It was right around the summer of 1980 and I was about 9 years old. Like every kid, I was looking for something to do to fill my days now that school would be ending for the year. My mother was a full-time working single mom to two and a part-time alcoholic so it meant she would never be around and it was mostly up to me to fill the time. We lived in a small house in the city. There were two apartments on the second story of the house. They had a separate entrance and it was prime people watching for my brother and I to see who was making their way up and down the stairs. The house was bustling with noisy footsteps above, the distant din of voices, music being played, and a healthy infestation of cockroaches. We were keenly aware of the contents of a government food “basket” but we were too young to understand just how on the brink of poverty our family teetered.
We hadn’t lived in the neighborhood that long and we were “that one” family on the block at best; dirty kids, drunken fights at 3 am and an unsavory cast of characters hanging around. Needless to say, I wasn’t overflowing in the friend department. My mom was married to a nice enough guy but he came with his own laundry list of personal problems so he often didn’t hold down steady work. I recall that at some point in time he bought a tow truck. In the winter he would do tow runs for money and in the summer he mostly laid asphalt but for two summers he took a job as a “ranch hand.” What that essentially entailed was caring for the race horses that they owned. After much begging, and the realization that I would be alone most of the days, he allowed me to come to work with him.
I have no idea how far away this ranch was. We would leave so early in the morning that most of the ride involved me slipping in and out of consciousness as 6 am is an ungodly hour for a human of any age. Even though things often feel exaggerated as a child, it felt really far. I remember the winding dirt roads, the dewy fields of agriculture, and the globs of fluffy white pollen that would eventually dance their way through the open truck windows. The air smelled crisp, bursting with the scents of nature. After a few twist and turns of the last dirt road…there it was! This spectacularly large, white farm house. This was the type of house that I had only seen on T.V. I was reminded by Wade, my mom’s husband, that we were there as hired hands. Even as mixed up and crazy as my family was manners were of the utmost importance. Go figure.
The family was nice. While Wade spoke to them I looked past them all to survey the spectacle of wealthy people. The furniture, carpet, everything, it was all just lovely. I remember feeling like I shouldn’t be there and I never wanted to leave all in the same thought. I deduced by some toys scattered around that they probably had kids but I didn’t dare ask. For the first few weeks I worked out in the barn. Frankly, it was fun. The horses were all pretty gentle and the tasks I had involved things like changing their water, bringing them food, brushing them, and cleaning out the stalls. However on a particularly hot day the wife asked if I wanted to come in to cool off with some lemonade in the air conditioning. I was a kid so I would have accepted the offer of lemonade on the surface of the sun! Sitting in their fancy kitchen, I had questions that I dare not ask. I mean after weeks of working there I still hadn’t seen any kids. Even in my 9/10 year old brain I knew something wasn’t right. It’s summer! Shouldn’t there be kids running around outside playing? After my lemonade she asked if I wanted to stay in and play with their son who, “is about your age,” I was slightly disappointed that it was a boy but was happy to have some fun. As I walked down the hallway to his room it started to smell slightly medicinal. She started to gently tell me that her son had MS. I think she could tell by my blank stare that I had no idea what she was talking about. Trying to break it down in simple terms she said, “he can’t walk and play like the other kids but loves to have company.” I was worried about what I just got myself into but it was too late to back out. The next thing I knew we were standing in his doorway.
What I saw next was beyond overwhelming in a good but weird way. Firstly, the kid had every cool toy known to planet Earth! I mean the best of the best. The floor was just littered with what appeared to be all of Toys R Us. I also noticed this strange canvas type swinging basket attached to a small crane. Later he would tell me that it’s a lift for getting him out of bed and into his chair. He was a great kid. Charming, funny, eager to be friends, and again, he had the coolest toy collect EVER!! For whatever reason, even as I child, I was never put off by anyone that had different abilities. I took them as they were. His condition was of no interest to me after that initial battery of grossly inappropriate and invasive questions that all kids ask. We immediately got over the elephant in the room allowing us to move steadfast into playing. That was that. We were fast friends and I looked forward to going with Wade to work for the scent of dewy grass, the giant horses, and my new friend.
We spent the rest of that summer doing what all kids our age do. We watched movies, played with toys, and ate our way through the kitchen. I have never had so many pudding pops in my life! This was before the internet so we didn’t see each other through the fall, winter, and spring. As the days got longer and warmer, I could hardly wait to go back. We arrived back at his house and it was a break from my life. It was a break from being poor, neglected, and having another year of very few friends. It was an oasis from reality.
Once we arrived you could tell he had a really hard year. His body was being further ravaged by his disease and you could see the angst on his parents face. It was palpable. The air hung thick with worry and anxiety. But regardless we played. It’s fortunate that kids aren’t too concerned with limitations when it comes to play. The following summer we didn’t go back and Wade told me that he had died. As a kid, it was impossible to digest but as an adult….wow.
In my little, non-fully formed brain I had always equated money to happiness. That if we had money all of our problems would disappear. We would be happy. The bitter twist of the situation took me decades to digest. You see my family didn’t have money because of the disease of alcoholism (among others) that plagued it and they had all the money in world but couldn’t fix their son. In hindsight, it was one of the most crushing and devastating lessons I learned as a child. I knew first hand that money couldn’t buy what you need most in life.
Sonya is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur. She loves to cook great food, garden, travel, and has an unhealthy obsession with coffee. Sarcasm and biting humor are her basic modes of conversation. By day she runs a social media marketing company and fills her nights with family, friends, music, and writing.