he go? My oldest son, Miles, used to threaten to run away at that age, too, and my wife and I responded thus: "Go ahead. Just make sure you don't go any farther than the corner." Miles, being the gentle and fearful child that he was, would indeed go no farther than the corner, where my wife and I would watch him from the kitchen window.
Not my brother. No, his thinking went like this: "I'm going to run far away, and since I'm always supposed to take care of my brother and sister, then I guess I have to take them with me."
So he did. He loaded my eighteen-month-old sister in the wagon, took my hand, and sneaking behind the hedges so my parents couldn't see us, began leading us to town. Town, by the way, was two miles away, and the only way to get there was to cross a busy two-lane highway.
We nearly made it, too. I remember marching through fields with weeds nearly as tall as I was, watching butterflies explode into the summer sky. We kept going for what seemed like forever before finally reaching the highway.
There we stood on the shoulder of the road-three children under four, mind you, and one in diapers-buffeted by powerful gusts of wind as eighteen-wheelers and cars rushed past us at sixty miles an hour, no more than a couple of feet away.
I remember my brother telling me, "You have to run fast when I tell you," and the sounds of honking horns and screeching tires after he screamed "Run!" while I toddled across the road, trying to keep up with him.
After that, things are a little sketchy. I remember getting tired and hungry, and finally crawling into the wagon with my sister, while my brother dragged us along like Balto, the lead husky, pushing through Alaskan snow. But I also remember being proud of him. This was fun, this was an adventure. And despite everything, I felt safe. Micah would take care of me, and my command from my mother had always been, "Do what your brother tells you." Even then, I did as I was told. Unlike my brother, I would grow up doing what I was told.
Sometime later, I remember heading over a bridge and up a hill; once we reached the top, we could see the town in the valley below. Years later, I understood that we must have been gone for hours-little legs can only cover two miles so fast-and I vaguely remember my brother promising us some ice cream to eat. Just then, we heard shouting, and as I looked over my shoulder, I saw my mother, frantically rushing up the road behind us. She was screaming at us to STOP! while wildly waving a flyswatter over her head. That's what she used to punish us, by the way. The fly-swatter.
My brother hated the flyswatter. Micah was unquestionably the most frequent recipient of the flyswatter punishment. My mom liked it because even though it stung, it didn't really hurt, and it made a loud noise when connecting with the diaper or through pants. The sound was what really got to you-it's like the popping of a balloon- and to this day, I still feel a strange sort of retributive glee when I swat insects in my home.
It wasn't long after the first time Micah ran away that he did it again. For whatever reason, he got in trouble, and this time it was my dad who went for the flyswatter. By then, Micah had grown tired of this particular punishment, so when he saw my father reaching for it, he said firmly, "You're not going to swat me with it."
My dad turned, flyswatter in hand, and that's when Micah took off. Sitting in the living room, I watched as my four-year-old brother raced from the kitchen, flew by me, and headed up the stairs with my dad close behind. I heard the thumping upstairs as my brother performed various, unknown acrobatics in the bedroom, and a moment later, he was zipping back down the stairs, past me again, through the kitchen and blasting through the back door, moving faster than I'd ever seen him move.
My dad, huffing and puffing-he was a lifelong smoker-rumbled down the stairs, and followed him. I didn't see either of them again for hours. After it was dark, when I was already in bed, I looked up to see my mom leading Micah into our room. My mom tucked him in bed and kissed him on the cheek. Despite the darkness, I could see he was filthy; smeared with dirt, he looked like he'd spent the past few hours underground. As soon as she left, I asked Micah what happened.
"I told him he wasn't going to swat me," he said. "Did he?"
"No. He couldn't catch me. Then he couldn't find me." I smiled, thinking, I knew you'd make it.
Excerpted from THREE WEEKS WITH MY BROTHER © Copyright 2004 by Nicholas Sparks & Micah Sparks. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.
Three Weeks With My Brother