The twenty-minute ride home was made in silence. Will drove Cecilia and the boys in his car. Cecilia and Rick rode in the back seat with A.J. lying in his mother's lap, his legs spread out across Rick's knees. Cecilia stroked A.J.'s hair as he rested against her with his eyes closed. She assumed that he’d fallen asleep, but as soon as Will pulled in the driveway and stopped the car, A.J.'s eyes popped open.
A.J. took Rick’s hand and walked him to the house, with their mother and uncle following. Cecilia had said goodbye to her sister and brother-in-law in the hospital parking lot. She had assuring her younger siblings that she would have all the help she needed tonight, and that she might as well go home to her infant daughter and two-year-old son.
Cecilia's mother was waiting for them in the living room, as were Bud and Edie Krelman. When A.J. caught sight of everyone he A.J. buried his face in Rick's side and refused to acknowledge the visitors, not even his beloved grandmother. Cecilia didn't push the issue.
“Rick, would you take A.J. upstairs and help him get washed and ready for bed?”
"Put A.J. in the double bed in the guest room for tonight, please. He'll have more room to maneuver around with that cast on his arm than he will in his twin bed. Please stay with your brother until I come up. I'll be there in a few minutes."
At Rick's "Okay," Cecilia turned and began answering the many questions of her mother and close friends.
After sending Edie and Bud home thirty minutes later, and leaving her mother and Will downstairs, Cecilia made her way to the guest room. She found A.J. dressed in pajama bottoms now and lying on top of the blankets with Rick sitting beside him.
Cecilia sat on the side of the bed opposite Rick and smiled. "Thank you for helping him, Rick. Say good night to A.J. and get ready for bed now."
A.J. propped himself up on his left elbow. "I thought Rick was going to sleep in here with me."
"Honey, you need a little more room tonight because of your arm. Rick will be right next door."
At those words, A.J. started climbing out of the bed. "Then I'll sleep in my bed in our room, too."
"I can stay in here with him tonight, Mom. I'm skinny enough. I won't take up much room. Otherwise, I can bring my sleeping bag in and bunk on the floor if he needs more room."
"I don't need more room.” A.J. patted the mattress beside him with his left hand. “There’s plenty here.”
Cecilia knew she was fighting a losing battle, and also knew that if A.J. wanted Rick in here with him, then that’s where Rick should be.
“It’s up to you boys then. Whatever you prefer.”
Cecilia got her answer when Rick stood and headed for the door while promising his brother, "I'll be back in a few minutes."
A.J. relaxed and laid back down.
"Do you want something to eat, sweetheart? All you had at the hospital was soup."
"No, I don't want anything."
Cecilia brushed her son’s bangs off his forehead. "Does your head still hurt?"
"If it's still bothering you when you wake up, I'll give you some more aspirin. Doctor Bob's going to stop by later in the morning, too, to see how you're feeling." The woman traced A.J.'s jaw line with her fingers. "It looks like Rick did a better job than usual of helping you wash. I don't see any traces of dirt."
"I told him to do a good job, that Daddy would want him to."
Fighting back tears, Cecilia swallowed hard. "You're right, A.J. Daddy would want that."
The room grew quiet for a moment, and then A.J. asked, "Mom, what day is it?"
"It's Sunday, honey. It's very early on Sunday morning."
Cecilia briefly saw something in A.J.'s eyes. What though, she wasn't certain. Confusion, fear, panic? Maybe all of those things. Then, just as quickly, she saw A.J. suppress those feelings as he schooled his face into neutral mask.
“No, Mom, it's Saturday, I think. It's very early on Saturday morning."
Cecilia made no reply. She was more concerned about his lack of expression, than she was about his actual words. A.J.'s feelings had always been so easy for his mother to read. He was the type of person who wore his heart on his sleeve, as the saying went. Rick was the son who could hide his feelings, and had always been able to, but not A.J. Not ever. He had always been an open book to his mother. Cecilia didn't know, until the night Jack died, that A.J. was capable of shutting himself off from others, especially from her. Looking down at him then, taking in the bruised and battered face, the cast, and the expressionless eyes, Cecilia cried deep in her soul for all she knew her son would have to deal with in the days and weeks to come.
Oh, Jack, why? Why? Why A.J.? Why you?
Cecilia pushed those thoughts away because she had no other choice. If she let her mind drift to Jack now, she knew she'd start crying, and she didn't want to do that in front of A.J. again. He'd been through enough already tonight.
Wiping her eyes, Cecilia leaned over and kissed her son's forehead. "I love you, A.J."
"I'm glad you're here, Mom. I'm glad you're okay."
What does A.J. mean by that? That he’s glad I’m in the room with him? Or does he mean that he’s glad I didn’t die tonight along with Jack?
"I'm fine, A.J.,” Cecilia assured. “I'm not going anywhere, sweetheart. I'll always be here for you. You know that, don't you?"
A.J. nodded. "I know that."
Rick came back in the room dressed in pajama bottoms and a white undershirt. He climbed into bed beside A.J., as Cecilia helped A.J. prop his arm up on a pillow, and pulled the sheet and light blanket up to cover both her sons. Cecilia was reluctant to leave, but now that Rick was here she decided it was time for her to say good night. She knew Rick would give A.J. whatever the youngster needed in the way of comfort, and that maybe tonight it would be easier for A.J. to accept that comfort from Rick, than it would be for him to accept it from her. Besides, Cecilia was about at the end of all she could endure. She didn't know how much longer she could hold back and not start sobbing uncontrollably in front of her boys.
“Grandma and Uncle will are going to spend the night. You boys sleep as late as you want to in the morning. Grandma and I will be here when you wake up."
The boys nodded, and Rick asked, "I heard Uncle Will on the phone. Who's he calling at this time in the morning?”
"He's trying to find your Uncle Ray. The last we heard he was in South America, but nobody really knows where."
Rick didn't say anything to that, so Cecilia kissed the boys then and told them good night. Rick pulled her into a bear hug and whispered in her ear, "I love you, Mom. Don't worry, I'll take care of A.J."
Kissing him again, Cecilia whispered back, "I know you will, Rick. I know you will. If you need me for any reason, please come and get me."
With a final goodnight to Rick and A.J., Cecilia headed for the door. She shut off the overhead light as she passed the switch. The bedside lamp still provided a dim light in the room. Cecilia didn’t tell Rick to shut it off, but rather would allow him to decide when it would be extinguished. The woman exited the room and closed the door behind her. Cecilia’s mother was waiting for her in the hallway. She took her daughter into her arms, and let Cecilia muffle her sobs against her shoulder. Cecilia’s mother guided the woman down the hall to the master bedroom. She led her daughter inside, and then closed the door so the boys wouldn’t hear their mother crying.
A.J. was so quiet for so long after their mother left the room, that Rick was certain his brother had finally fallen asleep. Just was he was leaning over to shut off the lamp, A.J.’s voice broke the nighttime stillness.
"It's Saturday now, isn't it, Rick? It's early Saturday morning, right?"
"No, A.J., it's Sunday. It's about one-fifteen Sunday morning."
A.J. was quiet for a moment while he mulled over his brother’s words. "Why can't I remember what day it is? Why can't I remember Saturday?"
Rick thought carefully again about everything Doctor Barton had discussed with him earlier in the evening before responding.
"A.J., don't worry about it right now. It's been a real long day, and you hit your head pretty hard. Doctor Bob says in a few days, when you're feeling better, you might remember Saturday again."
"You know what, Rick?” A.J. asked with an odd note of hope to his voice.
“I don't think Saturday's been here yet, that's it. There hasn't been a Saturday yet, right?"
Rick didn't know what to say. It sounded as if A.J. was trying to convince himself of something he didn't really believe. As though deep down A.J. knew Saturday had already come and gone, but for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to face that fact.
Recalling once again what Doctor Barton had told him, Rick decided to steer A.J. to another subject, and also to repeat this conversation to his mom in the morning. Maybe she'd have some ideas as to what he should say to A.J. if this subject was brought up again.
"A.J., how about if I read you a story? I know you’re too old for that kinda thing now, but maybe you'd like me to read you a chapter in that Hardy Boys book you've been working on."
When A.J. didn't immediately reply, Rick knew his brother had realized that he was trying to change the subject. Rick waited then, wondering what A.J. would say next.
A.J. appeared to be willing to go along with this shift of subject, because when he spoke again he requested, "Could you tell me a made-up story? You know, like you used to do when I was a little kid."
"A made-up story?"
"Yeah, you know. Not one you read from a book, one you make up as you go along. You're good at those, and you haven't told me one in a long time."
"Sure, I can do that. But if I remember right, you have to pick the subject, and then I make up a story about it. Right?"
"Yeah, that's how it works." A.J. thought a moment. "Okay, I've got an idea. I want a story about two grownup men named Rick and A.J. They're brothers, just like us, and in this story they have to be happy. And, they have to have an adventure."
Rick smiled. "All right, let me think for a minute. This shouldn't be too hard though."
Rick formulated the story in his mind, but before starting it, he needed to tell A.J. something he'd wanted to say all night. The teenager rolled toward his brother and gave him a careful hug.
"A.J., I'm real proud of you. I want you to know that. You did...you did right by Dad tonight."
A.J. lay stiffly in Rick's arms for a minute, and then pulled away.
"I'm ready for that story now, Rick."
Rick gave a slight smile, then cleared his throat.
"Okay, a story about two grownup guys named Rick and A.J. Well, once upon a time, there were two men named Rick and A.J. Rick had dark hair and always wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He liked to wear comfortable clothes, too, like T-shirts and blue jeans, and he liked cute chicks. They thought Rick was cute, too.”
"Rick." A.J. groaned.
"Rick had a younger brother named A.J. A.J. had blond hair and liked to dress fancy, in suits and ties and stuff. His clothes were always clean and pressed. The kid was every mother's dream."
"I don't wear suits and ties!"
"Not all the time, but you like to. You like to get all dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant, or some place like that play Mom and Dad took us to last year. Besides, this is my story, A.J., so just keep your comments to yourself."
"Okay, okay,” A.J. agreed. “Keep going.”
"Anyway, A.J. liked to wear suits and ties, and he liked cute chicks, too. And those chicks really liked A.J. They were always chasing him, and causing him all sorts of problems that Rick had to help him get out of."
"Rick! Yuck! This story's getting gross."
Putting his hand over A.J.'s mouth, Rick interrupted his monologue just long enough to order, "Quiet, A.J."
"As you can tell by what I've said, Rick and A.J. didn't look much like brothers. A lot of people told them that they didn't look like brothers at all, but they were. Rick and A.J. knew they were brothers, because they felt like brothers. Maybe nobody else understood that, but Rick and A.J. did. They were best friends. Rick and A.J. had all kinds of adventures. They solved mysteries sometimes, too. Kinda like the Hardy Boys. One day, Rick and A.J. were in Mexico on a vacation and..."
Rick talked a while longer, weaving a tale of mystery and intrigue for his little brother concerning a grownup Rick and A.J. Rick sighed with relief when, long before he’d finished his story, he realized A.J. was finally sleeping. He glanced at the alarm clock on the bedside table and saw it was almost two. He reached up and shut off the lamp, then turned on his side and face away from A.J. while snuggling into his pillow. As his thoughts turned away from his younger brother and moved to his father, Rick started to cry. He tried hard to be quiet. The last thing Rick wanted to do was wake A.J. Tears ran down Rick's cheeks, and an occasional muffled sob could be heard, as the teenager gave into his sorrow, his loss, and his grief.
"Why did you leave us, Dad?” Rick whispered into his pillow. “Why did you leave us? Why was it you who had to die? I'm so scared. I'm so scared I won't be the kind of man you want me to be for Mom and A.J. I loved you, Dad. I loved you so much. Did you know that?"
Rick cried until he had no tears left. He fell asleep against his damp pillow, hoping that when he woke up the day’s events would turn out to have been a bad dream.
The next few days were full of confusion, as days preceding a funeral always are for those family members left behind. People came and went, phone calls were made and received, and burial plans were discussed and decided upon. Cecilia tried her best, while dealing with all these things, to give her boys as much attention as she possibly could. She was afraid she wasn't giving the boys enough of her time in those first hectic days after Jack’s death, but then came to realize that, as usual, Rick and A.J. were getting what they needed from each other. She also consoled herself with the thought that once the funeral was over on Wednesday, that things would be easier. The three of them would be alone, and she'd have a chance to focus on each child's individual needs. Until then, she was glad to see the boys seeking comfort from each other.
A.J. followed Rick everywhere during those early days after their father’s death, and Rick willingly let the youngster do so. Rick’s patience with his younger brother appeared to be endless. He offered solace, answered questions, and tried to keep A.J. occupied with games or a TV show. Watching the two of them, Cecilia realized that doing these things for A.J. was helping Rick as well. Keeping A.J. occupied gave Rick somebody who needed him. Needed his comfort, needed his strength, and needed his time. Cecilia knew that was good for her oldest son. It helped keep Rick's mind off everything and gave him a purpose. Several times Cecilia told Rick how proud she was of him, and how much she appreciated the time and attention he was giving A.J. Rick would just shrug his shoulders when his mother would say those things, and reply with, "That's what big brothers are for, Mom."
Cecilia supposed that was true, at least in Rick's case it was true. Still, she appreciated his efforts nonetheless. Rick was normally not known for his patience, and like all teenagers his age, could be self-centered when it came to his own wants and needs. In many ways, Cecilia felt as if she was watching Rick grow up over night. He seemed to be putting his teen years behind him, in favor of taking on the responsibilities of an adult.
The nights were the hardest for Cecilia. After the boys were asleep she'd retreat to her bedroom and cry. Cry for herself, and cry for the husband she loved and missed so much. She'd cry for the two children he'd left behind. Children Jack would never get to see become adults. She'd cry for her oldest son, the child who was already taking on responsibilities no fifteen-year-old should have to. Cecilia would cry for the first-born, who had so much of his father's strength and temperament. She'd cry because there would be no father for the teenage boy who needed a man to guide him into adulthood.
Then Cecilia would cry, for her youngest child - the child who had so much of his father's sensitive soul. She'd cry for all her A.J. had endured that long Saturday. Cry at the thought of A.J. being trapped with his dead father, alone, injured, in the dark, and not knowing if help would ever arrive. She'd cry because he, too, at ten, needed a father to help him grow into manhood. And then Cecilia would find herself crying for A.J. because he couldn't cry for himself. What had happened to scar her son so deeply that he couldn't cry? That he couldn't express his sorrow and anguish? Cecilia was afraid she'd never know, and afraid she wouldn't know how to help A.J., and that he'd pay for that shortcoming on her part for the rest of his life.
Would she be able to be both mother and father to her boys? Would she be able to raise them to be the kind of men Jack would be proud of? Cecilia was so scared, and so alone, and so unsure of herself those first few months after her husband's death, that she spent many nights crying herself to sleep as all these troubling thoughts ran through her mind.
Although getting through the wake, and then the funeral service, wasn't easy, Cecilia and the boys somehow managed. The wake was a long evening that involved greeting people, some of who knew the circumstances surrounding Jack's death, and some of who didn't. Explanations were given, sympathies offered, and tears shed, as people came and went. Through it all, Rick never left his mother's side. He stood next to her by the coffin, shaking hands, answering questions, and offering Cecilia silent support.
A.J. stood by his mother and brother on and off throughout the evening, as well. Cecilia observed, however, that the youngster never looked at his father's body. Earlier in the afternoon, A.J. had also refused to accompany her and Rick, as well as other family members, in a private viewing of the body thirty minutes prior to the start of the wake. A.J. had chosen instead to wait in the hallway with his Uncle Will. Later in the evening, Cecilia mentioned this to Bob Barton. He put her mind to ease somewhat, by reminding her of all the things Frank Jonzek had shared with them. Bob Cecilia that maybe A.J. had already said his goodbyes to his father, and wasn't up to doing it again.
Cecilia also observed that if someone who was unaware of how A.J. had been injured started asking innocent questions of him, the boy would become withdrawn and refuse to speak. Usually after an incident like that, A.J. would drift away to go sit beside his Uncle Will or Grandpa Simon. For whatever reason, A.J. had taken comfort in the presence of these two men ever since the accident. Therefore, Cecilia had put them in charge of keeping track of A.J. during the long hours of the wake. She and Will had agreed that if A.J. expressed a desire to go home, or seemed tired, or wasn't feeling well due to the headaches that were still bothering him, that Will would return with the boy to the Simon house and stay there with A.J. until the wake ended at nine. Cecilia did ask A.J. several times during the evening if he wanted to go home, and she heard Will ask him twice, but he always said no.
Cecilia Simon looked up at the next person she was to greet at seven that evening, and was surprised to see the man holding A.J.’s left hand. If A.J. hadn't been smiling while he clung to the man, she probably wouldn't have recognized him considering the he’d only met him once, and that time he’d been wearing his fire department uniform. But waiting now to say hello to her and Rick, was Frank, the fire captain A.J. had spoken of often over the past three days. Cecilia was touched that the man would take the time to come to Jack's wake. Obviously, Frank didn't know the Simon family, which meant he was there for A.J. After Frank greeted Cecilia and Rick, Cecilia thanked him for coming.
“I want to thank you again, Captain Jonzek, for all you did for A.J. My husband would be so grateful to you for riding with A.J. to the hospital, and for staying with him until Rick and I got there. I know that isn’t normally a part of your job. We appreciate your kindness. A.J.'s talked so much about you. It makes me feel better to know my son had a special friend that night who took care of him."
"That's nice of you to say, Mrs. Simon, but I was just doing my job. I have a son at home about A.J.'s age. I know what kind of care I’d want him to be given if he were ever injured and I couldn’t be with him." Frank smiled down at A.J., then turned his attention back to Cecilia. "You've got yourself a real special boy. And, as I told Andrew Jackson here, it's not every day I get called on to take care of a president."
Frank talked to them a few minutes longer, then asked Cecilia if he could take A.J. to the drugstore across the street for an ice cream cone. She left that up to A.J., and wasn't surprised when he eagerly agreed. Cecilia knew it would do A.J. some good to get away for a few minutes with a man he obviously adored. Frank invited Rick to accompany them, and even though Cecilia urged her oldest to do so, Rick refused. The teenager chose instead to stay by his mother's side, where he felt his father would want him to be.
That night as Cecilia observed A.J. finding comfort in his grandfather and Uncle Will, and then later in Frank, her heart ached for Rick. He had no one from whom to take comfort. Not that there weren't plenty of people who would have offered comfort to Rick had he let them, or had he sought them out. His grandfather had tried to break through some of the barriers Rick had erected that evening, but Rick would have no part of it. Grandpa couldn't get him to join in on some of the teasing and funny anecdotes that both Rick and his Grandpa Simon were famous for. Cecilia felt sorry for the older man. He was grieving over the death of his son - the first child he had ever had to bury, and yet he was trying so hard to help Rick deal with it She was glad then, that A.J. had turned to Grandpa for comfort. Giving of himself to the grandchild who had been the last person to be with Jack prior to his death, seemed to help Tom Simon cope with Jack’s passing.
The problem for Rick that night, Cecilia realized, was that there was no one there who was special to Rick the way Will, and now Frank, were special to A.J. The person from whom Rick would have sought comfort - his Uncle Ray - hadn't been located yet. And while Cecilia was upset over this for Rick's sake, she also had an adult’s perspective of it. She knew that Ray arriving in two or three weeks would probably be better for Rick in the long run. Right now things were so hectic, and Rick was giving most of his time and attention to A.J., therefore he wouldn't be able to fully appreciate Ray's presence. Cecilia knew Ray would come to see her and the boys as soon as word of Jack’s death reached him. By then, things would have calmed down somewhat, giving Rick a chance to spend time with his favorite uncle. Cecilia had explained all this to Rick when she and Will had realized that Ray wasn't going to be at the funeral. Cecilia only hoped Rick understood, and that Ray’s absence didn’t make a tragic situation even more sorrowful for her teenager.
Rick did understand what his mother told him, and knew she was right when she said that in the coming weeks he’d have more time to spend with his Uncle Ray than he did currently. What his mother didn't know, however, was that Rick made a vow to himself the night that they realized locating Ray was going to be impossible.
Even though I wanna travel like Uncle Ray in a few years, I'll never go so far that I can't get back home in a couple of days if I can help it. And I'll never be so out of touch with Mom and A.J. that they don't know where I am. What if something happens to Mom like happened to Dad? I could never let A.J. go through something like this alone. Never.
Rick could hardly bring himself to think his other thought. The thought of coming home to find out that something had happened to A.J. That maybe A.J. had even died, and Rick didn't know about it until it was too late. That Rick would miss everything, and wouldn't be able to say goodbye to his brother.
Kinda like Uncle Ray and Dad, because Uncle Ray is missing the funeral, and doesn't even know Dad's dead. Never, not ever, will I do that to Mom or A.J., Rick promised himself then.
It was a promise Rick Simon kept throughout all his years of traveling. For the most part, Rick was never more than a two or three day journey from his mother's home, and he always tried to let her know how he could be reached if she needed him. It wasn't until he was sent to Vietnam, that Rick was often out of touch with his family for weeks at a time. As a Marine serving his country, Rick knew he had no choice in that regard, and he knew his mother understood that.
Rick watched now, as A.J. walked out the door with Captain Jonzek. He briefly wished his Uncle Ray was there, then squared his shoulders and turned to greet the next person in line to view his father’s body.
A.J. finally reached a small milestone on his road to recovery on Wednesday, the day of his father's funeral.
Doctor Barton had stopped by each day that week to check on A.J.'s injuries, as well as to be kept informed regarding his memory lapse. By Tuesday, when A.J.'s memory didn't seem to be improving any, Bob told Cecilia that he would contact the pediatrician he knew, and see if they could get some advice.
It was the Wednesday morning of the funeral that A.J. got his days back on track. Ever since the accident had occurred, he had been a day behind everyone else. Looking back later, Cecilia supposed that A.J., knowing his father's funeral was to be held on Wednesday, finally had to accept the fact that he had lost a day somewhere.
While they were getting ready to go to the funeral Wednesday morning, A.J. entered the kitchen to have Cecilia help him knot his tie. As she was doing just, he asked her what day it was, as he had done every day since the accident.
"Mom, it's Tuesday, isn't it?"
"No, sweetheart, it's Wednesday." Taking it a step further, she said, "Today's the funeral, A.J. Remember, we talked about that Monday and yesterday - that Wednesday would be the funeral."
A.J. didn't respond to his mother. He didn't try and dispute her facts, as he had on the previous days they had gone through this routine. He simply walked away from her without commenting at all. Cecilia wasn't sure what to make of that, but she had so many other things on her mind, that she didn't pursue it with him.
A half an hour later, A.J. returned to the kitchen and stood beside his mother at the sink, where she was washing the boys' cereal bowls. She smiled at him, while noticing how sad he looked.
“Honey? Are you okay? Are you feeling all right?”
A.J. kept his eyes on the dishwater that was draining from the sink when questioned in a tone of resignation, "It really is Wednesday, isn't it?"
Cecilia wiped her hands off on the dishtowel and reached out to gently ruffle A.J.’s hair. "Yes, A.J., it really is Wednesday."
"I thought so. I don't remember Saturday, but I guess I really was with Daddy, wasn't I?"
Cecilia pulled A.J. to her chest. "Yes, A.J., you were. When you're
ready you'll remember Saturday, sweetheart. It might not happen for a long time
yet, but someday you may remember." The woman held her son at arms length
so she could make eye contact with him. “When you do remember, Rick and I will
be here to help you. We'll be here to answer all your questions. You know that,
"I know," came the quiet reply.
And because A.J. sounded so sad, and so lost, and because she didn't know what else to say to him, Cecilia simply pulled her youngest son close once more. "I love you, A.J. I'm so proud of you. Rick's so proud of you. And your dad would be so proud of you. We love you very much. Please don't ever forget that."
The funeral later that morning was over seemingly before it started, as most Protestant funerals usually are. Cecilia would recall thinking, "Jack would have loved this beautiful day we're having." The day was sunny and warm, and the temperature had climbed into the low eighties, as was normal for San Diego in August.
Cecilia had considered not taking A.J. to the funeral, but Doctor Barton told her that wasn’t a good idea unless A.J. said he didn’t want to attend. A.J. didn't mention anything about the funeral to his mother or Rick, and hadn't seemed upset, or asked any questions of Cecilia, when she explained to both boys on Monday evening what the arrangements were, and what they could expect. So, Cecilia followed Bob's advice and had A.J. attend. He sat with his mother and brother at the church, and then at the brief graveside service that followed. At the graveside, Cecilia cried as Taps was played. Rick cried, too, then, as he sat holding his mother’s hands while silent tears streamed down his face. A.J. had sat impassively through everything up until this point, but as his mother began crying, the boy leaned sideways and hugged her waist with his left arm. Cecilia looked down at the top of A.J.'s head through a blur of tears. She thought perhaps he'd cry then. She hoped her youngest would follow her lead and Rick’s lead, and finally let out the pain that was bottled up inside him, but he didn't. A.J. just continued to hug his mother until the service ended a few minutes later. When she stood, A.J. stood with her. He took her right hand, while Rick took her left. Slowly, they walked away from Jack’s grave and toward the car that would take them home without him.
The last thing Cecilia Simon and her sons had to get through before they were left alone to reconstruct their family, was the funeral luncheon. One of Jack's good friends, Michael Wells, had insisted upon paying for a catered meal. Michael and his wife, Margaret, were going to host the luncheon in their home, but Cecilia persuaded them to have it at hers. She told Michael and Margaret that she thought it would be better for the boys to be in their own home after the funeral. At least they'd be in familiar surroundings, free to play with their cousins, or go up to their room, or retreat to a quiet corner, if they wanted to. By the time the long day finally ended when the last guest left at six that evening, Cecilia was glad, for A.J.’s sake, that she'd insisted the luncheon take place at her home.
The funeral was over at noon. By one o’clock, Cecilia, the boys, and an assortment of friends and relatives were already back at the house, where their meal awaited them. Cecilia immediately noticed A.J. seemed withdrawn. Even more so than he had been at any time since Saturday evening. She could hardly get him to eat anything, but didn’t press the issue in front of their company. An hour after the luncheon had started, Cecilia was in the kitchen visiting with friends and relatives. She glanced over at A.J., who was sitting at the table. He had his head down on his left arm, and his eyes were closed. Excusing herself from her visitors, Cecilia walked over to her son and bent down.
"A.J., are you okay? Rick's outside with the other boys. Why don't you go out there and play."
A.J. didn’t answer his mother.
“Sweetheart, tell me what's wrong, please. Do you feel all right?"
“I have a headache."
"A bad one?"
A.J. opened his eyes. "Yes."
“Why didn't you tell me? I could have given you some aspirin."
A.J. shrugged. "You were busy and I didn't wanna bother you."
"It's okay, Mom. It's not that bad."
Based on what A.J. had said less than a minute earlier, Cecilia knew his headache was a bad.
"A.J., I'm never too busy for you, no matter what. Especially when you're not feeling well. You need to tell me when you're having one of these headaches. All right?"
Cecilia didn't allow her concern over the headache to show because she didn't want to frighten A.J. Although he’d had a slight headache on and off since the accident, he hadn’t complained of one this severe since he’d been in the emergency room on Saturday night.
"Stay here,” Cecilia said as she went in search of Doctor Barton. “I'll be right back."
Cecilia returned from the living room with the physician. He took A.J. into the bathroom and had him sit on the vanity countertop. While Cecilia watched, Bob examined the still visible bump on A.J.’s head and asked him a few questions. He had A.J. follow the movement of his right index finger, and then took the boy’s pulse. He smiled at A.J. when he was finished, then turned to Cecilia.
“He’s fine, Cece. He’s had several long days. He needs to eat some lunch first, and then we can give him an aspirin. After we get that accomplished, I’d like him to rest for a while.”
The doctor helped A.J. climb off the vanity. The trio walked back to the kitchen, and using his best bedside manner, Bob coaxed A.J. into eating the ham and potatoes and dinner roll Cecilia put on a plate for him. After he’d finished eating, A.J. put the aspirin in his mouth his mother gave him and washed it down with the remainder of his milk. The youngster didn’t want to lie down on his bed as Bob suggested, so Cecilia let the subject drop. For the next hour A.J. drifted from room to room and leaned against his Uncle Will, or Grandpa Simon, or mother, or older brother, who had come in from outside, while they stood and visited with people. By four o’clock many of their visitors were leaving, and the household was quieting down. A.J. laid on the sofa then and rested his head in his mother’s lap. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, not even waking when some of his cousins thundered through the house in search of him.
At seven o'clock that evening, after four days of a constant parade of visitors, Cecilia and her sons were finally alone. Cecilia’s mother had wanted to stay for the rest of the week, but Cecilia insisted she'd be fine. She gently but firmly told her mother she and the boys needed to be alone in an effort to try and get some semblance of normality back into their lives.
By eight o'clock, Cecilia and her sons had eaten leftovers from the luncheon for their supper, and then the woman urged A.J. to put his pajama bottoms on and go to bed. When no protest was given, she knew he was as tired as he looked. The only request A.J. made was that Rick come upstairs with him and tell him ‘their’ story. Though Cecilia didn’t know what that meant, she was glad Rick agreed to it. It made getting A.J. to bed all that much easier. While Cecilia tucked her youngest into the bed in the guest room, Rick sat on the bed beside A.J. and began telling the story of, “two grownup guys named Rick and A.J.” Cecilia soon realized this was a continuing saga that had been progressing for several days now.
"Okay, A.J., let's see, last night Rick and A.J. were fighting that motorcycle gang. Right?"
"No, they were done doing that, remember? They beat those guys to a pulp, and then they jumped on a motorcycle and rode to the beach. But then the gang leader showed up before Rick and A.J. could rescue that girl the gang had kidnapped and hid there in the caves. They were about to have a big shoot-out, and then I think I fell asleep ‘cause I don’t remember any more after that."
"Oh, yeah," Rick nodded, his eyes lighting up with recollection. "Okay, Rick and A.J. are running to get behind some boulders, and the gang leader shoots at ‘em three times, but totally misses ‘em. Then A.J. and Rick pull out their guns. A.J. has a rifle, and Rick has a sawed off shotgun, and--"
"Rick!" Cecilia interrupted her eldest. "For Heaven's sake. What kind of things are you telling your little brother?"
"Oh, Mom, it's just a story,” Rick assured his mother. “Nothing like this will ever happen. It's just pretend."
"Yeah, Mom, it's just a story,” A.J. said. “Just an adventure story Rick’s making up. It can't ever happen.”
Shaking her head at the two of them, Cecilia bent and kissed A.J. good night. "Well, I sure hope it never happens. I'll certainly have plenty of gray hairs if you boys run around having those kind of adventures."
"Aw, Mom,” Rick said as Cecilia kissed his check. “You worry too much."
As Cecilia stood in the hallway, she heard Rick pick up the story where he had left off. Not for the first time she thought of how thankful she was that her sons were so close. She knew that something as simple as this story would help them navigate the difficult days that were bound to be ahead, as they worked through their sorrow over the loss of their father.
Summer drew to a swift end for Cecilia and her sons that year. Labor Day weekend found them at the beach with most of the Simon clan celebrating the end of summer vacation – or at least celebrating if you were the mother of children returning to school during the coming week. The kids were playing in the surf and on the beach, with several of their uncles and older cousins supervising while playing right along with them. Cecilia and her sister-in-law, Pat, sat on a blanket some distance from the water, where the family picnic area had been established.
"Are the boys ready for school to start?"
"I think so," Cecilia said. "It's been a hard month for both of them. The change will do them good. Even Rick hasn't been doing his usual end-of-summer grumbling over the start of school. I think he's looking forward to being reunited with his friends. Goodness knows he deserves to, Pat. Since Jack’s death, he's devoted all his time to A.J. and me."
Jack’s younger sister nodded her agreement. "Rick's been so good with A.J. these past few weeks. Jack would be very proud of him."
"I know he would, Patty." Cecilia looked out at the ocean and watched the children play for a moment, then returned her attention to her sister-in-law. "I worry about him, though. Fifteen is awfully young to take on the responsibilities that come with being to man of the family, and that's what Rick's trying to do. He’s trying so hard to be a father to A.J., as well as a big brother, and a best friend. That's a big load to carry. He's hardly seen any of his friends since the accident. If he isn't with A.J., then he's doing some household chore for me - mowing the lawn, washing windows, cleaning out the garage, washing the car - I don't even get a chance to ask Rick for help, before he’s decided some chore should be done. You know as well as I do that before Jack died, we fought with Rick just to get the garbage out to the curb, or to get him to pick up his room. I haven't had to remind him to do a thing since Jack died."
"That's good a good thing," Jack's sister replied. "That's a big help to you, Cecilia. You don't need to be fighting with Rick right now. Neither one of you needs that kind of stress."
"I suppose you're right, but I can't help but worry that Rick's taking on too much. I've tried to talk to him about it. I’ve told Rick how proud Jack would be of him, and how much I appreciate his help, but that I realize he's only fifteen, and that I understand he wants to have time to do things all teenage boys like to do."
"What did Rick say when you told him that?"
"Not much. He said that he wants to help me, and that he doesn't mind spending time with A.J. You know how Rick is. He doesn't reveal a lot of what he's feeling. He's so much like Jack sometimes."
"Yes, he is. Rick's temperament and personality are very much like Jack’s. He's a good kid, Cece. He'll be okay." Pat lifted an arm and waved, that motion indicating to her youngest son that he should come closer to shore. When he had complied, she resumed the conversation. "What about A.J.? How's he really doing?"
"I don't know,” Cecilia sighed. “He has his good days and his bad days, like we all do. There are days when he’s almost his old self, when I almost see my happy, outgoing boy again. And then there are days he's so withdrawn and sad. On those days, Patty, I swear I look into his eyes and an old man looks back at me. A man who's seen far too much pain and suffering in his lifetime. That's the only thing I can compare it to. No matter how hard I try, I can't get A.J. to open up to me on those days. That's so unlike him, and it frightens me. I'm afraid he lost an important part of his childhood that night in the car with Jack."
After a minute of nothing but the sound of the waves hitting the shore, and of the children's laughter and shouts, Pat asked, "Is A.J. remembering any more about the accident?"
"He doesn't seem to be, but it’s hard to say for sure. He doesn't ask any questions about it any longer, doesn't say anything about it at all, as a matter of fact. But I've noticed recently that if the accident is brought up in conversation for whatever reason, A.J. leaves the room. I don't know what that means. Bob says to just let him be. He said that A.J. has to work through some of this by himself."
"So Bob doesn't think A.J. needs to see anybody about what he went through the night of the accident?"
"No. Bob talked to a pediatrician who felt, based on what Bob told him about A.J. and our family, that we were the ones who could give A.J. the most help." Cecilia shook her head and said with doubt, "I don't know, Pat. I worry constantly that what I have to offer A.J. just isn't enough. What if he needs more than I know how to give?"
Taking Cecilia's hand in hers, Pat squeezed lightly.
"Cecilia, that's not possible. You're a wonderful mother. You're so attentive to both of the boys’ individual needs. You always have been. Jack thought you were the best mother in the world. He bragged on you all the time. He admired the patience you always had with Rick, and the way you fostered the boys’ closeness. He was so proud that Rick and A.J. are such good friends, and he gave you all the credit for that bond. He loved you so much, Cece. You've got to know that." Pat gave Cecilia's hand another squeeze before releasing it. "I know you're giving A.J. everything possible there is to give. It's only been four weeks since the accident. We're all still hurting. It only stands to reason that A.J. must be hurting twice as much. He's a strong boy. He'll come around, just give him time."
“I hope you’re right.”
"I think I
am. When he stayed over night last Saturday, he told me that he was looking
forward to school starting. He mentioned something about a sports team he was
going to be on. What's that all about?"
Cecilia’s eyebrows knit together in confusion for a moment. “Oh, he must mean the intramural program. It's something his school started last year for fifth and sixth grade boys. They stay after school on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and play a variety of sports - baseball, football, and basketball. The gym teacher is hoping the program will help the kids who want to go on to play on the junior high and high school teams, by giving them some practice and coaching. A.J. was so disappointed last year when they started the program and he couldn't participate because he was only a fourth grader. I knew he was pretty happy last week when his cast came off, and Bob gave the okay for him to be part of the program when it starts at the end of September.”
"I'm sure that will help then. A.J. seemed excited when he was talking about it to me."
Cecilia scanned the children in the water to make sure she could still see A.J. "I hope it helps, Pat. Boy Scouts starts up again next week, too, so between that, intramurals, and school, I'm hoping we see a change in him. A.J. got Mrs. Larson, Rick's fifth grade teacher, for his teacher this year, too. Rick really liked her, so I know A.J. will love her. She was one of the few teachers Rick has ever had that he liked – you know Rick when it comes to school. Anyway, she kept the kids busy with projects and a lot of learning games. I think that's what A.J. needs now, to be kept busy. I called Mrs. Larson last Monday and made her aware of the situation we’ve been through, and how it’s affected A.J. She was very understanding. She promised she'd keep in contact with me and let me know if she notices any problems with his schoolwork, or how he interacts with the other children. That made me feel a little better. I just want it to be a good year for him. I hate to see him so sad."
"I know," Pat nodded her head. "I noticed that when he stayed with us last weekend. You know how it is when A.J., Mark, and Kevin get together. They run around like wild Indians, and they're always giggling, and laughing, and up to no good. A.J. played with the boys, but I never heard him laugh or saw him smile. Watching him now, playing with the other kids in the water, is the same as watching him with my two boys. I get the impression A.J.’s just going through the motions.”
“Going through the motions?”
“That A.J.'s trying to make us happy by doing what we expect of him, but that underneath that facade, he isn't happy."
"I know what you mean. I haven't heard A.J. laugh even once since the accident. Neither has Rick."
"Even Mark noticed it,” Pat said in reference to her seven-year-old. “After you picked A.J. up on Sunday, Mark came to Jim and me, and asked us why A.J. was sad all the time. Jim explained to him how difficult it is for any of us to fully understand what A.J. went through, and that the best way we can help him is by being his friend."
"I appreciate that, Patty. You and Jim, Will - all of you, have been so good to us. Rick and A.J. are going to need their uncles now more than ever."
The two women continued talking, as the young man they hadn't noticed standing a few feet behind them moved away. Rick had been returning from his mother's car, where he had gone to put away his and A.J.'s diving masks and fins. Rick didn't mean to eavesdrop, but couldn't resist when he heard the subject that was being discussed.
For the first time since the accident, Rick realized that his father's death didn't just affect his mom, and A.J., and himself. It reached much further than that. Upon overhearing his Aunt Pat, Rick now understood how much his dad’s passing impacted his extended family members, as well.
Rick realized for the first time, too, how deeply his mother was hurting for her sons. It was also the first time Rick had ever heard an adult say they were frightened. He had just heard his mother say that several times in reference to the new life she was facing without his father. In a way, that scared Rick. His mother had always been such a strong, independent woman, even before his father died. Yet, in another way, finding out his mother was fearful of all the uncertainties she faced, made Rick feel better. Rick now had confirmation that it was all right to be scared, and that it was normal to be frightened when he thought of facing the future without his father by his side.
Rick didn't know how he felt when it came to discovering how concerned his mother was for him. It made him feel loved, he couldn't deny that. And it also felt good to know his mom recognized how important it was to Rick to be the man of the family, and how much he wanted to accept the responsibilities that came with that title. At the same time, the teenager didn’t want his mother to worry about him. Rick knew he'd be fine. Although navigating the next few years without his father wasn’t going to be easy, Rick had confidence he’d get through it okay. If his mother was going to worry about anyone, Rick thought that worry should be directed at A.J. That’s certainly where all of his worry was directed.
Like his mother and Aunt Pat, Rick hated to see his little brother so sad. And just like A.J. wouldn’t open up to their mother when he was withdrawn, he wouldn’t open up to Rick either. Rick always felt useless then. He was willing to give A.J. anything he needed from him. But Rick had learned in recent weeks, that no matter how much he might have to offer A.J. in the way of advice or comfort, if A.J. wasn't willing to take those offerings, there wasn't much Rick could do about it. That's what Rick found more frustrating than anything else. The teenager had to be reminded often by his mother, that Doctor Barton had told them A.J.'s emotional recovery would require time and patience. That last wasn't easy for Rick. He had no more patience at fifteen, than he would have years later as a grown man. When his patience over the situation ran short, and along with that his worry for A.J. would increase, Rick’s mother would tell him that the little things they did for A.J. in the form of shared bike rides, trips to see a movie, or playing a game of Monopoly, were likely helping A.J. far more than they’d ever know.
“Don’t force yourself to climb a mountain, Rick,” Cecilia would say when Rick was desperate to come up with an idea that would help A.J., “when scaling a mole hill is all your brother asks of you.”
Rick turned when he felt someone place a hand on his back.
“What are doing up here by yourself, Rick?”
“Hey, Uncle Will. I was putting our masks and fins back in Mom’s car.”
“You looked like you were lost in some pretty heavy thoughts.”
Rick shrugged as the watched his brother and cousins play.
“Are you okay, son?”
Rick had to swallow the lump in his throat. His Uncle Will had sounded just like Rick’s father when he’d asked that question.
“I’m...I’m okay. Just thinking.”
“Anything you wanna share?”
Rick dug his toes into the warm sand a moment. “I...you know he hasn’t laughed since my dad died.”
The man’s eyes followed the path Rick’s took, and landed on A.J. The ten-year-old was bouncing in the surf with Pat’s boys and three of Will’s daughters.
“A.J., you mean?”
“He’ll laugh again, Rick. Just give him time.”
“But I’ve laughed. Maybe I shouldn’t, huh?”
“Do you think that’s what your father would really want? For you to stop laughing?”
Rick thought about his father, and the sharp wit the man had always possessed.
“No, I guess not. Dad liked to laugh.”
“Yes, he did.”
“Sometimes I still...get upset.”
Will surmised Rick had substituted the phrase ‘get upset’ for the word cry, but he didn’t mention it.
“Sometimes I still get upset, too. I imagine we all will for a long time to come yet.”
“Dad and I had been working on a lawn mower engine before he died. Our neighbor, Mr. Gilbertson, gave me the mower ‘cause he was just gonna set it out for the garbage men since it didn’t run any more. I was gonna sell it when I got it rebuilt, and Dad was helping me fix it. He said...Dad said I was a good mechanic. Better than him. I...I can’t work on that engine any more, Uncle Will. I’ve tried to a couple of times, but when I do, I think of Dad, and then I end up walkin’ outta the garage.”
“That’s understandable. Running across reminders of your father will be difficult to deal with for some time to come yet.”
“Mom...Mom cleaned out his closet last weekend while A.J. was at Aunt Pat’s. I was at my friend Carlos’s, but I guess I came home before she was expecting me to, ‘cause I found her sitting on her bed hugging one of Dad’s shirts and crying.”
Will squeezed Rick’s shoulder.
“But even so,” Rick said, “Mom can still laugh. But not A.J. He doesn’t laugh at all.”
“Rick, you know that portrait your mother has of you and A.J. that hangs over the mantel?”
Rick nodded. The picture his uncle was referring to had been taken when A.J. was a year old, and Rick was six. They were wearing matching red sweaters that buttoned up the front, black pants, white shirts, and black ties. Rick was seated behind A.J., and had his arms wrapped around the baby’s waist.
“The first time I saw that picture, your father told me that no one could get A.J. to smile for it. Not the photographer, not your mother, and not Jack. Do remember who it was that did get A.J. to smile that day?”
Rick grinned. “Yeah, it was me. I started tickling him just a little bit, and then he started laughing so hard that he couldn’t stop.”
“That’s what your dad told me.”
Rick recalled that day, and how proud he’d been of himself and the way he’d gotten A.J. to smile for the photo, when none of the grownups could accomplish that feat. When they were leaving the studio, Rick had looked up at his father and said, “Daddy, I made A.J. laugh for our picture, didn’t I? You couldn’t get him to laugh, and Mommy couldn’t get him to laugh, and the man who took the picture couldn’t get him to laugh, but I could. A.J. laughed for me.”
“That’s right, Rick,” Jack had said. “You’re the one who made A.J. laugh. You’re a good big brother. When no one else can make A.J. laugh, I bet you’ll always be able to.”
Rick stared out at the water and watched the solemn A.J. play with their cousins.
I'll make him laugh again, Dad, I promise. I'll be the one who makes A.J. laugh again.
Rick gave his uncle a light whack on the stomach with the back of his hand. “Race ya,’ Uncle Will!”
With that, Rick charged for the water. Will Simon followed, and when they arrived at their destination, Will grabbed A.J., swung him in the air, and threw him into the waves just like Jack would have done. When A.J. surfaced, Rick started roughhousing with his brother. The two boys disappeared under the water time and time again, as they playfully dunked one another until they were called to eat lunch.
The first few weeks of the new school year passed quickly. Many of Cecilia's fears were put to rest, as both boys were kept busy with homework, school activities, and time spent with their friends. Her prayers that the school year would give her boys something to focus on besides their sorrow and loss seemed to be answered.
Ray Simon visited for three weeks shortly after school started. Much like Cecilia had thought would be the case, the visit did Rick a world of good. After the boys had left for school one morning, Ray shared with Cecilia that Rick had confided in him regarding several issues. The first being Rick’s fear over somehow failing his father in his new role as the man of the family. The second being the sorrow Rick felt over his father's passing. And the third had to do with Rick’s worries about A.J. and his emotional well-being.
Although Cecilia had discussed these same things with her oldest son, she knew Rick wasn't opening up to her in the way she was certain he would with Ray. It made her feel better to know that Rick finally had someone else to talk whom he loved, trusted, and looked up to. Although Cecilia didn’t always approve of Ray’s wanderlust lifestyle, she was confident in his ability to be a guiding force in Rick’s life during this troubling time.
After Ray left that fall, Cecilia finally began to see some of Rick's old familiar spirit and mischievous nature. Granted, his father's death had changed the teenager. Rick continued to be concerned about the running of the household, and continued to give much of his time to A.J., but occasionally a chore would be forgotten, or homework wouldn't be done, and in an odd way, that pleased Cecilia. She didn't want her fifteen-year-old growing up before his time. She wanted Rick to enjoy what was left of his teen years, and in light of that, she didn't expect him to be a surrogate father or husband.
During his visit, Ray helped Rick finish repairing the lawn mower he and Jack had been working on, and in general, just spent time with the youth. Ray and Rick had a passion for movies, especially westerns, and spent much of their time at the local theater. A.J. was always invited to go along, but only accepted the invitation once. That didn't worry Cecilia, however. A.J. didn't know Ray that well. This was only the third visit Ray made to San Diego since A.J. had been born. With Rick and Ray out of the house, it gave Cecilia the opportunity to spend time alone with her youngest. The two of them went saw several movies, as well as played a wide variety of board games – an activity A.J. never seemed to tire of.
The evenings during the school week were pleasant, as well. Having an adult male at the kitchen table again was good for the boys. On many nights after supper the four of them played cards, or games, or sat together watching television. Overall, Ray's stay was a pleasant one. That pleased Cecilia, since she couldn't deny that her wayward, and often immature, brother-in-law could get on her nerves sometimes. Only one incident marred Ray's otherwise uneventful visit.
Jack was the only person who had ever called A.J., Andy. Why he’d picked up on that moniker, Cecilia didn't know. They had decided on A.J. as a nickname for their baby a few hours after his birth. But shortly after they had brought him home from the hospital, Jack had taken to calling him Andy. Ray had picked up on the name as well, simply because he’d heard his brother use it the two times he’d visited since A.J. was born. Cecilia never gave it a thought that being called ‘Andy’ by anyone but Jack might upset A.J.
Ray had been visiting for a week when he said one night, "Hey, Andy, how about a game of cards after the dishes are done?"
A.J. swiveled from where he had been helping Rick clear the table. Cecilia sensed the anger that spewed forth had been building over several days now.
"Don't call me that! Don't ever call me that again! My name's A.J.!"
A.J. ran from the kitchen, pounded up the stairs, and slammed his bedroom door closed. Cecilia had stared at her brother-in-law and oldest son a moment, all three of them taken aback by this uncharacteristic behavior on A.J.’s part. It didn't take Cecilia long, however, to figure out what the problem was. She left A.J. alone until the dishes were done, then went up to talk to him. As usual after an upset, A.J. was quiet and withdrawn. He was lying on his stomach on top of his bedspread, with his face turned toward the wall.
Cecilia talked to her youngest for a few minutes, offering comfort he wouldn't take. Finally, she left it that A.J. could stay in his room the rest of the evening if he wished, but that in the morning, he would have to apologize to his uncle.
"It's all right to tell Uncle Ray you prefer to be called A.J., but you were out of line when you yelled at him, and I won't allow that type of behavior."
Cecilia hated to have to be strict with her youngest son right then, but she knew she couldn't let A.J. get away with things that he normally wouldn't have been able to prior to Jack's death.
With his eyes fixed on his plate of food, A.J. did apologize to Ray at breakfast the next morning. Ray said he was sorry, too, and would try to remember to call the youngster A.J. from now on. And Ray did try, but sometimes he would forget and be unaware of the fact that he had called the boy Andy. Although A.J. never said a word about it again, at those times Cecilia would see his body tense, and could see the anger that was clearly visible on his face. When that happened, she'd try to occupy A.J.’s attention elsewhere, or if she was sitting next to him she'd unobtrusively squeeze his hand or rub his back in an effort to let him know that she was proud of the way he was handling himself.
When Ray left for Africa in mid-October, both boys were sad to see him go. Cecilia was surprised to discover that even she missed Ray. She found herself wishing he’d settle down in San Diego and take over Jack’s role in the boys’ lives. He was single and had no children, therefore of all Rick and A.J.’s uncles, Ray was the one who had the most time to devote to them. But that thought didn’t appear to cross Ray’s mind. He promised to be back during the summer with presents from Africa for Cecilia and the boys, and then ran out the door to the taxi that was waiting to take him to the airport.
After Ray’s departure, Cecilia and her sons were once again forced to go forward as a family of three.
Just like Cecilia had seen changes for the better in Rick that fall, she began to see changed for the better in A.J., as well. The biggest hurdle he gradually overcame was his upset at the mention of baseball.
The week after Jack died, A.J.'s Little League coach stopped
by to see the boy, but A.J. refused to come out of his room when Cecilia told him who was downstairs. A few weeks later, the man came by to try again. That time, at least, A.J. agreed to visit with his coach. But when the man brought up the subject of the next summer's baseball season, Cecilia could see A.J. begin to withdraw. When the visit ended, the coach said he hoped to see A.J. on the team next season. All A.J. did was shrug his shoulders while mumbling, “Bye,” as the man walked out the door.
Therefore, when the school year started, Cecilia was concerned about how A.J. would react when baseball was introduced in his intramurals program. Unbeknownst to him, Cecilia visited that school and discussed her family’s recent tragedy with A.J.'s gym teacher. She didn't want some over zealous teacher forcing A.J. to do something that could hurt him further emotionally. Cecilia was relieved when the man was understanding, and assured her that if he saw the slightest problem when they started playing baseball, that he would find other things for A.J. to do in the gym.
Cecilia found she had worried for nothing, however. Somehow, A.J. reached a decision concerning baseball on his own. Or maybe it was being with the other children and seeing them participate in the game that caused A.J. to force himself to participate as well.
A.J. hadn't told his mother that they playing baseball in intramurals, but one morning in late September after the boys had left for school, the door flew back open. A.J. raced by Cecilia and charged up the stairs.
The woman called up the stairs, "What did you forget, A.J.?"
A.J. pounded down the stairs with his baseball mitt on top of his schoolbooks. "I need my mitt for intramurals. We're starting baseball today."
"Come back here and give me a kiss for luck with your game this afternoon then."
A.J. ran back and did as Cecilia instructed. She could tell he was confused by her request, or at least he found it slightly odd, but he kissed her anyway.
"Bye, Mom! See ya’ tonight."
As the front door slammed, Cecilia wiped tears from her eyes. She was thankful that they had crossed one milestone that had caused her son so much pain since his father’s death. That baseball mitt had not been removed from A.J.'s closet for almost eight weeks. It was one of the few things Will Simon had retrieved from the wrecked automobile. When it was handed to A.J. the day after the accident he immediately put it away, and as far as Cecilia knew, hadn't touched it since.
The only thing Cecilia found out about A.J.'s reintroduction to baseball came one day after school when A.J. was in his room hunting for his football. His friend, Danny, was in Cecilia's kitchen eating cookies from a plate that sat in the center of the table.
"So, Danny, I heard you boys are playing baseball at intramurals.”
The ten-year-old nodded. "Yeah, Mrs. Simon. I'm the catcher, you know."
"No, I didn't know that. That's exciting, you catching and A.J. pitching."
"A.J.'s not pitching," the boy said as he reached for another cookie. "A.J.'s our shortstop. Coach asked him if he wanted to pitch, but A.J. told him no, that he wasn't a very good pitcher." Looking up at Cecilia, Danny frowned. "I've been wondering, how come A.J. said that. Mr. Simon and A.J. worked real hard together last summer so A.J. could pitch for our Little League team, and I know A.J. really wanted to be a pitcher. He even won that game he pitched for us. You know - the one the day of the acci..."
Danny stopped as he realized what he had just said. He blushed and stammered, "I'm...I’m sorry, Mrs. Simon. I didn't mean to--"
Cecilia pulled out a chair and sat next to Danny. She reached out and ran a hand through his blond curls.
"That's all right, Danny. You don't have to apologize to me." Cecilia gave the boy a sad smile. "I don't know why A.J. doesn't want to pitch. The accident and his father’s death, have hurt A.J. very much. I think being the pitcher for your team right now is just too hard for A.J. I imagine it makes him think of his dad and the accident. Those are difficult things for A.J. to deal with right now."
"Yeah, that's what my mom said, too. She told me I should just be a good friend to A.J., and not talk about things he doesn't want to. That's why when A.J. told Coach Harper that he wasn't a good pitcher, I didn't say any different, even though I think he pitches real good."
"Thank you, Danny. You're a good friend to A.J., and I appreciate you helping him right now when things are so hard for him." Cecilia stood and began clearing the table of the remains of the boys' after-school snack. "Why don't you run up to A.J.'s room and see if you can help him find that missing football.”
"Okay," the boy said as he ran out of Cecilia's kitchen.
Hearing that A.J. didn't want to pitch gave Cecilia more insight into what her youngest was feeling. But, on the other hand, she was just happy that he was participating in the game again, regardless of which position he chose to play. The week after her talk with Danny, Cecilia and A.J. ran into his Little League coach in the grocery store. When the subject of next year's season was mentioned, Cecilia was pleased to hear her son tell the man he'd be playing again.
The busy school year and all its activities brought other changes, as well. As A.J. settled into his classroom work and after-school activities, he began spending more time with his friends again. That was something he’d done very little of since Jack’s death. During August, the youngster's world revolved solely around Rick. True, the boys had always been close, and had always done a lot together, but those early weeks after Jack's death A.J. was glued to Rick's hip. That had concerned Cecilia to some degree. She didn't think it would be healthy for either one of the boys if it continued long-term. They had different friends and different interests, and in their individual ways, were both independent and stubborn. Yet, there were a lot of days when Cecilia realized her concerns might be misplaced. That, as usual, the only comfort Rick and A.J. really needed, was the comfort they drew from being together. She couldn't deny that she was proud of the special friendship her two boys shared. Still, Cecilia couldn't help but be pleased when she started to see some of A.J.'s independence reassert itself. He still spent a lot of time with Rick, but at least Rick could go to the bathroom without A.J. waiting for him on the other side of the door. A.J. was finally going up to bed by himself again at night, too. No longer did he insist that Rick come up with him and stay until he fell asleep.
So, as fall progressed, the boys adjusted to their father’s absence little by little. In some ways, it made Cecilia sad to see how easily all three of them could learn to go on without Jack, but in other ways, she knew they had no choice but to do just that. Life was for the living, as the expression went. No matter how many times Cecilia wanted to stay in bed and not face another day as a widow, she knew that, for the sake of her children, that wasn’t an option.
Almost before Cecilia realized it, the holiday season was upon them. She’d been dreading the time period between mid-November and January first, but Thanksgiving actually turned out to be a good day, much to her surprise.
It was Cecilia's year to host the holiday for her side of the family. Although her mother and sister had offered their homes for the occasion, Cecilia told them she’d host the dinner at her house as originally planned. Cecilia knew this first holiday season without Jack was going to be difficult for her and the boys. Yet she felt it was important that they cope with it as they would have to in years to come - as just the three of them. If it were their turn to host a holiday, then they’d do it. It would be hard for them to see Jack missing at the head of the dining room table come noon on Thanksgiving Day, but that's the way it would have to be.
Therefore, on Thanksgiving, Cecilia's house was filled with her widowed mother, younger sister and her spouse, as well as Cecilia's two older brothers and their wives. Not to mention eleven children that ranged in age from seventeen on down to nine months. Cecilia asked Rick to carve the turkey, a job Jack had normally done. Rick soon had A.J. at his elbow, and the two of them worked together in harmony in order to get the big bird sliced. By the time the boys were finished the turkey looked like something Jack the Ripper had gotten a hold of, but it still tasted good. Rick was so proud of himself and his new duty that Cecilia overlooked the inexperienced carving job, and the mess that went along with it. She was just thankful she had gotten through the day with no tears, and that both her sons seemed to enjoy themselves and their visitors.
Christmas was another story. After the success of Thanksgiving, Cecilia was hoping they would breeze through December twenty-fifth in much the same manner. Maybe if Jack hadn't always made such a production over Christmas, maybe if he hadn't enjoyed it so much and acted as much like a kid as the two boys did, and maybe if he hadn't always taken a week of vacation between Christmas and New Years and totally devoted that time to his children, things would have been easier. As it was, the two weeks preceding the holiday were challenging for Cecilia and her sons. Cecilia faced the difficult tasks of decorating the house and shopping, things Jack had always done with her. Rick tried so hard to take his father's place by stringing the lights on the house for his mother and tying the tree that they’d purchased to the top of the car. For the first time in almost two months, A.J. was once again withdrawn, much to the despair of his mother and brother. Cecilia's heart was filled with love for her oldest, as she watched Rick attempt to make this Christmas a good one for his little brother.
Rick found Cecilia alone in the kitchen one day after school and approached her with an idea.
"You know, Mom, I think we should really do this Christmas up right for A.J. You know, make it a special Christmas for him. Maybe we could even have someone dress as Santa Claus and come to the house."
Cecilia turned from the stove, where she had been stirring onions into a pot of chili.
"Rick, A.J. hasn't believed in Santa Claus since he was seven."
"I know. It's just that he's been so sad again, I thought maybe it would help."
Cecilia reached for Rick's hand and gave it a brief squeeze. "That's sweet of you, honey, it really is. I'm so proud of you, and how thoughtful you are where A.J.'s happiness is concerned. But you and I have to face the fact that this Christmas is going to be difficult for all three of us. Maybe even more difficult for A.J. than for you or me. I don't think there's much we can do about that, sweetheart, except be here for A.J. if he needs us."
"That's what I hate so much, Mom. When A.J. gets like this, quiet and withdrawn, he doesn't seem to want anybody's help." Rick turned and leaned his back against the counter. "Why, Mom? Why? Why does he keep it all inside? That's not like A.J. Why won't he let it out? Why won't he talk to us? Why won't he talk to me?"
Upon hearing the despair in Rick’s voice, Cecilia took him into her arms and hugged him.
"I don't know, Rick, I just don't know. All we can do is love him and wait patiently. I know that's hard, honey, but someday - and it may be a long time from now – but someday A.J. will come to us. When he does, the only thing that will matter is that we’re here for him.”
Rick's head rested on his mother's shoulder as he hugged her in return. "I'll be here for him, Mom, I promise. I'll always be here for him. I just hate to see him hurting like this."
Pulling Rick away from her, Cecilia stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "I do, too, sweetheart. I do, too."
Even after that conversation with his mother, Rick's goal of making this a "special Christmas for A.J." didn't cease. In the two remaining weeks before the holiday, he was constantly bombarding his mother with ideas for gifts that "A.J. would just love to have." Cecilia found herself laughing at her oldest son more than once after a lengthy spiel of what Rick deemed the perfect presents for A.J.
"Rick, I'd have to be a millionaire to buy A.J. all the things you tell me he wants."
The reality of what she’d observed in her household led Cecilia to conclude Rick was guessing at what Christmas gifts A.J. wanted that year. She'd surmised that A.J. hadn't said a word about his wants or desires to his big brother, because he certainly hadn't said anything to her. Every time Cecilia had questioned him to what gifts he might like to find under the tree on Christmas morning, A.J. just shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know, nothing I guess."
Cecilia had teased her youngest at those times, and told him he sounded like an eighty-year-old man who needed nothing but a new pair of slippers. But, her words didn't prompt A.J. to offer his mother any ideas, so as Christmas approached Cecilia found herself with numerous of books, several games, two model cars, and some other small items for her blond son, but nothing else. Nothing special that she knew he really wanted - no gift he was just dying to open on Christmas morning.
With only six days left until Christmas, Cecilia was getting desperate to come up with an idea. She was almost resigned to the fact that this year there wasn't going to be a special gift for her youngest child, when Rick came to her with a suggestion. A.J. was down the street playing at Danny’s, so Rick and Cecilia were alone in the house.
"You know, Mom, I've been thinkin.’ I bet A.J. would like a new baseball mitt for Christmas."
"I don't know, Rick--"
Rick's eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. "No, Mom, really, I think he would. The mitt he has now is gonna be too small for him by next summer. He's had it since he was six. I really think he'd like a new one."
“I realize that, son. It’s just that--”
"Come on, Mom. A.J.'s been saying he's gonna play Little League again next summer. A new mitt would be the perfect present."
“I'm just not sure, Rick. You know what a difficult time A.J. had
dealing with even the mention of the word baseball after the accident. He's
just now getting past all that. I’m afraid it might be too soon for a gift like
that. Maybe for his birthday next year."
"Mom, A.J.'s birthday isn't until the end of July,” Rick protested. “The season’s almost over by then."
When his mother made no reply, Rick said, "I wasn't gonna tell you this, but one day last summer when Dad and A.J. were playing catch in the back yard, I heard Dad tell A.J. that he'd need a new mitt before next summer's season. A.J. teased Dad and told him, ‘Christmas comes before next summer. Maybe somebody will buy me a new baseball mitt for Christmas if I'm a really good boy.’ Dad laughed at A.J. and said. ‘Maybe somebody would.’"
Cecilia chewed on her lower lip with indecisiveness. Her son’s voice interrupted her musing.
"I think you should get him a new mitt. It would mean a lot to A.J."
Cecilia let the conversation end there by saying, "I'll think it over, Rick," which she did for the next two days. She finally decided she’d buy A.J. a new baseball mitt given what Rick had told her, and given A.J.'s recent change in attitude toward baseball. While A.J. was at Boy Scout meeting on Tuesday evening, Cecilia and Rick drove to the local sporting goods store where the baseball mitt was purchased, then brought home, wrapped, and put under the tree with a tag that read, To A.J. Merry Christmas. Love, Mom and Rick.
A subdued Christmas morning arrived in the Simon house. As Cecilia and the boys prepared to open gifts, the woman wondered if she’d made a mistake by turning down Pat’s offer of Cecilia and the boys spending Christmas Eve night at her home. Pat had suggested Cecilia load the boys’ gifts in her car and arrive with the boys sometime during the day on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas morning, Cecilia and her sons, and Pat and Jim and their two boys, would have opened gifts together.
But no, Cecilia thought as she and the boys sat together around the tree still dressed in their pajamas. We can't do that. We can't run away from what we'll eventually have to face. Every year the boys and I put off having Christmas by ourselves, will only make it that much harder when the day comes that we have to be alone.
Most of the Simon family would be at Pat's that afternoon for dinner and the opening of more gifts, so Cecilia hoped the day wouldn't be a complete loss for Rick and A.J. She was counting on all the excitement and activity to keep the boys busy, and not allow them time to dwell on their pain.
Years later, Cecilia would still be able to recall how Rick tried to take his father's place that Christmas morning. He was cheerful, and full of fun, and Cecilia even joined in and did her best to be cheerful and full of fun, as well. Unfortunately, A.J. had no intention of participating in their little charade. He was quiet and withdrawn, and obviously unhappy. Other than telling his mother or brother thank you each time a gift was opened, the youngster just didn't have anything to say. There was no exclaiming each time a present was opened, no desire to open the lid on a box that contained a model car, no desire to study a new book, and no teasing and laughing going on between the two boys, as was normal at the Simon household on Christmas morning. Once again, Cecilia felt like she was sharing Christmas with an eighty-year-old man, and not a ten-year-old boy.
The last gift was finally passed out by Rick, and given to his younger brother. It was the box containing the baseball mitt, and as Rick handed it to A.J. he winked at his mom,
"You're gonna love this, A.J. It's something you've really been wanting."
A.J. unwrapped the box and looked inside it for a moment, before slowly lifting the mitt out. He stared at the baseball glove, and then whispered, "Daddy," right before he threw the mitt on the floor and ran from the room. He charged up the stairs and into his room, and slamming the door shut behind him.
Cecilia and Rick looked at one another after they heard the slam of the door from above. Cecilia was sure the pain she saw in Rick's eyes was a reflection of the pain in her own.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I'm sorry. I really thought it would be a good idea. I really thought A.J. would love that mitt."
“It's not your fault, Rick. It's no one's fault. I thought it was a good idea, too, remember? We'll put the mitt away for now and I think, in time, A.J. will be able to accept it. Please, sweetheart,” Cecilia said as she ran a hand down the side of Rick’s face, “don't blame yourself."
allow Rick any further self-incriminations. "Come on, let's pick up the
paper and empty boxes. Once we have this room back in order, we need to get
ready to go to Aunt Pat's."
"Maybe I should go talk to A.J."
Cecilia shook her head. "Not right now. Just leave him alone for a while. Remember that Doctor Bob said when A.J. gets like this we need to give him a little space. I know that's hard to do, but it seems to help, so let's just leave him be until we get these things picked up."
Cecilia tried to act as thought that wasn’t difficult advice to give, as she started picking up discarded wrapping paper and boxes. Actually, every time something like this happened, Cecilia wanted nothing more than to hug A.J. as tightly as she could, while soothing away his pain and fear. But she had learned in the past four months that Bob was right. When A.J. was upset over something pertaining to his father’s death, it was best to leave him alone a period of time. He wouldn't take comfort from anyone, and usually seemed to work out the upset for himself.
Twenty minutes later, Cecilia stood outside the boys' closed bedroom door and knocked.
"A.J., may I come in, please?"
"I'm getting dressed to go to Aunt Pat's."
"Well, when you're finished, may I come in so you and I can talk?"
"Talk about what?"
Cecilia sighed. "Never mind, son. I'll be in my room getting ready if you need me."
Cecilia walked down the hallway and entered her bedroom. She closed the door and crossed to the nightstand, where she picked up a framed photo of Jack.
"A.J.'s just as stubborn as you were, John Simon. Of all the traits of yours he had to inherit the strongest, it'd have to be that one, wouldn't it?"
As she placed the picture back on the table, Cecilia wiped at the tears running down her cheeks.
"He hurts so much, Jack, and I don't always know why. I worry that I'm not doing enough for A.J. How heartbroken you'd be to see your little boy so torn apart by all of this. Sometimes I get so mad at you for leaving us like this. Why, Jack? Why you? Why our child? I just wish someone could tell me why."
Cecilia sat down on the bed then and did what she hadn't done in over a month, what she had told herself she wasn't going to do today of all days...cry. She cried quietly, so the boys wouldn't hear her, for the husband she missed so much, and for all the answers she didn't have for the anguished child down the hall.
Thirty minutes after she’d entered her bedroom, Cecilia was dressed and ready to face the rest of Christmas Day. As she walked toward the boys' room, she could see the door was open, and could faintly hear Rick's voice coming from inside. She intended to enter the room and see if the boys were ready to go, but instead stopped in the doorway, not wanting to interrupt what was occurring.
A.J. was sitting on his bed with is back to the door. Rick was Rick standing next to him, and had his hands planted on his hips. Cecilia could tell by his tone and stance, that Rick was losing his patience with his younger brother. This was something she hadn't seen him do since before Jack died.
"A.J., knock it off! Quit acting like this! Please talk to me."
A.J. made no response, which didn't help Rick's temper any. Evidently Rick had been getting the silent treatment for quite some time now.
"You're really being selfish, you know that? Today's a hard day for all of us, especially for Mom, and you're not helping things any by acting like a spoiled brat! All Mom wants is for you to let her know you're okay. Is that too much for her to ask on Christmas? Can't you at least give her that today?"
Cecilia almost intervened, but then decided not to. Maybe this was what A.J. needed. Maybe a little anger directed toward him would finally allow the boy the freedom to let his own anger and hurt out. If this is what it took to get those results, then Cecilia was willing to go along with it. And besides, she had to admit there was some truth to Rick's words. A.J. was, in a sense, acting like a spoiled brat. Maybe it was time A.J. learned that when he behaved this way, it wasn't just himself he was punishing.
Cecilia wasn’t sure what reaction she was expecting A.J. to give Rick, though she was prepared for one of two things – shouting, or stone cold silence. Therefore, she was just as surprised as Rick by what he did say.
"Don't make me feel bad, Rick. I told you a long time ago I'm not ever going to cry, so don't try to make me feel bad. It won't do you any good anyway, so just leave me alone."
Rick's hands dropped from his hips and he let out a heavy sigh.
"Look...look, A.J., I'm sorry, okay? I shouldn't have said that stuff to you. I know you're hurting right now. It's just that I don't like it when you act like this. It scares me, kid."
When A.J. didn't reply, Rick sat down next to him and put an arm around his shoulders.
“I'm sorry, A.J., I really am. We'll have a good afternoon at Aunt Pat's. I promise we will."
Cecilia was about to walk away and leave the two boys alone, when she saw A.J. turn and hug Rick’s waist while laying his head against his brother’s chest. This was the first time she's witnessed A.J. reciprocate a hug at a time like this since the accident. Whenever A.J. had been upset and withdrawn in the past, if either Cecilia or Rick hugged him, A.J. would never hug back. He’d stiffen his body and remain that way until he was released.
"You don't have to be sorry, Rick,” A.J. mumbled into his brother’s chest. “It's all my fault. No one should be sorry except for me."
Cecilia lingered a moment longer, then slipped away. As she gathered her purse and jacket from the hallway closet, she wondered if she was seeing A.J. make some progress once again. Maybe this hug he was sharing with Rick was a good sign. Maybe it was a turning point.
It wouldn't be until months later that Cecilia would come to find out what A.J. had meant by, "It's all my fault." Come to find out that A.J. wasn't talking about the Christmas morning upset over the baseball mitt like she had assumed. And come to find out, that she hadn’t witnessed a turning point after all.
Thankfully, the rest of Christmas Day was uneventful. Spending the afternoon and early evening hours at Jim and Pat's smoothed over the upset of the morning. Cecilia supposed the boys were too busy to dwell on it. The house was full of children and food, and after initially being unusually quiet, even A.J. unwound and was running around with the rest of the kids, caught up in the excitement of new toys, and new games, and too many sweets. Cecilia was touched by the extra attention both Will and Jim lavished on Rick and A.J. She appreciated their thoughtfulness, and knew Jack would have to, if he were here to see it. By four o'clock that afternoon, the two men had everybody over the age of four and under the age of sixty, male and female alike, out in Jim and Pat's big backyard playing a rowdy game of touch football. Rick and A.J. couldn't get over seeing their mother make two touchdowns, and they teased her about it for days afterwards. By the time she was driving two tired boys home at nine that evening, Cecilia was wondering what the rest of Christmas break would bring.
Much to Cecilia’s delight, what the remainder of Christmas break brought was nothing but two weeks of good days. A.J.'s upset of Christmas morning seemed to be over with and forgotten, as the brothers spent much of their time together enjoying one another's company, as well as spending time with their various friends. Cecilia had several activities planned that the three of them did together some days, and in the evenings, when Rick was given the freedom a school vacation brings a teenager to be with his buddies, Cecilia and A.J. enjoyed playing all those new games A.J. had received for Christmas.
It was with reluctance then, on the first morning school resumed in January, that Cecilia kissed her boys goodbye. In some ways she was looking forward to the routine school would bring back into their lives, but in other ways, she hated to see them walk out the door. The three of them had spent two good weeks together as a family. It was the first time since Jack had died that Cecilia found herself thinking of just Rick, A.J., and herself as a family, instead of as a family with one member missing. They finally seemed to be falling into a routine that contained only the three of them. And while she supposed that should make her feel bad, Cecilia knew that in the long run, it would make things easier on all of them.
Cecilia had finally come to face some things concerning A.J. on this Christmas vacation as well. She realized she and Rick had to accept the fact that A.J. would continue to have both good and bad days concerning his father's death for a long time to come. Granted, the bad days were getting fewer and farther between, but they were still there, and sometimes Cecilia had no idea as to what had occurred in his young life to cause them.
After the boys had returned to school, Cecilia had a long talk with Doctor Barton about A.J.’s upset on Christmas morning. Bob helped her realize that what A.J. experienced in the car that night with Jack, although he still couldn't remember most of it, might be something the boy would never completely get over. Although Cecilia hated to hear that, at least she felt better knowing a little more about what to expect, and felt better knowing that these sudden upsets and withdrawals, even five months after Jack's death, weren't abnormal. This knowledge didn't necessarily make those times any easier on Cecilia, but she was able to cope with them better.
As Cecilia left the doctor’s office that day in early January, she wondered what the new year would bring, while at the same time praying she, and Rick, and A.J., would be able to navigate any storms that came their way.
Like so many other times in the early months following Jack Simon's passing, Cecilia would just weather one storm, only to have another blow in.
At two o’clock on a morning in late January, Cecilia was awakened by Rick shaking her shoulder.
Mom! Mom! Wake up! Wake up. Something's wrong with A.J."
“What’s wrong with him?” Cecilia sat up and reached for her robe. “Is he sick?"
"I don't know, maybe. I'm not sure,” Rick said as he tugged on his mother's arm. “Just come on.”
Cecilia got out of bed and hurried down the hall. She flicked on the light switch as she passed it. When she arrived at the boys’ room, she circled around Rick and scurried to A.J.’s bedside.
The light spilling in from the hallway was enough for Cecilia to see by. A.J. was lying on his left side in a semi-fetal position. Cecilia saw the tears that were trickling down his cheeks, and she heard him mumble, "Daddy." She laid her right hand on A.J.’s forehead. When she was sure he wasn’t running a temperature, she said softly, "A.J.? Honey, can you wake up for me?"
When the boy didn't shift position or wake up, Cecilia came to the conclusion that he was in a deep sleep. She tried to rouse A.J. again, but when he still didn’t respond, she stepped back and sat down on Rick's bed.
"What's wrong with him, Mom?” Rick asked in a hushed tone. “Is he sick?"
Cecilia motioned for her teenager to sit beside her. Rick moved from A.J.’s side and sat down on his bed.
“Mom? Is he sick?”
"No, Rick. A.J.'s not sick. He's not running a temperature, and he seemed to be feeling fine at dinner." She patted his knee in a gesture of reassurance. "Don't worry, sweetheart. There's nothing wrong with him."
"Well if he's not sick, what's wrong with him? Why's he crying?"
"He's dreaming, that's all. It's just a dream."
"You mean a nightmare?"
Cecilia observed A.J. resting peacefully on his side, the only evidence of distress being the tears that continued to run down his face.
"No, Rick, I don't think it's a nightmare. I think it's just a dream." Cecilia reached up and rubbed her hand over Rick’s back. "We'll sit here and watch him for a few minutes to make sure he's okay. If it is just a dream, then I think A.J. will stop crying in a little while."
Mother and son sat together in the stillness of the early morning, watching over the youngest member of their household. The only sound that broke the silence was that of a quiet occasionally mumbling, "Daddy."
When Rick could no longer stand to see his brother enduring this dream-world pain, he said, “Maybe we should wake him up, Mom."
"No, sweetheart, let him sleep. I know he's crying, but he doesn't seem to be frightened, or overly upset, so it’s best if we leave him alone."
"Rick, you’re aware that we've all been concerned about the fact that A.J. hasn't cried since your dad's death." At Rick's nod, Cecilia continued. "Well, maybe A.J.'s finally found a way to let out some of his hurt. Maybe his mind has decided that in order to stay healthy, A.J. has to let out some of his hurt. And maybe crying in his sleep for Daddy is the only way A.J. can do that right now. Does that make sense? Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"
"I guess so." Rick stared at his brother a moment, then turned to look at his mother. "Why does it have to be so complicated? I should be able to help A.J. I should have all the answers, but I don't. I hate this, Mom. I hate it so much. I hate the way this has hurt A.J., and I hate the way it's hurt our family. It's not fair."
"Life isn't fair, son. I think you know that. All we can do is take each day as it comes, and handle the hard times the best way we know how. That's what you've been doing ever since your dad died. I'm so proud of you."
“I know, but--”
“No. No buts. Nobody expects you to have all the answers, Rick. I don't, and neither does A.J. How can you possibly have answers to things even the doctors don't know for sure?" Cecilia took Rick’s hand in hers and gave it a light squeeze. "You're the best possible big brother a boy could have. That's all A.J. wants from you, Rick, and you excel at the job. Don't expect things of yourself that no human being is capable of giving. You do your brother a world of good just by being who you are. Just by being Richard Lawrence Simon. And if you want my opinion, I think he’s one pretty special guy."
“Gee, Mom, I hope you remember what a special guy I am the next time I forget to do my homework, or forget to take the garbage out."
Cecilia smiled at the teasing and reached up to tousle her son’s dark.
Rick's got a lot of you in him, Jack Simon. He'll be okay. I think our impulsive oldest son will do you proud, Jack.
Cecilia and Rick continued to sit together on Rick's bed while observing A.J. for any further signs of distress. His tears weren’t flowing as steadily as they been a few minutes earlier, thought he would still occasionally whisper, "Daddy."
It was after one such incident that Rick asked, "Mom, why does A.J. always refer to Dad as Daddy now?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Before the accident A.J. always called him Dad. He hadn't called Dad, ‘Daddy,’ since he was five or six. Now he almost always says Daddy whenever he talks about Dad."
"I don’t know that answer to that, honey. Maybe that night in the car, calling Dad, ‘Daddy,’ made A.J. feel safe."
“Whatta’ ya’ mean?”
"Nobody makes a small child feel more protected and safe, than their parents. To a young child, a parent can do no wrong, and can make anything better, from a broken toy to a skinned knee. A.J. had to have been terrified that night your dad died. I can't imagine how scared he must have been. Maybe calling Dad, ‘Daddy,’ helped A.J. feel safe until help arrived. Maybe it took him back to a time when he felt that he would always be safe whenever he was with your father.”
“Yeah,” Rick nodded. “Maybe.”
"I don't know for sure, of course, but that's my guess. I suppose it doesn't really matter, does it? If somehow something so small as calling your father ‘Daddy’ helps A.J. to heal, I really don't care why he does it."
"Me either, Mom,” Rick agreed.
A.J.’s tears had stopped during the course of this last conversation, and soon he rolled unto his back and continued to sleep soundly. Cecilia convinced Rick to get back in bed then. She kissed his forehead as he settled against his pillow.
“Please come get me if you wake up again and your brother’s crying.”
With one last look at A.J., Cecilia quietly shut the door and headed down the hall to her bedroom.
The next morning, A.J. appeared in the kitchen with a smile on his face.
Cecilia observed her son while he got out plates and glasses, and began setting the table. She saw no signs of distress related to the events of the early morning hours.
“Good morning, sweetheart. Did you sleep well last night?"
"Yep," A.J. replied as he took the pitcher of orange juice from the refrigerator and began filling the glasses.
"Did you...did you have any dreams?"
A.J. looked at his mother with confusion. "That's a silly question, Mom." He shrugged his shoulders. "No, I don't think I had any dreams last night. At least I don't remember if I did. Why do you wanna know that?"
Cecilia turned away from A.J. as she took the juice and put it back in the refrigerator. "Oh, I don't know. I had a funny dream last night. I even woke up laughing. I guess I was just wondering if you remembered any of your dreams."
Cecilia was thankful that Rick walked into the kitchen at that moment and started teasing his brother about how much time A.J. had spent in front of the mirror combing his hair. Soon the boys were engrossed in a conversation about their upcoming school day, therefore Cecilia was saved from having to answer any further inquiries A.J. might have made of her concerning her, ‘funny dream.’
After she saw the boys off to school, Cecilia reviewed her short conversation with A.J., and came to the conclusion that he was telling her the truth when he said he didn't remember any of his dreams from the night before. A.J. could never have lied to her like that and pulled it off. If it were Rick, he might be able to fool her; he had on one or two occasions. But not A.J. Not ever. His face and voice always gave him away before he was even halfway through a fib. Besides, Cecilia was certain that if A.J. had remembered the dream, he would have been withdrawn this morning. That's what she was expecting to have to deal with. When he appeared with a smile on his face, Cecilia immediately assumed that A.J. didn't recall the reason for the tears she and Rick had witnessed at two a.m.
There were two more nights that week that Rick ran into his mother's room to wake her and tell her A.J. was crying in his sleep. Each morning after such an incident, Cecilia would inquire of A.J. as to how he had slept. He would always reply, "Fine," and didn't seem to remember anything about the previous night.
As much as Cecilia disliked seeing A.J. cry in his sleep, she did believe it was another step in the healing process for him. And, if nothing else, A.J.'s tears allowed Rick the final release he needed in coming to terms with Jack's passing.
Rick and Cecilia were repeating the ritual they had shared two other nights that week, at ten minutes after one on Saturday morning. As they sat together on Rick’s bed watching A.J. cry and call for his father, Rick said softly, "I shoulda’ been there, Mom."
“What do you mean, Rick? You should have been where?"
Rick faced his mother, his eyes filled with pain.
"I should have been with Dad and A.J. that day. I was supposed to be. We were all supposed to go to A.J.'s game that day. But because I was smoking those stupid cigarettes and got grounded, you and I weren't there. Maybe things would have been different if we'd been there - if I'd been there."
"Oh no, Rick. No. Don't do this to yourself, sweetheart. There's nothing your being with Dad and A.J. that day would have changed."
Reaching up, Cecilia placed a hand over her son’s mouth.
"No, Rick, be quiet and listen to what I have to say, please. Okay?”
Rick gave a tentative nod of his head, so Cecilia dropped her hand.
"Rick, you can't begin to imagine how many times in those first few weeks after your father died, I said those same words to myself. How many times I thought, ‘I should have been there. I should have been with Jack and A.J. that day. If I had been, maybe things would have turned out differently.’ But that's not the way life work. I finally had to come to terms with that. Whether we like it or not, A.J. and Dad were the ones who were supposed to be in the car, not you and me."
“But if only I’d--”
Cecilia held up a hand to silence her son. "Rick, you don't know how guilty I felt right after the accident happened. There was no reason I had to stay home that day. You've stayed by yourself before. But since you were grounded, I decided it was a good opportunity for me to get some things done around here that I needed help with. Do you remember how A.J. begged your dad and I to let you off your punishment just for Saturday? Just so you could go to his game?"
"Yeah," came the quiet reply.
"Well, what I haven’t told you before, is that on Saturday morning your dad was ready to give in and let you off the hook for the day so you could attend the game. He knew A.J. had been counting on all of us being there to watch his debut as the starting pitcher. But I was stubborn, and told your dad no. I reminded him that we’d agreed you were to be grounded for one week, and that's the way it should be. Then I told Dad that I thought it would be good for A.J. and him to spend the day together alone. He’d been putting so many hours in at the office these last few years, that he’d missed out on a lot of A.J.’s boyhood in a way that he hadn’t missed out on yours. I told Dad not to plan to work the following Saturday, because I’d pack a picnic lunch and we'd all attend A.J.'s game. Your dad promised me he’d do that, right before he walked out the door with A.J."
The room was silent for a moment as Cecilia lifted a hand to wipe at the tears in her eyes. "If I'd only known that we wouldn't have another day to be together as a family, I would have made different choices."
“But, Mom, you couldn't have known. Nobody could have known."
Cecilia gave her son a small smile. "That's exactly my point, Rick. Nobody could have known. None of us knows when we get up in the morning what might come our way during the day." Looking over at A.J., she commanded, "Look at your brother."
Rick did as his mother requested. The light from the hallway gently spilled across A.J.’s bed, allowing Rick to see the tears drying on his face.
“A.J. is the reason we weren't supposed to be in that car, Rick. If we had been, it's possible we would have been killed, too. How would your brother have coped with that? You and I can only imagine how horrible that night must have been for him. How in the world would he have dealt with Daddy, you, and I, being killed?"
"I...I never thought about it like that before. Whenever I think about the accident, I always think that if I'd been there I woulda’ been all right, and that maybe I coulda’ got us out of the car. And even if I couldn’t have gotten us outta the car, then I could have at least been there with A.J. until help came."
"I know, sweetheart. That's how I used to think of it, too. That if I'd been there, I would have been able to help A.J. But then I had to realize that maybe that's not how it would have been at all. Maybe I would have been killed, too."
“I guess it coulda’ happened that way.”
"I know it could have happened that way. But God didn’t want us in the car that night, son. I firmly believe that. We were supposed to be here for A.J. Who else can give him what you and I can? Oh, your Aunt Pat, or Uncle Will, or other relatives, would have tried, but that wouldn't haven't have been enough. A.J. needs us. The three of us need each other.”
“Yeah...yeah, Mom, we do.”
"Don't ever blame yourself again, Rick. Not ever. If you're tempted to, just think of how much your little brother needs you, and of how much he loves you. As your grandmother has often told me over the years, ‘What's meant to be, is meant to be. There's nothing any of us can do to change what God has planned for us.’ Remember those words. They may help you get through some tough times in your life. They have me."
Maybe it was the darkness that surrounded mother and son, or the stillness of the early morning, that allowed Rick to open up a part of his anguished soul that he'd kept hidden since his dad's death.
Rick’s looked down at the floor. "Mom, did...did Dad know?"
"Did Dad know what, honey?"
“Did...did Dad...did he know...know how much...how much I loved him?"
Cecilia placed a hand under Rick’s and applied gentle pressure until he lifted his head and looked at her. "Yes, Rick, your dad knew how much you loved him. Don't ever doubt that for a minute. And he loved you, too, very, very much. He loved both of you boys, and was so proud of his sons."
"Sometimes...sometimes we didn't get along so good,” Rick confessed quietly. “Sometimes it seemed like nothing I did could please him, and nothing he wanted me to do could please me. And then, the night I got grounded, we kinda got into it, and then the next day when Dad and A.J. left for the game all I said was goodbye. I never said I was sorry. I...Mom, I woulda’ said I was sorry if I'd only known."
Cecilia pulled her oldest child into her arms, while wishing he hadn’t kept this bottled up inside for so long. If only Rick had come to her sooner, she could have helped him work through it.
"Rick, your father loved you very much. Don't ever forget that. You two did get into more than your fair share of arguments, but it wasn’t because you were so different from one other that caused you problems, but rather, because you were so much alike."
Rick pulled out of his mother’s embrace. “Alike? Me and Dad? No, Mom, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I do. You get your short temper from him, as well as your mischievous nature. And just like you’ve always been my wild child, your father was Grandpa and Grandma Simon’s wild child.”
"I never knew that. I always thought Dad and A.J. were so much alike. They're both so organized and neat, and it's always so easy for A.J. to be good. He even likes being good."
Cecilia chuckled. "Well, your dad didn't always have an easy time being good. When he was about your age, he even had a few brushes with the law that had your grandfather ready to hang Jack by his toes – or so your Uncle Will has told me. You talk to Uncle Will about it sometime, or talk to Grandpa. They can tell you about the things Dad did." Gazing at her son, Cecilia drove her point home. "That's why your father was so hard on you, Rick. He saw so much of himself in you, and while that made him proud, it also worried him. He didn't want you to have the kind of hard times he did as a teenager. He didn't want you pulling some silly stunt that would jeopardized your future."
"Why didn't he ever tell me any of this?"
"I wish he would have, Rick, but he just couldn't. I suppose in part because he was ashamed of the things he had done. Maybe he was afraid he'd lose your respect if he told you about the trouble he’d been in. The war changed him, too. He was just a young man of twenty when he went over-seas - not much older than you are now. Your dad saw a lot of horrible things over there, especially when he was assigned to help the survivors at Auschwitz. Those things made Dad mature in ways he never could have imagined. Maybe that young boy with such a notorious reputation seemed so distant to him by the time you reached your teen years."
"Maybe so, but I wish he would have told me. I still woulda’ respected him. It might have made things easier between us."
“Yes, it might have. But we can’t go back and change that, so I hope you can love your dad for the man he was, and remember that no matter, what, he was the best father he knew how to be.”
“I can,” Rick nodded. “We had our fights, but we had a lotta good times too. The camping trips, and the fishing trips, and the nights when I was little when Dad used to read to me until I fell asleep, or when I got a older and we used to build model airplanes together.”
“That’s right,” Cecilia confirmed. “You’ll always have those special memories of your dad, just like A.J. will always have special memories of his own.”
Rick felt his
throat tighten as he squeezed his mother’s hand. "Thanks, Mom, for telling
me all of this. It...it helps. It helps a lot.”
"You're welcome.” Cecilia squeezed Rick’s hand in return. "If you don’t remember anything else about father, Rick, always remember this. He loved you, son. Oh, how he loved you."
Rick was glad the room was dark as he swiped a pajama sleeve across his eyes. He didn’t want his mom to know he was crying. When she left the room a few minutes later, Rick snuggled under his blankets. A.J. went on sleeping without interruption, and soon thereafter, Rick dropped off to sleep as well.